Libraries On Air

by Natasha Witts, Cataloguer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is a time-travelling treasure trove: hundreds of recordings from 1968–1983 on subjects ranging from local history, politics, the arts, and social issues, to light-hearted anecdotes and the latest stunt from the local escapologist. These recordings not only tell us about Brighton in this period, but about society, local radio broadcasting, and archiving (among other things). But as a cataloguer at the South-East hub of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, my ears can’t help but prick up when the recordings mention libraries and librarians. What can the BBC Radio Brighton recordings tell us about libraries in the 1970s, how they were run, how they were used, and how they were viewed in their communities? And has much changed since then? 

Map showing Brighton branch libraries
Brighton branch library map [Image credit: The Keep BHBox20a/12]

One of my favourite recordings in the collection is an interview with John Allen, chief librarian of Brighton Library, in which he describes, in enthusiastic detail, the computerised system for book issue and return being introduced into Brighton public library (the computer itself residing in the Borough Treasurer’s office), involving the alteration of 100,000 books and the reregistering of 35,000 readers. As well as making borrowing books easier, the computer would also produce the first automatic overdue notices (and print them on postcards). This recording (thought to date from around 1970) provides a fascinating snapshot of a time when librarians were still imagining how computers could revolutionise their work, and when the processes library staff now take for granted, such as being able to see easily who has borrowed a book, were the stuff of a bold new future. 

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Although library systems may have changed considerably since the 1970s, the ethos of libraries appears reassuringly constant. Here is West Sussex Chief Librarian Roy Hughes, recorded in 1975, offering his vision for libraries over the next 50 years: 

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Preservation and accessibility lie at the heart of the UOSH project, aims shared by a Brighton reference library project in 1973 in which rare books and prints were photographed and issued as slides to enable them to be viewed without damage. In an interview about their project Elaine Baird and Dorothy Farmer describe the methods they use to photograph the slides – very different from reprographic facilities in today’s archives. They also talk about the creative use of libraries, as local theatres are also using the slides as backdrops for performances. This also has echoes in our current project – the rapper and producer AWATE is UOSH Artist-in-Residence, and creative responses across the UOSH project range from music composition and animation to embroidery. 

Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library.
Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library [Image credit: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove]
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The knowledge and enthusiasm of library staff comes through in the recordings, and that their voices were heard on local radio gives us an insight into how libraries were perceived in the 1970s. Although we now have the resources of the internet at our fingertips, these recordings are a reminder of the continued need for libraries and librarians. Here is Miss Greenhill of Brighton reference library, interviewed on her retirement (how many librarians get a radio interview on their retirement?), talking about the qualities needed to work in the reference service:  

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The importance of libraries to their communities also comes through in the recordings. A whole half-hour interview is dedicated to the Whitehawk toy library, the first full-time toy library in the country, which opened in 1973 and is still in use today (see https://twitter.com/BBCArchive/status/936241555182153728  for BBC Archive footage of the opening). The 50th anniversary of the West Sussex library service in 1975 also merits a whole programme on the history of public libraries in West Sussex, including this anecdote from former village librarian Hazel Grinstead about the perils of being a reader in a small Sussex village: 

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Described by a newsreader as an ‘ugly duckling story’, the commendation of the new Worthing library by RIBA in 1977, gives borough architect Frank Morris the opportunity to talk about two of its important features – accessibility for disabled users, and an innovative system of heating the building by recirculating heat from the lighting system. This recording shows that accessibility and sustainability are not only contemporary concerns (although innovation in the 1970s was being driven by fuel economy rather than environmental concern). 

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Finally, praise for Brighton library pops up in an unlikely place – during a 1975 interview with American lyricist Eddie Heyman (who wrote the lyrics to songs including ‘When I Fall in Love’ and ‘The Wonder of You’) who was staying in Brighton. A perfect example of encountering the unexpected in such a wonderfully varied archive. Who knew in the 1970s that these recordings about much-loved local libraries would eventually find their way to being preserved by the British Library?

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Transcripts of audio excerpts available at: https://keep-sounds.com/libraries-on-air-transcripts/

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is held at The Keep by the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (ref. R6111) and digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (ref. UTK006), funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

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