Tag Archives: Gas lighting

Old books were new books once…

Musings of the Librarian

When we think of old libraries our first image is of rooms full of nice old books, so we easily have an image of a Victorian library looking much as it does today. We forget that it was full of the latest best sellers, because what we consider to be today’s classics were once that. Their spines were bright, not faded from time and sunshine, and dirtied by years of coal fires and the early gas lighting. There were multiple copies to keep up with the demand, and members were not always patient about having to wait their turn. Black and white photographs, or faded sepia, give us no image of the vibrancy that there would have been, with the new books all on display, the magazines with their colour prints of fashion etc, and Punch magazines with their cartoons on current events.

One at least of our grandfather clocks was purchased new, and we had the latest scientific equipment in the form of the barometers, the Wind dial and our Meridian line.  Our members requested that telephone be installed for their use as soon as it was available. The proportion of new books to old would have been much in the favour of new books too, the balance being somewhat different now as those new books have grown old alongside the library. So, when we look at the past, let’s not do it filtered by a black and white photograph, but remember that what is old now was once new and the latest thing. We were then, as we are now, both scholarly and popular, catering for a diverse clientele, and looking forwards as much as backwards.

Outside, Nottingham was busy and bustling too, with a market in Market Square, and frequent events taking place there, often photographed from our parapet. Maybe this is why ‘Members are not allowed on the roof without permission’?  There were businesses and clubs on the premises then too. Members of the billiard club would be coming and going, and the person employed as a marker did get drunk on the premises more than once. One hopes he didn’t meet the members of the ‘Ladies Bible Class’ when under the influence….

NTGM012431 Market and BH

Photograph courtesy of Picture the Past, approx. 1890


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Filed under Book collections, Library History

Musings in the dark

As the electricity was off for a couple of hours this morning, the Library, open for business as usual, was lit only by natural light. This led inevitably to thoughts of what it would have been like here prior to electric light being installed.

 The Librarian’s job description in the first 1816 catalogue, states that the Librarian shall have ‘the immediate care and inspection of the books, fire, candles, and everything else relating to the library-rooms and furniture’.  This remained described as candles through to 1853, but in 1864 the reference changes to ‘lights’.  Given that the library was open until 9pm in the evening it must have become quite dark during the evenings, and on winter days.   


We know that in 1868 pendent gas lights were installed in the building, but certainly in one of the attic rooms you can still see the old wall mounted gas light there, and behind a panel near the double doors into the main reading rooms the piping and taps remain, hopefully disconnected.


Electric light arrived in 1899, and however dim it would seem to those of us used to the brightness of modern bulbs, it must have seemed wondrously bright, if a little harsh, to those used to the softer gas lighting. Not immediately provided for the tenants – Mr Middleton, in his photographic Studio, asked permission to install electric lighting in 1906 – ‘with due precaution being taken with respect to fire and damage to the building’. The committee was concerned about fire, purchasing a rubber pipe to connect to the water main in 1886, and also 6 hand grenades for fire fighting. You can also still see the holders for these around the Library. The fire hose was put to use in 1914, when a small fire did start up in the Studio…


As for coal fires, there are a few people who remember those in existence in the library, with somewhat more affection from the members than from the staff, who had to carry the buckets of coal up. Some rooms were cold though – the Thoroton Society very kindly offered their room for the use of the committee during a spell of very cold weather in 1952. At that time coal was still rationed. The flaps above the bookshelves are a legacy of the attempt to keep coal dust off the books.


So, the gentleman in the window seat is reading there not to enjoy the view whilst he muses, but  to get a better light on his reading material…


 Russell spiral stair

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Filed under Library History