Librarians’ Voices: Looking Backward

After the reminiscences of Victorian Iibrarian Herbert Waterson, here are the memories of a colleague known only as ‘1905’. The article* appears, alongside Waterson’s, in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine marking the opening of the new Central Library in 1934.   

In 1905, Sheffield’s Central Library was still in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street. Unlike in the early days, when it shared space with the Council and the Institute itself, the library now occupied the whole building. The Council had moved out to its splendid Town Hall in 1897. 1905 gives us a detailed description of the library arrangements.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Lending and Reference Libraries were on the ground floor, with an entrance in Surrey St. As Sheffield Libraries still used the ‘closed access’ system#, a long counter ran the length of the Lending Library with the issues ledger – the equivalent of today’s bar code readers – in the middle. On the left there was a bookcase where borrowers could inspect a few books, including ones on approval from W H Smith. The stock room was next to Lending on the same side of corridor.

This room was shelved to the ceiling, with metal stacks….

Reference was on the opposite side of the corridor, and was furnished with ‘long tables with comfortable chairs.’ There were books shelved in this room, but the public had no access. Beyond the libraries there was more book storage.

On the first floor was an office and, in the corner, the Chief Librarian’s room. There were separate Reading Rooms for men and women, reached from Tudor Street ‘up a long flight of stairs to the first floor’. The larger room – for men – had periodicals and magazines ‘tethered in alphabetical order on wooden benches … arranged in circular rows.’ Newspapers were placed on slopes in a large square. ‘Illumination was supplied by electric lamps augmented by large gas brackets fixed on the walls.

The Ladies’ Room was on the right of the entrance to the main room, and was much pleasanter. Small square tables with comfortable seats were provided, and the number of readers who used the room was perhaps astonishing.

(Query – why was this astonishing?)

On the top floor was the book-binding department and the caretaker’s flat, which had been moved up from the basement.

The carrying of volumes of books, newspapers and patents [up to book-binding] … was heavy manual labour, but the view obtained from the windows was generally considered adequate recompense…

The basement was used for storage and the ‘staff mess room’. This sounds woefully inadequate:

‘a large table by the kitchen fireplace with a small cupboard in which to keep crockery. … The washing arrangements … were very crude, two small hand basins being fixed under [a] flight of wooden steps.

1905 doesn’t mention facilities for children, but this is hardly surprising. Although some library authorities, such as Manchester, Cardiff and Nottingham, had services before 1900, children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development. There were some children’s books in Sheffield’s 1850s library, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but no-one under 14 years could join. According to The City Libraries of Sheffield, there was some progress towards the end of the 19th century, but it sounds rather dispiriting:

…some rather timid efforts were also made to cater for a school population … At first children were only allowed to come with their teachers. Later, tickets were given out in school and signed by the teachers, and could be used individually, but only the most fervent readers persisted long in their attendance, as there was very little stock suitable for the average child.

It would be 1924 before Sheffield opened its first separate children’s library, based on the very latest thinking, in the branch at Walkley.

To staff sitting in their room in the new Central Library in 1934, idly reading 1905’s article, things must have looked very different. The Daily Independent of 6 July 1934 reports:

As Sheffield was a pioneer among Yorkshire towns to provide a public library, it is not surprising that the New Central Library and Graves Art Gallery should once more give a lead to the county and, in many features, to the whole of England.

The new Library, which is certainly an up-to-date wonder treasure-house of knowledge, contains many features that are not to be found in any other library in the country…

Sheffield Central Library, opened in 1934, not long after the establishment of SINTO

 

* Looking Backward, by ‘1905’ (Wicket, 4 (2), 12-13, 1934). Quoted in An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

# In a closed access system, borrowers choose from a catalogue and library staff retrieve the books from stock.

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