Esther Saunders, Sheffield’s First Female Librarian

By Loveday Herridge

The second librarian of the Sheffield Subscription Library was, very unusually, a woman – Esther Saunders. We know little about the early keepers of the holdings of subscription libraries, of which Sheffield’s was one of the first, but almost certainly they were generally male. Esther certainly made an impact on the Library.

Her tenure was a long one. She became Librarian in 1777 (the Library had been founded in 1771) when the previous, probably the first, Librarian died. This was her father, Joseph Saunders, from whom she must have learned her profession; he had worked at the Harleian Library with Humfrey Wanley. The Harley collection of manuscripts formed the basis of the British Museum’s collection and Wanley was its learned Keeper. The association with Wanley, providing a very auspicious connection to serious professionalism and important manuscripts, must have seemed attractive to the founders of the Sheffield Subscription Library looking for a Librarian. And at Saunders’ death, Esther’s skills made her the obvious replacement.

Norfolk Street today – Upper Chapel

Norfolk Street today, still with some 18th c houses

Norfolk Street today, with the Crucible Theatre on the right

The Library was housed in her father’s house in Norfolk Street, Sheffield (the exact location is unknown). Esther was responsible for all loans and the numbering of books. She could keep the fines on overdue books and was paid ten guineas for rent and attendance at her father’s house – around £16,000 in today’s money.

Esther must also have been responsible for producing the annual catalogues. These catalogues were arranged in subject groupings, such as Voyages and Travel, Authors Moral, Scientifical and Miscellaneous and Geography and Topography. Such groupings were not universally adopted and librarians evidently followed their own inclination and the dictates of the books in the collection to devise their groupings. Esther arranged the books alphabetically within each group, so the first book to appear in the first extant catalogue of 1792 is History of Abyssinia by Lobo in the History section. However, as Esther numbered the books, it is possible to tell which were the very first books purchased by Sheffield’s elite members in 1771: books numbered 1, 2 and 3 are lost, but number 4 is Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain, vol.1, and number 5 is Cawthorne’s Poems. These then were the first choices of the majority of the members of the Library.

Did Esther load the shelves in their groups, by number, or alphabetically? There was no separate reading room and the room was cramped. How did potential readers ‘browse’? Perhaps by using the catalogue at home – it appears that every member may have been issued with a catalogue – and by exploiting Esther’s prodigious knowledge of the Library. On 3 July 1797 the young Joseph Hunter, who was to become known as ‘the Sheffield antiquarian’, noted in his diary that Esther impressed him by remembering the number of a book.

But some of the problems which Esther’s long librarianship brought are also hinted at in Hunter’s diary. He mentions that she allowed him to keep Mrs Radcliffe’s The Italian for longer than he should, and allowed him to take out Varieties of Literature illegally, although she drew the line at issuing him another book when he had not brought back Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

Thomas Asline Ward, ‘one of the Sheffield elite, and the reforming president of the Library’, tells us in 1825 that by 1819, just after her death, the Library was in ‘a desolate condition’. The books were dirty and tattered, and the rules were not adhered to, so that many books were lost, because the Librarian was ‘not in constant attendance’. He said that favourite books were reserved for favourite readers, and the publications most eagerly sought after were concealed in cupboards, drawers and even in the warming pan. Ward tells us that in 1787 Esther married, and until 1805 she was paid only 12 guineas (about £11,000 in today’s money). Interestingly, he blames the Library’s problems firmly on this low wage, saying that ‘for such a small sum no one could attend constantly in the room.’ ‘The Librarian was allowed to manage her household affairs and the Library neglected.’ Indeed, this may be the first expression of the difficulty facing a female librarian on a low wage struggling to juggle work and home life!

After 1805 Esther was paid 17 guineas. In 1810 there was an attempt to pension her off as it was felt she was too old to continue with her duties, but ‘feelings of compassion’ prevailed. In 1816 Esther’s wage was raised to £30 (about £23,000), on condition she worked full time in the Library, but according to Ward it was too late. There was an attempt by a group of members to set up a new subscription library, but the opportunity for reform was seized by the committee at Esther’s death in 1818.

An affectionate poem appeared in Sheffield’s newspaper, the Iris, which mourned the death of a cheerful, honest chatterbox, who knew where every book was shelved. Esther remains a tantalising figure, who tells us a lot, but suggests just how much more there is to know about the realities of using Sheffield’s Subscription Library.

Ye book-worms, a’ wi’ sorrow meet,

Nor wi’ few tears your een be weet;

For eens, spite o’ the warld’s deceit,

By pity led,

Be yours the wail o’ Surrey-street,

Auld Esther’s dead!

 

She was a canty clattering dame,

A servant gude; abroad, at hame,

She had an honest matron’s frame;

Nor could I spread

A mickle stain owre a’ her name ‑

Auld Esther’d dead!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *