The Edwardian library legacy of an Anglo-Pole

By - Wednesday 14th September, 2016

At the turn of the last century, a Croydon man, now forgotten, made waves in the socially transformative field of libraries

Photo author’s own.

“He saw libraries as a nerve center for the development of communities. His ideas may be a century old, but some things remain the same, even as we move ahead.”

Unrecognised here in Croydon, this is the assessment of its energetic innovator Chief Librarian Stanley Jast (1898-1915), by Dan Cherubin, the Chief Librarian of Hunter College in the United Statues (2014).

Born in Halifax in 1868, Stanley was the son of the exiled Polish army officer Stefan Louis de Jastrzebski. Stefan had joined the Polish Democratic Society in exile and travelled on its behalf in England and France. He joined the Polish Legion supporting the attempt led by Louis Kossuth to free Hungary from the Austrian empire in 1848-9. After their defeat, many Legion members escaped to Turkey. One of them, Józef Zachariasz Bem, converted to Islam and served as Governor of Aleppo.

Kossuth toured Britain in 1850 and 1851, and visited again later in the late 1850s including addressing a public meeting in Croydon.

Stefan and his English wife had two sons as well as Stanley: Bodgan, who became a doctor, and Thaddeus, a civil servant and chairman of the Croydon Liberal Association.

Stanley simplified his name to Jast in 1895. He started as a librarian in Halifax and then moved to Peterborough. He became an advocate of the Dewey system of classification – still used today to display books – and the open access system.

“While the revolution was in progress, an orgy of experimentation raged”

He became Croydon’s Chief Librarian in July 1898 and created a dynamic service with the libraries becoming workshops for new ideas: the card catalogue, the reference Library (in Braithwaite Hall) and information service, publishing The Reader’s Index: The Bi-monthly Magazine of the Croydon Public Libraries, lectures, reading circles, exhibitions of books and pictures, and liaison with local schools. “While the revolution was in progress, an orgy of experimentation raged”, recalled a former member of his staff.

After attending the American Library Association Annual Conference in 1904, he travelled around US libraries. Inspired back in Croydon he implemented more changes: recruiting a lady typist, holding weekly meetings of senior staff, and setting up a staff guild.

He became permanent Hon. Secretary of the British Library Association in 1905, and helped to innovate national changes.

In 1931, he introduced the first mobile library in the country

Stanley provided support and a base for the ‘Survey of Surrey’ photographic project. He co-authored The Camera as Historian (1916) based on the survey’s work.

He moved to Manchester in 1915 and became Chief Librarian there in 1920. In 1931 he introduced the first mobile library in the country. His new central library project opened in 1934.

He was a prolific writer, his pamphlets and books covering such subjects as: the Dewey Decimal System (1895); children as readers (1927); books for children in elementary schools (1928); and libraries and the community (1939). In the 1920s he gave talks on the radio, which were published as Libraries and living (1932).

Jast was a founder in 1916 of the Manchester experimental amateur dramatic society

A theosophist since the early 1890s, he joined the Croydon Lodge of the Theosophical Society in October 1898 and was vice-president from February 1900. He gave many talks to it and other lodges over the years, some of which were published in 1941 (‘What it all Means’).

In 1910 he met Ethel Winifred Austin, the Librarian and Secretary of the National Library for the Blind, whom he married. She died in 1918, and he married again in 1925.

He was a founder in 1916 of the Manchester experimental amateur dramatic society, the Unnamed Society. He wrote many plays which it performed, such as The Lover and the Dead Woman, and Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal).

“The perfect librarian does not exist”

He retired in 1932. He and Millicent settled in Twickenham in 1940 where he died on 25th December 1944. Poems and Epigrams was privately published after his death. Five days before his death he sent a subscription to C. C. Fagg, the Croydon-based organiser of the newly forming Council for the Promotion of Field Studies.

As can be seen from his speech at the opening of the Norbury branch Library in 1931, his views were forthright.

“The perfect librarian does not exist, never has existed and assuredly never will exist. But good librarians do, and better librarians may.” (1915)

‘The best inventions of America are librarians on the one hand and a martini on the other hand’

“Whence my belief that a fairly normal boy or girl can read anything that is literature without ill effects; at all events that to forbid books is likely to have effects that are worse. There is a natural disinfecting quality in the unspoilt imagination of youth.”(1928)

His droll sense of humour is best shown by what he said at the 1904 American meeting:

“The best inventions of America are librarians on the one hand and a martini on the other hand.”

As a result of Jast’s work, Croydon libraries were the model to be followed across Britain

He was an advocate of libraries, not only collecting photographs but also films about their area, which should be shown to the public. Early acquisitions in Croydon included Upper Norwood Academy of Music, the funeral of the late town clerk, and the Croydon Horse Show.

As the author of The Bioscope blog asks: “What happened to this collection? How long did it last? Was it ever used by the Croydon general public?”. None of them is listed on the London Screen Archives website.

As a result of his work, Croydon libraries were the model to be followed across Britain. His innovative, forward thinking approach was made possible because of a supportive Libraries Committee, even though it had budget restraints. There is lesson here for today’s Croydon councillors.

Hitherto unrecognised here in Croydon, a small display about him will be included in an exhibition about the Surrey Survey being planned by the Museum Service.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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