Category Archives: St James’s Library

Forty years of change

Open doors at Westminster Music Library

Westminster Libraries is changing. Readers will be pleased to know that no libraries are closing and opening hours are not being slashed as has happened in some other parts of London and elsewhere in the country. But from April you may see fewer and different staff in your local library as a number of staff are leaving, retiring or switching libraries. Of course libraries need to change and evolve, just like any other organisation, if they are to remain relevant to people’s changing needs and to embrace technological changes.

As one of those staff who is retiring after some 40 years, I invite you to look back at some of the key changes in Westminster Libraries over that period.

Church Street Library 1969

When I started in the 1970s there were no computers in libraries. Most libraries issued books using the Browne system. Books had a pocket holding a card which gave the book’s number and author/title details. Readers were given a number of pocket tickets with their name and address details. They tendered one of these for each book borrowed and the book’s card was placed in the pocket ticket and then filed in a rack before (or behind) a date due marker. On returning a book, the racks would be searched for the matching card and the ticket returned. Returns and renewals could only be done at the library where the books were borrowed. Readers with overdue books would receive posted reminders.

St. Marylebone library book label and pocket

However in Westminster, the libraries were so busy, especially at lunchtimes, that the Browne system was too slow to cope. Instead readers were given plastic tokens which they handed over for all but the most expensive books. There was no record of who had out what books, so no overdue letters could be sent, but once a year each reader was written to and they had to produce all their tokens or pay a forfeit. This system was to last until a computerised management system was introduced from 1984.

City of Westminster tokens

The library catalogue was a large set of drawers in which were inserted 5 inch by 3 inch cards for each book – one filed by author, and one by title or class number. The catalogue would only show books at that library, and would not show whether the book was in stock or on loan. When new books were added or old books withdrawn the cards had to be manually filed or removed. By the 1970s new technology saw the introduction of a system-wide catalogue on microform, but it still could not show whether the books were in the library or on loan. This again had to wait for computer technology.

New books were selected from ‘approval collection’s or by visiting suppliers’ showrooms. Once supplied they all had to be catalogued, processed and jacketed so it might take weeks before they reached the shelves. Non-fiction books had their class numbers embossed on the spine in gold leaf.

Gramophone records at Charing Cross Library, circa 1950s

As well as books, readers could borrow gramophone records, although there were strict rules about their care. The records themselves were not on the shelves. Instead there were display racks of the cards from which borrowers made their choice and then exchanged the card for the recording – supplied in a carrying case.

Reference libraries had shelves upon shelves of atlases, dictionaries, directories, encyclopaedias and so on, often out of date even before being published. Some directories even came in loose-leaf binders so that update replacement pages could be supplied.

Periodicals room in Marylebone Library, 1940

There were no public computers, no Internet, no wi-fi , no DVDs… since none of these had yet been invented.

Computer technology has completely transformed all of this, as it has life and work elsewhere. Readers can issue and return their loans (at any of our libraries) through self-issue terminals without queuing at the counter. They can renew online at any time and keep a historical record of what they have borrowed. The catalogue can be searched online and reservations placed from home. E-mail notification lets you know when items are due back or reservations are available. New stock will appear on the catalogue when ordered in advance of publication and will be received, ready for loan, within days of publication.

Computers at Pimlico Library - gradually getting sorted

Those groaning shelves of reference books have mostly gone now, replaced by public computers to use and study space with free wi-fi access. But don’t think that there is any less information available. Far from it. With the 24/7 library your library card gives you access to a wealth of information for free on our subscription databases. Business information, the arts, family history and worldwide newspapers are among the resources available – much of it accessible from anywhere online and – as the name suggests – available 24/7, not just when the library is open.  E-books, e-audiobooks and e-magazines are also available online.

The library service has not just changed as a result of technology though. The present City of Westminster had only been formed in 1965 under the Local Government Act 1963. It was a merger of the City of Westminster and the Boroughs of St  Marylebone and Paddington each of which had had their own library service. So there was some duplication of services which have been rationalised since.

Some of the other key changes that have happened to the library service in the last 40 years include:

1974 Pimlico Library opens in Rampayne Street. opposite the tube station. The station itself had opened in 1972, a year after the Victoria Line had been extended to Brixton.

1984 Charing Cross Library starts its specialised service to the Chinese community with the appointment of a Chinese librarian.

1987 Paddington Library basement opened up as part of the public area, allowing the integration of all the reference stock and the reading room which had previously been housed in two separate buildings.

1987  Charing Cross Library is the first Westminster library to lend videos.

1995 Westminster City Archives building opened by HRH Duke of Gloucester on 2 March 1995, bringing together the archives & local studies collections from old City of Westminster, St Marylebone and Paddington boroughs for the first time.

1997 Great Smith Street Library replaced by St James’s Library in Victoria Street, next to City Hall.

1998 The Open Learning Centre at Queen’s Park opened on 1st June 1998. It became the Learning Centre in September 2009.

2000  The Government launches The People’s Network programme to link every public library in the UK to the Internet. Public access computers were installed and staff trained through the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL).

2007  Marylebone Library moved into the Council House next door.

2008 St John’s Wood Library expanded, with the basement being opened up to public use.

2010 New enlarged Church Street Library opens, with a teenage zone and learning centre. The library had operated from a former butchers shop nearby for 2 years while the building work took place, financed by £1.1m lottery money.

2010 New Pimlico Library opens in Lupus Street, joint with Pimlico Academy and Adult Education Centre. This replaced the original Pimlico Library.

2011 St James’s Library closed and a new ‘Express Library‘ opens in the vestibule of the Archives Centre.

2012 Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries come under a common Triborough management arrangement.

2013 New single library management system for Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries with a combined catalogue, offering access to all three boroughs stock to all members.

2013 Marylebone Library moved to temporary premises in Beaumont Street after the Town Hall was sold to the London Business School.

Of course it hasn’t all been expansion. Over the years we have also had to reduce, rationalise or say goodbye to some areas of service. Sheet Music has been concentrated at Westminster Music Library, where staff have the specialist knowledge to serve the music community. The closure of the medical library at Marylebone was seen as a casualty at the time, although digital access to medical information is now available through the 24/7 Library.  A mobile library was introduced and operated for a few years but was not replaced when due for renewal.

There have also been proposals and ideas that never got off the ground. Among these were plans in the early 1980s to close Maida Vale and Queens Park libraries and replace them with a single library in Harrow Road at the former Paddington Town Hall. Another proposal was to move Paddington Library to a floor above the Whiteleys shopping centre in Queensway.

Library book borrowing may be in decline nationally, but our users come to the library for far more than books. They may come to study, to use the computers for a variety of purposes – social media, on-line purchases, job-hunting etc. They may come for reading or writing groups, author talks, computing or English classes, careers advice sessions, and a range of health promotions. In some libraries they can now collect goods ordered online at Amazon lockers. There may be children’s under 5s sessions, homework clubs, holiday reading clubs and craft events. Libraries provide work experience training for secondary school children. Adults can feed back into the community by volunteering in our libraries.

People have predicted the end of libraries in our present digital, connected world. Well they may have changed in ways unimaginable even a generation ago but they are still a thriving, valued part of the community. Who knows what changes another generation will bring, but I expect there will still be something people call a ‘library’. It may even still contain books – the death of the printed word has been predicted but it seems to be still going strong at present. And there to help them will be someone they will refer to as a ‘librarian’ whatever their official job title may be, or indeed whether they are employed staff or a volunteer.


Read more about library history in some of Malcolm’s previous contributions to the blog:


Express yourself

Fiction at the Express LibraryCllr Melvyn Caplan demonstrates the self-service facilities at the Express LibraryWe’re very pleased to announce that the new self-service Express Library opened yesterday, on the ground floor of the Archives Centre, providing both books to borrow and ICT facilities to the residents and workers of SW1.

Councillor Melvyn Caplan, Westminster’s Digital Champion, visited the library on its opening day and had a go at using the self-service facilities.

ICT facilities at the Express Library

The library has utilised computers, shelving, stock and a self-service kiosk from the former St James’s Library, keeping costs to a minimum, and enabling us to provide a collection of books catering for both children and adults, alongside a small computer suite.


So long, and thanks for all the reads

St James's Library in Victoria Street - now closed.St James’s Library, Westminster’s most recently established library in Victoria Street, has now closed its doors for good.

We would like to extend our best wishes to the many warm and enthusiastic St James’s customers and hope that they will continue to use the library service through the other nearby libraries: both Pimlico and Victoria libraries are within a mile of the St James’s site. As before, items currently on loan from St James’s can be returned to any of Westminster’s other libraries.

A message from the staff of St James’s Library (soon to be staff at a range of other Westminster libraries):

“Many thanks to St James’s Library’s many loyal customers who came in yesterday with freshly baked cakes, snacks, bottles, chocolates and cards, bearing heart-warming thoughts about the pleasure they’ve found in using the library these past 14 years. To our lovely customers: See you soon at our new branches…”

Some of the words which cropped up more than once in their messages include: ‘outstanding’, ‘friendly’, ‘helpful’, ‘excellent’, ‘valuable’, ‘supportive’, ‘kind’ and ‘fantastic’. 🙂

You can read more about the decision to close the library on the St James’s Library page on the Westminster Libraries & Archives site.

Six books to take on the world

Suhad, the Six Book Challenge national prize winnerThe National Six Book Challenge Project, which runs for the first six months of the calendar year, was the occasion for celebrations in Paddington, Pimlico and St James’s libraries recently.

Participants in the challenge enrolled via Literacy and ESOL classes and community groups contacted through the libraries’ outreach activities, as well as in the Westminster libraries themselves.

Literacy and ESOL tutors at the classes are key to promoting the challenge and giving students support and encouragement to continue and complete the six books. Equally important is for library staff to maintain contact with both tutors and participants. The books used were from the Basic Skills Books collections which all Westminster lending libraries have developed and built up.

Nearly 300 people participated across the borough, either completing 6 books (completers) or between 2 and 5 books (participants) – each was then eligible for the appropriate certificate. All completers were eligible for the national draw for a prize, and there were also local draws for completers, with prizes generously donated by Westminster Kingsway College, The Vincent Rooms, The London Transport Museum, Sainsbury’s on Victoria Street and others.

At least 40 completers and participants attended the celebration at Paddington Library, along with a number of tutors and senior colleagues. One of our completers won the National Prize Draw and we were delighted that Genevieve Clarke, Senior Project Manager of The Reading Agency (which set up and administers the challenge) also spoke at the celebration. The winner’s story will also appear on the Reading Agency’s Six  Book Challenge website.

“When I went home and showed my certificate to my children and grandchildren they were contemplating how and what kind of frame to use to display my certificate. It felt like being a graduate. I had attended my children’s’ graduation ceremonies but never ever had I thought I would be part of something like that”.

“I thought we were just reading books to improve our English but to get a certificate was something totally amazing. I am taking this to show my Job Centre Advisor next time when I go for signing in.”

Linda Stratmann presents the certificatesThe crime writer Linda Stratmann (seen on the right in the picture), author of the book Whiteley’s Folly, kindly agreed to present the certificates at Paddington, and spoke to the assembled guests about the pleasures and benefits of learning to read confidently.

To round off the event, one of the completers read out her poem about the importance of being confident in English, especially if you are someone for whom it is a second language.

The last word must go to Suhad, our national prize draw winner:

Through my learning experience, I have felt that my knowledge has expanded as I have improved my reading, speaking and writing skills. This experience has opened my eyes in life because it helped me develop my understanding, therefore I can communicate better when travelling and exploring the world. Also, when I found out that I have won the ‘national prize’ I was shocked but at the same time proud that I have won because of all the hard work that I have put in reading all those amazing books. I didn’t only enter the competition hoping to win the prize but I wanted to enter a different world of stories in my mind. The one thing people must remember is ‘nothing is better than learning and achieving’.

[Laurence, Mahbuba, Sanja and Susie]

The civil servant, the actor and a library’s final summer

St James's LibraryYou may know that, sadly, St James’s Library will be closing on 23 August this year. But does this mean that the library will limp quietly through its final summer? Of course not!

As well as a full programme of children’s events for the Circus Stars Summer Reading Challenge, they’ve continued with their Customer Choice displays, showcasing the favourite books, films and music of a selection of customers and indeed staff.

Michelle English is one such customer. A prolific reader and a regular user of St James’s Library, she jumped at the chance to put together a display.

Michelle English“I try to read a range of genres and authors and am always looking for new ideas for books.
The staff and customer picks in the library is a great idea as it has introduced me to books I’ve never thought of and I hope I can do the same with my list.  It’s a bit like rummaging around in someone’s bookcase.

“My choices include Don’t Look Behind You (a safari guide’s story), Howard’s End is on the Landing (which is a bibliophile’s paradise), Jubilate by Michael Arditti (who is an amazing author I have just discovered, and I’m urging everyone I meet to read him), and The private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner (which has such an intriguing title you can’t help but be interested in the contents).

I’ve chosen books that I have read and reread and would be the ones I would choose if I ever get cast ashore on that fabled desert island.  I also wanted to choose authors and books that people might not have come across before and to try to select a range of genres to reflect the different books I love to read.  The hardest thing about this was narrowing my choices down to a short list!”

Michelle's display at St James's LibraryWhen she doesn’t have her nose stuck in a book, civil servant Michelle is involved in fringe drama. Her next outing, where you can meet her and tell her what you think of her reading choices, is at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden with Are You Lonesome Tonight? from 16 – 18 August.

Previous choices displayed have included: The Rats (“James Herbert portrays realistic characters, before having them eaten by giant carnivorous rats”); Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (“A terrific coming-of-age story set in Ireland in the late 1950s”); Sophocles’ The Theban Plays (“King Oedipus is the original whodunit”); Doctor Who: Masque Of Mandragora (“One of the best of the Tom Baker stories. And not so very different to the new series”); P.P. Arnold The First Cut (“A stylish selection from an almost-forgotten female vocalist of the 1960s”) and Beach Boys Pet Sounds (“One of the best albums ever made”).

Now in the spotlight

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell HammettIf you’ve visited St James’s Library in the last week or so, you may have seen their first ever Customer Choice display. It follows on from their previous customer noticeboard, where people would recommend books and make comments to share with others.

This time, an individual, regular user of the library has put together their personal choice of books to share with other readers. Stuart is a former lecturer in architecture (now retired) and a professional photographer who has exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Customer Choice display at St James's LibraryHis choices include On the Waterfront, Les Enfants du Paradis, The Maltese Falcon, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, plus works by Sappho and Henry Miller.

In a few days there will be another library user in the spotlight, and these displays will continue right up until the library closes later in the year. Come along and see the wide-ranging taste of the St James’s Library regulars!

The library staff have also really enjoyed finding out about the choices:

“Reading the recommendations and finding out why people have enjoyed something is a bit like having a silent conversation about books (or films, directors, music…)”.


Lessons for grown-ups

Did he really say that?

“I’ve been a keen ballroom dancer for many years but have only recently taken up formal classes in the evening. Treading the light fantastic is a wonderful social activity, as well as an enjoyable way of keeping fit.”

It’s Adult Learners’ Week 2011 and we’ve been running a plethora of events in Westminster Libraries – take a look at the list.

There have been taster sessions on a wide range of subjects, from photography to bee-friendly gardening, Reiki to a good selection of Internet-related topics (especially for those of us who went to school before computers became widespread. There was rumoured to be a single computer  in the sixth-form block at my school, but no one ever saw it!).

And there’s more to come:

The local (Westminster Adult Education Service) and national (Open University) experts in lessons for grown-ups have also been taking part, with advice sessions and open days.

Friday is also the 10th Anniversary of Silver Surfers’ Day, so you can get up to speed with iPlayer, Skype, Facebook and Ebay. And the whole 24/7 Library Gala Day at Marylebone Information Service is devoted to showing you all the online goodies you can get from Westminster Libraries & Archives, just by having a library membership card.

Did he really say this?

“Having not done very well at school (every class was a riot), I decided to retake my exams in my early twenties at night school, more for self-esteem than anything, and discovered to my great surprise that for the first time I was actually enjoying the learning process.”

Wondering about the portraits?
St James’s Library
is running a competition all week to win one of three great DVD subscriptions.
All you have to do is go into the library and laugh at match the staff portrait to the learning experience (closing date 12.30pm on Saturday 21 May).
These are just two examples – and no, they don’t necessarily match!

So if you’ve been thinking about getting involved in learning, formally or informally, libraries are a great place to start – especially this week.