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Bookmarked - A Stroll Down Memory Lane.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane


To celebrate the launch our new blog, we invite you to join us as we look back at the history of Gloucestershire Libraries.

Our libraries have changed a lot over the years – and the libraries in 1920s Gloucestershire would have certainly looked quite different to their modern day counterparts.  They would have most likely been housed in schools for starters, with a headmaster doubling up as a librarian. The technologies upon which we rely so much today – PCs, online catalogues, printers, Wi-Fi – well…  many years will need to pass before we get to that bit.   But perhaps the libraries of yesteryear would not be completely unrecognisable to the modern reader.  Books were very much at the heart of the service back then, as they are today – we just no longer deliver them by train…


Public libraries in the UK:  A (very) brief history.

Public libraries have existed in the UK for hundreds of years.  Fun fact: Did you know that Cheetham’s Library in Manchester, founded in 1653, is the oldest surviving public library in the UK?  It was established thanks to the generosity of Humphrey Cheetham, a prominent local figure and textile merchant at the time. He left a generous sum of money in his will to improve the prospects of those living in the area, and they were gifted with a truly precious thing – a public library, and free access to knowledge.  Not all communities were as lucky though, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that public libraries became more commonplace – depending on whereabouts you lived.  They were largely absent, for example, in rural areas.

In the early days, many public libraries were run on a subscription model – that is, in order to use it, you had to pay a yearly fee to be a member, or buy some shares.  Access was restricted therefore to those who could afford it, and the majority couldn’t.  This was the case for a long time, but gradually, things began to change.

The first major shake up came in the form of the 1850 Public Libraries Act.  Through it, Parliament granted permission for local boroughs to levy rates in order to establish ‘free libraries’ for their residents to use.  This allowed more libraries to open, but there was a catch – only boroughs with 10,000 residents or more could propose introducing a levy, and the majority of the residents had to vote in favour of it.  Rural areas again, were at a disadvantage.  

Fast forward to 1919, and a new Public Libraries Act was passed.  The 10,000 residents or more levy rule had long been lifted by this point, and a number of new libraries had opened up, run by Borough Councils, improvement boards and parish authorities.  However, provision in cash-strapped rural areas was still poor and there was no real national framework of standards for public libraries – the services they provided differed depending on where you lived.  At this point, it was clear that reform was needed.  It was the dawn of a new post-war era and the first formal library school had just been established in the UK. Libraries were being taken seriously, and new, modernised service standards were needed.   All communities, from rural to city deserved to have access to an adequate library service.  Under the current infrastructure, it was impossible. 


County Councils and public libraries

In 1919, the new Public Libraries Act permitted County Councils to raise rates and take over the running of library services across their geographical area of administration.  The idea was to move away from borough and parish run library authorities, with the hopes of creating a more standardised, joined up service, and crucially, to open up new libraries in rural areas.  There was a snag however, for the County Councils. In order to call a library a County library, it couldn’t be a Borough library. This is where it gets a bit confusing.  Boroughs/parishes were under no obligation to hand over their existing library buildings to the County Council and they could carry on running their library as a separate (non-County) authority if they chose to do so.  Some Boroughs held on to their libraries, others wanted shot and gladly handed them over.  As a result, there were now free County Libraries, free Borough Libraries - and of course, Subscription Libraries still existed too.  Lots of libraries! And possibly a fair bit of confusion.  Another fun fact: In Gloucestershire, some town libraries were willingly transferred over to into County authority fairly early on, but Stroud District Council waited until 1929 to hand theirs over, and the Bingham Library in Cirencester did not reach an agreement with the County Council until 1960.


The New Public Library Pioneers

A few County Councils were looking into ways in which they could provide a County library service even before the 1919 Public Libraries Act was passed.  Remember, the act allowed County Councils to provide the service through the use of public money, prior to that, they could in theory try to provide a service without rate support.

Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Wiltshire were early pioneers in the County library movement.  They believed that switching to a County-run service would make libraries more accessible, and were keen to take on the challenge of designing such a service.  Gloucestershire had already formed a Library Committee, which held its first meeting in in 1917.  The committee members were optimistic that they could make a County service work.   There were just a few hurdles to clear first… 

Firstly, there was the issue of securing outside funding for books and staff, and secondly, there was lack of suitable buildings, particularly in rural areas.  Carnegie investments and funding had helped to build new libraries in towns and cities across the UK, but lack of investment in rural areas was still a massive problem.  Being a largely rural county, Gloucestershire needed serious investment to get started.

There was also the question of what this new, countywide service should look like.  Would they build new libraries? Repurpose old buildings?  If so, which ones? What books should be bought?  How would they be distributed around the county?  Who on earth would want to oversee all of this? 

The first librarian for Gloucestershire had a huge task on her hands!


Introducing Miss Cooke


Miss A.S Cooke had been appointed by the Gloucestershire Library Committee in 1917, prior to the passing of the 1919 Libraries Act, and was Gloucestershire’s first County Librarian.  Speaking at a function in 1969, she describes the situation the county found itself in at the time of her appointment.

 “As you will know the Carnegie Trust had given many thousands of pounds towards the establishment of libraries in the towns and especially towards the provision of buildings.  But up to that time nothing had been done for people living in rural areas.  And life in English villages at the end of the First World War was very different from what it is to-day.  There was real isolation – motor cars were few and far between, there were practically no buses - just the carrier’s cart going into town on Market days.  No television of course, and Wireless only at the Cat’s Whisker stage. Reading material must indeed have been scare – no glossy magazines, no Readers Digest, no Paper Backs.

The Carnegie trust were alerted to this matter, and set in motion a library scheme to provide books to the North of Scotland, and the Orkney and Shetland islands.  If a scheme could be implemented and was to prove successful in such a difficult and isolated area, it should be possible to replicate the success elsewhere.”

You may have heard of the Carnegie Trust, or more specifically, Carnegie libraries.  Founded in 1913 by Scottish born industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust helped to fund a number of charitable projects and causes at the time, such as the building of new libraries.  The Gloucestershire Library Committee made a successful bid to the Carnegie Trust, who agreed to fund their service for the first 5 years, under the expectation that it would be solely funded by the County Council thereafter.  By the time the 1919 Public Libraries Act came into force, Gloucestershire were already ahead of the game.

A librarian moves into Shire Hall.

In 1918 Miss Cooke arrived at her new office in Shire Hall, Gloucester.  She had been allocated two rooms on the third floor to work from, and it would be used as a storage and administrative base for the new library service.  Of course, no one had considered the practicalities of her job when allocating her space on the third floor.  All of the newly-purchased Carnegie-funded stock needed to be delivered to, and redistributed from… her office.   She recalls: “My biceps muscles became like a prize wrestler’s, as a result of heaving boxes of fifty books about!”

The problem of finding a suitable network of buildings to open up to the public had been solved – schools had been asked to share their facilities and double up as public libraries.

“The original plan was to send boxes of fifty books to certain selected schools, the headteacher acting as local librarian.  There were also to be what were termed Stationary Libraries, which consisted of small collections of children’s classics, and a few reference books, which would remain permanently in the school, while the rest of the books would be changed every quarter.

The choice of the school as the centre was inevitable at the time, as there were no village halls or other suitable places.”

In order to measure the success of their new service, the Library Committee needed to find out how many people were borrowing books from the schools, and which books were being read. Miss Cooke explains:

“Every book had to have a card written for it with the title and the author’s name, and the unfortunate local librarian had to enter the name of every reader on the appropriate card, and what’s more, his or her trade or profession.  With great pride I was able to say for example, that in one village, Connor’s ‘Man from Glengarry’ had been read by a farmer, a blacksmith, the station-master, the postmistress, a waggon repairer and three housewives!”

13,000 books were issued within the first 8 months. That’s many hours of card counting.    


The problem with schools

Schools were instrumental in the early days of the new library service, but perhaps it was inevitable that it would only be a temporary partnership.

Miss Cooke recalls:

“A few headmistresses regarded the books as possessions almost too precious to be allowed out of their site or run the danger of becoming dirtied.”  There was also an “all too prevalent idea that the Library was intended only for school children and their parents.”

There were also wider issues with the transportation of the books across the county.

“We used to send those dear old Venesta boxes to the various [libraries] by rail or carrier.  They took a woefully long time to reach their destination, and we used to have to call in a box from a centre before we could send out a replacement, for the simple reason that we had neither enough books nor boxes to allow for a double supply.”

Miss Cooke, the pioneer that she was, came up with a practical solution.  But it wasn’t to be.

“So I had, what I thought was a good idea, of sending the boxes out in a Ford van, which to save expense, could be used by Mr Household when he was visiting schools. Surprisingly enough, he thought little of the idea, and pulled my leg unmercifully in his paper on transport delivered to the conference 1920.”

Mr Household (the County Secretary for Education) was not impressed. “Miss Cooke suggested that perhaps the Education Committee could be persuaded to buy an open Ford car which could be used partly by myself for visiting schools and partly for the transport of boxes.  It behoved me to keep all my wits about me, for I have travelled in comfort for many years in a hired landaulette and I did not want that open Ford van at all.  What I asked, would be left of the car – of its paint, leather, springs, cushions – after a few journeys over the high, wild hills and rough, uneven ways of Gloucestershire in their post-war condition, with loads of twelve full boxes bumping about inside?”

Not everyone thought it was a barmy idea. Colonel Mitchell, secretary to the Carnegie Trust and good friend to the Gloucestershire librarians wondered if “a joint car or light lorry might be run in conjunction with Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset on the basis of common ownership, joint running expenses and a schedule of days available to each.” 

Of course, that was dismissed too.

With the van a pipe dream, the boxes continued to be delivered by train.  Miss Cooke did not have the luxury of a ‘hired landaulette’ like Mr Household, and had to make do with her old push bicycle.

But things were to get better.  In the post WW1 years, the first WIs were being formed and village halls were popping up all over the county.  Gloucestershire Libraries were gradually able to transfer their books out of the schools and to alternative buildings such as these.  

Miss Cooke left Gloucestershire Libraries in 1921, and went on to become the County Librarian for Kent.  She had enjoyed her time in Gloucestershire, but relished the prospect of launching a new library service all over again in a different county.  And there was no third floor office this time! 

It was in the basement instead.


Miss Cooke introduced the first library van to Kent, 1924.

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