Artwork

The making of ‘In Praise of Libraries’

I listened to the audio archive and selected various sections of the transcript. I then took a trip to explore books in the Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 book archive at Sheffield Hallam University. The archive is nestled in a custom made wooden pod within the Adsett’s library, it has book shelves (of course) and places to sit and read. It’s a special little reading place preserving words that were read in the first half of the 20th century. The work above is my first response, I’m planning 11 more.

adeleblog

Here is the second one. I especially like the Anderson shelter. It’s from WW2, but looks like it has been dug up and converted to a handy garden shed. This was common after the war had ended. The shelters date back to 1938 and were designed by Sir John Anderson each one protected six people from German air raids. I think that families must have been bigger then. The edition of Far From the Madding Crowd belonged to my grandfather, it’s bound in rather beautiful plum coloured leather with embossed gold lettering. I’m rather fond of the words from this transcript, we share some favourite books and I love the words ‘my life would have been less rich without reading’, so I have made sure that it is not obscured.

josieblogThis is Josie. I choose to put The Scarlet Pimpernel there because she describes it as the first book that ‘grabbed’ her. Aesthetically the colour and it’s battered state appeal to me.  This volume is in the Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 archive at Sheffield Hallam University.

mavisblog

The energy leaps out of the pages of Mavis’s transcript, if she ever sat down it was with a book. She seems to have read entire libraries, five books at a time, which is why there is more than one book in this piece of artwork.

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A Light To Read By

On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.

They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]

In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.

Brightside Library. The name was eventually changed to Burngreave but the building remained a library until 1990. It is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.

On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]

At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.

For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]

Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.  

  • Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
  • Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)

Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.

The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)

Example of lighting from Champneys’ Public Libraries (p. 19)

The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.

It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?

This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.

What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.

A sign in Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon, USA. Image by Frank Schulenburg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.

[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.

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