Crisis reading: Sheffield Libraries in 1938-39

In 1938-39, the book most requested in Sheffield Libraries was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Seventy-five years on, this comes as a surprise.  But in the context of the time and the role of a public library it makes sense: people turned to their local library to learn about, to understand, the awful international situation.

Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf (public domain)

Events in 1938 and 1939

In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria.  Then, prompted by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia began agitating for self-government and in September, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a third of Czech territory.  On 30 September the Treaty of Munich was signed by Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory to Germany.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was hailed as peacemaker by many on his return from Germany, appearing with the King and Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony.  But he was condemned by others as an appeaser – the reputation he still has.  On 1 October Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  Next, on 9 November, came the violence of Kristallnacht, with hundreds of Jews killed, thousands more imprisoned and their property damaged or destroyed.  Soon Jews in the Third Reich were forced to wear the Star of David and their civil rights were removed.

During 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and made territorial demands on Lithuania and Poland.  Hitler’s attacks on the Jews continued.  On 31 March, Britain and France, which had abandoned Czechoslovakia the year before, agreed to defend Poland in the case of invasion.  In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Books in Demand

Sheffield Libraries’ 82nd annual report, for 1938-39, discussed people’s response to the international situation.

  • Mein Kampf ‘topped the list of reserves in every library’. Next came Guns or Butter (1938) by  diplomat and journalist Robert Bruce Lockhart, which had as a subtitle ‘War Countries and Peace Countries of Europe Revisited’; and Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed, who was anti-Semitic but said to be wary of Hitler.  Also in demand were: Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Kurt Ludecke’s I Knew Hitler (1937) and Madeleine Kent’s I Married a German.  Gunther was a US foreign correspondent based in Europe and Ludecke, a Nazi supporter who had fallen out with Hitler.  I cannot discover much about Madeleine Kent, but the title of her book sounds rather sensationalist.
  • Sheffield Libraries routinely recorded non-fiction borrowed by category. The annual report speculated that the sharp increases in the categories of politics, travel and history* were due to the international situation.  Almost 10,000 more books were read on politics, from 47,614 in 1937-38 to 57,094 in 1938-39 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent; and travel and history were each up by about 4,000.  The total issue that year was, by the way, 2.7 million and it was estimated that 18 per cent of the Sheffield population had library tickets.

Apparently it did not prove easy to meet readers’ demands:

The demand for ‘crisis’ books has, in fact, been rather embarrassing. The pace of events makes such books quickly out of date, and the sum available for new books does not allow of their being bought in the quantity necessary to satisfy more than a fraction of the demand for them during their life of immediate appeal.  Moreover, it is a library’s function to select those of merit, and it is not easy to separate these quickly from the hurried ‘pot-boilers’ which have appeared on the market.

There was a particular problem with Mein Kampf, and the resolution shows how responsibly  Sheffield Libraries took the business of meeting readers’ needs.  The German edition was available in the Central Library but there was at first no full English translation.  There was an abridged version and ‘an attempt was made to supplement [this with pamphlets from the Friends of Europe] summarising and commenting on the main points of the full German edition’.  A note was inserted in this short version explaining that it did ‘not give an adequate representation of Hitler’s views … It is, however, useful as a guide to some of his ideas’.  The Sheffield annual report, probably written by the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, comments drily:

The shorter English edition is still on service, as readers may prefer to read this, in conjunction with the pamphlets, rather than attempt the 560 pages of the full translation, which is a formidable task to a reader with a clear mind – not merely because of its length.

We do not know how great the demand for ‘crisis books’ was, although it must have been significant to be noted for the annual report.  Other than the borrowing figures by non-fiction category, there is no indication of how many people reserved these books and we know nothing about who they were.  It is interesting that the annual report goes on to note:

But the third place in lending library records of reserves was held by Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue, which last year topped the list.  Next were Evens’s Out with Romany Again, Mackenzie’s Windsor Tapestry, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Haldane’s A.R.P.

Out with Romany Again

The Stamp Catalogue was probably a standard in lists of reserves.  Windsor Tapestry (1938) was a study of the new Duke of Windsor by novelist Compton Mackenzie.  In 1938, Edward VIII must still have been of great interest, as perhaps was T E Lawrence, who had been killed in 1935.  Out with Romany Again (1938) was the latest book from GB Evens, aka Romany, a popular broadcaster on the countryside.  Haldane’s ARP [Air Raid Precautions] was an analysis of stress based on his experience of air raids during the Spanish Civil War, and interest in it might perhaps be linked to the developing crisis.

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind (public domain)

Fiction was, of course, also in demand.  Most of the books popular in 1938-39 are solidly middlebrow and they and/or their authors are almost all remembered by our Reading Sheffield interviewees. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was still the book to be seen with, not least with all the excitement about the casting of Scarlett O’Hara for the December 1939 movie.  Also sought after were: A J Cronin’s The Citadel; Winifred Holtby’s South Riding; Francis Brett Young’s Dr Bradley Remembers; Kenneth Roberts’s North-West Passage; Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; Leonora Thornber’s Portrait in Steel; Howard Spring’s O, Absolom!; Philip Gibbs’s This Nettle, Danger; Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth; and Cronin’s The Stars Look Down.

The interest in Les Misérables, the annual report speculates, was because of the BBC’s 1939 serialization, while Portrait in Steel was ‘undoubtedly due to the book’s local associations … referred to in the local press’.  It was set in Stelborough, a thinly disguised Sheffield.  South Riding had local associations too.  Sheffield Libraries might also have noted that: films of The Citadel and South Riding were released in 1938 and The Good Earth in 1937#; and that Pearl S Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The resulting publicity no doubt influenced these choices too.

Sir Philip Gibbs’ book, This Nettle, Danger, takes us back to international problems.  Perhaps the City Librarian had not read it or he might have included it in his crisis list too, as it is a fictionalized account of Munich.  The title, from Henry V, was famously quoted by Chamberlain on return from Germany.  Gibbs apparently felt that Chamberlain had been right in 1938, but also that the Munich settlement was probably only temporary.

Today’s crises

Do we turn to libraries today, to understand international crises?  Are people asking for books now about Syria and ISIS?  Library memberships are falling, while books are cheaper and more available (including online) than in the ‘30s.  And we have: rolling news, with instant updates and expert analysis; politicians who are (generally) gifted communicators never far from a microphone; and social media and even citizen journalism.  So the answer is: perhaps yes, we still look to libraries – but not to anything like the same extent as in 1938.

* In full, these categories were: politics, economics and social science; travel and description; and history.

# North West Passage, Rebecca and The Stars Look Down were all filmed in 1940.

3 thoughts on “Crisis reading: Sheffield Libraries in 1938-39

  1. Adding to the story:

    The Sheffield Evening Telegraph of Tuesday 12 September 1939 reported the ‘heavy demand on books dealing with Germany and the crisis’. It goes on:

    ‘Recently Sheffield’s 100 copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ have been in such great demand that there have been waiting lists of 30 or 40 people at branches.’

  2. Pingback: Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library | Reading Sheffield

  3. Sheffield’s library report for 1938-39 also noted, rather poignantly, another effect of the crisis:

    Much of the work of the Reference Library is concerned with students, and the general uncertainty about the international situation in the year under review has had a noticeable effect on these young people. The issues of books in this library was steady until the middle of September, 1938, after which they began to decline. Young men and women hesitate to embark upon, and in other cases have curtailed or abandoned, longterm study projects. Many students have told the staff that they have practically ceased work during the last few months. The decline in issues of 3,448 can be attributed to this cause.

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