The Seely Library

While Greenwood and Edwards were pressing for a Public Library Service in their own separate ways, something approaching a Free Public Library was soon to exist in Newport. This was the Newport Jubilee Free Club founded in 1887 by a member of a family who were to have a profound influence on library development throughout the Isle of Wight for the next half century.

Picture of Charles Seely 1803-1887
Plate 5. Charles Seely 1803-1887 M.P. for Lincoln. Father of Founder.

They were the Seely family. The Seely's were Lincolnshire corn merchants who had invested in Nottinghamshire coal mines. Charles Seely had visited the Island many times, eventually purchasing Brook House and most of the village of Brook in 1859. Charles was:

"an austere and benevolent man, very small of stature with aquiline features and though he looked frail, had, in fact an iron constitution."

He had a strong social conscience, contributing to many causes ranging from lifeboats to improving the social and economic conditions of agricultural workers. His first interest in libraries came in 1877 when he gave forty pounds worth of books to the Town of Brading Free Library. This was a minor act compared to his generosity in 1887, when he provided the building, three thousand volumes and the upkeep of the Newport Jubilee Free Club. The Library within the Jubilee Free Club had reading and smoking rooms, was open from noon to 11 p.m. and was freely available to all. Charles Seely died in October 1887 but the upkeep of the Newport Jubilee Free Club was immediately taken over by his eldest son, also called Charles. Charles Seely,. senior had wanted a library service with a main building in Newport, but serving the whole Island, particularly those remote villages cut off in the winter. Charles Seely, the younger set out to make this a reality. The formation of the Isle of Wight County Council in January, 1890 made the idea of a county-wide library service more feasible, though it did not as yet have any legal powers to establish one.

By 1893 Charles Seely had helped the ailing Newport Literary Society with an interest free loan, 14 improved facilities in the Newport Jubilee Free Club and opened at his own expense a library and reading room at Brook.

But this was not the Island-wide library service his father had planned; so in 1895 he offered the County Council Technical Education Committee the sum of five thousand pounds for the establishment of a free library and lecture hall at Newport plus one hundred pounds a year towards its running costs.

Picture of Sir Charles Seely
Plate 6. Sir Charles Seely, 1st Bart., 1833-1915. Founder of the Library.

The County Council immediately took up the offer, even though it was pointed out that no law existed to allow a County Council to operate a library service. Despite these doubts, a suitable piece of land was purchased and plans went ahead in 1898 to build a Technical Institute and Free Library on the same site. The Library foundation stone was laid in July 1902 by Mary Florence Seely, eldest daughter of the now Sir Charles Seely. He had been knighted as a Baronet in 1896. The Library and Technical Institute were opened in January of 1904 by Lord Alverstone, the Lord Chief Justice and a former Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight.

The Library was officially opened before arrangements for lending books were complete. The majority of books came from the Newport Free Jubilee Club, the balance necessary to fill the shelves being supplied by Sir Charles Seely. By July, 1904, detailed arrangements were well in hand for the circulation of books to several villages around the Island. Conditions for housing the books in village libraries were not ideal, but Sir Charles designed an oak book case to his own specifications for use in the village libraries. The bookcases could be locked when not in use and were ideal for their purpose. As the majority of the bookcases are still in use for closed access collections it demonstrates how well they are constructed. Approval for the introduction of these bookcases was gratefully given by the County Council.

Picture of The Technical Institute and Seely Library
7. The Technical Institute and Seely Library. The North wing on the left was added for the opening of the school in 1907.

At a meeting of the Higher Education Sub-Committee in September, 1904, Sir Charles Seely was appointed Honorary Librarian of the Seely Library. The Committee by then had already made its most important decision - to appoint a Librarian. The post was advertised at a salary of E100 a year and there were 39 applicants; 6 were interviewed and the successful candidate was Arthur Kemp, aged 44 years. Arthur Kemp was a remarkable man, a journalist and a bookman, but with a feeling for the needs of people. He started work on 1st October, 1904 and his first month's salary was £8.6.8d. plus 3/4d. disbursements. During his first month 402 borrowers took out 1,125 books, the first of millions of books that Arthur Kemp was solely responsible for issuing. At the September Committee meeting another decision was taken that was to have a major influence on the County Library. Whenever possible books were to be rebound or repaired at a cost of up to 9d. each rather than replace them.

By the November of 1904 all twelve thousand of the Seely books were safely in the new library and Arthur Kemp was working hard serving a potential readership of at least 82,418.

Despite his generosity in providing the library buildings, books and bookcases, and paying the salary of the Librarian, Sir Charles Seely did not rest on his laurels. The following year, 1905, he opened a new reading room and recreation room which he had provided for the villagers at Brighstone.

In December of 1904 the appointment of a caretaker at the Technical Institute and Library at a salary of £52 per year, with house, coal and gas included, concluded the appointment of staff. The Library was complete with Librarian and books and most of the Island was its oyster - most but not all. Despite efforts to adopt a Library Act in several towns, only Sandown was successful. During 1903 a poll in Sandown had shown a majority of 200 to be in favour of establishing a Library Service under the terms of the Public Libraries Act of 1892.

A site in an ideal library position was offered by local resident Alexander Keller, and Andrew Carnegie, the public library benefactor offered £2,000 towards the cost of the building. An architect, James Newman was engaged and the Library and Museum was opened by Lord Alverstone in July, 1905. Sandown established its own library service that was to operate independent of the Isle of Wight County Council until 31st March, 1974.

The infant County Library Service soon established its roots. By the end of the first year the opening hours at Newport Library had been arranged, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. Closed for Lunch. 2.30 p.m. - 5 p.m. Closed for Tea. 7 p.m. - 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday inclusive. Arthur Kemp had been given authorisation to spend £l a month on books and during the February of 1905 one thousand new borrowers were registered throughout the Island.

Each library in the villages - thirteen of them by the end of 1904 - was supplied with a bookcase, a set of encyclopaedias and a suitable collection of books that would be changed every quarter. At a meeting of the Higher Education Sub-Committee in April, 1905 details of the first donation to the Library Service were given, A Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation." But the Committee were more concerned with the dangers of infectious diseases carried by books. A box to hold any such books collected from a suspect house was ordered.

The library was more successful than the Committee or Sir Charles Seely could ever have imagined. During April of 1905, 4,023 books were issued from Newport Library, 2,764 of which were fiction, and the number of book issues kept on increasing.

Picture of
8. Sir Richard Webster, G.C., G.C.M'G., afterwards the Rt. Hon. Lord Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice.

Books were issued at Newport Library using a closed access system. Readers had the opportunity to purchase a catalogue costing 3d, that gave details of what books were held by the library. A library indicator showed books that were out on loan. The reader consulted the catalogue, found the number of the book required, and then consulted the indicator to see if the book was out on loan. If not, a slip was filled in and the Librarian would go to the shelves and select the required books. The books were shelved in numerical order. The system worked well, providing the catalogue, indicator, shelf arrangements and librarian were accurate and not over-worked. Arthur Kemp was working single handed, but at that stage could still cope. The increase in loans was emphasised when, in April, 1905 the Committee ordered an additional indicator holding 1,200 numbers.

Village libraries were also increasing. By June, 1905 bookcases with encyclopaedias and assorted books were held in twenty-nine villages. To cope with this demand an additional one thousand books were supplied by Sir Charles Seely. June, 1905 was the busiest month for the new library service. 4,185 books were issued and sixty-five new readers were registered at Newport Library alone. Approval was given for Arthur Kemp to close the library for fourteen days to carry out stocktaking, and at a suitable period later to take fourteen days leave, during which the library would again close.

The service had a steady if unspectacular growth for the next few years. More newspapers and periodicals were bought to enhance the reading room, while during March, 1906, Newport issued 5,293 books and registered 122 new borrowers. In February, 1907 opening hours were amended: to take account of half-closing the library was to close at 1 p.m. on Thursdays, though the reading room would remain open.

Throughout the rest of the decade the number of books issued remained fairly constant, monthly issues in Newport staying at around 5,000, with a bias towards fiction reading. This static situation was to be expected in view of the unchanging population and because one man was operating a system with few new books to back it up.

By 1908 there were thirty village libraries, each containing 100 books changed three times a year from the central library in Newport. The staff in the villages were all volunteers, usually school teachers. When, in 1908 Arthur Kemp requested the establishment of a library service for schools, the Higher Education Sub-Committee turned it down,no doubt thinking that their librarian had enough to do already. It is evident that they appreciated his efforts, when his salary was increased from April, 1910 to £135 per year. Approval was also given for the purchase of more newspapers.

In October of 1910 Arthur Kemp attended the Library Association Conference at Exeter where he explained the system operating on the Isle of Wight. The Conference agreed that the Island and Westmorland were setting a good example to the rest of the country.

It did not take long for the service to start a gradual expansion again as in its early days. In 1910 the first signs were an increase in book issues and in borrowers: 781 people used village centres and 2,627 borrowed from Newport. Part of the new wave in reading was no doubt due to the additional 5,768 residents on the Island since the last census, plus more libraries in rural areas.

Part could be attributed to former Literary Institute readers who - despite the advantages of open-access borrowing - deserted the obsolescent Institute when out-of-date books were not replaced, joining the public library instead to get better value.

Kelly's Directory of 1912 which recorded six circulating libraries and eight literary institutes would still not have taken account of the small shops that hired out books to seasonal visitors. Nor would it have included private libraries. In its eighth year, the infant public library was really not quite ready to cope with the additional readership that these sources would pass on when they closed.

In March, 1913 a series of donated books about the Isle of Wight were amalgamated to form the first Local History Collection, available for reference only. A year later Arthur Kemp was given authorisation to spend £10 on books suitable for young people who had left or were about to leave school.