The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s
Here is a slightly edited version of a paper given by Reading Sheffield team member Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016.
Records for the city of Sheffield tell us that among the popular authors borrowed from its adult libraries in the 1930s were, in no particular order: A J Cronin; Margaret Mitchell; Charlotte Bronte; Winifred Holtby; Victor Hugo; J B Priestley; Charles Dickens, Francis Brett Young; and Pearl S Buck. In this paper I shall examine how Sheffield’s public library responded to the interests of fiction-reading residents and how much it facilitated, and even shaped, popular choices. In the 1930s, Sheffield City Library was still being transformed from a service which, to use the wording of the official history, had stagnated by around 1920. A massive, long-term programme of modernisation, expansion, book promotion and education was well underway. This included reviewing and rethinking the policy for fiction. According to the official papers and the professional reflections of its librarians, Sheffield, unlike some other libraries of the period, seemed to have no doubt about the benefits of reading fiction: it offered what it described as ‘standard’ and ‘semi-standard and popular’ novels, encouraging library members to develop their tastes over time. It researched what members borrowed, ran various activities to bring books and authors to public attention and planned its book stocks accordingly. The quotation in the title of this paper comes from a tongue-in-cheek paragraph in the City Library’s report for 1937-38: ‘there is a good deal to be said for a well-known lecturer’s remarks … that “even Edgar Wallace may be discovered and hailed by a literary critic of 100 years hence”’ but the report’s contention that fiction opens up social, political and religious ideas, history etc, as well as giving ‘mental refreshment’ is clear. The people of Sheffield in the 1930s were given the opportunity to rate Edgar Wallace and others for themselves.