In 2015 Library Stories started a citywide conversation, to discover how libraries are used and valued in Sheffield today

A brief history of Sheffield Libraries

1823: The first Mechanics Institute is established in Sheffield, and the Mechanics and Apprentices Library opens.

1832: The Mechanics Institute joins forces with the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society to form a new Mechanics Institute and expanded library at Surrey Street.

1837: A set of rules for the use of the library is established by the elected library committee:
1. No person residing more than 10 miles from Sheffield shall be admitted.
​2. Books to be made available to those paying shares.
3. None but members shall be allowed in the Reading Room, except strangers residing 10 miles from Sheffield, who may be introduced by members.
4. A committee of 21 persons to be elected in the annual meetings.

The library holds 1650 books, with the Catalogue divided into 11 sections:
1. Arts, Sciences, and Miscellanies
2. Biography
3. Divinity
4. History, Geography, Topography, & Antiquities
5. Novels and Romances
6. Poetry and Plays
7. Politics, Political Economy, Jurisprudence &c
8. Voyages, Travels, &c
9. Periodical Publications
10. Periodicals now Supplied to the Library

1849: The new Mechanics Institute building opens on the Surrey Street site.

1850: The Public Libraries Act is passed, a permissive act that empowers city councils to levy a 1/2d. rate to provide library staff and buildings.

1851: The first attempt to establish a public library in Sheffield fails to secure enough votes from the local council.

1853: A second attempt to establish a public library succeeds. Sheffield becomes the first town in Yorkshire and the 11th in the country to have a public library.

February 1856: Sheffield Public library opens its doors for the first time. It occupies rooms in the Mechanics Institute on Surrey Street. £500 is allotted by the council as the first book fund. The original collection comprises a selection of newspapers, 800 new books, 2500 books from the Mechanics Institute Library and 710 from other sources (donations, etc.).

"THE FREE LIBRARY. This library was opened for reference yesterday. This is an event in the literary and educational history of Sheffield. It is the foundation of a library which will grow with the growth of the town, and we trust will become one of the noblest and most useful of our institutions. At present it is open only for reference, but the committee are making steady progress in adding to its stores, and will soon be in condition to open it as a lending library. We believe it might have been opened sooner but for the pains which have been taken in collecting the principal secondhand catalogues to purchase standard books as cheaply as possible. The committee have been very successful, and the library will be found to contain – under the heads of the fine arts, and the useful arts especially – a variety of works of very great value." – Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 2 February 1856

June 1856: The lending library opens. Its hours are 9am-9:30pm.

User statistics:
8690 borrowers in the first 6 months (of which 4143 renewed their tickets)
1491 aged 14-20
2144 artisans
460 clerical workers
379 tradesmen
308 professional men
85 gentlemen, retired men, tradesmen, merchants and manufacturers
110 students
779 women (529 of no occupation, others include teachers, milliners and dressmakers, factory workers and servants)

The library is expanded as it becomes more crowded and more shelves are added.

Rooms are appropriated for women to use.

An assistant librarian is appointed to help the librarian in the management of the library.

1857: Formation of the Book Subcommittee, responsible for the upkeep of the catalogue.

1869: The first branch library opens at Upperthorpe in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road.

1872: Brightside (now Burngreave) opens.

1876: Highfield branch opens.

1905: Walkley branch opens (funded by Robert Carnegie).

1906: Hillsborough branch opens.

1909: Sheffield Music Hall purchased to provide new buildings for the Central Library.

1912: Tinsley branch opens.

1929: New children’s library opens at Hillsborough

1930: Firth Park branch opens.

1931: Woodhouse branch opens.

1934: Central Library re-opens in its new premises.

1939: Manor and Totley branches open.

1949: Eccleshall branch opens.

1950: Southey branch opens.

1955: Woodseats, Broomhill and Greenhill branches open.

Image used with permission from Sheffield Local Studies Library,

Library Stories

What’s your library story? Perhaps the library's where you discovered your favourite book, made new friends at a club, or sent your first email.

In 2015, Library Stories started a citywide conversation, to discover how public libraries are used and valued in Sheffield today.

Over 200 library users got involved, sharing memories, illustrations and photos. Together, they create a striking record of love, appreciation and support for Sheffield’s public libraries. This website is just a sample of those stories.

This website is a celebration of our city’s libraries, past and present, and an invitation for you to share your library story.

Working with Sheffield Archives, Library Stories delved into the history of the public library system in Sheffield. It traced the decisions involved in setting up the libraries, and gained a sense of what it was like to use the libraries at the turn of the 20th century. Here, you’ll find a selection of these discoveries, alongside photos of library life over the decades.

Libraries haven’t had it easy in recent years and, over the course of this project, many were in varying states of adjustment to community, associate and co-delivered services. Whatever form they take it’s clear that, to many, local libraries are a lifeline, an invaluable free resource, a source of joy. Read a selection of thoughts on and memories of the city’s libraries, shared with Library Stories on comment cards, at book clubs and reminiscence events, and in one-on-one interviews.

Leave a comment, sharing your thoughts on Sheffield’s libraries.

Library Stories is a joint project by the University of Sheffield and Our Favourite Places, funded by Arts Enterprise.

Thanks to all staff at Sheffield Libraries and Archives for their support with Library Stories, especially Dan Marshall and Dot Morritt for helping spread the word about the project and host interviews. Archival photos courtesy of Picture Sheffield. 'Present' photos by Gemma Thorpe, from a Library Stories reminiscence event at Multi-Story Festival in May 2015.


For further information about the project, contact us.