“Good Feeling and Brotherliness”: the Society of Public Librarians

February 2, 2013

publiclibraryEarlier 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? “All SPL men were intellectual explorers,” Dr Johansen asserted. As well as some of them enjoying outdoor activities such as cricket and rambling, there were artists and antiquarians with many also being members of archaeological societies. Most collected books and artefacts, often bequeathing them to their library when they died. We must remember, as chief librarians, these were the founding fathers of our public libraries in London, and, significantly, the local studies collections within them. Members spent a great deal of their time reading, often giving lectures and writing articles – their names are familiar to us from their writings.

In fact, librarianship provided these men with what Dr Johansen termed a “quasi-literary professional experience” – and, indeed, the lives she described chimed with the ‘Grub Street’ lives of the ‘literary London’ characters I’ve been coming across in my research into Walter de la Mare.

We were fortunate to have three current London Chief Librarians in the audience, and they observed that the life and leisure activities Dr Johansen described resonated with the conference-going activities of librarians today. One of the points that Dr Johansen made was that these men came into post as Chief Librarians in the 1890s and stayed in post until death or (late) retirement. In conversation with the Chiefs in the audience it quickly became clear that we can work out, with a few exceptions, three generations of Chiefs in public libraries. It is only in recent years that moving sector has become a real possibility, and so being a Chief was the pinnacle of a public library career.

Certainly in the period of the SPL, there was no higher posting to which members could aspire: without a degree, this was the limit of the expectations these men could have. Dr Johansen had adopted a genealogical approach in part of her work, and was able to report that the SPL members were mostly the sons of upper-working class fathers – skilled tradesmen like plasterers, for example.

As we move into a new era of government funding for higher education, with increased fees, it behooves us to think about librarianship as a career of opportunity for those interested in self-education in the era prior to increased access to HE. It’s something of which, I think, we should be proud within our careers, but something which we should guard against in future. Long may the MA LIS remain (a) the normal entry qualification for the profession and (b) within the financial reach of those with the interests and abilities to make good librarians … whatever their sector.

I should stress that the political views in the last paragraph are entirely my own: Dr Johansen did not discuss politics in her presentation.

If you are interested in the SPL, a book chapter is forthcoming in Residential Institutions in Britain, 1725-1970: Inmates and Environments edited by Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston, forthcoming from Pickering & Chatto in June 2013. You might also be interested in reading ‘A Fault-line in Library History: Charles Goss, the Society of Public Librarians and ‘the Battle of the Books’ in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Library History 2 (2003), pp. 75-91.


image: once St Giles Public Library, built in 1894 / tommylees, copyright commons, some rights reserved.


  1. Thanks for writing about this! I did want to go but couldn’t make it. I am hoping it goes up as a podcast soon. Looking at what you’ve said about your own research, it looks like you are indulging in a bit of “rational recreation” of your own. I’ll need to get my hands on a copy of your latest work on historical bibliography.

  2. […] 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…  […]

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