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Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 13:40 UK
75 years of Sheffield Library
Sheffield Central Library
Sheffield Library and Graves Art Gallery celebrated their 75th birthdays in 2009

Sheffield Central Library and Graves Art Gallery celebrated their 75th birthdays in 2009.

The Grade II listed building on Surrey Street was opened in July 1934 by the Queen Mother (then the Duchess of York. The Duke of York could not make the trip because of a poisoned hand!)

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were given gifts from the City of Sheffield: miniature silver knives and forks for their doll's house so they would know they were using "real Sheffield cutlery" when playing at houses.

Previously on the site was Sheffield Mechanics' Institute and a Music Hall which was declared unsafe in the 1920s. Although the Mechanics' Institute had its own private library, avant garde Sheffield was the first place in Yorkshire and the 11th in the country to have its own dedicated lending library for public use.

Graves the philanthropist

Local mail order entrepreneur and philanthropist JG Graves contributed £10,000 to the cost of building the Library.

Stone carvings
Stone carvings outside the entrance represent academic disciplines

He also donated his art collection and £20,000 for the Graves Art Gallery in the upper tiers of the building.

A further £65,000 of public money was found to complete the project, which was designed by City Architect WG Davies. The building is a steel frame construction with brick inner walls and glazed marble on the walls in the entrance area. The stairs are finished with terrazzo.

An economic recession during the building's construction meant that progress was slow, and the original idea to expand the building had to be shelved. Indeed you can still see a striking difference between the white stone facing on the front of the building at Surrey Street, and the white toilet tiles on the 'unfinished' Arundel Gate side.

Sheffield Library Theatre noticeboard, 2009
Library Theatre noticeboard, 2009

The building is also home to the Library Theatre, tucked away down the side of the building. With the redevelopment of Tudor Square in 2009 it will also get something of a makeover. The area is now Sheffield's Cultural Quarter but when the library and art gallery building was built 75 years ago, the area was crammed with small cutlery works.

Stone carvings

The front of the building in graceful Portman stone features nine carvings around the entrance door which symbolise literature, music, drama, architecture, sculpture, painting, maths, chemistry and astronomy.

High up on the corner of the building is a large carving of an Egyptian scribe, symbolising Knowledge. The carvings were done by stonemasons F.Tory & Sons of Ecclesall Road.

Wooden turnstiles originally led into the main lending library. All issuing and returns were done by hand and librarians had to find the library tickets manually.

The original library furniture was oak and walnut with custom-designed wooden shelves and fittings. Much still remains, as do the art deco lights in the foyer. Nowadays the lamps take energy saving bulbs but their glass shades are the same.

Art deco lights
Art deco lights in the foyer

Cutting edge decor

The library had a cutting edge artificial ventilation system when it opened; a predecessor of air conditioning. The air was filtered, washed and warmed before being pumped into the various rooms through highly decorative iron grilles which are different in each room.

Unfortunately in the floods of June 2007 a lot of water came in through the grilles and damaged the shelves. Many art books were lost.

Ventilation system grille
The library had a cutting edge artificial ventilation system when it opened

On the floor behind the Information Library's reception desk is a small brown circular vent which was the vacuum cleaning system.

A suction plant in the basement was connected to all areas of the building with pipe-work. The cleaners connected their vacuum hose to the hole in the wall and vacuumed away! Neither the ventilation or the vacuuming system are used any more but the reminders are there.

The cleaners had a lot of brass-work to polish too. Most of the banisters, even in the stacks in the basement, are largely brass and there are decorative art deco iron grilles over the entrance doors.

The Newspaper Reading Room was located in the basement where the Children's Library is now. When the library opened in the 1930s it was a time of mass unemployment and there were plenty of people in need of somewhere warm to stay and pass the time. Men and women were kept separate in the newspaper reading rooms, there were no seats, and librarians had to black out the racing papers to stop people from hanging around too long!

During the war

In the Second World War library staff and the public used the library basement during air raids, and many female librarians were on 'fire watch' on the roof in tin hats.

Although the building itself was not bombed, Fitzalan Square nearby was hit and the aftershock caused the library foyer's marble floor to crack. The crack is still visible today and runs almost the full length of the foyer.

Crack in Sheffield library's floor
The crack in Sheffield library's floor was caused by a WW2 bomb blast

Some of the building's windows were also damaged in the war; their metal frames bent and buckled in the force of the blasts and Perspex is now in place over those particular windows to keep them secure.

The library became a central place for rations at that time, and many people who had lost their homes went there to get help. This service became the Sheffield Information Centre which continued long after the war when people realised that an information centre was not just a post-war need.

At one point in the 1970s, Sheffield Library was once the busiest in the country. Membership hit a low in the 1980s when there was no money to buy new stock, but in 2009 the library reported that numbers are on the up, despite competition in the form of music, films, books and the internet.

Books in the basement

There are six and a half miles of shelving in 'the stacks' (the basement). Two book lifts and a chute are used to transport the books from the stacks to the main library upstairs.

Sheffield Central Library
Sheffield Central Library

Also in the basement are six strong rooms holding rare, old and valuable books, including a lot of world renowned volumes on patents and metallurgy.

White lines lead to the strong rooms so that in case of fire, firemen can make their way there and remove the valuable books.

Visit Sheffield Central Library and the Graves Art Gallery on Surrey Street, S1 1XZ, 0114 273 4727

In pictures: Sheffield Library
29 Jul 09 |  History

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