Happy National Libraries Day!
Ask any person on the street “What is a library?” and they will probably say something like “A public building with books you can borrow”. That is indeed the case, but a modern day library offers much, much more, and a library card is the key. How? It’s all down to the development of computers and especially the Internet and World Wide Web in the 80s and 90s.
Just a generation ago, things were very different. With no computers, 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 get posted reminders.
The library catalogue was a large set of drawers in which were inserted 5in x 3in 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 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 When new books were added or old books withdrawn, the cards had to be manually filed or removed.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 microfilm or microfiche. But it would still not show whether the books were in the library or on loan.
With fewer alternatives available, reading was a far more popular activity, and the library was so busy, especially at lunchtimes, that in 1952 Westminster dispensed with the Browne system. 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.
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 etc, often out of date even before being published. Some directories even came in loose-leaf binders so that update replacement pages could be supplied. [I remember it well. Ed.]
Westminster Libraries still lend books, but now you can browse the catalogue of all the branches from home or while out and about on your phone, check the availability of books and reserve them online. Not just for Westminster but also Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries too. You can renew items online and return them to any library in the three boroughs.
We no longer have gramophone records (or the cassettes which followed them) but we do lend CDs, DVDs and Talking Books on CD. You can even get something to read or listen to without visiting a library building at all, as we have e-books, e-magazines and e-audiobooks too.
When you visit ‘in-library’ there is more on offer than just what we lend. There may be reading clubs or writing groups, author talks, computing or English classes, careers advice sessions, and a range of health promotions. There may be children’s homework clubs and holiday reading clubs and craft events. It varies from library to library, but the website will have all the details – and if you follow us on Twitter – or just keep an eye on the right hand column of this blog – you’ll get updates on all our special events as well!
Those groaning shelves of reference books are much reduced now, replaced by public computers to use and study space with free wi-fi access. But don’t go thinking that there is any less information available – far from it! With the 24/7 library your library card gives you access to a staggering wealth of information for free on our subscription databases. Business information, the arts, family history and worldwide newspapers are amongst the resources available – much of it accessible from anywhere that you can get online and, as it says, available 24/7 – not just when the library is open.
People have predicted the end of libraries in our present digital, connected world. Well they may have changed in ways unimaginable a generation ago but they are still a thriving, valued part of the community. Who knows what changes another generation will bring? I expect and hope there will still be something people call a ‘library’. But will it contain books? – well perhaps the trend is already starting…
[Malcolm, who has seen and embraced it all in his 40+ years at Westminster]