Michelle Johansen – Inhabiting London’s Public Libraries c.1890-1914

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)


Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950

Living in Institutions


Michelle Johansen (Raphael Samuel History Centre):
Inhabiting London’s Public Libraries c.1890-1914

Charles Goss (1864-1946) was chief librarian of Lewisham rate-assisted library in south-east London from 1891 until 1897. In 1897 he was appointed chief librarian of the Bishopsgate Institute, a library and cultural institution situated on the border of the City and the East End. Goss remained in charge at the Institute until 1941.

In 1895, Goss co-founded the Society of Public Librarians (SPL), a group of thirty-plus London librarians who met monthly until 1930 to discuss professional issues and offer mutual support and friendship. Examining the SPL archive alongside the writings of Goss, it becomes apparent that the inhabitant experience enjoyed by Goss at Lewisham then Bishopsgate reflected the experience of others of his generation of public librarians. Here was a cohort of young men utilising particular elements of their working environments to augment their relatively fragile socio-cultural status as subaltern professionals.

Between 1890 and 1906 almost eighty new rate-assisted libraries were opened in London. Many included residential provision for the librarian in charge: purpose-built apartments, located over or alongside the library buildings. The available evidence suggests an imprecise boundary separated the private from the public arena. Goss and his SPL colleagues possessed their own book-lined studies. These officially public spaces were sometimes used as an adjunct to their private homes, the setting for social gatherings and club meetings, wives and daughters on hand to assist with refreshments or provide entertainment after the evening’s business had been concluded.

My paper will use the case of Goss and his SPL colleagues to describe the experience of institutional living in the first public libraries in London. It will show how these librarians exercised agency in influencing spatial provision to accommodate their own needs and desires and it will indicate how class, gender and age all played a part in this particular ‘inhabitant’ process.





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