On the 17th of October 1975 the books were on the move from the old library to their new premises in the former Co-op Emporium. An article in New Library World by writer/historian Alan Duckworth tells the story.
As we stand at winter's edge, trembling in its icy blast, the summer seems a long way off, a summer the finest anybody can remember, already legendary, and tales of it are already being told, but my tales of that time, should anybody care to listen, will be of how I moved a library.
Of course there were many months of preparation, and July when the move commenced might be likened to the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg that wouldn't have lasted long in the heat we had that summer.
When preparations entered their final stages, the old library began to show signs of the upheaval. Books lined the desktops and waited on trains of trolleys; long lost sequences were being reunited, or united for the first time in many cases. 'Little-used' items which had been boxed and taken away, had to be brought back again when they suddenly were in demand. Items came to light that had long been hidden: a lock of Dr Scaiffe's hair, the founder of the Peoples' Dispensary.
We got chance at last to see the new building. It was not new; it had been the town's Co-op Emporium, but the architects had transformed it. When all the scaffolding and tarpaulins were taken away, there stood revealed a magnificent edifice with tall columns of stone cladding that overtopped the roofline, in between were the ornamental effects of the original building and deep-set, large, square windows. Inside were fresh white walls, freshly varnished fittings and furniture, and carpets, carpets everywhere, carpets with that characteristic, new-laid smell as they baked in the sun. Ranks of field grey shelving were lined up, patiently at attention.
The old library closed its doors for the last time and staff reported for duty ready to get their hands dirty. Dress was highly informal and the functional and the fetching competed. It was good for once to feel the sweat of honest labour on your brow, to mine musty volumes from the old library dungeons, where mouldered the remains of defaulters and defacers.
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It was good to shout and swagger and become skilful with sack trucks and trolleys, to look on critically as electrical equipment was being installed and counters constructed, as though you were a real workman and had half an inkling of what was going on. Dormant skills were discovered and new vocations glimpsed at, but all those would-be wayfarers who listened starry-eyed to the tales of itinerant shelving erectors were safely back in the staff-room by tea-break time.
The nostalgia and sadness at leaving the old building were unexpected. It seemed a sorry place at the end; not bigger, but much smaller. There was a mournful echo and our voices rang harshly as we tramped the empty galleries.
There was as much overtime as you wanted and I was doing 70+ hours per week. All the shelves in the reference department had to be adjusted to accommodate the various sizes of the books. I became adept at dismantling and reassembling them. Was there going to be enough room? Was there was going to be any room for expansion; the trolleys of books waiting for shelving still stretched interminably?
There was enough room - just! And we were ready to open on the appointed day - just! At last the public had the chance to see their new library. They poured in. They queued and queued. They stripped the shelves bare and there were so many wanting to use the new study facilities in the reference library, many ended up sitting on the floor. People were voting with their feet and the new library was a big success. Of course the official opening with Prime Minister Harold Wilson was yet to come, but that's another story.
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At 4.00 pm on Friday 17th of October 1975 Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared Blackburn's new Central Library officially open. Speaking in the Hornby Lecture Theatre while angry textile workers demonstrated outside demanding higher duties on imports, Harold Wilson declared that those who claimed TV had killed the reading habit were wrong and that TV programmes actually stimulated an interest in books.
Librarian Brian Derbyshire must have been nodding at those words. In the past few weeks he and his staff had been struggling to cope with the demand. New members were enrolling at the rate of 400 a day, a twentyfold increase. Ten thousand new books had been rushed in from Preston to fill shelves depleted by enthusiastic borrowers. More would be needed as the unprecedented demand continued, with long queues outside the library even before the doors opened.
Originally the plan had been for the library to be part of a cultural complex with a new art gallery to follow, both to be linked to the public halls in Northgate. The art gallery has yet to materialise, but the library was enough on its own to win admirers. W J Murison, former Head of West Riding County, a service widely acknowledged as the best in the country, visited Blackburn in 1977 and recorded his impressions in the Library Association's professional journal.
Murison acknowledged the problems Blackburn had faced adapting to a pre-existing building, the former Co-op Emporium. He felt success had been achieved internally and externally. Large, square windows allowed passersby to see the relaxed atmosphere in the lending department. The skilfull use of glass, carpet, metal and timberwork had created a sense of smoothly relaxed functioning. Externally Murison admired how the 1930s brickwork had been concealed by pre-cast V-shaped stone mullions, while the attractive bas-relief work in between had been preserved.
The library was closed to the public on opening day. High security levels meant that staff had to be issued with passes. Food and drink for the visting dignitaries was laid out in the Reference Department, displacing reference staff; all other staff were at their stations, ready to field questions from official guests.
It fell to Mayor James Swanton to welcome The Right Honourable guest of honour. Councillors Leonard Broughton and the Rev. Royce Williams moved votes of thanks and Lancashire County Councillor, Daniel Hope Elletson, made a presentation to the Prime Minister. After his speech, Harold Wilson toured the building accompanied by Blackburn MP, Barbara Castle, and unveiled the commemorative plaque, before taking refreshment in the Reference Library.
Harold Wilson had another library to open in Bradford that day and after he left the official party dwindled and began to leave too. That gave the library staff the opportunity to sample the refreshments. It was a just reward for many who'd worked long hours and borne the brunt of a frantically busy opening. Some though took advantage, overindulging on expensive wine with unfortunate consequences.
Blackburn adopted the Free Public Libraries Act of 1850 in 1853, being the seventh town in the country to do so. No attempt was made to carry out the Act's provisions until 1859 when a room was made available in the Town Hall to house the library, and local historian W. A. Abram was appointed secretary and librarian. In 1863-4 the library moved to Town Hall Street into rooms belonging to the Exchange Company. In 1866 Abram resigned to become editor of the 'Blackburn Times' and David Geddes was appointed to replace him.
In 1874 a purpose built library was opened in Library Street. In 1889 Mr. Richard Ashton was appointed to succeed the late Mr. Geddes. Extensive refurbishment and building work was carried out in 1895 and the 'Cotgreave Indicator' was installed, by means of which library members could tell at a glance whether a book was in or out.
Blackburn Public Library Staff in 1910. Back row from left to right: Mr. Bentley, R. Parkinson, J. W. Thomas, W. Coupland, T. Thornber, W. Ashton and Mr. T, Metcalf. Front row from left to right: R. Ashton, Miss A. Backhouse and J. Hindle.
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In 1959 a further extensive refurbishment was carried out. Lighting was improved, the emphasis was on brightness and convenience. Red curtains woven and presented by John Duckworth & Sons were hung throughout. Earl Attlee, former Prime Minister and current President of the Library Association opened the revamped library. No amount of refurbishment however could disguise the fact that the building was being outgrown. Reference material in particular had long since expanded beyond the reference library into the cellar, into the attics, into odd nooks and crannies all over the building and into the administration building across the road. W. W. Yeates who was then the librarian began to campaign for a new building.
It took many years and Mr. Yeates was on the point of retiring before his campaign bore fruit. He had hoped that the library would find a home in the new shopping centre, but that proved impossible. Instead the former Co-op Emporium in Town Hall Street, opened in 1930, was converted into a £1m library, which opened on September 1st, 1975. The lending library, bibliographic services and workroom were on the ground floor. Children's and the Music Library were on the first floor and on the second floor was the Reference Library. Library services became the responsibility of Lancashire County Council in 1974 during a major shake-up of local government organisation.
The problems of declining issues and lack of use by younger people remained. To address these issues a major reorganisation and refurbishment has been carried out. Care has been taken not to alienate traditional users, but emphasis has been placed on appealing to younger people. Books are now arranged with the needs of the borrower in mind, rather than the convenience of the staff. A bright, stimulating and modern environment has been created in order to ensure that Blackburn Library remains successful and relevant for many years to come.
The 1980's were difficult times for libraries, bookfunds and opening hours were subject to constant cutbacks, but despite this Blackburn's new library was still popular with its users and issues were well above the national average. A more serious threat to traditional libraries emerged in the 1990's when PC ownership began to take off. The threat was twofold: PC use by younger people ate into their reading habits and the information provided on the Internet bypassed traditional reference resources. It was soon obvious that libraries were going to have to change or lose their role. Blackburn was not slow to respond and PC's began appearing in their libraries for public use from the early nineties onwards.
Another phenomenon affecting libraries in the 1990's was the boom in family history research. What had once been a very marginal activity was now the busiest aspect of local studies work. In acknowledgement of this at the end of the 1990's the reference floor was reorganised to permit an extension of the Community History Library and the creation of a Family Learning Centre.
The old Reference Library. This was taken around 1926. In the 1930's the library was inundated by borrowers, many of whom had been put out of work by the depression. There were queues before the doors opened, often stretching out into the street and people stayed all day long. The shelves were almost constantly empty, books were taken out as soon as they were returned. During 1930 the people of Blackburn borrowed 800,000 books.
The reference library expanded until it occupied nooks and crannies all over the building and in the admin block over the road. There were dozens of sequences and they ended and reappeared elsewhere in a bewildering fashion. The reference staff became an elite group, as only they could penetrate the department's dark secrets.
June Thistlethwaite and Fred Mather on duty on the Enquiry desk in the refurbished Lending Library in 1959.
The Children's Library. This department was opened in 1925, when Blackburn Library adopted the open access system and allowed the public to browse the books. The children's library had about 5,000 volumes.
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