One Of The Town's Few Outstanding Benefits (25 January 1974)
I have just read the Gazette report that the projected £200,000 extension to the county branch library in Westfield Road, Bletchley has been shelved – for the time being at any rate. To my mind, this is a great pity.
As far as I am concerned, the setting up of a full-time free library service in Bletchley has been one of the few outstanding benefits resulting from town expansion.
Not that I am a literary sort of chap. Far from it. “Literature” as such leaves me admiring but cold. I much prefer books whose main purpose is to provide factual information. For instance, in matters of the sea I would prefer Robin Knox Johnson to Joseph Conrad.
Even Shakespeare himself interests and entertains me not so much by his literary and dramatic art as for his value as a source of information about the mores, customs and thinking of his time and for his use of words which have since disappeared from common speech but are still preserved in dialects. Novelists are more interesting than their novels, playwrights are more entertaining than their plays and poets more surprising than their poems. In general, I like to know how everybody and everything “ticks”.
Having been brought up on library books, one of the first things I looked for on coming to Bletchley was the local free library. I found that there was one, but that it operated only one evening a week and had a stock of books to match. The only good thing about it was the voluntary work put into it.
The history of public libraries goes back to 1850 when Parliament authorised the raising of a half-penny rate by municipalities of 10,000 or more people for the purpose of building them. Five years later this limit was raised to a penny, with the power to buy books.
In 1897 Andrew Carnegie came in with magnificent financial help for building libraries and stocking them, though apparently the lower population limit was still 10,000.
It was not until 1919 that rural and semi-rural areas such as Bletchley had a hope of a public free library service.
For many years before that, however, most people had been able to read and in areas such as this the position had been eased just a little by small libraries run by churches, mechanics’ institutes and other bodies.
In Bletchley in the early part of this century the Mutual Improvement Society founded in 1894 had a library of 1,200 volumes as part of its services to its members. The society met at the Temperance Hall (now the George Street Community Centre) on Thursdays and the yearly subscription, embracing all services, was 2s. 6d.
There was also a “fair” library run by the Enginemen and Firemen’s Mutual Improvement Association at the old Coffee Tavern at Bletchley Station. This was operated in association with the United Kingdom Railway Temperance Union and was open to all “temperate” men. There were over 100.
In 1919, however, the government authorised county councils to undertake library provision for areas such as this and also removed the rate limit restriction. The Carnegie Trust helped with grants to the counties.
So it came about that a Bletchley offshoot of the county library was born in 1921. Room was found at the Bletchley County Offices for the running of a library by unpaid helpers for four hours a week. It is astonishing that, except for changes of venue, this was how the service continued for the next 30 years. For it was not until 1951 that a full-time branch with professional staff was opened in two of the front rooms of Holne Chase House, with 5,000 volumes. This was supposed to be temporary accommodation until a more central site could be found, but it was not until 1964 that the move was made to Westfield Road.
Those old voluntary workers for whom surely no praise can be too much, include Miss A. E. Milsom (21 years, many of them as librarian), Miss E. M. Wing, Miss C. M. Fowler (about 12 years each) Mrs M. Palmer, Mrs Townsend, Mr J. H. Fennell, Mr W. Crisp, Mr A. Murphy and a number of wartime evacuee teachers.
Man at the helm from 1949 to the opening of the full time library was volunteer librarian Mr A. C. Leonard, MBE, a former British Railways district auditor and Bletchley Home Guard officer. It is from an article written by him for the Gazette in 1949 that I have taken some of the foregoing facts.
I have heard a few grumbles about the library, but I do not think they have been justified. For instance, I have heard housewives complain that there is not enough light fiction. The big point to remember here is that the service does not exist for entertainment. It is run by the county education committee for education and reference purposes. Light fiction seems to be kind of a bonus, and not even as important educationally as the story books in the children’s section.
More serious are the grouses I have heard from student-age people that on making a casual call they have failed to find anything of interest which they have not already read. This could be so. But would that be the fault of the library or the fault of these young people in being too limited in their interests?
But the library, which is an area library as well as a local one, really does need extending in these days of previously undreamed-of area development. If not, it will slowly sink to the position of being barely more adequate for the population than the once or twice a week one was over 50 years ago.