Libraries are under threat today. Councils say there is not enough money. People claim that, with Google, Kindle and the like, there is simply no longer a need for buildings filled with paper or the librarians who look after it. Sometimes the lack of funds and the redundancy of print are combined, justifying cutbacks or closure in an unconvincingly circular argument. Meanwhile, defenders[i] (they are many and we at Reading Sheffield are of their number) point out that libraries are safe, social spaces. They secure and organise knowledge efficiently, impartially and to accepted standards. The information they hold is available to all, in support of democracy and free speech. Librarians are expert guides who help us find what we need. (This is not to dismiss the internet, which is powerful but altogether less discriminating.)
Librarians have always had to promote their services to potential users. At its annual conference in September 1932, the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux[ii] discussed how to encourage businesses to use libraries. According to a report in the Yorkshire Post on 26 September, Bertie Headicar, the librarian of the London School of Economics, commented on the need to win business trust. There was the ‘difficulty of the library user who dare not tell the librarian what books he wants’ for fear of appearing ignorant or giving away secrets. ‘No true librarian,’ asserted Headicar, ‘was capable of [such betrayal].’ (You can hear the ‘harrumph’.)
The City Librarian of Sheffield, Joseph Lamb, said:
The ordinary man completely fails to grasp the fact that in these days, when national economic survival is largely a question of applied and organised intelligence, the book has become the most important tool of industry. … The public library can provide material and an organisation which will help industry in the unceasing fight to maintain its position, and further developments are possible. But we are faced with the problem of convincing commerce and industry of the library’s ability to do these things.
Lamb lamented that only rarely did industrialists use scientific and merchants, commercial libraries.
In the year 1932, a great firm in my city was not aware that British patents specifications were stocked at the library, though they had been there for fifty years.
Headicar and Lamb agreed about the contribution made by the thoughtful, professional librarian. ‘Nothing mechanical could take the place of the human element…and the personal contact with the librarian,’ said Headicar. (Today’s librarians, mindful of the search engine, might substitute ‘technological’ for ‘mechanical’.) Lamb thought that public librarians could be better at selecting reference library stock. Many, he said, still thought ‘in terms of pure literature.’ He went on, in typically trenchant tones:
They brought to their task of keeping up to date a modern scientific library the outlook of the cloister and shrank from the ruthless modernity of weeding. The staggering pace of research, the extraordinary development of the application of chemical processes to industry, left them a little bewildered.
The Yorkshire Post article notes that there had been meetings with businessmen in Yorkshire, to tell them what libraries could do for them, but these had been poorly attended. ‘Our Yorkshire business men must be assured of value for money.’ (It was ever thus.)
Back home in Sheffield, Lamb did not give up the fight to convince businesses of the value for money of the library service. He must in fact have been planning his next move as he spoke at the conference. Sheffield’s ‘economic survival’ depended almost exclusively on steel and other metals. Lamb’s innovative Scheme for the Interchange of Technical Publications, introduced in 1933, was a partnership between his library and local industry for collecting and exchanging technical and commercial information. SINTO (the Sheffield Interchange Organisation), as it later became known, lasted into the 21st century. Lamb also oversaw the establishment of the World Metals Index (WMI), a comprehensive listing of grade names, trade names, series numbers and abbreviations of metals, which survives to this day. Finally, in 1955, he wrote Commercial and Technical Libraries, a handbook published by the Library Association.
Here is an example, from librarian Alysoun Bagguley’s memories, of SINTO helping local industry.
In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge.
What lessons are we to take from this story? Libraries have knowledge in depth, curated by experts. They gather their holdings over time (weeding as they go, as Lamb advised) and without bias. They change and develop, according to the needs of their borrowers. They are, not stuffy mausoleums, but living institutions. They lived in the days of Lamb and Headicar, and they do now.
[i] Ironically, of course, many of us use the internet to promote our views.
[ii] Founded in 1924 and now known as ASLIB, the Association for Information Management.