logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Reading and libraries,
early to mid 20th century

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Why libraries were so popular

While I was a child in the wartime Britain of the 1940s, and then a teenager in the 1950s, most people had a book on the go - invariably borrowed from a library.

It is important to understand the mindset of the 1940s: People needed something to escape the horrors of wartime. There were very few magazines; and newspapers were restricted to two pages. Also there were few books at home because at the start of the war, we children were asked to bring to school any 'unwanted' books from home for pulping into newsprint. Badges were awarded to children who donated the most books. Such were the dire straits that country was in.

Yet people could escape into books. So libraries were the palaces of dreams.

Peter Johnson

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Mobile libraries

Mobile lubrary, mid 20th century Britain

Mobile library, courtesy of Tony Woods. The writing on the side reads 'Borough of Hendon Library Service'

In the late 1940s and probably into the 1950s, there was no public library in Edgware where I grew up. This may have been because the building had been bombed in the blitz of the Second World War, but I suspect that no library had ever been built because Edgware only became a town rather than a hamlet just before the war, as part of the suburban housing sprawl.

Instead we had a mobile library. It was no bigger than a large caravan, so its stock was very limited indeed, although it was changed frequently. It came came round the streets of Edgware once a week, and stayed in one place for only a short time and only in daylight. I suppose that while my father was at work, in the early part of the war before he was called up into the army, my mother had to choose books for him.

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Public libraries in purpose-built buildings

Public libraries did exist in their original purpose-built buildings in World War Two. They were in the older towns and had been fortunate enough to escape the German bombs. I remember them in Fore Street and Hounsfield Road, Edmonton.

Peter Johnson

In the late 1950s, Edgware got a new purpose built library on the site of the prefabricated wartime British Restaurant. It gave a great deal of pleasure to everyone who had had to use the mobile library.

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Privately run subscription libraries

An old private library, run as part of a shop

A private library, run as part of a shop. Photographed in the Lightbox, Woking.

magazines, mid 20th century UK

Boots in Cheltenham in the mid 20th century, showing some of the magazines that would have been in its subscription library, courtesy of Ian Henderson.

Charges at subscription libraries

Subscription libraries charged sixpence (old money) per week per book and catered for the middle classes who did not want to handle a book that had come from a public library as it might carry some contagious disease. Such were the times. Sixpence had a lot of buying power in the 1940s and 1950s, which put subscription libraries out of the grasp of most ordinary people.

Peter Johnson

There was a private subscription library in Edgware, which was open during normal shop hours. It was called Gainsborough Libraries, but my mother said we couldn't afford to join - which she said about most things at that time. It was tiny, above a shop.

Boots the chemist also had subscription libraries above its shops in certain large towns.

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Academic libraries

If you have an old photo which would illustrate this page or if you can add any information, I would very much like to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Academic libraries, such as the British Library and libraries attached to universities. were out of the reach of ordinary people. Anyway, their stocks was moved to safer stores during the war.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.