The centenary of the First World War has inspired many museums, archives, libraries and heritage organisations to dig through their collections and showcase much of their fascinating material relating to the War, whether in exhibitions, displays, publications, or online blogs such as this one. Norfolk Libraries have a great wealth of material about the War, both generic and esoteric, including posters, notices, photographs, pamphlets and other ephemera.
But when did we start collecting this material in any serious or organised way? During the war years, the Norwich City Librarian was a man named George A. Stephen. Stephen was appointed City Librarian in 1911, after working as Sub-Librarian for St. Pancras Public Libraries. At the time of his appointment, Norwich Libraries were reportedly in a state of neglect and disorganisation. Stephen set to work improving the buildings and refining the stock, and worked hard to collect books and material that represented the city and county. During the First World War, he quickly realised the importance of collecting and preserving Norfolk’s contribution to the Great War effort.
In 1917, a plea went out in the “City and County of Norwich Public Library Readers’ Guide” asking for local people to start donating any printed or written material that represented “Norfolk’s share in the Great War.” The Readers’ Guide was a regular circular established by Stephen and published by the Library Committee, containing information on upcoming lectures, lists of books on particular subjects of interest, and “a classified and annotated list of books recently added to the Library.” Copies could be purchased for one penny.
In his request Stephen asked for donations of printed records, photographs, portraits, press notices, letters, maps, posters, and other printed material to form the basis for the “War Section” of the Library’s Local Collection. He planned to make the collection available for “public inspection” and to hold an exhibition of the donated material. The Imperial War Museum had also requested that duplicates of any printed material relating to local war activities be forwarded to them.
Local people were soon keen to donate items showing the role that Norfolk and its residents had played in the conflict. In the Public Library Committee’s Annual Report, published in March 1918, it was reported that “considerable additions of photographs and printed material have been made to the section which was begun last year with the object of forming a local record of Norfolk’s share in the Great War.” Donations ranged from the political to the personal – local businesses donated publications and pamphlets, organisations gave copies of posters for fund-raising efforts, and grieving families sent memorial cards in remembrance of their loved ones.
The 1918 report also highlighted the important role that the Library had played in providing a space for soldiers billeted in Norwich to read and study. George Stephen ensured the Library held the books recommended on the soldiers’ training syllabus, and organised a series of lectures on historical, topographical, scientific and technical subjects for the men. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, scholar, soldier, and Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, said in an address given to the Norwich Public Library Committee: “We shall fight better and endure hardships better if our minds are trained and spirits refreshed; and both for knowledge and imaginative literature we must come to the Library.”
After the War had ended, Stephen and the Public Library Committee joined forces with the Castle Museum Committee to curate the Local War Exhibition, which was held in St. Andrew’s Hall and Blackfriars’ Hall in Norwich in May and June, 1920. This exhibition displayed many of the donations given to the Library, including over one thousand portraits of local soldiers who had served and died during the First World War. As he had planned originally, Stephen presented the First World War material publicly for the benefit of the people of Norwich.
As part of a wider collection of manuscripts, photographs and printed books of local interest, the First World War collection was one of George Stephen’s great legacies of his time as City Librarian. Today, the photographs and ephemera gathered by Stephen are held here at Norfolk Heritage Centre and some of the most interesting items can be found on Picture Norfolk.
– Rachel Willis, Community Librarian for Local Studies