Harrogate Library of 50 years ago

The public library September 2011. (S)
The public library September 2011. (S)

GIVEN the profound changes experienced by Harrogate Library over the past 50 years, I invite readers to step back in time with me to the Easter of 1963.

Then, Harrogate Library was run by Harrogate Corporation, and just as everyone knew the name of the town clerk, the borough treasurer, or the superintendant of parks and gardens, so everyone knew the name of the borough librarian and curator – John Stuffins. This meant that the chief officer could be accountable to the public, who might encounter him – and in those days they were all men – or, perhaps more effectively, their families, in town.

John Stuffins was an imposing six foot tall man with a mass of silver hair that gave him the look of an old testament prophet. He was responsible not only for Harrogate’s libraries, but also the art gallery and the Royal Pump Room Museum. In 1964, he ran all three establishments with only one other professional member of staff – the reference librarian – an appointment he had originally opposed, due to his dislike of staff who might think for themselves rather than obeying his orders.

Like all professional librarians who had been educated in the shadows of the great Victorian Library boom, and the hard times of the early 1930s, Stuffins believed that public libraries should be people’s universities, where ordinary people not privileged with University educations could access the finest products of the human mind. Consequently, books were bought to last, rather than to satisfy fashionable demand or whim, and the idea of a library sale would have been regarded as a sign of incompetent stock-buying and squandering of scarce resources. With John Stuffins, there was no dumbing-down in a pathetic attempt at populism, as he had too much respect for human intelligence to compromise standards.

Stuffins also disliked book jackets, claiming that they were just publishers advertising gimmicks, and that as with people, “one should always judge a book by contents, Neesam, and not by cover”. (He despised the free use of baby names, as the humanist Stuffins referred to “Christian” names).

It was during my last month at school that my parents spotted an advertisement in this newspaper for a junior assistant at the library, and after a three-way conversation – not involving me – between my parents, my headmaster and the borough librarian, it was decided that I should apply for the position, with a view to seeing if I liked the work sufficiently to enter Leeds University’s Department of Librarianship.

After being awarded the post, (mainly, as I later suspected, because I had expressed admiration for a Thomas Shotter-Boys engraving on Mr Stuffins desk, and admitted a familiarity with Schubert’s songs!) I entered Harrogate Library as a junior member of staff. At that time, the main entrance doors opened to reveal a long broad entrance hall which ran down to a set of steps (still there) beyond which was the lending library, which was about one third the size of the present ground floor department, but with about three to four times more book stock.

To the left of the entrance hall was the big reading room, which was lined with oak partitions that overlooked a series of long library tables on which were placed the library’s periodicals.

Around the four wood panelled walls were the sloping wooden display stands for newspapers, which were provided with brass rods to lock the daily newspapers into place. Whereas readers of the periodicals had chairs, newspaper readers had to stand. This was in order to discourage “loafers”, who were often ejected forcefully from the building by Simons, the head caretaker, and his three male colleagues.

My first job was to put out the newspapers each morning, and to file the back-copies in the reference library’s reserve stock. I also had to examine each newspaper to find the racing tips and black out each column with help of a stamp and inked pad.

The council wished to discourage working men from squandering their earnings by gambling, and armed with a council approved stamp, I performed this task each day for some time. The library collection of periodicals was wonderful, and for decades I enjoyed such titles as Architectural Review, Gramophone, Burlington Magazine, Apollo, Studio and several brilliantly written literary periodicals.

There was Nature, which contained details of scientic developments, many of which were completely beyond my understanding, but which were nevertheless interesting.

Alas, North Yorkshire has cancelled all of these over recent years, even throwing away the nearly complete runs of back-copies, which had formerly been consulted by readers from far and wide. How I miss those titles.

Although the public knew Stuffins was in charge, Harrogate Library was in reality run by one woman, who may still be remembered by older library users: the redoubtable Miss Bushby.

I can see her still, leaning against the library issue counter, clad in the blue overall with white piping that female employees were required to wear, and scanning the Harrogate Advertiser to see if anyone had dared to write a letter to the editor complaining of the library’s service.

Although known as Miss Bushby, she had married a Polish airman stationed in Harrogate during the Second World War, but because Harrogate Corporation refused to employ married women, claiming their jobs were needed by unmarried women, Miss Edna Bushby retained her maiden name, although all of Harrogate knew she was married to former Flight Officer Kopcke.

Edna Bushby was such a character that I must describe her more fully. She and her husband then lived in the grim-looking Victorian villa that still stands between the Odeon and the Baptist Church, save that it was then covered with ivy and hidden by a high fence. Edna Bushby was a very handsome woman, about five foot seven in height, with perfect posture and complexion.

Her hair was silver tinted with blue rinse, and always looked as if she had just left the hairdresser’s establishment. But the most remarkable thing about Edna were her ice blue eyes, which glittered behind a pair of diamonte wing glasses of the type later made famous by mega-star Dame Edna Everage. When during the Second World War, Stuffins served as a fire watchman on the roof of York Minster, it was Edna Bushby who ran Harrogate Library, work she continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s. And how she ran it!

Under Edna Bushby, the staff were terrorised by her dominating personality into providing a service that ran like clockwork.

The library then opened at 10am each morning so that Edna’s staff could have an hour to tidy the shelves, which were arranged in perfect Dewey decimal order.

Miss Bushby would follow readers round the newly tidied library, and if they dared in her sight to mess up the newly tidied shelves, she would round on them, showing the correct way of taking a book from its shelf.

Each morning, the card catalogue would be edited, with cards for withdrawn and new titles being extracted or inserted as was appropriate. In this way the wonderfully detailed catalogues were kept almost up to the minute.

After about 1963, a Gramophone Record Library was instituted, run by David Ashcroft, a delightfully erudite gentleman in a wheelchair, who came in each Saturday morning to provide the service. Cardboard discs were kept with each gramophone record to record scratches, and fines enforced for fresh damage. Most of the public were terrified of Miss Bushby, and on more than one occasion I was stopped by readers in the town who asked me to take back overdue library books so that they could avoid Miss Bushby’s icy glare.

On Easter Saturdays, the queues stretched from the lending library counter right out into Victoria Avenue, and if it started to rain, Miss Bushby (accompanied once by myself, carrying her umbrella) marched along the queue of cowed readers demanding they that keep their books dry.

Miss Bushby had strong views on what she termed “indecent books”, and I well remember one incident. In the 1950s and 1960s, Harrogate Library maintained a shelf in its basement on which were stored several titles deemed to have literary worth but with a prose that might shock the sensitive reader.

By some oversight, one of these titles got on to the open shelves, and was selected by a respectable looking lady of advanced years. As ill-luck would have it, she was served by Miss Bushby one very busy Saturday afternoon, and when Miss Bushby caught sight of the title, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she gave a sharp cry, and snatched it away from the reader, saying it in a voice that all could hear “you certainly don’t want that book, it’s grossly indecent”.

There was no pursuading Miss Bushby to release the offending volume, which was returned to its basement fastness.

Well before Mr Capel became Harrogate’s reference librarian (a job he performed magnificently for decades – as North Yorkshire should never forget) Miss Bushby had frequent run-ins with an earlier incumbent, who was discovered to keep a collection of old English Generals in the lift shaft (General Booth, General Haigh, General Gordon) and who often returned from luncheon at the neighbouring North Eastern in an unsteady state.

One of Harrogate Library’s greatest treasures was its wonderful collection of illustrated Children’s books, which was catalogued by Leeds University’s Department of Librarianship in about 1966, and which was often put on public display, especially when the Library Association held its national conference in Harrogate.

It is extraordinary that this important collection has not been displayed for ages. Where on earth has it got to? These memories of the Harrogate Library of fifty years ago exclude some of the extraordinary eccentrics who frequented the building, as space does not permit me to bring them back to life, but I must not forget the dubious “Reverend” Gentleman whose regular question “Got anything new on Nuns?” was usually answered in the negative.