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Birmingham Central Library 1879 - 1973

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Old Central Library, Edmund Street facade

The Birmingham Post published an article on the Monday after the fire describing the sense of loss:

The whole town suffers under a sense of severe, personal sorrow; the calamity is one that pervades every household, and that will reach as far as Birmingham men are to be found all the world over.

Two days later the Free Libraries Committee opened a subscription fund, eventually this amounted to more than 5,000. The new Council House provided temporary accommodation for the Central Library service.
The building and the bookstock had been insured for 2,000 each.

Rebuilding the Library

The shell of the original library and the pillars which had supported the roof had survived the fire, so the new design was based on these. Plans for the new library were approved by the Council in May 1879. The Lending Library and the Newsroom were to be on the ground floor, and the Reference Library and Shakespeare Library on the first floor. The exterior was much embellished. The estimated cost for rebuilding was 2,000, but the final cost with all expenses taken into account was nearly 5,000.

The new Central Reference and Lending Libraries opened in June 1882. The fire had attracted great publicity, and there were many generous donations to the library. The Library has continued to add to and acquire collections since that time; for example books and other materials relating to Birmingham and Warwickshire from Samuel Timmins, the library of the Reverend Thomas Hall given by the parish of King's Norton, the Benjamin Stone collection of photographs including the Warwickshire Photographic Survey donated by his son.

Some staff worked in the library for most of their lives. The man seated on the left is almost certainly J.D. Mullins. He had become librarian of the old Birmingham Library, a private subscription library, in 1858. He was appointed Chief Librarian of the Birmingham Free Libraries in 1865, and stayed there until he retired in 1898.

There was throughout a strict hierarchy, and formality about relationships between staff on different grades. In 1897 F.J. Thacker wished to change his day off. His letter began, 'Dear Sir, I beg to apply to have my half day changed...'

Eighty years later in the early 1970s library staff remember that junior assistants dreaded requests for Early and Fine Print books. These were kept in the City Librarian's Office. Such a request meant finding a senior member of staff, as only they were allowed to contact the City Librarian's secretary. The junior assistant would then go to the Chief Librarian's room, and climb up a ladder to retrieve a large volume from a glass-fronted press, being studiously ignored by the City Librarian all the while. Although on one occasion someone carrying The Song of Solomon, with 'artistic' illustrations, was instructed by the Chief Librarian to cover it with brown paper.

In the early years of the library there were no female members of staff. Whilst many women had to work for financial reasons, it was not considered the norm, especially when she got married. 'Young girl assistants' were first employed in the Central Library in 1904. Over the next two years there were letters of complaint to the Mail for various reasons - 'two or three of the girls are having a gossip' or 'the climbing work certainly cannot be healthy for them'. In their defence it was stated that they were 'business-like and courteous'. It was also suggested that it was better for women to have low-paid jobs; a woman would not need a career as she would get married! Women first appear in photos of 'Senior library staff' in the 1920s.

For a number of years the Libraries Committee included statistics relating to users' occupations. In 1910, just before the city was greatly enlarged, the estimated population was 570,113. Many 'Occupations of Borrowers' were listed - Birmingham was the city of a thousand trades. There were nearly 15,000 'scholars and students'' and over a thousand teachers. There were 3,904 clerks and bookkeepers, 590 engineers and machinists, and 387 jewellers and goldsmiths. More individual professions, where only one was listed included a Jew's Harp maker, an Artificial Eye Maker, and a Well Sinker.

A 1905 article in the Birmingham Daily Mail describes some of the 'eccentric characters' the reporter has seen, or heard about: '[There] was a man who, day after day, would ask for some book, which was purely the creation of his own distorted imagination. When told there was no such volume in the place he would make a great fuss and swear that it had been removed from the catalogue purely for the purpose of annoying him. Another complained bitterly and persistently that the Midland Institute clock was out of order, and seemed aggrieved because the Library authorities did not trouble to set it right.'

However, most of the users were probably more conventional. In a 1904 Daily Gazette report: 'One sees a quick-stepping messenger from a solicitor's office intent on unearthing a point of law, the next minute a mechanic searches the shelves, and reaches down a bulky tome on engineering, and there are students, both young and grey-headed, pencilling as they read as though life were at stake'.

The first Birmingham Central Library

The opening of the third and present Central Library

The present Birmingham Central Library