Social Mobility Behind the Library Desk

Dr Michelle Johansen, Bishopsgate Institute


You are a boy born into a relatively poor household in mid-Victorian Britain. Little privacy. Few possessions. No servants. Your father works with his hands, as a miner, a plasterer, a carpenter, a labourer or a bootmaker. From a young age you’re an enthusiastic learner, keen to explore all kinds of subjects, from history and literature to natural history and science. In your own home there is little to read beyond the bible and a couple of volumes given as school or Sunday School prizes. By the time you’re thirteen or fourteen, your formal schooling has come to an end but you continue to educate yourself by attending classes and lectures got up by chapel or church groups, mechanics’ institutes or special interest clubs. You devour whatever literature you can lay your hands on – library books, ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap editions of the classics borrowed from other self-educators – you’re not picky, you just enjoy the acquisition of knowledge for and of its own sake.

In your early teens, you follow your father or grandfather into manual labouring jobs or you secure a clerical opening in the expanding white-collar sector, like your older brother. Perhaps a sympathetic teacher notices your ‘bookish’ tendencies and recommends you for a junior role in your local free library, one of the new rate-supported institutions opening across Britain? During the second half of the nineteenth century public librarianship (as office work) was viewed as a masculine form of labour. So you’re taken on as a boy assistant at Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool or Swansea public library and you make steady progress upwards through hierarchical workplace ranks during your teens and early twenties. By the time London responds – in the late 1880s – to the opportunity to establish free libraries using funding from local taxes (an opportunity first enshrined by law in 1850) your practical experience of librarianship in a busy urban centre means you’re ideally qualified to apply for a senior post in the metropolis.

You beat off competition from hundreds of other applicants to secure an interview for a top role at a new library in Lewisham in south-east London or Leyton in east London or Bermondsey in south London. Successful at interview, you relocate to the capital in your late twenties or early thirties. It is not an overstatement to suggest that in every sense your life is, thereafter, permanently transformed for the better. Maybe your library comes with accommodation attached and you move with your young family into a fourth-floor flat overlooking the West End (as at Westminster in central London) or a private apartment within Ravenscourt Park (as at Hammersmith in west London)? Whether or not you’re onsite round the clock, you spend your working days surrounded by books, able to support others from similarly ‘non-privileged’ backgrounds to access literature and learning. Before the introduction of labour exchanges and other welfare reforms of the early twentieth century you’re also in a position to offer tangible, practical assistance to men and women seeking work, for example. To extend the educational value of your institution, you arrange programmes of lectures, organise small exhibitions or establish a home reading union.

As the years pass, you become closely associated with your library and its informal learning and social work within the local community – work that you undertook originally with genuine enthusiasm because you knew from personal experience what it felt like to be thirsty for knowledge yet too poor to quench that thirst. Few outward signs of this early struggle remain as your career comes to a close in the 1920s and 1930s. With your headed notepaper, your book-lined office and your respectable dress, it is easy for casual observers to overlook your modest origins. It is understandable that historians might retrospectively neglect to appreciate that these origins must have informed your working life, particularly in the late nineteenth century when you entered the profession as a young and dynamic idealist determined to change the world.

Possibly, at that time, you were one of around twenty angry young London librarians who formed a trade union of sorts aimed at shaking up a conservative wider library world dominated by privileged private or university librarians? You called yourselves the Society of Public Librarians (SPL), and you initially made membership open only to other rate-assisted librarians both as a way of celebrating your comparatively humble intra-professional status and of levelling out an unequal professional playing field in the 1890s. Status, to you, evidently mattered less than solidarity since your affiliation to the SPL saw you passed over for key roles in the Library Association (at that time the largest and most prestigious occupational grouping open to you). With the passing of the years, you collectively became less hot-headed. When you got together with your fellow SPL members in late middle age, it was for social rather than campaigning purposes and people looking at this photograph of you on an improving day trip to the home counties in the mid-1920s might be forgiven for assuming you were categorically middle class.

Photograph of the Society of Public Librarians on a summer outing to Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire in 1925. Image courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute (Society of Public Librarians archive).

As Robert James has pointed out in a recent blog post on this site, public libraries today ‘hold a special place in people’s affections’ but their Victorian and Edwardian managers are less fondly remembered. Their early struggles, personally and professionally, have become submerged beneath a ‘them’ and ‘us’ historical narrative that positions them alongside their middle-class offsite managers in elite gatekeeper roles. My article for Cultural and Social History explores the typical upwardly-mobile public librarian’s mid-nineteenth-century working-class origins alongside his interwar middle-class endpoint in order to complicate our understanding of the lived experience of class and mobility in a free library setting in the long nineteenth century.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

SHS members can access the journal via this website here.

Read more blog posts by CASH authors here.


About the Author: Dr Michelle Johansen is Interpretation Manager at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. She received her PhD for her doctoral thesis on ‘The Public Librarian in Modern London (1890-1914): the Case of Charles Goss at the Bishopsgate Institute’ from the University of East London in 2006. Her latest article is ‘‘The Supposed Paradise of Pen and Ink’: Self-education and Social Mobility in the London Public Library (1880–1930)’, Cultural and Social History (2019).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *