The Day The Library Closed

I’ve heard some queer stories of earlier days. The then librarian, Smith, when they held a Library Association meeting in Sheffield, I don’t know when, probably just after the war, he closed all the libraries so the Library Association people couldn’t see what they were like.

What’s the story here? What could the chief librarian, Samuel Smith, have been hiding from his professional colleagues? The anecdote comes from a former librarian looking back to the early 20th century, before he even started work in Sheffield.[i] You have to wonder if he was remembering accurately, whether the story gained in the telling and if there is any truth in it at all.    

In fact, as a little detective work reveals, it really happened, and it marked an unhappy time for Sheffield’s public library. It was in 1909, before rather than ‘just after the war’, that is, World War One. On Monday 7 June that year, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted in a report of ‘interesting items’ discussed at a meeting of the Council:

It is recommended that all branch libraries and reading-rooms close for cleaning, stock-taking, and staff holidays between July 1st and 16th, both dates inclusive. The Central and Reference Library will close from September 20th to 25th.

This seems straightforward. Who would object to a clean and orderly library? But when you realise that the dates for the Central and Reference Libraries did indeed coincide with a visit by the Library Association, for their 32nd national conference no less, you begin to wonder. After all, Sheffield had one of the oldest public libraries in England.[ii] The city was, moreover, responsible for the invitation to the librarians, and it greeted them with delight that September, going to no little trouble and expense on their behalf. You can read here about the glittering, white tie reception hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall, and there were other festivities. All this suggests considerable municipal pride in the ‘steel city’, reflected in extensive newspaper coverage. Take, for example, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 24 September 1909:

Sheffield’s Metropolitan Air. A Librarian’s Impressions

‘Are you satisfied with Sheffield’s welcome?’ Mr H R Tedder, the genial treasurer of the Library Association, was asked yesterday. ‘Satisfied?’ he reiterated, ‘No. that is not the word, but I should have to search the English language very extensively to find the right one. We have visited a good many towns, and one must not be invidious, but I can assure you that nowhere have we had a better reception than in Sheffield.’

He spoke in particularly high appreciation of the handsome scale on which the Lord Mayor’s reception was organised.

‘We have been extremely interested with our visits to manufactories,’ he said. ‘It is extremely educative for persons who have to deal with books to see our great national works, and discover that thought, poetry, philosophy, and everything that is elevating are not confined to books, but that there is plenty of thought, of poetry, of philosophy in business, and that just as noble and lofty qualifications are demanded in great commercial enterprises as in writers of books.’

Mr Tedder was particularly impressed by the character of the municipal life of Sheffield. ‘Londoners who live in a wilderness of bricks and mortar do not realise the great qualities of real municipal enterprise. It is true that London has now a number of boroughs, but it is in places like Sheffield that we really come face to face with municipal life.’

His opinions of the city’s public buildings do not accord with those of some local detractors. He was especially delighted with the Cutlers’ Hall. ‘It is as fine or finer place than any of the halls of the City companies in London. In Sheffield, too, you have quite a Metropolitan air.’  

It makes that week-long closure of the Central Library all the more incomprehensible.  

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

Incomprehensible until you know its condition at the time.[iii] Sheffield evidently felt that its pride, on national display, was at risk. The Central Library had been housed since 1856 in the former Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street (on the same site as today’s Central Library). The building, dating from 1832, was not designed as a library. Until 1896, when the new Town Hall was opened, the library service had been forced to share its premises with various council offices. At one time the council chamber had been located there, and the Mayor and the chief librarian had even shared an office, with the librarian presumably making himself scarce for important mayoral meetings.

By 1909, the Institute was too small even for its sole tenant, with the lending library particularly cramped. There was talk of rats. The building was in poor repair and dirty. What it housed was no better. The following summary of the review by Leeds’ chief librarian, Thomas Hands, undertaken for the Council some ten years later, gives a good idea of the problems becoming evident in 1909.[iv]

… book stocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind those which had proved to be necessary in other towns, that the only practical way of reforming the service was to start an entirely new system on modern lines. The recording of issues was archaic and cumbrous; a curious system of fine receipts, called forfeits, involving a considerable waste of staff time, was in operation, and what little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding. Thousands of books needed re-binding and many of those which had been bound had been chosen without reference to their condition or their suitability for further service. The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally. Outside lamps had not been cleaned for years, and the upper shelves in all the libraries were not merely dusty but in some cases were nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years.

The story was not all bad. Sheffield’s branch libraries – Burngreave, Highfield, Upperthorpe, Attercliffe, Park, Walkley and Hillsborough – were in relatively good order. With the exception of Hillsborough, a converted 18th century house, they were purpose-built, and Walkley, Park and Attercliffe were all less than 15 years old. In the Central Library, the reference and local history sections were thought to have good collections.     

Walkley’s Carnegie Library, opened in 1905

The evidence stacks up then. The Libraries Committee – led by Alderman W H Brittain, the President of the Library Association for 1909, assisted by the chief librarian, Samuel Smith – were laying plans as early as June to prevent the nation’s librarians inspecting what lay inside the Surrey Street buildings in September.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

We don’t know what the visitors thought about all this. There was a busy programme, with debates about cataloguing and the like held in the University of Sheffield’s Firth Hall and local visits, including to the great house at Wentworth Woodhouse. Mr Tedder, quoted above, didn’t mention libraries.

Perhaps he was being tactful. It was rather an open secret. On Tuesday 6 July, writing about the upcoming conference, the Sheffield Telegraph commented: ‘The city may have nothing to be proud of in the way of municipal libraries….’ By Saturday 28 August, with the conference less than a month away, the Independent noted a rather feeble excuse: ‘It may be mentioned that the Sheffield Central Library will be closed during the conference week, as the staff is to be in attendance at the University.’

A few days later, on 31 August, the Evening Telegraph reported the Council’s application to the Local Government Board to borrow almost £7,000 to buy the Music Hall next to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The plan was to use the hall as a temporary extension to the library and, in time, to build a new central library on the site. This smacks of desperation: the hall, built in 1823, was not remotely suitable, nor was it even very safe. It was just, well, next door. Under the sub-head ‘What Sheffielders Are Not Proud Of’, the Town Clerk, Mr R M Prescott was reported at length:

… the citizens of Sheffield were proud of their many public institutions. There was a strong municipal spirit in the Corporation and in the city, one evidence of which was the magnificent building in which they were then assembled [presumably the Town Hall]. They were proud of their University as a seat of learning. They were proud of their industries which had made the name of the city known all over the world. But when he came to the Central Library, their pride considerably abated, and he thought that Alderman Brittain … would not be particularly anxious to take the [Library Association] over Sheffield’s principal library building, nor would he be particularly proud in making any reference to it. The Central Library was absolutely deficient for library purposes for a great city such as this, and the building was altogether inadequate and inconvenient.

The Music Hall, used as part of the Central Library 1910-1934

The Library Association then never saw the Central Library in 1909, and Sheffield’s embarrassment was covered, more or less. Over the next few years, the situation worsened. While nationally more books were being borrowed, in Sheffield numbers fell. Criticism in the local press continued. By 1920, the pressure was intolerable. Samuel Smith gave notice and Thomas Hands was invited in, with the conclusions noted above. The Council hired a new chief librarian, Richard Gordon, and in turn he recruited a deputy, Joseph Lamb. Formidable, energetic and filled with the latest ideas, Gordon and Lamb turned Sheffield into one of the best public libraries in the country. One of their greatest achievements, begun by Gordon and finished by Lamb, was the city’s first, to date its only, purpose-built Central Library, opened in 1934. 

Sheffield Central Library today

This is the second of a short series of blogs about the Library Association conference held in Sheffield in 1909. Here is the first. With one exception, the invaluable British Newspaper Archive, the main sources are given in the endnotes below.


[i] The quotation is from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983), a copy of which is held in Sheffield Archives. If the copyright holder comes forward, we will happily acknowledge the source.

[ii] The legislation allowing councils to fund libraries was passed in 1850. Sheffield tried almost at once to open a library but there was opposition. Undaunted, campaigners tried again and Sheffield Libraries opened in February 1856, the first public library in Yorkshire and the eleventh in England.

[iii] How the library deteriorated, and why nothing was done for so many years, is a story for another time, although of course money is at the heart of it.

[iv] The quotation is from the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council) (p.29). Thomas Hands, the chief librarian of Leeds, undertook a review into Sheffield’s libraries in 1920 at the request of the Council. The decline he chronicled is generally understood to have set in around the turn of the century. A copy of the Hands report is held by Sheffield Archives. 

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