…considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time. (Herbert Waterson, Upperthorpe Librarian from 1882 to 1928, speaking in 1934 about Upperthorpe and Highfield)
In Part I, we told the story of Sheffield’s first branch library, opened in 1869 at the Tabernacle Chapel, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe. It prospered and by 1874 Sheffield Council decided to move the library into its own building, and to open a new branch at Highfield, across the city.
The Sheffield Independent thought that the Upperthorpe and Highfield buildings would be ‘a great ornament to the town, and a welcome addition to the few structures in Sheffield possessing anything like architectural excellence.’ The architect was Edward Mitchell Gibbs, of the prestigious firm, Flockton and Gibbs, who also designed Firth Court, St John’s Ranmoor and the Mappin Art Galley. The Upperthorpe Library was to be built on the site of an old tan yard opposite the Upperthorpe Hotel and was expected to cost £4,670. In the end, it cost around £6,000 – perhaps £500,000 today – but that figure may include fitting it out and the book stock. The Council borrowed the money and was so keen to repay it that the fund for buying books was kept low for the next two years.
Alderman William Fisher JP, who chaired the Council’s library committee, laid the foundation stones at Upperthorpe and Highfield on 28 November 1874. He used a ceremonial trowel designed by Gibbs and presented to him as a ‘beautiful tribute of indebtedness and of the esteem in which he was held’. This is now on display in the Upperthorpe building, on the reception desk. Before the stone was laid, a bottle ‘containing a document, which set forth that the building was erected by the Town Council, as a ‘branch free library’ was placed beneath it. One of Sheffield’s MPs, Anthony Mundella, then wound up the ceremony by saying that:
Twenty years hence there would be a new Sheffield – a population almost all of whom would be educated, and more or less delighting in the enjoyments and pursuits which education afforded.
After this, the party left for Highfield, where a similar ceremony took place (although Alderman Fisher was moved to remember that he had done his courting in Highfield).
The new Upperthorpe Library opened on 8 May 1876 and Highfield on 1 August 1876. Today they are often described as ‘twin libraries’ but it’s a fraternal rather than identical relationship. The Pevsner architectural guide for Sheffield notes ‘plain brick with Florentine windows and an elaborate doorcase; [with] figures of a workman with an axe and a factory girl reading…’ The figures, by J W Cooper, are meant to show how much people can learn from the public library. ‘Passing through this handsome and somewhat imposing entrance,’ wrote the Independent of 6 May 1876,
the lobby, which is 19 feet by 15 feet, is reached. Running around the walls is a frame which contains a catalogue of the books in the library. … Immediately opposite the entrance is the door leading to the lending department – a spacious room 48 feet by 30 feet. Of this 24 feet by 10 feet is set apart to the public, in which to wait until the books they require can be handed to them. In this space is fitted up an ingeniously devised indicator, by which the librarian can tell at a glance what books are out or in, and even how long they have been out. This indicator is the invention of a member of the Free Library Committee at Dundee, but certain improvements have been introduced by Mr Hurst, the chief librarian here … The number of books now in the library is 8,573; the indicator is sufficiently large to work a library of 12,000 volumes.
This tells us how the library worked, using the ‘closed access’ system. Until the 1920s, borrowers chose titles from a catalogue, and then asked the librarian to bring the books from shelves behind the counter. The librarian would check the indicator, a big wooden frame with a slot and token for each book, to see if it was available. The indicator was state of the art technology in 1876, invented in 1875 and known as a Kennedy indicator. If the book was in, the book assistant – they started at age 13 or 14 – went to find it on the shelves. These were often ceiling-high and climbing ladders to get them could be dangerous. In the Central Library, one assistant, Mr French, climbed up, over-reached, fell and was seriously injured. The Council then thought to put hooks on the tops of ladders and stops on the ends of the shelves.
Libraries usually had reading rooms in the 19th century, one for ladies and one ‘general’ (i.e. for men). The sexes were routinely kept separate.
Adjoining the lending department is a ladies’ reading and news room, 30 feet by 22 feet, leading out of which are a lavatory and other conveniences. The general reading and news room is on the upper floor, and is approached by a staircase immediately opposite the counter in the lending department, so that any one passing either in or out can be seen by the librarian … This room is 70 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 27 feet high. It has an open timber roof and handsome oriel window, and is a room unequalled in the town for its comfortable and effective appearance. Both the ladies’ and men’s reading rooms will be well supplied with magazines and periodicals.
All the rooms had white brick walls, with ‘a few red bricks in bands and borders … to save the expense of painting and papering, as the walls can always be washed clean.’
Linked to the library by an office was a substantial house for the librarian, with its own entrance on Daniel Hill. That a house was provided demonstrates the Council’s aspiration (as do the quality of the building and the up-to-date indicator). It was described in the Independent (4 October 1869) as having: ‘sitting room with bay window, kitchen, scullery, pantry, bathroom, bedrooms, and attics’. At Highfield in the 1920s, when the library was open until late evening, the librarian used to creep from his house, in his slippers, to see what his staff were up to. This was perhaps a wise move as the staff sometimes used to kick a ball around behind the indicator.
It is noticeable that there was no service for children, although there probably were some children’s books in stock. Children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development, and Sheffield’s first separate library for children opened in Walkley in 1924.
After 140 years, the library at Upperthorpe still serves the community. In 1895 public baths were added to the building, making it an early example of the ‘community hubs’ around today. In the 20th century, there was a move to close Upperthorpe, as people moved to new estates, but it remained busy and so stayed open. Today the building – much altered on the inside and, like Highfield, Grade II-listed – is home to the Zest Centre, and a focus for community activity and regeneration. The library is now an associate library run by Zest. As Alderman Fisher said in 1869,
it would not be simply a building for the present generation, but for future generations, the building, in fact, would be all they could wish.
Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.
 Now the Weston Park Museum.
 Today most libraries use the ‘open access’ system, with the books on open shelves for borrowers to inspect.