Tag Archives: Old books

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

Quirky catalogues; beguiling books

Starting as Nottingham Subscription Library in 1816, what is now Bromley House Library had to find a way of organising and cataloguing its books. For the former, it didn’t have the option of choosing Dewey, the classification system used by the majority of public and academic libraries, because Melvil Dewey wasn’t even born at that point, let alone embarking on a career in Librarianship. So Nottingham Subscription Library created its own, using letters to denote subject areas and their subdivisions, then numbering the books in acquisition order. This classification reflects the interests of the time, with Theology being given priority and therefore the letter A, Philosophy split into two subsections so that Bb becomes Philosophy: Natural and Mathematical, and so it continues to F: Law and Politics, which also at one point included military strategy.


How to know whether the Library had a particular book? A catalogue was published, a slim volume of 61 pages, which started very importantly with the laws of the library, and moved on to listing the fines that could be imposed, enthusiastically one presumes, as the Librarian was allowed to retain a quarter of those collected. Then it listed the books, by classification, with an index, of sorts, at the back of the catalogue. Of course, given that the Library continued to buy books, the catalogue was out of date as soon as it was published. It did have the advantage, however, that each member could have their own copy to peruse at home, and by means of update, lists of books acquired during the year were part of the Library’s annual report.  The arrangement of the books on the shelves reflected that of the catalogue. Thankfully books retained their numbers, rather than it being a strict shelf mark, so the catalogue didn’t need to be updated if the books were rearranged around the Library. Successive catalogues were published until one of 1881, which then had a supplement added in 1894.  Then in 1899 it was decided that a Card Catalogue, a late 19thC innovation, should be produced.


Not an easy task, it would appear, and perhaps one started with more enthusiasm than skill, as the Librarian, Arthur Lineker, was constantly being asked to report to the Committee on its progress.  But it had the huge advantage that new additions could be slotted in as required. Author and subject catalogues were created but it was 26 years (check) before it could be reported that the catalogue was complete. No longer, however, did the members have a copy of the catalogue in their own homes.


And so a century passed, and Bromley House Library continued to use its own classification system and its card catalogue. Was there ever a time when Dewey was considered – if so, there is no record of that, although at some point the entire collections were renumbered. Then, after a decade of consideration, it was decided that a computerised catalogue should be created, and so BromCat was conceived. Software was chosen, funding followed up (Thank you, all you purchasers of lottery tickets) staff selected and volunteers recruited. The project was underway, all of the approximately 40,000 books were taken from the shelves, dusted if necessary, their contents considered and assessed and a catalogue record created for each one. Rare books were allocated for specialist treatment with very detailed records as the result.


So now Bromley House Library has a new catalogue, and those books which were favourites in the past and whose spines are too worn to enable the titles to be read are finding a new audience, and again each member (and non-members as well) will be able to access the catalogue in the comfort of their own home. But the classification system remains the same, so Bromley House Library still has its Dd section, Miscellanies, where you can find the ‘Social Life of the Chinese’, on the shelf next to ‘Practical Billiards’. Alas, the Library has not yet reinstated the Billiard Room that used to be here…


BromCat is expected to go online in May 2013, and will be linked to from the Library’s website at www.bromleyhouse.org.  


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Filed under Cataloguing project, Library History