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Guide to library services

The history of the ICAEW Library

The ICAEW Library & Information Service can trace its origins to 1871, when the Institute of Accountants founded a collection of material on accounting and commercial law. Today, it is one of the largest and most prestigious accountancy libraries in the world with a collection of over 100,000 items in more than 20 languages, including many rare and unique titles.

The Institute of Accountants was formed in November 1870 with the object of elevating the status of professional accountants, initially in London and later across the whole of the UK.

The legal profession could already boast many fine libraries, but no such equivalent existed within the accountancy profession and many practitioners had urged the creation of a similar repository of knowledge that they could draw upon to help them compete for business. The Institute of Accountants established a library to help fill that gap.

The beginning

The library was established in 1871. In the same year, grocer and tea producer Thomas Lipton opened his first shop, James Ramsden launched the Iron Shipbuilding Company (later to become Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering) and the production line at the Continental tyre factory in Hanover began to swing into operation.

The collection of works at the Institute of Accountants was started with the presentation of a copy of the 1866 edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language and new books were steadily acquired with the help of a small but growing budget. However, it was not until 1877 that sufficient space was obtained to allow a small library [reading room] to be formed for the use of members.

Knowledge gathering

Although the early library collection contained few titles on accountancy (reflecting the information needs of accountants at this time, which were heavily weighted towards bankruptcy and company law) members of the Institute of Accountants set out to advance their knowledge of current accounting practice by looking to the accounts of prominent companies.

On 23rd April 1879 the Council told the Institute’s Annual General Meeting that they had ‘much pleasure in reporting that their request to the Secretaries of Public Companies to furnish them with sets of their accounts was most courteously responded to. Accounts have been received from more than 70 Companies, many of them covering a great number of years; and they have been arranged in the Library of the Institute as to be readily referred to.’ (Institute of Accountants: Report of the Council, 1879).

This initiative set in motion a process of relevant information gathering that has not stopped since. There have been many further additions since then that have built upon this early knowledge gathering exercise and as with those early days, today’s collection reflects the changing needs of the accountant down the decades. Works in our collection from the early 20th century include rare titles such as Laundry accounts, Tramway bookkeeping and accounts simplified and Cotton spinning companies' accounts. Many of these early works on company accounts were written by ICAEW members, sharing their knowledge with their peers, an example still followed by many of today's members.

Industry guides published in The Accountants' Library series in the early 20th century

Today, members can still access example accounts in print and online publications, or use the databases in the library to delve further into filed accounts, perhaps to see how early adopters of a new standard have handled it, or to look at accounting practice in a particular sector. You can also find works on accounting for industry sectors ranging from aviation to pharmaceuticals – a far cry from the industries covered by the collection of a century ago!

Formation of ICAEW

On 11 May 1880 the Institute of Accountants was one of five associations that amalgamated to form the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW).

The Royal Charter signed by Queen Victoria set out the intention of the newly established body to elevate the profession and promote the efficiency and usefulness of accountants through strict rules of conduct and the setting up of a high standard of both professional and general knowledge.

To help members reach this level of knowledge the creation of a library was included as one of the principal objects of the new body and the means to deliver this were also set out in the Royal Charter:

'The Council shall have the power to apply the funds of the Institute in acquiring, extending, and improving the library of the Institute, and in the acquisition, renting or erection and fitting up of a hall for the use of members of the Institute and in the purchase or renting of a site, or sites, for a library and a hall and in paying the salaries of librarians, custodians and other officers and servants for any purpose of the Institute.'

The early collection

At ICAEW's first meeting it was agreed that the library and furniture of the Institute of Accountants would be purchased for the sum of £400. At this time the collection comprised around 100 titles, ranging from ‘Book-keeping for the tanning trade’ to ‘Buckley on the Companies’ Acts’. In some cases we still have the same titles today, although not the same edition, whilst others have long since disappeared from the shelves.

The first collection included 34 volumes of accounts for companies as diverse as the Bank of New Zealand, Royal Aquarium Company, Indo-European Telegraph Company and the Dublin Tramways Company. The international nature of the accounts held was also reflected in the wider collection, with French and German titles on commercial codes and company law. The full list of titles can be seen in a library catalogue from February 1880. Things have come very much full circle and although there may not be the colonial influence so pertinent then, today's members still operate world-wide and a need for international information remains strong.

The importance of this collection is put into context when you consider that at that time only 23% of the population had access to public libraries and these offered very little provision for anyone interested in business.

A new home

The creation of an impressive library space was placed at the heart of the plans for Chartered Accountants’ Hall which opened in 1893. The success of this venture was soon apparent with the library receiving 10,000 visitors a year by 1900.

The library collection was rapidly expanded by the efforts of two men, F. W. Pixley (ICAEW council member, first Chairman of the Library Committee and the author of the first textbook on auditing) and Cosmo Gordon (twice its librarian between 1911 and 1948), who set about buying all the relevant books for Chartered Accountants they could find. The library catalogue of 1903 shows its rapid growth with over 500 books on accounting available in the collection.

The original library (today known as the Members’ Room) soon became too small to contain all the books with conditions not much better for members. One was moved to write about the situation in the library's suggestions book:

'During some eight weeks before each half yearly examination it is impossible for members to use the Library with any quiet or comfort owing to the number of articled clerks who are there reading accountancy text books, working out exercises and discussing points more or less directly affecting the subjects on which they are to be examined:- the practice is not new but each half year is worse than the previous one.'

New reading rooms were provided in the building to help ease the crush and the Hall Porters were on hand to fetch any books required.

The development and improvement of library facilities continued with the opening of a new library reference room (1960), followed by the opening of an entirely new library after the expansion of the building (1970) and its metamorphosis into a Business Centre (2009).

Today's Business Centre offers a modern space in central London for members to meet and work in. The facilities include 44 desks, plus workstations with access to specialist databases, office software and the library catalogue. An extensive collection of books and journals are readily available for visitors to consult or borrow whilst additional current and historical resources are available from our off-site store. Another great advance on the Library of the nineteenth century is that a team of expert researchers are on hand to help

Into the 21st century

As the twentieth century came to an end the Library & Information Service took up the challenges presented by technological development, becoming an early adopter of computer systems and databases to assist members. In June 1996 this led to the library’s leading role in developing the first ICAEW website.

In the twenty years since the launch of the website the library’s award-winning collection of online resources has grown considerably. The online collection now includes access to thousands of eBooks and journals to complement the material on our shelves, not to mention the extensive range of subject packages, country resources  and industry guides we’ve been able to create, supported by the collection both physical and electronic.

The library’s online catalogue, LibCat, was launched in 2000, making the extent of knowledge gathering available to a worldwide audience 24 hours a day. The rich detail of entries for 142,000 items  (including 60,000 journal abstracts) makes it an indispensable and effective tool for members and researchers seeking to pinpoint information relevant to their working and non-working lives.

Today’s Library is a valuable and valued collection that is available to all, whether you are able to visit in person, access our online resources or use our research team to help you access material remotely.

Related content

  1. History of Chartered Accountants Hall
  2. Historical accounting literature collection
  3. Timeline of accountancy history
Make the most of your library

Discover the full array of online and print resources available to you through the ICAEW Library & Information Service website and our online catalogue, LibCat. If you would like our help in locating the information you need, please get in touch with us by telephone, webchat or by email.