The Cardiff Story Museum will celebrate 150 years of the city’s libraries this weekend, with talks and tours of the building which housed the capital’s first public library.
The old library in The Hayes, where the Cardiff Story is now based, opened as Cardiff Free Library, Museum and Science and Art Schools in 1882.
It was extended in 1886, and remained Cardiff’s main library until 1988, when it was moved over to a new building at St David’s Link. But the building has remained an important presence at the heart of the city centre, being used as a Centre For Visual Arts, temporary exhibition space, and now the Cardiff Story museum, while libraries in the city have continued to develop – culminating in the opening of the new Cardiff Central Library in 2009.
As part of the European Heritage Days Open Doors project, the Cardiff Story will host two talks this Saturday looking at the last 150 years of libraries in Cardiff, and how the service has adapted to the 21st century.
There will also be guided tours of the Grade II listed museum building, giving people a chance to see behind the scenes of the old library, and an idea of how the Cardiff Story plans to use the building in future.
But ahead of those events, two former library workers have spoken about their memories of working at Cardiff’s Free Library…
A constant challenge
Fran Dring, from Dinas Powys, began work in Cardiff Free Library’s reference section in 1977. She described how her job entailed answering all kinds of requests for information from members of the public, looking up the information in a whole variety of newspapers, periodicals, and reference texts stored at the library.
“I loved the reference work, I loved the challenges – I never had two days the same,” she said. “You didn’t know what you were going to be faced with each day.
“A lot of people came to look at old copies of the newspaper. We had all the Welsh newspapers from all over Wales going right back to the 1800s. Some of them were huge and you needed a large table to open them on. All the newspapers and periodicals were kept in the stacks – in the basement. Some of the periodicals went back to the 1700s. And we had all the government acts.
“We would get all sorts of requests. One person phoned in from the States, and wanted to know how to spell and pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Another guy used to come in every month to read the Met Office bulletin. I think he read every one.
“Some of the requests were very technical. The extent of knowledge required and information was beyond any of us but we had to know where to find the answers for them. We had to give them accurate information. I loved that aspect.”
As well as helping members of the public, there were also a few well-known faces that Fran saw pass through the old building.
Journalist and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Carry On actor Bernard Bresslaw, and Peter O’Toole all visited the library during Fran’s time there, and an episode of That’s Life was even recorded in the building.
But in 1988, it was decided that the library should no longer remain in the Victorian building. Fran and the rest of the staff were moved to a purpose-built building on Bridge Street, and things soon started changing as they headed towards the end of the 20th century.
“We started using computers in the first new library,” she said. “ It was a novelty. We would go onto the internet and see what sort of information we could find. We were just amazed by it all. At the start people did not have computers in their homes, so we felt very powerful.”
But there were still times when some of the longer-serving staff looked back fondly on their days at the old library.
“Once computers came in most of the card files went,” Fran said. “But I loved that research, delving into the card catalogues. I loved going round the shelves and finding all these wonderful books about everything you could want to know. It wasn’t quite the same.”
But despite changes in the way the library worked – and concerns over people’s declining interest in reading – Fran said demand in the local studies and reference departments remained fairly constant in both buildings.
She said: “Local studies was always very popular. That part of the library service has always been busy.”
“I think I learned more in that reference department than I ever learned in school. We learned a little about a lot of things. There is still something in me now which wants to keep finding out information. And I’m still telling people to go to the library.”
“People used the library to better themselves”
Bryn Jones, from Creigiau, began his 43-year career with Cardiff libraries in October 1961 at the age of 23. He too started in the original building’s reference library, taking on the role of assistant.
He described how the research for each request – whether in person, by phone, or by telephone – had to be thorough.
Bryn, now 74, said: “If you did not know the answer, you had to know where to find it. If you gave out the wrong information, there would be all sorts of inquiries. I was always told do not believe any statement unless you found at least two sources agreeing on it.”
With 150 seats, the reference library was often packed out.
“At certain times on the year, there would be hundreds of people in there,” he said.
“As soon as you opened the door the public would be in.”
“I would help look for things like the address of a particular firm, who made some trade name, a manufacturer’s details or an MP’s home address. I particularly enjoyed requests about Welsh literature.”
With the move to the Bridge Street library in the late 1980s, Bryn became the local studies librarian, but he was not as enamoured with the shifts towards new technology as Fran.
“I was not happy about it when the computers came in. It was a big change to get used to.”
“The old catalogue gave you the size and number of pages so you know if you were looking for a think book or a pamphlet. I could go to the stacks now to find any book you asked for. ”
Bryn retired from the library service in 2004, and like Fran, said it was the variety of work that kept him there for so long.
“You never knew when somebody approached the desk or the telephone rang what you were going to be up against.”
“In the old library it felt like I was working in a building with a huge amount of history. Coming up that main stairway, you could see the marks made by others’ feet.
“This was the first public library in Cardiff, and libraries have been a big part of Cardiff’s history. It was the first in Wales to adopt the Public Libraries Act.
“It opened up knowledge to a huge number of people who never had access before. Like the workmen’s institutes in the Valleys, people were using it to better and educate themselves.”
The talks on the history of Cardiff’s libraries will take place at The Cardiff Story this Saturday at 11am and 2pm, while the tours will start at midday and 3pm. To book a place on either event, telephone 029 2078 8334.