In the early 19th Century, Exeter’s only available libraries were subscription-based, managed by book dealers. The Devon and Exeter Institution, established in 1813, aimed to cater to the city’s gentlemen with a focus on the arts and sciences of the West Country. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the idea of a public library for the masses gained traction.
In 1850, an Act of Parliament allowed local councils to hold a vote among ratepayers to establish a ‘voluntary tax’ for funding a library. The Exeter vote in March 1851 failed to meet the required two-thirds majority. The concept was revisited over the years, gaining momentum after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, including a public library, was proposed by Mr. Sommers-Gard MP.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum opened in April 1868, offering a School of Art, Science Classes, a Museum, and a Free Library for the general public. While the library expanded over the years, it was not purpose-built for a large collection.
In 1909, the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust offered a grant of £15,000 for a new library. The City Council accepted the offer in 1911, choosing a site opposite the museum. Plans faced delays due to the First World War, and it wasn’t until 1928 that construction began on the library at Rougemont House.
The grand opening took place on October 11, 1930, marking the completion of a two-and-a-half-year construction period. Unfortunately, in 1942, the library suffered severe damage during a wartime raid, resulting in the loss of a million books and historic documents. The structure survived and was repaired after the war.
The library served the city until 1965 when a new library was built at the rear. Over the years, the building underwent various uses, including housing the Devon Records Office. In 2014, after a major refurbishment, the Central Library reopened in its original location, offering enhanced facilities for the community. Sources include The British Newspaper Archive, the Express and Echo, James Bell, and Exeter Burning by Peter Thomas.