Librarians of the past – a bit of research

I recently had a free access weekend on the Ancestry website in honour of the Coronation. I didn’t have anyone particular I needed to research but I wanted to make use of the resources, as free access weekends are not very frequent. I decided to search for librarians, because I was interested to know what kind of roles there used to be. Almost 13,000 results for the keyword ‘librarian’ were returned for the UK Census and 1939 Register. Many of the people in the records were simply described as ‘Librarian’ while others were variations of Borough, Council, or Public Librarian, sometimes paired with with Lending, Circulating, Reference, etc. Here are some of the more interesting roles I found, from skimming through the first 100 results:

Mabel Dawes (1908 – 1991) was a Hospital Librarian and lived in Feltham with a Branch Librarian, Irene Thornley (1916 – 2002).

Henry Wilson Robinson (c1846 – 1924) was Librarian at Bury Athenaeum, which was an educational and recreational institute in the town of Bury, Lancashire.

Jessie M Barrett (b1898) was a ‘Librarian for Music Rolls for Player Pianos’ who lived in Croydon. I thought it was a quite unusual role but then I found several more with similar titles on the 1911 Census. Player pianos (or Pianolas) used perforated rolls to automatically play tunes and were very popular in their heyday.

Marjorie C Mills (b1912) was described as a Chartered Librarian in 1939, presumably a Chartered Member of the Library Association, which was formed in 1877 and is now known as CILIP. I’m guessing it was a big deal for a woman to be Chartered in the 1930s.

Gwennie M Johnson (b1914) was a Cook Shop Librarian who lived in Finchley. Perhaps the role involved cataloguing a variety of baked goods?

Ella H Howarth (b1910) was a Librarian at W H Smith who lived in Harrow. W H Smith are best known for their shops selling books and stationery, but once upon a time, libraries were also part of their service.

Harold Bell (b1893) was a Librarian Assistant at Mudie’s in 1911. Mudie’s were a competitor of W H Smith and their selection of books was a byword for middle-class taste.

Philip Box (b1876) was a ‘Door to Door Librarian’ who lived in Staines. I was puzzled by the description and found several ‘Travelling Librarians’ in other records. Were these an early form of mobile library and who were they working for?

Dorothy Brown (1907 – 1976) was Head Librarian at Boots the Chemist who lived in Hornchurch, Essex. Boots are best known for cosmetics, pharmacy, opticians and photo services, but they also used to run libraries.

Constance M Stern (b1906) was a Children’s Librarian in Willesden. I encountered quite a few more children’s librarians (all women, of course) in my search. I discovered that Constance published an article, ‘Children’s libraries: why and whither?’ in Librarian and Book World, 1938.

Olive E J Perry (b1912) was a Picture Librarian for the Daily Express in 1939. She would have managed the newspaper’s collection of photographs, a role which for some organisations still exists today.

Edmund Gosse (1849 – 1928) was Chief Librarian of the House of Lords from 1904 – 1914. Although I knew he was a famous writer, I didn’t previously know of his librarian role.

Ernest H Lindgren (1910 – 1973) was a Film Librarian who lived in Barnet. He even has a page on Wikipedia, as he was the first curator of the National Film Archive (later the BFI National Archive) and wrote articles about the preservation of film.

Cyril J Davenport (1849 – 1941) was Assistant Librarian at the British Museum in 1881. I found further traces of him on the web, as he was an expert on book bindings and wrote on many other arts topics.

Edgar Phillips (b1892) was a ‘Travelling Librarian and Poultry Farmer’ in Surrey. Librarianship and poultry farming do not really seem like they go together, although perhaps it was handy to deliver eggs and books at the same time!

Quite often I encountered the blending of a librarian role with other occupations, for example, with bookselling, newsagents, caretaking, photography, clerk and postal services. I also found some listings of ‘librarian’s wife’, as if that were an occupation. I suppose it does have a respectable sound.


4 thoughts on “Librarians of the past – a bit of research”

  1. A fascinating sneak peek into the history of librarians. Would be interesting to know more, in particular I am curious about the traveling librarian. Have you read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek? Quite a tough role, I would imagine. And what about the cook shop librarian?

    1. Yes, I’ve heard of it although not read it. The cook shop librarian is the most puzzling of all. I’m afraid the details of some of these roles are lost to history.

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