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.
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.
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.
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 When new books were added or old books withdrawn the cards had to be manually filed or removed.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.
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.
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.
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: