Sheffield’s eighteenth century library

By Loveday Herridge

As a teenager, the oldest of the Reading Sheffield interviewees, Ted L, borrowed books from the newly built ‘beautiful and spacious’ Central Library in Sheffield in the 1930s.  The books there were housed very differently from their shelving in the filthy, cramped conditions of the Central Library’s predecessor, but the public book collection itself retained strong links with the past.  For this collection had absorbed the local books of Sheffield’s Literary and Philosophical Society in 1932, when that important cultural organisation was wound up.  And in turn, the Lit and Phil’s collection had been augmented in 1908 by a merger with the Sheffield Library.

This institution had been founded way back in 1771 when some of the members of the most influential families of Sheffield set it up.  Its catalogues suggest that, while books were certainly lost, the collection simply grew ever larger over time, with books first purchased in the 1770s remaining available for borrowing.  In my imagination, then, in 1934 Ted L borrows a book from the pristine Central Library which was actually purchased in 1771!

The Sheffield Library was a library financed through the subscriptions and annual fees of its members (who needed to be quite affluent to afford them), and open only to them.  Sheffield’s subscription library was one of England’s earliest such institutions.  It was conceived ‘on the plan of one formed a short time before at Leeds’.  This Leeds library had been founded in 1768 by the rational dissenter and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley.  Priestley had visited Sheffield where he had been an unsuccessful candidate in 1758 for a post as minister at Sheffield’s important dissenting Upper Chapel, and was a friend of the man appointed at the Chapel in his place – John Dickinson.  Dickinson, apparently following his friend’s lead in promoting libraries as a way of improving minds, was a founder member and Sheffield’s Library President in its first year (1771), and in three subsequent years.

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rules for the Sheffield Library are to be found in the 1791 catalogue.  They indicate  that the Library was run very democratically:

  • annual meetings of members chose the committee of five members and a President
  • this committee, which organised the buying and selling of books, met monthly, and any other member could attend and vote, with two thirds of the members determining the choice of books
  • a librarian, who kept the catalogue and issued books, was chosen at the annual meeting.

Therefore the route by which books entered the Library suggests that the catalogue reflects quite closely the reading tastes and aspirations of its membership – just as the catalogue of the city libraries does now.

Did our Reading Sheffield interviewees pick books from the Central Library shelves that had first been purchased in the late eighteenth century by the members of the Sheffield Library, who were from influential merchant, manufacturing and professional families?

Imagining this scenario, I asked a twenty-first century Sheffield librarian whether she thought it was possible.  The answer was that twentieth-century standards of cleanliness would of course have consigned those ancient books to the dustbin.  But while the books themselves could not provide a physical link between those cultured men and women who set up the 1771 library and Reading Sheffield’s bookworm twentieth-century readers, what does connect them is surely the thread of curiosity and personal pleasure in books.