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.
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.
In June 2023, Liverpool University Press published Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955 by Mary Grover, who founded the Reading Sheffield project. On 12 July, a special event to launch the book was held at the Central Library in Sheffield. The 90 or so guests included some of the 65 people whose interviews are at the heart of the book, along with their families and Mary’s own family, friends and colleagues.
Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, who has supported Reading Sheffield and Mary’s work from the very beginning, welcomed everyone to the event.
Mary described the experience of researching and writing Steel City Readers:
Writing is almost always a lonely process. Whatever you are writing, however supportive your colleagues and companions, you are alone with the next sentence. But, however confused or doubtful, I have never been involved in a writing project in which I have felt less alone. Never have so many people contributed to a book I have produced. … When I was, as a friend put it, ‘becalmed’, I would reread stories like Kath and Judith’s, and their energy and resourcefulness were an inspiration.
The stories Mary and her colleagues drew out of the 65 readers featured in Steel City Readers are fascinating accounts of the wonder of reading. The interviews ‘helped our readers create their own narrative structures and become eloquent narrators of their own lives’ – something they had rarely, if ever, known before.
Irene had gained a place at grammar school and was reading A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, but it was the annuals given to her at Christmas that helped establish her reading fluency. The reason why she cherished these annuals till the end of her life and the reason why my listeners lit up when they held one in their hands again after 70 years, is the part that annuals played in the narrative of their lives. Like no other book, an annual is a precise marker of development. We know the year, the month, the day when we read it, Christmas Day 1931 in the case of Irene’s Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. Its physical presence is associated with those who surrounded us when we read it and those who gave it to us, at some expense. Its inscription brings back the memory of a loved relative or friend, often an unmarried aunt.
Chris then introduced Professor Dame Karin Barber, a friend of Mary’s. Karin, an anthropologist, spoke about reading the book in draft:
… I was totally gripped by it. It transported me into mid-twentieth century Sheffield – not just into the place, distinctive as it is, and the time, before and after the Second World War, but also – most importantly – the people: the 65 participants in the project talking about their memories of books and reading, their enjoyment of all kinds of literature, their practical strategies for getting hold of books to read.
Steel City Readers, she continued, was ‘a highly original and valuable contribution to social history’.
Oral history, done like this, reaches parts of the past that no other research can. It preserves and re-activates historical memories that would otherwise be lost – but which illuminate big themes of social change, class, cultural history, with unique vividness. The Reading Sheffield project – and the book that came out of it – are pioneers. It’s to be hoped that they will have started a movement and that more projects as exciting as this one will follow.
Reading Sheffield celebrated the publication of Steel City Readers by presenting copies to all the interviewees or their families. This was made possible by the generosity of those who donated to the project, including Sheffield-based Gripple and The James Neill Trust Fund, the broadcaster, Robin Ince, who did two fundraisers, and many individual supporters.
Mary Grover and the Reading Sheffield committee would like to thank Sheffield Libraries – in particular, Library Manager Alexis Filby – for hosting the launch in the Central Library. Given the importance of public libraries in Steel City Readers, this was the perfect venue.
Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman and Val Hewson for the photos of the launch, and to Karin and Mary for permission to include their speeches.
The paperback of Steel City Readers is available from all good booksellers. The e-book can be downloaded free from Liverpool University Press.
In Sheffield City Library is a department called Sheffield Room. It is a treasure house of historical records of the city and district.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Tuesday 17 January 1939
In years of searching newspapers for stories about public libraries, I’ve found various articles discussing the obscure, odd and funny questions people apparently expect librarians to answer. It’s hard to tell if these are the idea of the journalist, editor or librarian. When I mentioned this to a friend, he even suggested that the questions are just made up for effect. At all events, the resulting articles are an easy job for a journalist and good publicity for a library service, with readers presumably both amused and bemused by the information sought. The stories tell us something about how libraries work – and about what life was like before Google.
On Tuesday 17 January 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, one of these stories appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, under the title: ‘Where They Know Nearly All The Answers’. It must have been a collaboration between librarian and journalist. The statistics included were clearly official and the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, who was quoted, was very canny in securing publicity for his service.
The 7,000 books, 30,000 manuscripts, 5,000 plans, and 6,000 deeds in Sheffield Room omit nothing of importance in the city’s history. The room is constantly in use. In addition to personal inquiries on an average there are two inquiries a week by post, which lead to research among the voluminous records, steeped in the atmosphere of bygone tradition.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
After setting the scene, rich in tradition and scholarship, the unnamed journalist got down to business with ‘the most recent inquiries’: the Spence Broughton affair, William Mompesson and the Lescar Inn on Sharrow Vale Road. There was something for everyone in these fragments of local history.
Spence Broughton, the library’s record revealed, was a farmer, who, having squandered his money took to robbery.
BODY HUNG IN CHAINS
One night a boy was taking the mail from Sheffield to Rotherham. Broughton and another man – who was never caught – set upon him at Attercliffe, took the mail bag and left the boy bound upon the highway. In 1792 Broughton was hanged at York for the crime. His body was brought back to Attercliffe, where it hung in chains for 35 years. This is believed to have been the last example of gibbetting in England.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
I detect a hint of local pride in those last two sentences about the gibbet. To this day there is, you might note, the Noose & Gibbet Inn on Broughton Lane in Attercliffe.
In the case of William Mompesson, ‘the parson of Eyam plague fame’, the enquirer was looking for his date and place of birth. This proved a ‘teaser’, reported the journalist.
Finally, it was established after extensive research that neither the date nor place of Mompesson’s birth was definitely known, although it was possible to trace the approximate date of his birth from a tombstone inscription.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Then there was the enquiry from the man writing a book on inn signs. How did the Lescar Inn, still a popular pub today, get its name?
The library records showed there were two grinding wheels in Sharrow Vale Road —they had been there since 1547 – called the Upper and Nether Lescar Wheels. The inn, built in 1879, was named after them.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Having established the library’s credentials with these stories, the reporter turned to the City Librarian:
It is one of the purposes of a library to provide material for research, though it cannot, of course, undertake unduly detailed work … In the main … we provide the source of information that will satisfy queries, but in cases of inquiries from overseas the actual details asked for are also supplied if possible.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
The overseas enquiries, it seemed, usually referred to family history. People in Australia or America would get in touch in the search for their ancestors or long-lost relatives. Not much has changed then, as genealogy remains big business for public libraries. Sheffield Libraries, like many others, offer advice and free access to sites like Ancestry and the British Newspaper Archive.
In the 84 years since the Telegraph published its article, things have changed. People do still ask librarians questions, and use their libraries for research, but they also turn easily to Google, or sites like Find My Past and Ancestry, for information. It takes seconds to search Google to find the Wikipedia entries on Mompesson (his birth still seems obscure, by the way) and on Spence Broughton. There’s a lot of interesting information on Broughton, including this song of the time, in which he has apparently learned his lesson:
Hark, his blood, in strains so piercing, Cries for justice night and day, In these words which I’m rehersing, Now methinks I hear him say – ‘Thou, who art my spirit’s portion In the realms of endless bliss, When at first thou gav’st me motion Knew that I should come to this.’
Spence Broughton’s Lament by Joseph Mather
The obvious question in all this is whether there is still a need for public libraries in this context. Of course there is. Who but library and archive services have the capacity and expertise to collect and store the information the online articles draw on? The services are impartial. They are not out to make a profit or run by characterful billionaires. They have the trained and qualified staff to help people access, search and assess the material available. As Joseph Lamb noted all those years ago,
A library … was a storehouse of knowledge and experience, and if properly used could supply the answer to any reasonable question.
If you follow Reading Sheffield on Twitter (@readsheffield) or Facebook, you’ll know that we are raising funds to support the publication of a new book, Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955. The book, by Mary Grover, who founded our group, is an important celebration of Sheffield’s literary heritage. It’s based on the interviews with our 65 Sheffield readers which are all available here, in audio and transcript. Liverpool University Press (LUP) plans to publish the book on 1 June 2023. Here is the wonderful cover design, which uses an image from Sheffield Archives’ Picture Sheffield collection.
We want to raise £12,500 to support the publication. LUP’s plan is to make the book downloadable by anyone from the internet at no cost. To do this Reading Sheffield needs to invest £10,000 to help LUP pay for design, editing etc and to compensate for the loss of sales, and to have some funds to help promote the book etc. This is a big commitment for Reading Sheffield, but it would be wonderful to have a book free to everyone. We have a crowdfunding page – Just Giving – and are grateful for any donations.
The Joy of Reading, with Robin Ince
Robin Ince, BBC Radio 4 personality, author, comedian and all-round booklover and good egg, is coming to Sheffield to do two benefit shows to help us raise funds for Steel City Readers. The shows will be part of Robin’s nationwide tour of independent bookshops to talk about his own new book, Bibliomaniac. Both shows, each lasting about an hour, will take place on 11 January 2023, in the Carpenter Room in Sheffield Central Library on Surrey St, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The first starts at 4pm, the second at 7pm. Tickets cost £15 and all the money raised will go to our fundraising. Here are links to book tickets for the two shows through Sheffield Libraries’ Eventbrite:
Busy with our Sundae Opening project (more about this shortly), we’ve not been able to post anything here for a while. Many thanks to MS who put me in the way of the Carnegie letters about Sheffield. A great way to stoke up the blog again.
Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.
Andrew Carnegie, An American Four-in-Hand in Britain (1883).
In April 1904, Geo Hy Capper, of Fernleigh, Tinsley, wrote a letter to R A Franks of the Home Trust Company, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA, asking about ‘your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work’.
Here is a transcription of the letter.
Tinsley Parish Council
Clerk’s Office, Fernleigh
Tinsley, April 23rd, 1904
Geo Hy Capper, Clerk to the Council
Mr. R. A. Franks,
Home Trust Company, Hoboken, N.J. U.S.A.
On Feb’y 23rd last I received from Mr. J. Bertram a letter announcing Mr Carnegie’s approval of the plans for Library [sic], which he is giving to Tinsley, & asking me to communicate with you for payment as the work proceeds. The Contract was let last night & building operations will now be commenced at once, so I shall be glad if you will kindly let know your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work.
Waiting your esteemed reply,
Geo. Hy. Capper
George Henry Capper (1859-1924), who acted as clerk to Tinsley Parish Council, was the Sheffield-born manager of a steel rolling mill and a man of substance, as his confident letter shows. (That the letter is handwritten, by the signatory, is interesting. Typewriters were becoming common in offices at the turn of the century but the parish council evidently did not use one.) Robert Augustus Franks (1861?-1935), born in Liverpool, was an immigrant to the United States who had made a success of his new life. He was president of the Home Trust Company, a private bank set up by his friend, Scottish-American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), to manage Carnegie’s philanthropy, including the endowment of ‘free libraries’.
Carnegie’s contribution to libraries is well-known. At one point he was the richest man in the world, and he is said to have given away about 90% of his fortune, to support educational and cultural organisations. He believed that:
To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.
Andrew Carnegie, The Empire of Business (1902).
Carnegie started poor, emigrating to the USA in search of a better life, and he had little formal education. He reasoned that libraries gave people like him the chance to learn, to catch up. All in all, he helped found perhaps 3,000 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spending about $55m in the process. Most were located in the USA, but towns and cities around the world, including in the UK, benefitted from Carnegie’s generosity.
Around 1903, Tinsley, now a suburb of Sheffield but then an independent township, was awarded £1,500 by Carnegie for its free library, to be built on the corner of Bawtry Road, on a site donated by Earl Fitzwilliam, the local aristocrat. Mr Carnegie’s secretary had written to the council on 18 November, setting out the terms of the offer:
Dear Sir – Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate.
Sheffield Telegraph, 17 December 1903.
The money might have been refused, as there was a feeling in Tinsley that Carnegie the employer oppressed the working man libraries were intended to help. There was also a suggestion that local business, rather than business based 3,000 miles away, should pay (which might have been connected to the curious fact that steel was the business of both Carnegie and Tinsley). In the end, the parish council voted almost unanimously to accept Carnegie’s offer. You can read the full story starting here.
Tinsley Carnegie Library opened to the public just over a year after Capper’s letter, on 7 June 1905, and the whole affair, from initial application to opening ceremony, took perhaps two years. The contract Capper refers to must have been the one with the local building firm, Gray and Sons, and the plans approved by Carnegie were the design by respected local architects, Holmes and Watson, which can be seen in Sheffield City Archives.
Tinsley spent Carnegie’s £1,500 well (and managed the budget well – there was an overspend of a mere 9s 10d). The Sheffield Telegraph reported from the opening ceremony:
The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution…besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village.
Sheffield Telegraph, 8 June 1905
And so it remained for 80 years, until in 1985 the library moved to a (less impressive) shop unit in a modern precinct just down the road. The building was then used as a family centre, but has stood empty and boarded up for some years now. It’s a tribute to the parish council, the architects and builders that the building remains, forlorn, water-damaged but still graceful after nearly 120 years.
Columbia University Libraries also hold correspondence about Sheffield’s Walkley Carnegie Library, about which we’ll be writing shortly.
It’s been a while since our last post, and the reason for the silence is that we’ve been working on an exhibition for the 2021 Heritage Open Days festival. The theme this year is ‘Edible England’ and so our exhibition is of vintage recipe books. Sheffield Libraries and Archives have been kind enough to host it for us (and to contribute three wonderful books). The exhibition can be visited at any time during opening hours in the Central Lending Library on Surrey Street until 1 October.
Our Heritage At Home exhibition of recipe books illustrates the everyday, private and individual heritage we all have. A heritage which is easily overlooked but which, when we examine it, makes us each think about what we carry from the past into the future.
Many of the books were collected simply by asking around in Sheffield. Some came from local charity shops, and a few via eBay. Most people we spoke to – even those who claimed to be uninterested in cooking – turned out to have recipe books tucked away. Enthusiasts had whole bookcases. We didn’t set out to find classics or to cover different cuisines or periods. We wanted random, not representative. What had survived? How and why?
The variety is surprising. Most of the books are dated between about 1890 and 1970. There are instruction manuals for stoves; booklets given away by food manufacturers promoting their products or as gimmicks by newspapers; domestic encyclopaedias of the sort presented to brides; and books by the Delias and Nigellas of their day, now almost forgotten. (The exception is Mrs Beeton – her book turned up more often than any other, in reprint editions.) Perhaps most interesting are the homemade books, in which recipes have been handwritten or typed or cut from magazines or food packaging.
Many of the books are worn – a few almost to destruction – and this may be not so much the effect of time as of use. There are mysterious stains where something has dripped or overflowed and pages still gritty with flour, sugar, salt. Occasionally scraps of paper are tucked inside, presumably snatched up to mark a page and then forgotten. In the margins there are handwritten reminders, explanations, comments. And there is the personal – names and addresses and sometimes inscriptions, for example, from the husband who gave his wife a Mrs Beeton: ‘’To my wife on this final sign of our getting a home. 1.10.27. LHS.‘
The books tell us about the societies which produced them. They all address themselves to women, whose vocation is unquestionably homemaking. Men appear only occasionally in illustrations, happily consuming delicious food. Class is apparent too: the books range, in terms of style, ingredients and price, from the humble, through the aspirational, to the superior.
And there are fashions in food. The older a book, the more pudding recipes it seems to have. The 1950s was clearly a time for fantastically decorated ‘occasion cakes’ (calling for skill and time), while in the 1960s food becomes more ‘adventurous’. Ingredients too change over time: lard is a staple; sugar and salt are liberally used; and fruit and vegetables are both traditional and seasonal.
There are some recipes for curry and spaghetti, but on the whole cuisines from other countries do not feature. There is only one vegetarian recipe book, dating from the 1930s and using the somehow unattractive term ‘non-flesh cookery’.
The design of the books is revealing too: Arts Nouveau and Deco; the decorous 1950s and the bolder 1960s; line drawings giving way to indistinct black and white photography and then often garish colour plates, which are the beginnings of ‘food styling’.
What we cannot see in the books are the memories they bear. Hand a few books round a group and they readily recall tastes, smells, textures – and then incidents and people. When we collected books from people’s homes, we were sometimes told that they are still used, and sometimes that they just sit on shelves, but either way in memory of a life that is past.
When you visit Heritage At Home, you’ll find cards on which you can leave a favourite recipe or a memory about food.
During the Heritage Open Days festival, from 10 to 19 September, we will be posting blogs about food in books – in the work of Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and P G Wodehouse, in school stories with midnight feasts every term and in detective stories where you really cannot be sure what is in your dinner. And we will tell you about the very special recipe books of Priscilla Haslehurst and the Countesses of Arundel and Kent.
In the meantime, here is a recipe from Over 120 Ways of Using Bread for Tasty and Delightful Dishes (Millers’ Mutual Association, 1934).
The thrill of entering a public library. Thousands of books arranged in familiar patterns. Fiction and non-fiction. Classics and novels contemporary and historical, romances, crime stories and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. Books about art, science, music, history, travel, philosophy, politics. What will I find this time? Something entirely new? a much-anticipated sequel? an old friend? Each visit is a promise.
At the beginning of the 20th century, public libraries, including Sheffield’s, looked very different from our ‘open access’ model, where the books are there for us to wander through, to pick up, to choose or return. Then, while there might be a few out on display, many public libraries hid their books away behind counters, or kept them out of sight in rooms marked ‘No Entry’. Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased. Borrowers would seek the advice of library staff. Once a book was chosen, an assistant checked on its availability and, if it was not already on loan, retrieved it from its shelf and handed it over to the borrower.
The Sheffield Corporation have given a good deal of attention lately to the development of the public libraries on modern lines, and evidence of the progress that has been made will be forth coming to-day when the Central Lending Library will be open for view to the public on the open access system. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)
With the exception of research and specialist institutions, there must be few ‘closed access’ libraries now. Why was it the norm in the early days? Maybe librarians and library authorities had little faith that books would not be disordered, damaged or even stolen by borrowers. Controlling access was a way to safeguard books owned by local ratepayers, not all of whom were happy with their money supporting the, to them, wrongly named free libraries. Perhaps there was also some attempt to influence what people read. Librarians and councils habitually worried about borrowers preferring the light novel over the serious work. The public library was, after all, invented to help people improve themselves.
As well as keeping borrower and book apart, closed access often meant problems for library staff. Book stores generally seem to have been crammed with shelving from floor to ceiling and young assistants had to scurry up and down long ladders to find books. Here is Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian from 1927 to 1956, on his days as an assistant:
Birmingham Central Library in those days (1913-14) was a murderous place in which only those with sound bodies and hardened minds could survive. Most of its large stock was shelved in three tiers of iron galleries reaching to the ceiling. In a closed library with an average daily issue of 900, the amount of leg work demanded of the staff was enough to qualify them as Everest climbers. (J P Lamb, Librarian While Young, The Librarian and Book World, Vol XLV, No 3, March 1956)
Closed access inspired a piece of Victorian technology, the ‘indicator’. This was a screen, often fixed to the wall and divided into tiny sections, each matched to a book listing in the catalogue and showing if the book was in or out. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph proudly described the locally-made model installed in the new Brightside Library in 1872:
… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)
Indicators were often very large and could be unwieldy. The ones made in 1876 for the Upperthorpe and Highfield branches had the capacity for 12,000 books each. One of the Highfield assistants claimed that the staff used to play football behind their screen when the librarian was not on duty.[i]
Open access in a public library was trialled as early as 1893 at Clerkenwell in London by James Duff Brown and seems to have aroused considerable opposition.[ii] It began slowly to be adopted, as the objections to it were proved baseless. But in conservative Sheffield closed access was the order of the day until after the First World War. In two places only could borrowers roam at will among the books. The branch library at Walkley, which opened in 1905 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was converted to open access in 1913-14 by its pioneering librarian, Albert Ibbotson. His superiors objected but he got away with it. ‘The [open access] Walkley Library’, said a letter from Mr A Ballard to the Sheffield Independent on Tuesday 16 August 1921, ‘has been for the past seven years a veritable university to the working people’.[iii] At the same time, two schoolteacher members of the Council’s library committee petitioned successfully for the opening up of the Reference Library.[iv]
These were among the few innovations in Sheffield Libraries in the early years of the 20th century. By 1921 the service was in decline, and there was much muttering in the press. The numbers of books borrowed were falling, book stocks inadequate, administrative practices old-fashioned, staff demotivated and buildings (especially the Central Library) in poor repair. New chief and deputy librarians – R J Gordon and J P Lamb – were recruited to put things right. Determined and modern, they wasted no time.
Converting all the libraries to open access and introducing the Dewey classification system, as funding allowed, was an early decision in July 1921. The task was huge but, by the following June, the necessary alterations had been made, the stocks of books refreshed and classified. The new open Central Lending Library was ready. Albert Ibbotson from Walkley had been appointed to run it in 1918 and was probably an ally for Gordon and Lamb. He had been described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 8 March 1918 as a ‘progressive librarian’. By 1919 he had already introduced a very limited form of access: ‘…two cases in which the latest books are always placed on view, and the rapid demand for these volumes shows how useful the system is’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 6 September 1919).
No doubt primed by Gordon and Lamb, who both knew the value of publicity, the Sheffield Telegraph was eager to explain the new system to the city:
At the Library entrance is the staff enclosure where the issue records are kept and from which the staff control the entrance and exit wickets. A borrower desiring to change a book hands it to the assistant at the entrance counter, which is to the left on entering, and receives his borrower’s ticket exchange. The assistant then releases the wicket gate and the borrower enters the stockroom to select his book. After selecting the book he wishes to borrow he returns to the assistant who completes the necessary records and releases the exit wicket for the borrower to go out. Apart from this arrangement which will be greatly appreciated by borrowers, who can wander at will among the volumes, there is a new system of classification which makes for rapid working and ease of selection. As most borrowers at Public Libraries ask for books on a particular subject rather than by the author, and because of the many advantages gained by having all the books on the same or related subjects on one shelf, the books have been classified according to the subjects they cover. The Dewey Decimal classification has been used for this purpose and seeing it in operation, one is impressed by the value of the system. The books in the Library are arranged in two parts: prose fiction and non-fiction. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)
The degree of detail suggests how much of a change this was. The journalist goes on to say: ‘There is no doubt that the public will appreciate the new system, under which borrowers are allowed actual contact with the shelves containing the books.’ Over the next few years, Sheffield’s branch libraries were all converted, with counters and screens removed and new shelving installed.
Open access libraries are so familiar to us that any other system seems impossible. But in 1956, as J P Lamb approached retirement, he saw some merit in the old ways:
It seems to have been my library lot in my younger days to be fully occupied in re-organising old type libraries. Those cheerless cemeteries of books are now thought to have no redeeming features; but reflecting on my work in them after a lifetime spent in creating ‘modern’ mass appeal libraries, I am not at all sure that the change has been wholly good. Open access has resulted in the loss of a personal contact with the reader, which no kind of readers’ advisory system can replace. … The librarian as guide, philosopher and friend was then a reality. … (J P Lamb, as above)
[i] From Kelly, James R, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sheffield, 1983). A copy is held in Sheffield Archives.
[ii] Kelly, Thomas, History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1965 (London, The Library Association, 1973), pp. 175-82.
[iii] Did Mr A Ballard become Alderman A Ballard CBE who chaired the Council’s Libraries Committee between 1944 and 1954? It seems very possible.
[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956). Along with the newspapers quoted, this is the main source for this article.
On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.
They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]
In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.
On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]
At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.
For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]
Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.
Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)
Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.
The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)
The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.
It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?
This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.
What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.
[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.
[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.
[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.
[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.
I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i]
In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.
The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.
Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:
The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.
It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:
It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.
Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:
… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)
Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.
Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.
Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.
The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:
Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.
Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.
The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings, designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.
The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:
The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.
There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:
It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.
The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.
I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.
At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.
I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.
[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.
[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.
I’ve heard some queer stories of earlier days. The then librarian, Smith, when they held a Library Association meeting in Sheffield, I don’t know when, probably just after the war, he closed all the libraries so the Library Association people couldn’t see what they were like.
What’s the story here? What could the chief librarian, Samuel Smith, have been hiding from his professional colleagues? The anecdote comes from a former librarian looking back to the early 20th century, before he even started work in Sheffield.[i] You have to wonder if he was remembering accurately, whether the story gained in the telling and if there is any truth in it at all.
In fact, as a little detective work reveals, it really happened, and it marked an unhappy time for Sheffield’s public library. It was in 1909, before rather than ‘just after the war’, that is, World War One. On Monday 7 June that year, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted in a report of ‘interesting items’ discussed at a meeting of the Council:
It is recommended that all branch libraries and reading-rooms close for cleaning, stock-taking, and staff holidays between July 1st and 16th, both dates inclusive. The Central and Reference Library will close from September 20th to 25th.
This seems straightforward. Who would object to a clean and orderly library? But when you realise that the dates for the Central and Reference Libraries did indeed coincide with a visit by the Library Association, for their 32nd national conference no less, you begin to wonder. After all, Sheffield had one of the oldest public libraries in England.[ii] The city was, moreover, responsible for the invitation to the librarians, and it greeted them with delight that September, going to no little trouble and expense on their behalf. You can read here about the glittering, white tie reception hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall, and there were other festivities. All this suggests considerable municipal pride in the ‘steel city’, reflected in extensive newspaper coverage. Take, for example, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 24 September 1909:
Sheffield’s Metropolitan Air. A Librarian’s Impressions
‘Are you satisfied with Sheffield’s welcome?’ Mr H R Tedder, the genial treasurer of the Library Association, was asked yesterday. ‘Satisfied?’ he reiterated, ‘No. that is not the word, but I should have to search the English language very extensively to find the right one. We have visited a good many towns, and one must not be invidious, but I can assure you that nowhere have we had a better reception than in Sheffield.’
He spoke in particularly high appreciation of the handsome scale on which the Lord Mayor’s reception was organised.
‘We have been extremely interested with our visits to manufactories,’ he said. ‘It is extremely educative for persons who have to deal with books to see our great national works, and discover that thought, poetry, philosophy, and everything that is elevating are not confined to books, but that there is plenty of thought, of poetry, of philosophy in business, and that just as noble and lofty qualifications are demanded in great commercial enterprises as in writers of books.’
Mr Tedder was particularly impressed by the character of the municipal life of Sheffield. ‘Londoners who live in a wilderness of bricks and mortar do not realise the great qualities of real municipal enterprise. It is true that London has now a number of boroughs, but it is in places like Sheffield that we really come face to face with municipal life.’
His opinions of the city’s public buildings do not accord with those of some local detractors. He was especially delighted with the Cutlers’ Hall. ‘It is as fine or finer place than any of the halls of the City companies in London. In Sheffield, too, you have quite a Metropolitan air.’
It makes that week-long closure of the Central Library all the more incomprehensible.
Incomprehensible until you know its condition at the time.[iii] Sheffield evidently felt that its pride, on national display, was at risk. The Central Library had been housed since 1856 in the former Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street (on the same site as today’s Central Library). The building, dating from 1832, was not designed as a library. Until 1896, when the new Town Hall was opened, the library service had been forced to share its premises with various council offices. At one time the council chamber had been located there, and the Mayor and the chief librarian had even shared an office, with the librarian presumably making himself scarce for important mayoral meetings.
By 1909, the Institute was too small even for its sole tenant, with the lending library particularly cramped. There was talk of rats. The building was in poor repair and dirty. What it housed was no better. The following summary of the review by Leeds’ chief librarian, Thomas Hands, undertaken for the Council some ten years later, gives a good idea of the problems becoming evident in 1909.[iv]
… book stocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind those which had proved to be necessary in other towns, that the only practical way of reforming the service was to start an entirely new system on modern lines. The recording of issues was archaic and cumbrous; a curious system of fine receipts, called forfeits, involving a considerable waste of staff time, was in operation, and what little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding. Thousands of books needed re-binding and many of those which had been bound had been chosen without reference to their condition or their suitability for further service. The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally. Outside lamps had not been cleaned for years, and the upper shelves in all the libraries were not merely dusty but in some cases were nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years.
The story was not all bad. Sheffield’s branch libraries – Burngreave, Highfield, Upperthorpe, Attercliffe, Park, Walkley and Hillsborough – were in relatively good order. With the exception of Hillsborough, a converted 18th century house, they were purpose-built, and Walkley, Park and Attercliffe were all less than 15 years old. In the Central Library, the reference and local history sections were thought to have good collections.
The evidence stacks up then. The Libraries Committee – led by Alderman W H Brittain, the President of the Library Association for 1909, assisted by the chief librarian, Samuel Smith – were laying plans as early as June to prevent the nation’s librarians inspecting what lay inside the Surrey Street buildings in September.
We don’t know what the visitors thought about all this. There was a busy programme, with debates about cataloguing and the like held in the University of Sheffield’s Firth Hall and local visits, including to the great house at Wentworth Woodhouse. Mr Tedder, quoted above, didn’t mention libraries.
Perhaps he was being tactful. It was rather an open secret. On Tuesday 6 July, writing about the upcoming conference, the Sheffield Telegraph commented: ‘The city may have nothing to be proud of in the way of municipal libraries….’ By Saturday 28 August, with the conference less than a month away, the Independent noted a rather feeble excuse: ‘It may be mentioned that the Sheffield Central Library will be closed during the conference week, as the staff is to be in attendance at the University.’
A few days later, on 31 August, the Evening Telegraph reported the Council’s application to the Local Government Board to borrow almost £7,000 to buy the Music Hall next to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The plan was to use the hall as a temporary extension to the library and, in time, to build a new central library on the site. This smacks of desperation: the hall, built in 1823, was not remotely suitable, nor was it even very safe. It was just, well, next door. Under the sub-head ‘What Sheffielders Are Not Proud Of’, the Town Clerk, Mr R M Prescott was reported at length:
… the citizens of Sheffield were proud of their many public institutions. There was a strong municipal spirit in the Corporation and in the city, one evidence of which was the magnificent building in which they were then assembled [presumably the Town Hall]. They were proud of their University as a seat of learning. They were proud of their industries which had made the name of the city known all over the world. But when he came to the Central Library, their pride considerably abated, and he thought that Alderman Brittain … would not be particularly anxious to take the [Library Association] over Sheffield’s principal library building, nor would he be particularly proud in making any reference to it. The Central Library was absolutely deficient for library purposes for a great city such as this, and the building was altogether inadequate and inconvenient.
The Library Association then never saw the Central Library in 1909, and Sheffield’s embarrassment was covered, more or less. Over the next few years, the situation worsened. While nationally more books were being borrowed, in Sheffield numbers fell. Criticism in the local press continued. By 1920, the pressure was intolerable. Samuel Smith gave notice and Thomas Hands was invited in, with the conclusions noted above. The Council hired a new chief librarian, Richard Gordon, and in turn he recruited a deputy, Joseph Lamb. Formidable, energetic and filled with the latest ideas, Gordon and Lamb turned Sheffield into one of the best public libraries in the country. One of their greatest achievements, begun by Gordon and finished by Lamb, was the city’s first, to date its only, purpose-built Central Library, opened in 1934.
This is the second of a short series of blogs about the Library Association conference held in Sheffield in 1909. Here is the first. With one exception, the invaluable British Newspaper Archive, the main sources are given in the endnotes below.
[i] The quotation is from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983), a copy of which is held in Sheffield Archives. If the copyright holder comes forward, we will happily acknowledge the source.
[ii] The legislation allowing councils to fund libraries was passed in 1850. Sheffield tried almost at once to open a library but there was opposition. Undaunted, campaigners tried again and Sheffield Libraries opened in February 1856, the first public library in Yorkshire and the eleventh in England.
[iii] How the library deteriorated, and why nothing was done for so many years, is a story for another time, although of course money is at the heart of it.
[iv] The quotation is from the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council) (p.29). Thomas Hands, the chief librarian of Leeds, undertook a review into Sheffield’s libraries in 1920 at the request of the Council. The decline he chronicled is generally understood to have set in around the turn of the century. A copy of the Hands report is held by Sheffield Archives.