Libraries Week: Derby Central Library – the building, the history

Derby Central Library by Sarah LayAs Libraries Week continues on Storge we look at the 138 year history of Derby Central Library. In plans currently being pushed forward by the city council the largest of Derby’s branch libraries is set to close in its current location and re-open in smaller premises in the Council House. 

It’s a quiet afternoon on the Wardwick; an argument between a couple has passed by, last night’s discarded chips disinterest even the pigeons, there are seemingly as many boarded up buildings as there are businesses. Towering above this dismally ordinary street scene are buildings of grandeur; pale stone, red brick, and window glass warped with age. They bear the inscriptions of those so secure in their own futures, or perhaps so intent on longevity beyond their own years, that they would etch in stone their titles. But its easy to become blind to the statuesque when all around is fading into decay, easy to be distracted by the human circus of the day and take for granted the old but triumphant architecture and intention around us. When the mantra of disillusion is loudest shout it’s sometimes hard to break the pattern and appreciate that not everything is shit here, now or then.

Set back from the building line sits perhaps the grandest building of them all and perhaps one of the most taken for granted; the clock tower rising above the entrance, a porticoed upper gallery of repeating arches, red brick against grey skies and streets. This is Derby Central Library.

Built in the Victorian Gothic style in 1876 its red brick facade evokes the civic architecture of the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Denmark, but has a splendour and decorative language all of its own. Architect Richard Knill Freeman began his career in Derby, with the library completed when he was in his mid-30s, and the building is typical of his penchant for the decorated style of later Medieval architecture. It’s one of around 140 buildings he created during his career, which also included designs for churches, the Indian Pavillion at Blackpool Pier, stately homes and saw him become a president of the Manchester Society of Architects.

Bust of Michael Thomas Bass in Derby Central LibraryThe Derby Free Library and Museum opened in the building in 1879, a gift to the people of Derby from Michael Thomas Bass which began the libraries 138 year tenancy. A philanthropist and Derby’s MP from 1848 to 1883 (he died in 1884 a couple of months shy of his 85th birthday) Bass also gifted Derby a recreation ground, a school of art and a swimming baths, with his contributions to the city and his hometown of Burton said to total £80,000. A supporter of free trade and improved conditions for the working classes Bass was also an astute businessman, joining the family business he raised its fortunes following the Napoleonic Wars seeing it become Britain’s biggest brewery, producing almost a million barrels of ale a year by the end of the 1870s. While the iconic Red Triangle trademark (the first ever registered in the UK) may have all but disappeared from the buildings around Burton Michael Thomas Bass’ legacy continues in the town, and in Derby too.

The Free Library followed a series of subscription libraries including the first permanent library, also run on subscriptions, in Queen Street in 1811. This library carried the 4000 volume collection of the Derby Philosophical Society, a gentlemen’s society founded by Erasmus Darwin and over its span including notable members such as engineer Jedediah Strutt, High Sheriff of Derbyshire Sacheverell Pole, novelist Robert Bage, businessman Josiah Wedgewood, and radical minister and author James Pilkington. By 1858 the Society had moved to a new home on the Wardwick in a merger with Derby Town and County Museum and the Natural History Society, the museum joining with the permanent library in 1864 following the appointment of the first librarian and curator, the botanist Alexander Croall who went on to the be the first curator of the Stirling Institute.

The Free Library was officially opened by Michael Thomas Bass in July 1879 the day saw huge celebrations in the town as crowds lined the streets as a procession from the railway station, to the Market Place, and on through decorated streets to the library took place. Following a private tour Bass declared the library open and for the first time Derby had a public lending and reference library – some 20,000 volumes for lending and 11,000 for reference; the grand building a fitting home for this gift of knowledge.

As the years went on added to the Philosophical Society collection and that of the permanent library were the Devonshire Collection – books and papers donated by the 7th Duke of Devonshire – and to this was added the Bemrose Collection in 1914, after the public raised funds to bring the private collection into public ownership. It was this addition which spurred an extension to the building which was again extended in 1964, funded by art collector Alfred Goodey, with the original Victorian building shared between library and museum still but mainly home to Derby Central Library.

While library usage has seen many changes in recent years the building remains an iconic part of the Becketwell area of the city. The new library space in the Council House has roughly half the floor space but has improved access. Less of the collection will be available but is planned to be kept in stores.

As for the building one possibility for its use is the Museum make use of the space once more. As a partnership that has existed throughout the buildings use, and a move which would see Michael Thomas Bass’ gift still used for collections belonging to the people of Derby far beyond the original covenant of 50 years, it seems the best outcome of a bad situation. They are said to be exploring options for using the building for key science and arts exhibitions in the future but in the short term it is likely the Silk Mill Museum will make a temporary move to the library building from April 2018 while renovations are underway at its own building.

Whatever the future holds the building has an illustrious past, providing a home for the knowledge collected and shared by the people of Derby.

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