150 years of Our Libraries (a.k.a. 155 years, 6 months and 22 days of Our Libraries.)

First things first: “150 years” is something of a miscalculation. The first public library (the Northern District Lending library, based in rented premises on Constitution Hill) opened 3rd April 1861 (a Wednesday, fact fans), hence the alternative title of this blog 155 years, 6 months and 22 days of our libraries.  The 150 years refers to the sesquicentennial of Birmingham Reference library, which opened on the 26th October 1866, the same day as the laying of the foundation stone at Gosta Green and the opening of Deritend library.

City Librarian’s desk, [L53.31 Photographs: Central Public and Commercial Libraries in Birmingham]

With that pedantry out of the way: what’s happened in those 155 years, 6 months and 22 days?  Well, the aim of this blog is to provide a recap of the events of the last 150 odd years to record notable events, the opening dates of branch and community libraries and other odd titbits of information.  I will say that there is a great deal more I could, and would like to, add to this timeline but the constraints of time see this very much as a potted history.

Like some kind of history-blog sommelier, I would suggest you pair this timeline with the gallery of images from our collections to be found here as many of the places and events mentioned below can be found depicted in the photos/drawings in the online gallery.

14 August 1850 Museums and Libraries Act passes into law allowing boroughs to charge 1/2 d in the pound towards buildings, furnishings, etc, to operate a library service and museum.  Perversely enough the charge could NOT be used to pay for books.
April 1852 Birmingham Corporation votes on a bill to adopt the Act which sees 534 votes for, 363 against (over 592 were needed in order to pass the bill). Showell’s dictionary of Birmingham says that is indicative of “so little interest” being shown in the act, I think that somewhat unfair given that the vote was only short of being passed by 60 odd votes.
1855 Museums and Libraries Act is adjusted so that borough councils could charge 1d in the pound.
21 Feb 1860 A second attempt to adopt the Museum and Libraries Act is put in front of the Corporation and this time it is passed.
19 Mar 1860 The Free Public Libraries and Museums Committee, instructed by the Corporation to see how the act should be implemented, meet for the first time.
3 April 1860 It is resolved by the committee to adopt the propositions of the sub-committee that there be “a central and reference library with reading and news room, a museum and gallery of art” and further “that there shall be four district lending libraries with news room attached”.

How this pans out is that the central lending and reference library were to be built on land attached and next to the Birmingham and Midland Institute.  The four district lending libraries were to be located roughly north, south, east and west of the town.  The four branch libraries were planned to be

“the northern district by St. George’s Church,
Southern district in the vicinity of Bradford St
Eastern district near to Gosta Green
Central Western District near to the town hall”

The Central Western lending library was always envisioned to form part of a central library building along with the reference library but in order to open the lending library as soon as possible, it would be in rented premises until that building was erected.

Bear in mind that at this time, Birmingham didn’t include any of the suburbs that would later be absorbed throughout the 1890s and 1900s, in particular as part of the 1911 Greater Birmingham Act, where many of the suburbs that now make up the City (Aston, Erdington, Handsworth, to name but a few) came under the jurisdiction of Birmingham, some bringing their own pre-existing libraries, some getting libraries as part of conditions of their joining the Birmingham Corporation.

3 April 1861 Constitution Hill library (Northern District branch) opens in premises rented from Mr. Cartland that were formerly used by a floor cloth manufactory.  The opening ceremony took the form of a 2 hour breakfast for 300 people at 10am and then a walk to the library (how very civilised) for the library to be officially opened.
11 January 1864 Adderley Park branch opens.  The gap of 3 (ish) years between the opening of the Northern Branch and the other branches was a result of the Council not being able to find suitable property to rent and instead erecting purpose built libraries.
6 September 1865 Central Lending Library and Reading Room opens, once again with a breakfast ceremony (held at Royal Hotel).
26 October 1866 Birmingham Reference Library opens.

Foundation Stone for Gosta Green Library laid.

Deritend (Heath Mill Lane) branch library opens.

1 February 1868 Gosta Green Library opens.
11 January 1879 Central Library burns down as a result of a workman trying to thaw gas pipes.  The vast majority of the contents of the library were lost (only 1,000 of 50,000 volumes were saved). It was reported that the mayor himself saved a number of volumes from the fire and he had to be physically restrained from trying to go back in to the building to save more.

Plans to rebuild the library were quickly and effectively put in to place with the new Central Library opening on 1 June 1882.  The Central Library service having operated from the council house in the interim.

1883 New Library at Constitution Hill opens – the lease on the previous premises having expired and purpose-built premises constructed.
1892 June: Bloomsbury Library opens.

August: Harborne Library opens.

1893 Jan: Spring Hill Library opens.

Small Heath Library opens.

1896 Balsall Heath Library opens.
1911 Greater Birmingham Act 1911 meant that the Corporation now added the following libraries to its charge:

From Aston: Aston, Aston Cross

From Handsworth: Birchfield and Handsworth

From Erdington: Erdington

From Kings Norton and Northfield: Bartley Green, Kings Heath, Kings Norton, Northfield, Rednal, Selly Oak, Stirchley

12 February 1914 Northfield Library burns down as result of a bomb placed there, along with several messages, by the Suffragettes.  A bundle of Surragette literature was found along with the message “to start your new library”.

The library reopens on 17 October 1914 and adopts the ‘experiment’ of open access, which allowed readers to handle the books before they borrowed them.  This had been standard practice in libraries in other regions for anything up to 25 years.

1916 As a result of World War I, the former ‘branch’ libraries (Deritend, Adderley Park, Gosta Green and Constitution Hill) close.  Adderley Park never re-opened as a library.
January 1923 Sparkhill Library opens.
02 October 1928 Ward End Library opens.
14 June 1932 Acocks Green Library opens.
5 September 1934 Perry Common Library opens.
30 December 1936 Yardley Wood Library opens, the Birmingham Mail rather cryptically says that the Mayor gave a speech stating “the whole and true case for public libraries … with almost epigrammatic felicity” .
15 March 1939 South Yardley Library opens, becoming Birmingham’s 28th branch library.
22 April 1952 Glebe Hill Library is the first to open as part of a scheme proposed in 1950 for several new branch libraries. The scheme called for new libraries at Glebe Farm, Quinton and Sheldon, California, Lea Hall, Woodthorpe Farm, Kingstanding and Tower Hill.  The intention is that in 1959 – 1963, Quinton and Shard End libraries will open, and in 1964 – 1971 libraries in California, Lea Hall, Woodthorpe Farm will open.  This timetable turns out to be somewhat optimistic.
15 May 1956 Sheldon Library opens.
11 August 1956 Temporary library at Shard End opens.
5 April 1961 Centenary Exhibition of books for the Reference Library was held in the Art Gallery (playing hard and loose with anniversaries again as the reference library didn’t open until 1866, as we well know…)  There was also a dinner for staff association, breakfasts apparently having fallen out of favour for civic occasions.
21 February 1961 Tower Hill (Great Barr) Library opens. This library was the third to open since World War 2 and partly due to cutting costs, and partly due to the decline in use, did not have a reading room, as previous libraries had.
12 April 1962 Hall Green Library opens.
11 June 1964 Kingstanding Library opens; a carpet was laid for children to sit to listen to stories read by the staff at the library.  This – according to the contemporary report in the Birmingham Post – was a novelty at that time.
24 February 1967 Shard End Library opens – the first community library to issue plastic library cards.  Futuristic!
12 January 1974 Birmingham Central Library opens.
11 November 1974 New Sutton Coldfield Library opens.
27 February 1975 Quinton Library opens.



3 September 2013

The plans to build a library to replace Birmingham Central Library took shape in the early 2000s when a plan by Richard Rogers for a library in ‘Eastside’ (by Curzon Street station) was nearly implemented.  A change in the political administration saw the abandonment of that plan and implementation instead of the Library of Birmingham, pretty much over the long since gone house of John Baskerville (foremost 18th century Birmingham printer).

Library of Birmingham opens with the opening ceremony speech given by Malala Yousafzai and continues to be open for business, with recent successes including the library being the biggest visitor attraction outside of London.

View from the Gallery

So, like I said, a whistle-stop tour of the history of Birmingham libraries.  Anybody wishing to find out more, please visit the Heritage Research Area on floor 4 of the library to see our collection of ‘library news cuttings’, a set of news cuttings covering 1871 to 2010, with the only notable gap being 1880 to 1904.  Researchers may also wish to see the complete set of Library Committee (and various related sub-committee) minutes that are held by Archives and Collections, see the online catalogue here.

Peter Doré


One response to “150 years of Our Libraries (a.k.a. 155 years, 6 months and 22 days of Our Libraries.)

  1. A wonderful collection of photographs and an timeline worth keeping!

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