UK Public libraries in the mid 1900s, before
I have not been able to
find a librarian who remembers the old system. So the descriptions here are purely from my own
childhood observations, although they were probably just as valid (or
otherwise) for some years
before and afterwards. If you can supply further information or an illustrative photo, please
get in touch!
It is important to understand the mindset of the
1940s: People needed something to escape the horrors of wartime. There were very few magazines; and newspapers were restricted to two pages.
Yet people could escape into books. So libraries were the palaces of dreams.
As a child growing up in the wartime Britain of the 1940s, and then as a
teenager in the 1950s,
computers were still in the future. This must have meant that keeping track
way. For example, public libraries seemed to organise their loan system
extremely efficiently. To describe how requires descriptions of readers 'tickets'
- as today's library cards were called - and
the inside front covers of the library books.
Readers library tickets in the 1940s and 1950s
I was never short of books in the early 1940s of
World War Two, but I suppose they were all hand-me-downs as I can’t
remember a public library in Edgware. There was a private subscription
one called Gainsborough Libraries, but my mother said we
couldn't afford to join – which she said about most things at that time.
It was tiny, above a shop. I understand that Boots the chemist also had
subscription libraries above some of its shops.
In the late 1940s and
probably into the 1950s, there was a mobile library which came round the
streets of Edgware once a week. It was no bigger than a large caravan, so its stock
was very limited indeed, although it was changed frequently.
In the late
1950s, Edgware got a purpose built library on the site of the
British Restaurant. My
parents and I used it a great deal.
There were public libraries in World War Two. I remember them in Fore Street and Hounsfield Road, Edmonton.
Mobile libraries of the 1940s were probably due to permanent libraries
Subscription libraries charged sixpence (old money) per week per book and catered for the middle classes who did not want to handle a book that had come from a public library as it might carry some contagious disease. Such were the times.
To join the local public library, we had to show some form of
identification to confirm that we were in a household which was
contributing to the library by paying rates - the precursor of council tax. We were then issued with library tickets.
(Yes, tickets, not just one card.) We then became 'members of' or 'readers
at' the library.
My recollection is that every adult member
had two tickets for fiction books and two for non-fiction (factual) books, but this may have
varied from one council to another. My family was in Edgware, north London,
My reconstruction to show the style of a a readers public library ticket -
formed of folded card and stuck at the bottom to form a pocket.
(My local county library checked its stock
but no longer had an actual example to photograph.)
The two types of ticket were of
different colours and children's tickets were of yet another colour. The
tickets were made of folded card, stuck together at the bottom to form corner pockets.
They showed the reader's name and address; whether the ticket was for fiction, non-fiction
or children's books; and the name of the library.
inside front covers of public library books in the 1940s and 1950s
Library books were instantly recognisable from their inside front covers.
My reconstruction to show the features of the inside
front cover of a
public library book before computerisation.
(My local county library checked its stock but no
longer had an actual example to photograph.)
Glued to the bottom left of the inside cover was a pocket very similar in
style to a
reader's ticket, but giving details about the book
to which it was attached. Inside the pocket was a detachable card giving the same
details. On the right was a glued sheet giving details of the library and
showing the 'due back by' date stamps from previous loans.
Borrowing and lending in a public library in the 1940s and 1950s
Choosing a library book was normally a matter of just browsing the
shelves, although books could be reserved at a cost.
Once we had found a book we wanted, we took it to the librarian at the
desk. She - yes, it always seemed to be a 'she' in those days - first took
our readers ticket and then opened the front cover of the book. She
took out the loose card in the fixed pocket and slotted it into the readers card. Then she stamped the date sheet
to show the date
when the book was due back. This was normally a fortnight ahead. We then
took our borrowed book away with us.
A drawer of library cards on the desk of a library -
screen shot from an old film.
The librarian filed the readers card (of information about the borrower) containing the
book card (of information about the
book) under the date that the book was due back.
The filing cabinet must have been a perfectly ordinary card filing cabinet,
but all I ever noticed was the current drawer which had been taken out of
the filing cabinet and placed on her desk. There were dividers in the drawer
separating out the dates.
A fine of 1 penny per day was imposed by public
libraries for ‘late returns’ of books.
At the start of the war, we children were asked to bring to school any ‘unwanted’ books from home, and badges were awarded to children who donated the most books. These books were pulped down
for newsprint, such were the dire straits that country was in.
When the fortnight ahead came round, if the book
had not been returned, some sort of additional card must have been slotted
into the readers card to notify that a fine was due. I have a vague
recollection that reminders and fine notifications were sent out by post after six
weeks, but I am not certain.
To return a book, the procedure was reversed. The librarian noted the due
date from inside the front cover and so located the readers card in the
drawer of the
filing cabinet on her desk. She removed
information about the book, slotted it back into the pocket of the book and gave back
our readers ticket. With this, we were able to borrow another book.