The Diary of the Human Race: 150 Years of Birmingham Reference Libraries

Rachel MacGregor, Lancaster University

 On 26th October 2016, Birmingham Reference Library celebrated its 150th birthday, and its story reflects the story of public libraries from across the country which, since then, has been about providing free access to information to everyone, regardless of their age, gender or background.  It was not the first public library in England – that honour went to Salford Royal Library and Art Gallery – but it was from the same imperative which followed the Free Libraries Act of 1849. This allowed local authorities to raise a tax to build public libraries. Where Salford was swift to act on this, Birmingham delayed. After a strong campaign on both sides, the first attempt to raise a tax to fund a library for Birmingham failed; and it took a further ten years for those in favour to convince the electorate to vote for the tax and bring libraries to Birmingham. One of the most prominent proponents of the public libraries movement was George Dawson, preacher, reformer and radical, who preached a “civic gospel” from the pulpit of the Church of the Saviour.  In his congregation was the young industrialist and soon to be politician Joseph Chamberlain, later mayor of Birmingham and later still, one of the leading figures in British politics.  From Dawson he learnt and then promoted the values of using the gains of industry to invest in the local infrastructure to provide water, gas, art and culture for the ordinary man, woman and child.

Ahead of completion of the first purpose-built library, the Free Libraries Committee found a warehouse to use for this purpose on Constitution Hill, close to the centre of Birmingham and at the heart of its manufacturing district, the Jewellery Quarter. Around 300 people met for celebrations in the city centre and then processed to Constitution Hill – led by the mayor Arthur Ryland – where addresses were given by Ryland, George Dawson and others.[1]  Dawson’s presence lent weight to the occasion:  as a leading intellectual and cultural commentator, this imbued the moment with a great significance:  Birmingham as a cultural centre, as a place of both art and industry, had arrived quite literally in this converted warehouse alongside the railway line in an industrial quarter of town.  The first book was issued on 22nd April 1861 and in the first year 5,422 borrowers enrolled, who could choose from just 6,288 books.[2]

Of the 300 or so borrowers who joined in March 1862, the biggest single occupation given was jeweller; there was also a large number of clerks, schoolboys and schoolgirls.  We know the name of the first library borrower: William Craddock.  He was 32 years old and worked as a gun stocker.[3] He was exactly the sort of person who the library was designed for – a working man, engaged in one of the city’s 1000 trades, keen to improve his lot through education and learning.

The warehouse was replaced by a purpose-built library opened in 1865 in advance of the eagerly anticipated new Central Reference and Lending Libraries.  The Lending Library opened its doors on 6th September 1865, followed a year later by the eagerly anticipated Central Reference Library on 26th October 1866.  The Chief Librarian appointed was Mr J D Mullins, and yet again George Dawson was present at the opening.  His inaugural speech survives: “A great library contains the diary of the human race… there are few places I would rather haunt after my death than this room and there are few things I would rather have my children remember more than this.”[4]

Disaster struck the Library only a few years later. On Saturday, 11th January 1879, a fire broke out during building operations. It spread rapidly and only 1,000 of the Reference Library’s stock of 50,000 were saved.  The fire services were in attendance, but were too late to save the Reference Library although about 10,000 books from the lending library were rescued.[5]  The Lord Mayor , who was dining nearby at the Town Hall, apparently personally helped with rescue work, but most of the library’s collections were utterly destroyed.

John Langford, editor of the Birmingham Gazette, local historian and sometime poet wrote:

Oh Vulcan! ruthless fierce destroying god

Not e’en the homes of learning wilt thou spare

But on the immortal essences of men

Thy sacrilegious hand to lay wilt dare”[6]

The effect on the townsfolk was devastating, but they were not without a fighting spirit.  A mere three years later on the 1st June 1882, the second Central Library was opened with an inaugural ceremony in the Town Hall; an opening address was delivered by the Rt.Hon. John Bright, MP.  In sharp contrast to the earlier reluctant efforts to establish a library for the town, a huge fundraising campaign was mounted to replace the books lost – including another Shakespeare First Folio to replace that lost in the fire.

The Library was a great success and it served its town (later a city) and country well. At the outbreak of the First World War thirty-six men from the library service signed up to fight, of whom 6 were killed in or just afterwards.[7]  Percy Garner (24) and Thomas Riley (25) were both killed on 22nd July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme at Delville Wood.  They and Henry Checketts (30) were serving in the 14th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1st Birmingham City Battalion – “Birmingham Pals”).  He survived the battle in which his comrades Garner and Riley were killed, but died on 3rd September 1916 during the attack on Falfemont Farm, along with 800 other Birmingham Pals. Frank Izard (27) worked at the Central, Birchfield and Handsworth Libraries.  He was also in the Birmingham Pals and died at the Battle of Passchendaele on 4th October 1917.  Two members of staff died after the conflict as a result of the injuries they sustained:  William Reeves (Army Service Corps) and Charles Wells (Worcestershire Regiment).[8] [9]

The war brought changes for the female staff in the library.  In July 1914 there were 95 male clerical staff and 13 women, but by 1916 there were 38 male clerical staff and 37 women. The library was keen to stress that the men’s jobs were to be kept open for them, but the library as a workplace for women was well and truly established.  The first female member of the library staff was Mrs Mary Elizabeth Comber, employed at Adderley Park Branch Library in 1883.  She earned £1 a week, wheras her male equivalent at Deritend Library was getting 42/- a week.

From the late nineteenth century, more women appear on the staff with Miss L M Welch in 1899 employed as an assistant at the Reference Library at 15/- a week (less than her male counterparts), followed swiftly by Miss Ada Death, Miss Emma Cousins, Miss Clara Taylor and a number of others.  The employment of women was not met without criticism. A correspondent in the local press wrote:

“Sir – I wonder if any of your readers ever find cause to complain of the attention they receive from the girl assistants at the Central Library? It is quite a usual thing to see five or six people waiting to be served while two or three of the girls are having a gossip, or otherwise wasting time.  If they are summoned by one of the male assistants to attend to the counter they pay not the slightest heed until their gossip is over.  They go for the books as if time were of no consequence…”

The chief librarian responded that Alderman Fallows had visited the United States and had seen the example of employing “girls”. Manchester library, ever the rival, had also been employing women.  So, not to be outdone, Birmingham engaged young women as assistants.  The librarian explains that “there is much to be said for the innovation” because there are not enough senior positions for the number of junior positions which exist – he suggests that many boy assistants find themselves out of work when they reach the age of 21.  This practice of laying off boys either at 16 or at 21 was commonplace – this is because juniors could expect to be paid about 5s a week, whereas more senior members of staff maybe 15 or 20s a week.  The librarian goes on to say that for girls, the situation is quite different as girls are not looking forward to a permanent career – “they are quite content with their positions at the library, and there is always the thought of orange blossom… then of course when the girl gets married there is another vacancy.  On the other hand when a man gets married he is doubly anxious to get a more secure and remunerative position.”[10]

In the early twentieth century there was a campaign by both male and female staff members to admit women to membership of the local Library Association branch, which was women’s route to more senior roles.  By the 1960’s there are references to women from ethnic communities being employed by the library[11] although the first female head of the library services was not until 1989 with the appointment of Patricia Coleman OBE.

As the century progressed new ideas developed, such as “open access” whereby users helped themselves to the books from the bookshelves.  The old building became increasingly unsuited to modern library services and the campaign to build a new library began to take shape in the 1920s.  By 1938 the Council had approved a plan to build a new library for the city, but war broke out, followed by further delays, meaning building work did not begin until the 1960s.  By this time, the accommodation was cramped and storage woefully inadequate.  The new Central Library was scheduled to open in September 1973, but a strike delayed the opening, which finally took place on 12th January 1974. The Rt Hon Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition, officiated.  At the time of its opening, this building was reputed to have been the largest non-national public library in Europe.  During the following decades improvements were made, especially following a (smaller) fire in the early 1990s, and in 1998 public internet access was established.

By this time, again changes in library service provision led to calls for a new library for the 21st Century.  Various options were explored, but the eventual design was awarded to the Dutch architects Mecanoo, and built on a site adjoining the Birmingham Rep. The Library of Birmingham was opened on 3rd September 2013 by human rights campaigner and adopted Brummie Malala Yousafzai.   The Library remains a symbol of the proud 150 year heritage of public library provision in the city of Birmingham. At a time when public library services are more under threat than at any time in their history, we remember and celebrate the traditions of free education and learning provision for everyone which public libraries provide.

[1] Birmingham Daily Post 5 April 1861

[2] Annual Report of the Birmingham Free Libraries Committee 1861-2

[3] 1861 Census

[4] Inaugural Address by George Dawson MA, Borough of Birmingham Opening of the Free Reference Library, 26 October 1866 (Birmingham, EC Osborne 1866)

[5] Birmingham Daily Post 14 January 1879

[6] ibid

[7] for images see

[8] Birmingham Library Staff Memorial Album: War Service (Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)

[9] Birmingham Free Library Committee Minutes 1916 (BCC/1/AT/1/1/11 Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)

[10] Birmingham Daily Post 23 March 1906

[11] Birmingham Mail 1960 (from Library Cuttings Album 4, Birmingham Archives and Collections)

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016


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