Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood puts together pieces of a jigsaw that forms the history of Buxton’s town library:

Buxton Library reopened from lockdown on 9th July 2020, so it’s a chance for us at the Museum to (wistfully from our continued closure) welcome back colleagues, readers and users at Buxton Library, and to other libraries in the county. A sign perhaps, that we are picking up the pieces.

library sign
early 20th century sign from Buxton Library

While we’ve been in lockdown, some of you will know that I have taken a little time out (honestly, I have been preparing to re-open the museum too!) reading the newspaper clippings book from the shelves in the Museum.

I wonder what Mr T.A. Sarjant, for 30 years the Buxton Librarian and Curator would have made of lockdown? He died in 1924, aged 66 and still working. When he took up his position in 1884, the library was still a new institution in the Town Hall. There were just 3,356 books on the shelves, with an annual issue of 25,000. By 1924, there were over 10,400 books and 45,000 issues. He had also overseen the establishment of the museum to much acclaim. In 1918, his salary was increased, to £150 per year (less than a skilled tradesman at the time!).

Mr Sarjant

Both the museum and library were tucked away in the Town Hall. Almost from their opening, the quarterly reports and local newspapers were full of appeals for much more space, improved decoration, better lighting, more efficient heating and ventilation … oh yes, and asking readers to not deface the magazines and newspapers. Does anything change! Well, there are no longer magazines and fewer real, paper, newspapers to browse, perhaps.

McLellan-Sim, Robert Lewis, 1907-1985; The Buxton Public Library and Reading Room
The Buxton Public Library and Reading Room by Robert Mclellan-Sim, early 20th century oil

In 1922, Mr Sarjant organised the annual conference for the Branch Library Associations in at Oliver’s Hydro, Buxton. It attracted an audience of the great, good and aspirational from the library fraternity. Reporting of the proceedings covered several column inches in both the Buxton Herald and the Buxton Advertiser. Speakers were greatly amused that they were unable to find the library, which then, in a building such as Buxton Town Hall, you can hardly miss!

The discussions at the conference were topical. There was no more worthy institution in a town than the Free Library (not sure I like the word worthy!), although one speaker admitted he was somewhat humiliated when he observed the number of young men who visited only to read the racing results. Mr Shaw, Chief Librarian at Liverpool declared that he had never known a ‘case where infection had been passed by books’ – with so many infections flying around a town like Buxton then (start with smallpox and go through several to chicken pox), that may have been reassuring. However, children’s libraries are much better used if they didn’t resemble school rooms and were furnished with little tables and chairs and brightened up.

no infection from library

I felt for Mr Sarjant after Mr Axon had spoken. A resident and local historian of Buxton (whose articles are still consulted regularly), Ernest Axon was Deputy Chief Librarian at Manchester. He was highly critical of the book supply at Buxton Library, saying 95% was not fit for circulation and should be scrapped. Oh dear – this resounded through the papers…

Mr Axon goes on to say that this is not for want of effort from Mr Sarjant, who received plenty of public support and credit for his work, but says Axon, that public libraries have been starved from the very beginning. Even in 1922, the main discussion at the conference was the ongoing cuts to library budgets; there was a national growers scheme for tomatoes in receipt of £12,000 a year (yes) but no equivalent funding to promote libraries!

library sign
20th century sign from Buxton Library

I assume that the scrapbook at this time was assembled by Mr Sarjant. He gives himself a pat on the back under this correspondence pasting in a clipping the Pitman’s Journal (readership: most likely secretaries and shorthand stenographers, and dare I say, mostly women!). Miss E. Mary Williamson of Guildford compliments Buxton Museum that every label was typewritten, the work being particularly carefully and neatly executed. It is wonderful how a small compliment can ease the criticism. These labels will have been seen by the 6880 visitors who came to the museum (I think some still survive!).

library letter

The 32nd Annual (1921) report for the library and museum now called an art gallery, if space could be found: “A good Museum and Art Gallery is a sound investment for the town. It creates interest and is a rendezvous for visitors who can wile away many a happy hour examining the exhibits…”

It is a little sad that Mr Sarjant didn’t live to see the removal of the library and museum to the Peak Hydropathic Buildings and ultimately, the opening of the Library at Kent’s Bank – perhaps not easy to find, but so many of the other criticisms have been laid to rest. On the other hand, surely he lived up to the aspiration of one of delegates at that conference, that the librarian should be guide, philosopher and friend to every reader.