Sunday, February 19, 2012

Swindon Central Library

New visitors to Swindon Central Library could be forgiven for taking it all for granted - the plush reading room overlooking Regent Circus and the secluded window seat alcoves; the colourful, spacious children’s area, not to mention the 60 free to use computers and more than 77,000 books.

But it wasn’t always so.  For more than 57 years Swindon’s town centre library was housed in temporary accommodation, the foundations of which now lie beneath the magnificent modern building next to the Victorian Town Hall.

In 1943 members of the long awaited first Public Lending Library in Swindon picked the shelves almost clean in the first week and the children’s library proved so popular it had to be re-housed in alternative accommodation.

Perhaps the middle of a world war was a challenging time for Swindon Corporation to set about creating the town’s first public library but having got the ball rolling the council was eager to proceed.  Initially the Mechanics Institution was approached with a view to using their library as a basis for a public library but they rejected the proposal, suggesting a review after the war.  Eventually the problem of accommodation was settled when town centre department store McIlroys came to the rescue.  The Public Libraries Act was adopted on October 6, 1942 and from then it was all systems go.

Reader registration began at the end of July 1943 and by the official opening date four weeks later 5,000 tickets had been issued.  The Library stock numbered 22,974 books – 19,363 in the lending library, 2,646 in the junior section and 966 in the reference.

The library was officially opened on Saturday August 14, 1943 “in the presence of a representative civic gathering.”  The Swindon reading public had to wait until Monday before they could get their hands on the books.  And once they did they flew off the shelves – 3,104 books on the first day.

It rapidly became obvious that the premises were inadequate to house both the adult and children’s libraries and at the end of the first week the junior section transferred to the former Electricity Showrooms.  Those eager little bookworms borrowed all but 14 of the books in the fiction section while back at McIlroys the adult section was reduced to 250 books by the middle of the second week.

Membership continued to rise from 12,000 after six weeks to 21,152 by March 31, 1944, seven months after the library first opened.  In October 1943 15,000 books were being issued on a weekly basis and by the end of the year the stock had been increased to 37,601 to meet the demand.  Meanwhile McIlroys made available an additional 1000 square feet of floor space to cope with library visitors.  In March 1949 Central Library moved into the first of two sets of mobile units behind the Town Hall, temporary accommodation that would last for 57 years.

Designed by Swindon Borough architects Nic Newland and Tony Curriven, the £10 million flagship building opened to a fanfare of praise on Monday October 20, 2008, on time and within budget.  But sadly today swingeing Government cutbacks have seen the library staff, arguably the most valuable resource in the high tech building, subject to a restructuring process for the second time in twelve months.

In 2010 Swindon Central Library came under threat from an invasion by the Daleks, but now it looks as if a more insidious enemy is at work.  Perhaps staff should call the Doctor for help!

Librarians move the stock into the new Regent Circus temporary accommodation

1950s - the temporary mobile structure that survived until 2008.

2010 - staff under threat from Dalek invasion

Images courtesy of Swindon Local Studies

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Town Hall

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