In the 30s and 40s, Picture Post led the field in photojournalism, marrying great pictures with cutting-edge stories, sometimes light-hearted and sometimes deadly serious. Now that Westminster Libraries has bought the Picture Post electronic archive (available free to all members), it is easy to research a topic, so I did.
Public libraries are often in the news at the moment, often for unwelcome reasons, so I popped “public library” into Picture Post’s search box, with some startling results. There were mentions in articles and picture captions, but the most frequent mentions were on the magazine’s very lively letters pages.
I wasn’t very pleased to read a letter from Mr EF Bailey’s of Streatham in 1939, welcoming the fact that he could get Picture Post for 3d (just over a penny in new money), so he didn’t need to “queue up to read the expensive pictorial weeklies in the public library.” He went on to say that his wife could also read Picture Post for as long as she likes, “whilst I am away on business.” As long as she got the supper ready on time and did her lipstick, I suppose.
If I thought Mr Bailey was a one-off male chauvinist, I was put right by Olive Derricott of Snitterfield, who applauded proposals for mothercraft classes for schoolgirls. Olive married at 29, after a “fairly successful” business career. Then “I realised how stupid I’d been to learn so much about business and yet nothing about the most important things – homes and babies.” Instinct let her down, so she spent “no little time in public libraries”, making up for her ignorance of “home and family life… the backbone of any country, and is essentially a woman’s job.” I’m not making this up!
More encouragingly for libraries, George Shepperton from Cambridge, writing in 1941, decried middle-class morality, claiming that
“… the real figures of culture in a town are not the leading members of esoteric literary societies – but the ordinary… working man, armed only with a public library ticket, and a zeal for learning and culture which his economic status has denied him.”
The middle classes again got a kicking eight years later from ‘Book Buyer (name and address supplied)’, who hoped that the “passing of the middle classes” would lead to a “rising standard of literature”. His suggestion was that people borrow the books for immediate reading from the library, and use the money so saved to build up a good home library. (Which gives me the opportunity to observe that nowadays you can borrow your quick reads from the library and get your home library online from the same source!).
Defacement of library books has always prompted fierce condemnation, quite rightly. But just like Joe Orton’s notorious ‘revisions’, some defacement has raised a smile. Mr John Graham noticed in 1949 that the flyleaf of a book had been used for a rough draft of an application to join the Foreign Legion, while Scarborough Library suffered attacks by someone removing any mention of drink or large moustaches.
Oxford City Libraries did their own censoring, banning Picture Post for including a ‘pin-up’ picture of Anita Ekberg, condemned (or possibly praised) by one councillor as a “succulent popsy”…
Oh dear! This hasn’t really been much of an exercise in enlightenment!