On the Grounds of Economy

By Val Hewson

At a time when libraries and many other public services are having their budgets cut, it’s interesting to look back to the 1930s when the Great Depression caused severe economic and social problems, including cuts to services.

‘On the ground of economy,’ wrote the Sheffield Independent in October 1931, ‘the public libraries in Sheffield are to be closed on Sundays’. The Reference Library, however, would remain open. It was the ‘Mecca of scores of earnest young students’, many of whom were not from Sheffield.

Every Sunday during the summer months from 60 to 70 students from the University, private students who work alone and students whose parents are out of work and who have no other means of study open to them, attend the Public Reference Library, many of them staying from opening time in the afternoon to closing time at night.

Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian, told the Independent that he had letters from grateful students declaring that they passed their exams ‘only because of facilities open to them at the reference library’.

One young man, whose father was unemployed, was so helped by Mr. Lamb that he was able to write a thesis which, if it had not been for the books obtained especially for him, would have meant a month’s residence in another county. Mr. Lamb managed to persuade the librarian of another town to send along the books week by week as the student wanted them, with the result that the student successfully got his thesis through.

J P Lamb, Sheffield City Librarian, 1927-1956

The Independent took the view, no doubt encouraged by Joseph Lamb, that the Reference Library was ‘one of the most useful institutions in the city’ and regretted that this was not better appreciated. Sunday opening was ‘just another example of the way Mr. Lamb does what he can to meet the wishes of the citizens. … Sheffield has certainly got an efficient Library service’.

It is astonishing to realise that public libraries were at one time routinely open on Sundays and often until 9pm most evenings. Today technology has changed the way many people study, enabling them to work at home. For some, however, a public library provides a safe, comfortable space and free access to the books and resources they need.

All quotations above are taken from the Sheffield Independent of Tuesday 6 October 1931.