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 Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased.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)
And Sheffield librarian Herbert Waterson, who started work in 1869, hinted at the particular problems the ladders meant for Victorian women seeking library work.
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.