I have just discovered that my first library has been demolished. This adds to my list of personally significant buildings that exist no more. My primary school, secondary school, the building where I studied for my PGCE, the hospital where I was born, all vanished into building rubble.
Is someone telling me something I wonder? I was looking for a photograph of the library, which was part of Tredegar Workman’s Institute, because I wanted to illustrate this blog. My mother was a passionate user of the library and I suspect that I travelled there with her before I was actually born. I certainly remember being taken in a push chair and then as I grew older, being abandoned into the “Children’s Library”, a separate room where I was usually alone, avidly browsing, getting the next “Swallows and Amazons” or “Biggles” book.
You see, my mother told me that libraries could find you any book that you wanted. Of course there are some that are simply not available, but I did not know that then. It was simply the magic of being able to ask for anything at all and it would be found – “requesting” a book. The other thing that I did not know at the time is that the library did not ring up the one in the next town and say “have you got a copy of War and Peace? We have completely run out here and we have a customer who wants it”. In fact, I still find it extraordinary that libraries do not do that.
Now, of course, I know better. The ability of local libraries to find a book for a reader in the 1950s and 1960s was firmly based on a well organised system called “Interlibrary Lending”. In the UK this was done on a regional basis, geographically close libraries forming an organisation where books could be lent and borrowed from one library to another within the region. There were approximately 15 of these regions which held “union catalogues” of the books that were available to loan.
In fact the regional organisations did a little more than sharing their stock with each other. Sharing the alphabet between them, certain of the regions collected one copy of each book published to hold in reserve. For example, the East Midlands collected the work of authors beginning with G to J. This was known as the “Provincial Joint Fiction Reserve”. There was also the “Inter-regional Subject Coverage Scheme”, collecting non-fiction and sharing by Dewey Decimal numbers. So, the East Midlands saved all the non-fiction books with the Dewey Decimal numbers between 400 to 499, and 800 to 899. I chose the East Midlands as an example because my first library job for Derby City Libraries was in the building where these reserves were held. Sadly, these reserves are no more.
Each region had a hub which held their union catalogue of the books available in each library of that region. The hub received the messages from a requesting library, found which library had the book and passed the message on. The book was usually transported from one library to another post or by a network of library vans. The cost of this service was paid for by the member libraries subscribing to their regional organisation. Obviously things have changed dramatically, and a reader is now more likely to consult Amazon or Google Books if they want to read an obscure book. However, I think that the interlibrary lending regional system was a wonderful example of the organisational skills of librarians. They achieved a network across the UK when anyone could have access to the information they wanted.
If you want to know more about the Regional Organisations and other details of Interlibrary Lending up to the 1990s then there is a really useful thesis by Patrick Wanyama on Loughborough University Institutional Repository.