Earlier this week Dr Michelle Johansen gave a seminar for the Institute of Historical Research on the leisure activities of the Society of Public Librarians, based on its archive at the Bishopsgate Institute.
Too much information was shared in the two hour session to be represented fully in a short blog post, so what follows represents only a few of the things that struck me. I’m interested in the topic because I’ve been looking into the old Library Association exams, and, as one of the main organisations that functioned outside the LA in its early years, I was interested to hear Dr Johansen’s findings.
In the course of its 35-year existence (1895-1930) the Society included over twenty chief librarians working in London libraries and living across the city, mostly in its suburbs. Most members remained active for 5-20 years, and most had been born in London and then trained on-the-job in libraries outside the capital. (The complex history of establishment of free, rate-assisted libraries in London meant that while the Libraries Act 1850 led quite quickly to public libraries’ being established across the country, in the capital public libraries as we would recognise them today did not come into existence until the 1880s).
The men who formed the society were, as Dr Johansen put it, “simultaneous producers and consumers of leisure activities,” arranging lecture series and classes, book groups and salons, often staying on the premises late into the evening to support these activities. As a result of this, “the line between public and private” and between work and leisure is hard to draw. Dr Johansen also made the point that whereas for many people and groups of people, the home was the locus for leisure, for these men their workplace was the centre of their activities outside of work.
Of course, we are tracking their activities via the Society’s archives, so we have to remember that they may have also taken part in other common activities, such as attending the theatres, music halls and, later, the cinemas, been interested in sports and / or taken part in other social events in their local area, such as those centred around churches.
However, based on the evidence of the SPL archive and the length of time that members stayed in the society, it is safe to conclude that they were men who enjoyed what Dr Johansen termed “rational recreation.” There were three regular fixtures on the SPL social calendar: the Summer Outing; Winter Social and Annual Dinner. These involved a mixture of society business and social activities, and the archive contains group pictures of the librarians, their wives and families.
So, what were society members like? Read the rest of this entry ?