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16 January 2007

Devon Book 74

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
75: Libraries since World War 2

On the night of 3-4 May 1942 during Exeter's most destructive air raid the Public Library in Castle Street was hit by incendiary bombs and gutted. The fire reached the outer door of the muniment room and destroyed it, but, although the lock on the inner door was fused, the massive teak door withstood the blaze and the collection of manuscripts inside was unharmed. Some manuscripts prepared for evacuation were lost as was every printed book in the building, a total of 93,000 volumes. An emergency lending service using over 5,000 books that had been donated from all parts of the country and 4,000 items on loan at the time of the raids was soon established on a limited scale in one of the side rooms in the gutted building and a small reference collection was opened in part of the adjacent Rougemont House, which had been made available by the Museum Committee, and that accommodation had to serve for the remainder of the War and beyond. Donations of books flooded in from all parts of the country but many gaps could never be filled. Tapley-Soper, who had seen almost forty years work in building up the collections destroyed in a single night retired in March 1946 after 44 years service to Exeter. He was replaced by N.S.E.Pugsley who was faced with the enormous task of rebuilding the service with the limited resources then available.The Librarian saw his main task as getting the "best possible value from the agreed war-damage claim, four fifths of which was for reference library stock". Figures show an average of 10,000 volumes being purchased each year into the mid-1950s and war damage funding providing a similar level of bookfund to that provided through the rates until 1955. By 1955 the stock had reached 166,000 volumes, more than double the working capacity of the old building. The surviving shell was covered with temporary roofs and converted into a book store in order to cope, along with twelve rooms in Rougemont House. In the meantime the use of the lending service was also growing. The busiest pre-War year had been 1938 when 199,411 volumes had been issued, 31,978 of them to children. This figure had already been surpassed in 1946 with 203,416 issues. By 1958 this had grown to 297,856 loans, 49,638 of them to children. In 1955 the City Librarian submitted a report to the City Architect on the requirements for a new library. After further reports the City Council finally adopted a report from the Library Committee proposing the construction of a new premises to the south-west of the existing building which could be completed without interrupting the public service. The existing building could them be refurbished to serve as a record office and a book store. There were those who were losing patience at the delays and the City Librarian N.S.E.Pugsley always took pains to point out in his reports that he was operating in temporary premises. And Professor W.G.Hoskins in his Two thousand years in Exeter, did not mince his words. He wrote in 1960: "Today the city library, burnt out nearly twenty years ago, is still a shambles. The failure to rebuild it is the greatest disgrace in the post-war history of the city. It is clear that books are not considered to be important in modern Exeter. How vastly different from our Victorian forebears when they founded the Free Library in 1869!" He saw this as the geatest symptom of a cultural disease that was afflicting the city: "Somewhere between 1860 and now Exeter ceased to be a cultured city." (Hoskins 1960, 134). Time was indeed running out if the city were to benefit from war damage claims as work on refurbishing the pre-War building had to be completed by September 1968, the latest date for settlement. The City Architect's plans were approved in October 1959, construction began in August 1962, the building was completed in in May 1965 and officially opened by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent on 22 October 1965 some ten years after Plymouth had opened its reconstructed premises. It provided a modern glass-fronted building the the main entrance leading into a lending library displaying 35,000 volumes, more than three times as much as in the previous temporary premises. A staircase went up to a mezzanine floor containing a music collection to which gramophone records were to be added in 1966. Beyond the lending library was a reference library with seating for 64 readers and a small West Country Room. A children's library was situated to the right of the main entrance. There was also on the first floor a foyer with facilities for refreshments and a meeting room for 100 people.

This building was the headquarters of a modest network of other facilities serving the outlying areas of the city. A travelling library had been introduced in 1960 which served suburbs such as St Thomas, Countess Wear, Whipton and Burnthouse Lane, as well as visiting schools. Branch libraries served Topsham and Pinhoe from the 1960s.

The Central Library complex has served Exeter's needs for a third of a century but its capacity has been stretched to its limits. In 1974 when all Devon's library services were united as a result of local government reorganisation, the basement of Exeter Central Library assumed the role of a book store for the whole county and in the following year part of the refurbished pre-War building was opened to the public as a greatly extended local studies collection, the Westcountry Studies Library, formed from the amalgamation of the stock built up since the 1870s by the City Library and the collection formerly held for the county at at its headquarters in Barley House. Its new location next to the East Devon Record Office made the building an essential port of call for all those researching the county's past, and the importance of this resource centre was further enhanced when the East Devon Record Office merged its premises with the County Record Office when it moved from premises in Concord House, South Street in 1977.

While Exeter City Library had been collecting historical records from all parts of Devon since about 1908, it was not until just after the Second War that Exeter City Record Office was formally established. Devon Record Office was established in the Castle in Exeter in 1952 when the first qualified archivist Miss J.C.Sinar was appointed to take care of the County Council's own records dating back to 1889 and the Devon Quarter Sessions records dating back to 1592. She was succeeded by P.Kennedy in 1962 and in the following year the Record Office moved to the newly constructed County Hall on Topsham Road to the south of the city centre. In 1971 to moved closer to the centre with premises in Concord House, South Street. Local government reorganisation affected the archives service in 1974 when Exeter and Plymouth Record Offices merged with Devon and in 1977 the headquarters of the Devon Record Office moved to the former Exeter Record Office premises in the restored 1930s Central Library building in Castle Street. The numbers of records had increased to such an extent that it was necessary to lease a warehouse on Marsh Barton Trading Estate, most inappropriately adjacent to the municipal incerator, and there the conservation section was based. Some space was released in 1988 when records relating to the north of Devon were transferred to Barnstaple when the North Devon Record Office was opened, but there had been criticism over the suitability of the Marsh Barton site for record storage. New premises were purchased on the Sowton Trading Estate in 1998 and it is planned that the Record Office will move there in about 2004, with the assistance of lottery funding. Plymouth Record Office again became independent on local government reoganisation in 1998. Apart from its two searchrooms in Exeter and Barnstaple the Devon Record Office has since 1988 been running a growing number of service points with microfilms of local records, based in libraries and museums across the county.

When Exeter City Library had ceased to exist as an independent authority in 1974, it became part of Devon Library Services, the new designation of Devon County Library. The County Library had acquired prestigious new premises on the outskirts of the city in 1939, in the early 19th century classical country seat of Barley House which it disfigured in 1969 by a severely modern bookstack and office block. Here it ran a lending and reference library service distinct from the City Library and appreciated by those who wished to avoid the parking problems of central Exeter. Its chief function however was to serve as a headquarters to the extensive network of service points which stretched across the county. In the years after the war it built on the achievements of the 1930s. Exmouth finally obtained its branch library in 1946. The town had rejected an offer of £3,000 from Carnegie in 1903 so the provision of a public library there was long overdue. Within a year there were 6,000 members and a bequest of £5,000 by T.Abell in the 1950s provided it with a good reference collection. From the 1960s the County Library opened a number of purpose-built libraries, for example Budleigh Salterton in 1961, Kingsteignton in 1963, Northam in 1966, Colyton and Holsworthy in 1967, Bovey Tracey in 1968, Braunton and Sidmouth in 1970, Combe Martin in 1971, Teignmouth in 1973 and Honiton and Kingsbridge in 1974. The village centres were progressively closed and replaced by a growing network of mobile library routes.

After local government reorganisation in 1974 Devon absorbed the previously independent library services in Plymouth, Torbay, Bideford and Newton Abbot, as well as Exeter and ran one of the largest services in the country with some 80 branch libraries. The first County Librarian after reorganisation, R.G.Charlesworth, came originally from Plymouth Libraries, as did his successors to 1998 Alison Shute and Owen Baker. The first steps to computerise the library's catalogues were taken in the 1970s, the card catalogues being used for several years alongside microfiche printouts from the database. Only in the 1990s were the public able to interrogate the catalogues directly on-line.

The pace of opening new buildings slackened after reorganisation, partly because most of the larger communities were now served by a branch, but purpose-built libraries included Crediton (1977), Axminster (1980), Seaton (1982), Ilfracombe (1992) and Brixham (1995). Exeter received a new branch at St Thomas as part of the Sainsbury's shopping development in 1985. But the major achievement was the handsome brick built library to serve the north of the county which opened in Barnstaple in 1988. Beside an integrated lending and reference library it housed on the second floor a local studies centre made up of the library service, the North Devon Record Office and the North Devon Athenaeum, a privately endowed library which had been building up its collections for more than a century. Additional branches were acquired through the establishment of dual use libraries housed in schools at Clyst Vale Community College, Heavitree Middle School, Geneva Library in Bideford College and Primley Library in Sidmouth Community College. By 1991 the county, beside its 80 branch libraries, was operating 16 mobile libraries each with several routes visiting more than 1,500 stops. The domiciliary services section was supplying 795 residential homes, hospitals, prisons and similar institutions and the school library service was serving 538 schools across the county.

But despite remarkable achievements on many fronts, overall the public library service in Devon has been under increased pressure as the millennium reaches its end, a position not assisted by the local government reorganisation of 1998 when Plymouth and Torbay became independent authorities, thus losing many of the economies of scale which were crucial as funding was cut year on year. The bookfund, during the 1980s among the highest per head of population of any library authority in the country has declined until in 1997 Devon stood in 25th position. In 1991 the county spent £10.24 per head of population on its libraries, by 1998 this had declined to £9.40 and this in a period of steady inflation. Devon had always been modest in its library staffing numbers compared with other authorities so these cuts had to fall disproportionately on the bookfund. Even so, over a five year period in the 1990s 36 full-time equivalent staff were lost from a total of 402. In 1991 Devon spent £2.25 per head of population on books, by 1998 this had fallen to £1.09. In the same period average book prices had risen from £13.10 to about £16.00 so that in real terms the expenditure on resources had much more than halved over the eight years. However a great deal of recognition of the value of the public library is given by local government and there is certainly public support in Devon for this most accessible of public services. When libraries were under threat in 1995 the trade union UNISON collected 20,000 signatures for a petition on one rainy day and further protests were made when closure of Exeter branches was threatened as an option during a further round of cuts in 1997 (E&E 13 Dec 1997).

The library of the University of Exeter has grown considerably since World War Two, having twice shed its skin to move into larger premises. During the War the Roborough Library had been occupied until 1943 by the Royal Aircraft Establishment but after 1945 it resumed its intended function in the midst of a campus that was progressively moving out to the north of the city from the city centre premises in Gandy Street. The University College was redesignated the University of Exeter in 1955 and by 1965 it had grown from the 500 students of 1938 to 2,000 and a new building was clearly required as books were already being stored elsewhere. John Lloyd, appointed University Librarian in 1946 had a vision of a new library that would "aim to be the cultural focus and centre of the whole university" so that "students should be given the widest possible opportunities of developing whatever interest or talents they may have". He wanted displays of manuscripts and fine printing, paintings, drawings and sculpture, music libraries available to all students and more prosaically a bindery, a photographic department and a microfilm reading room, all in a building capable of holding 1,000,000 volumes. Lack of funding reduced the vision, as is so often the case, and the building opened off the Prince of Wales Road in 1965 had space for 400,000 books and seating for 400 readers.

The university had acquired its first microfilm reader in 1948, which enabled it to add research materials from libraries and archives across the world, from the Vatican to Leyden University and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, as well as reprints of early English editions and the 19th century Parliamentary Papers. Over the years it has also acquired many collections of original material including the literary manuscripts of Henry Williamson and other writers. Two notable collections acquired during the 1990s are the Bill Douglas Collection on cinema and popular culture and the Hypatia Collection on all aspects of women.

Lloyd's successor John Stirling, appointed in 1972, saw the acquisition of the library's first computer in 1976. New acquisitions began to be catalogued onto the computer as part of the South-West Academic Libraries Co-operative Automation Project, (SWALCAP), established under the chairmanship of John Lloyd in 1968 and the card catalogue was closed and converted to microfiche. At first the computer was used to produce public catalogues on microfiche but during the 1980s terminals were introduced to allow users to consult the catalogues on-line.

The collections continued to grow, from 100,000 items in 1955 to 200,000 in 1968 and 400,000 in 1977. Plans had been drawn up for a new library in 1972 but construction only began in 1979 on a site near Stocker Road with sufficient funding from the University Grants Committee to complete only the basement. The situation was improved in July 1980 by a gift of £750,000 from the ruler of Dubai in recognition of the University's contribution to Arab studies, and this enabled the present building to be completed. (Clapp 168-73).

Since the war some of the older libraries have found a new means of survival. The Exeter Literary Society which had declined in membership during the early years of the century came to an agreement with the Devon and Exeter Institution whereby they used part of their premises and had use of the Institution's library. (Whitton 1975, 9)

The University of Exeter has provided an umbrella for some. The Cathedral Library, housed in special rooms in the Bishop's Palace has been administered by the University since 1954. It is freely open to visitors and scholars and includes the early volumes of the Exeter Medical Library. The Medical Library itself was put on a proper basis in 1963 as a result of help from the Nuffield Trust, with a full-time librarian and staffing is now administered by the University of Exeter although funding comes from the Health Service. The parish libraries of Barnstaple, Totnes, Crediton and Ottery St Mary were placed on permanent loan with the University between 1957 and 1978 (Evans 1982). The University also took over responsibility for the Devon and Exeter Institution Library in 1972, providing staffing and entering the books on the University's computer catalogue. It retains its club-like atmosphere and now has charitable status, the last of the proprietors having relinquished their shares. Apart from good collections on the Westcountry, including early runs of newspapers, its 36,000 volumes include theology, topography and travel, early science, biography, literature and art. It is a member of the Association of Independent Libraries, as are the Plymouth Proprietary Library and Tavistock Subscription Library in Devon.

This is a fleeting glance at libraries in Exeter and omits many other collections of books and other information resources, for example the resource centre in Exeter College, the library in the Exeter Campus of the University of Plymouth with its collections on art, and the Northcott Library at St Loyes Foundation for training the disabled, whose splendid new premises opened in September 1998 following generous donations to its Diamond Jubilee Appeal Fund. Together these collections constitute a remarkable resource for a city of 100,000 inhabitants and one which few other towns of a similar size could rival. In 2001 a working group of representatives of libraries in all sectors in Exeter was established to draw more benefit from the wealth of material available.


This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.