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Leicester Special Collections

A purpose built library at last

Library in the Fielding Johnson Building 1932

Library in the Fielding Johnson Building 1932

From its earliest beginnings the Library has been an essential part of the learning experience in both the University College and the University of Leicester. It was originally housed in what is now the Fielding Johnson Building with bookstacks full of items and reading places.  Many of the early benefactors donated items to increase the library stock. This photograph shows the Library in 1932.  The space it occupied on the first floor of the Fielding Johnson Building much later became the Cataloguing Department.  The alcoves  on the left hand side were commonly referred to as having been the padded cells when the building was used as the County Lunatic Asylum.

As the number of students and courses increased, space began to become an issue and continued to be a problem into the next century. In 1953 a new extension was opened, called the Worthington Building after it's architect.  It contained the Harry Peach Reading Room and more space for bookstacks.  Further branches were added - the Bennett Subway Library for science material, the School of Education, S Block for storage and a temporary structure that later became the base for the University's Maintenance Department.  The Main Library became like a rabbit warren and it was difficult to have a logical arrangement of subjects.  The Dewey Decimal classification scheme couldn't follow in numerical order. There was also a problem with access through the archway of the building to allow traffic to pass from the front of the Fielding Johnson Building to the back. The Library was effectively cut into two at that point, which meant a lot of traipsing up stairs to the first floor, walking the length of that and then down the other side.  Reading places were also at a premium and some were in stark surroundings as seen in the photo from the 60s.

Library under construction 1970s

Construction of the first purpose built Library begins.1970s

A purpose built library.

In the 1970s Universities Grant Committee funding was at last secured to build the first purpose built Library. A wing of the Fielding Johnson building, (that was a later addition to the original building) with N Block and many temporary huts were demolished. The Worthington extension can be seen on the right hand side of this photograph.

Exterior of the Library 1970s

Exterior of the Library, showing it's reflective fascia, 1970s

The Library was covered in brown glass and had a covering of water on the roof, designed to reflect the other buildings that surrounded it and it's place within the University community.

Opening of the New Library Building

The new library building was officially opened on 27th September 1975 by the poet Philip Larkin, who had been an Assistant Librarian at Leicester in the late 1940s. Photographs taken at the event show an audience made up of academics who were departmental library representatives along with library and administrative staff and local dignitaries. Only a few people were identified, but names have now been put to many faces. Rhoda Bennett is seated on the right of the third row (in hat) with her deputy John Barker to her left.

Audience at official opening of University Library, 1975

Audience at offical opening of University Library, 27th September 1975.

The next photograph has captured a rare opportunity to show three successive University Librarians, Rhoda Bennett (just visible in the hat) seated on the right. Her successor Douglas Walker is on the left hand side seated alongside the Vice-Chancellor.  Brian Burch, the successor to Douglas Walker is standing at the back. On the front row is Monica Jones, (later identified as Larkin's companion but here as a member of the English department) and Harold Martin (the Registrar after whom the Botanic Garden is named). 

Philip Larkin speaking at the opening ceremony of the the University Library. 1975

Not every occasion would have had a sound recording, but fortunately there is a recording of Philip Larkin's speech on opening the University Library. He is introduced by the Chancellor, Sir Alan Hodgkin and followed by the Vice-Chancellor, Sir T. Fraser Noble and the architect Alan Park.

The eternal quest for more space.

Although the building won an RIBA award, unfortunately space was still an issue and within a very short space of time the Lower Ground Floor of the new building was reconfigured and compact rolling stacks were installed.  The stock for the new Clinical Sciences Library was transferred to its site at the Leicester Royal Infirmary in 1978.  In the 80s back runs of journals and lesser used bookstock were relegated to the rolling stacks.  In 1994 an external store was opened on a site in Putney Road to take further stock.  Finally in the new millenium the library was extended into what is now called the David Wilson Library and the University Archives were housed in proper archival conditions for the first time.  The era of digital access to information also eased what had become a relentless search for space for physical books and journals.

Contributed by Mary Bettles (Library staff from 1973 to 2004)

Having graduated from Leicester University, I spent a year as a Graduate Trainee in the University Library before undertaking a library qualification at Liverpool.  I returned to a permanent position at Leicester and worked in many departments until 2004, when I became part-time University Archivist for 3 years.  I therefore studied or worked in various incarnations of the Library accommodation around the campus, except the most recent one of the David Wilson Library.  I think I also hold the rare (some might say dubious) privilege of having been Acting University Librarian on two separate occasions in 1995 and 2002.