Friday, May 5, 2017

Exploring the archives: Sheffield's first free public library

Frank Waddington's watercolour of Sheffield Central Library, 1934
Students in the School of English at the University of Sheffield are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme.  This year Mollie Littlewood is working with us at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library.  She is writing a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures.  This week she’s been looking at the very first handwritten Library Committee minute book from 1853 to uncover the origins of the library service in Sheffield…

The front cover of the first Library Committee minute book
at Sheffield Archives dating back to 1853
The job of establishing a free public library in Sheffield was undertaken by the Free Public Library Committee. The committee meetings were attended by the Mayor, the aldermen, the councillors and inhabitants of the Borough who were not members of the council. Sub-committees were also appointed to handle certain aspects of the project. For example a Book Sub-committee was established which controlled the purchasing of books for the library. There was also a General Reference Sub-committee which assisted the librarian and attended to the state of the library. The first meeting of the committee was held on Monday 19th December 1853. By 1856 a public library was open to the people of Sheffield. Sheffield Archives holds the original handwritten minute books of the Free Public Libraries Committee. These document the process of the establishment of Sheffield’s central library and branch network.

Mechanics' Institute, Surrey Street - home of the
original reading rooms of the public library.
The plan of the committee was to establish both a library and museum in the city; however, the library was prioritised. At the first meeting it was decided that a Borough Rate of one half penny was to be introduced to pay for the library. The library could have been located at Arundel Street on land adjoining the School of Design, however the site was rejected as ‘not sufficiently eligible’ with the feeling that a better site could be found.  Their judgement was correct as on 4th January 1855 the committee were offered two rooms in a building held by the Sheffield Mechanics Institute on Surrey Street – the same site at which the library is still located today. One of the rooms in the Mechanics Institute was already used as a library and so this formed the basis upon which to build the Sheffield Library. The committee went on to rent the entire ground floor and basement of the Mechanics Institute for the use of the library.

After finding a suitable site one of the first jobs of the Committee was to appoint a Librarian. An advert was put out in the local newspapers on 6th March 1855 for a Librarian who was ‘required to devote his whole time to the duties of the office and to act also as secretary to the Public Library Committee’. Fifty nine people applied for the role; Mr Walter Parsonson was appointed and he remained the Chief Librarian for many years. As the library grew in size and more rooms were rented from the Mechanics Institute, an Assistant Librarian, Mr Thomas Hurst, was appointed to help manage the workload.

The committee also drew up rules and regulations for the library, which included:

  • Library to be open every day 10-2 and 4-9:30
  • 'No person shall be admitted who is intoxicated or in an uncleanly condition'
  • 'No person shall be allowed the use of the library, without first obtaining the signatures and addresses of two ratepayers whose names appear on the Burgess Roll of the Borough'
  • No one under the age of 14 allowed in the Reading Room

The Librarian also reserved the right to delay the issue of books if he felt the need to enquire into the person wanting to loan the books, or their referees. There was also a restriction on how many items were allowed to be loaned out from the library. Readers could not take out more than one volume and one unbound periodical at one time. The books were also marked with letters A to I, similar to the system still used today, and all books could be kept out for 14 nights except for those marked with H or I. Also, like in libraries today, there was a fine if a book was not returned on time. In certain circumstances the penalty would increase to that reader being denied access to the library for an agreed amount of time.

The first handwritten minutes of the Library Committee, 1853
There were certain learning curves that the Library Committee had to go through in setting up the library. For example the Librarian kept a Register Book in which he wrote the number of the reader’s ticket when books were taken out. However it was noticed that when books went missing a lot of them had been taken out under wrong numbers.  Because of this it was decided that the name of the reader would be recorded in the Register Book as well as their number so it would be known who was not returning books. This system has evolved over the years to become the electronic library card system we use today.

These first three minute books (all bound together in one) depict a period of experimentation for the Sheffield Library in its first few years of existence. In 1857 there was an experiment to see if the working men of Sheffield would appreciate a public museum. Readers were allowed access once a week for three hours to the museum of the library and the Philosophical Society. However it was concluded that the museum would not get an increasing number of visitors because it was not sufficiently stocked, the objects were not sufficiently classified and that the room was too gloomy. It was felt that the money should be put into the library instead.

On 11th April 1856 a room in the library was opened solely for the use of female readers. A year later there was a suggestion they remove the female reading room and make it into something else, however it was seen as a positive that women had their own space to go and read. A report by the General Reference Sub-committee in the minute books observes that the room was being more frequently used. It is pointed out that if the room were to be made into something else the library would lose a large portion of its visitors as one quarter of books borrowed were borrowed by females:

The original reading room
‘were the room to be applied to another than its present purpose, the females would not only be deprived of a privilege which they duly value and avail themselves of, but by being denied the necessary accommodation, would in many cases be prevented from attending the library...’ 

The number of readers attending the library overall is documented as having increased every year since the library opening. However, even though the library was being enjoyed by the people of Sheffield, in the 1860 report the committee admits that the stock of books was still much lower than needed and that ‘many who desire to use the Lending Department are deterred from doing so by the difficulty of procuring the works they wish to read.’ They also report that the library was ‘insufficiently supplied with the current literature of the day’ and that they were without many of the standard works a public library should have.

The original minute book at Sheffield Archives
Although the committee reports that the library was insufficiently stocked, it was felt that more space was needed. In the 1859 report the establishment of branch libraries is suggested as it was felt that ‘the time will shortly come when better arranged and more spacious accommodation will be required for both readers and books’. The first branch library opened at Albert Terrace Road in Upperthorpe in 1869. There is still a library at Upperthorpe to this day, located in the Zest Centre.

The Sheffield Library service expanded considerably thereafter with branches being established across the city. The success of the original two-roomed public library, established over 160 years ago, is evidenced by the fact that the library network in Sheffield is still a busy, vibrant place where people use computers, attend events, meet people, conduct historical research and, of course, borrow books. It is thanks to the Sheffield Free Public Library Committee who set up the library system in 1853 - and whose every decision is carefully written out in hand in the many volumes of minute books at Sheffield Archives - that we have the modern library network we use today.

Mollie Littlewood

Source: minute book of the Sheffield Free Public Library Committee, 1853 - 1870 (Sheffield Archives: CA-LAM/1/1) - available to view at Sheffield Archives by request.

To mark its 100th anniversary, the Libraries Committee commissioned a short film about Sheffield Libraries called 'Books In Hand'.  This is available online via the Yorkshire Film Archive website and is well worth a watch: