Let’s protect Croydon’s pioneering libraries

By - Wednesday 24th August, 2016

Libraries nurture the mind of man – let’s protect our heritage, says Sean Creighton

Norbury Library. Photo author’s own.

“The library was in some ways superior to life itself. We are limited by our three score years and ten, but books extend our horizon to the furthest boundaries of history, nay, and far beyond, for has not the speculative mind of man marched with the stars and written of the growth and decay of universes?”

This was one of the key messages of Stanley Jast, President of the Library Association, and former Chief Librarian of Croydon (1898-1915), at the opening of the newly built Norbury Library on the corner of London Road and Beatrice Avenue on 30th May 1931.

Let’s hope that when Croydon Council Cabinet members consider the outcome of the current library review, they remember that a key challenge is to ensure the continuance of the network of libraries that their predecessors proudly built. The first library had been opened in two rented shops in North End in March 1890, with 6,399 books in stock. In the year ending of March 1931 borrowings and consultations were up to 1,673,558 books.

Norbury was the fifth library building in what was then the much smaller Croydon Borough area before its merger with the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District in 1965.

Croydon shines and has shone for a good while

Its opening was the culmination of years of campaigning by local residents, especially the local London County Council Tenants Association. The Croydon Advertiser’s editorial of 6th June commented: “it required a battle to bring in the public library but nowadays there is no institution, probably, of those which are charged on the public funds more generally accepted as a boon and a blessing to men. As with other instruments of good, much depends on its administration. In this particular Croydon shines and has shone for a good while, so that we have ever with us an agency designed for enlightenment being itself enlightened because informed by the enlightenment of its administrators”.

The decision to build a new branch library at Norbury was taken by the Council on 14th January 1927. The subsequent annual reports of the Library Committee reported on progress. By November 1929 everything was ready to proceed, so the council agreed to seek the Ministry of Health’s permission to borrow the money. The response was speedy. In an imaginative move, it did not wait for the library to be built. The following February it opened library facilities for all Norbury children at Norbury Manor School. The number of books issued during the first month was 2,829.

At the time the councillors were proud of Croydon’s pioneering of library services. The town had been only the second place in the country to adopt the open access system. It was one of the first to introduce the current classification method, replacing the system of coloured and shaped label.

Early library advocates proclaimed the importance of providing both first class and ‘rubbish’ literature

A lot of thought had also gone into the design of the new library. The shelves were designed to ensure that no one had to stretch up to the top or stoop to the bottom. ‘The newsroom is unique in being the first to be opened with newspaper stands at which readers may sit, the slope of which the newspaper rests being adjustable to the sight and convenience of the reader’, said an observer of the time. As well as the junior library area, there was also a story hour room which children could use to do their home work.

Jast praised the progressive nature in his time of the Libraries Committee, and the ‘remarkable staff’ he had had working for him. Of Berwick Sayers, his successor at Croydon, he said that he “was one of the most widely known and distinguished of modern librarians, under whom the library had not only maintained but increased its great reputation amongst public libraries in this country and abroad”.

The library debate taking place now centres around the future role of these buildings, as reading print books seems to be on the decline. Jast proclaimed the importance of providing both first class and ‘rubbish’ literature, stating that: “the librarian who filled his library with only the best in literature and declined the second and third rate would speedily find […] his circulation going down by leaps and bounds, and it would be remarkable if his committee and himself were not smothered under by complaints as to the shocking supply of books. Most of us are second and third-rate people. We have second and third-rate minds and even the few who flatter themselves that they have first-rate minds have their second and third-rate moods. Our libraries must function; the public must be reasonably catered for and the basic proposition that it is better to read than not to read is a sound enough generalisation even if one only reads rubbish”.

In terms of the wider information role of libraries, Norbury had three shelves in the reference section of holiday literature, including guides and maps.

The council should remember Tony Newman’s promise not to close Norbury or any other library

Hundreds of local people turned out for the opening despite the rain. On the first Monday, 1,200 books were issued. Within less than three weeks 7,985 books had been issued and 3,000 tickets applied for. The junior branch had 319 ticket applications and 3,549 borrowings.

The first floor has a lecture hall capable of holding 130 people. At the opening Alderman Peter said that this was “something which had been badly needed in their part of the borough and already there had been several bookings”. It has not been used for many years. The local Norbury councillors’ promise in the 2014 local election to re-open it has not yet realised.

So let us hope that when the council’s cabinet considers the future of the libraries it confirms leader Tony Newman’s promise not to close Norbury or any other library, and that it be underpinned by a modern progressive approach to the role of libraries as multi-information hubs and for community activity.

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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