Railway libraries and the culture of self-betterment

Saturday 7 February is National Libraries Day and we thought it would be the ideal time to show the important historical role railway libraries have made to the rail industry, its workers and society at large.

Libraries often formed part of the Mechanics Institute, which was a social and and self-improvement body affiliated to large railway works such as Crewe, Derby and Swindon. During spare time workers were encouraged to make use of the library as companies wanted employees to be engaged and literate plus, if in the library, they could not be down the pub! (punishment for intoxication was immediate dismissal due to safety implications).

Judging from resources like the company staff magazines, staff were keen to join, taking up the opportunities of learning new subjects and languages (Esperanto anyone?) as well as allowing for study as part of career progression and promotion.

Great Eastern Railway magazine 1912

Great Eastern Railway magazine 1912

It was part of the railway employment structure that workers would progress up the salary-scale but to do this they needed to acquire the necessary expertise and the library helped support this through the provision of text books and study space.

Library at Derby Mechanics Institution, 1912

Library at Derby Mechanics Institution, 1912

Library at Crewe works' Mechanics Institute, 24 July 1907.

Library at Crewe works’ Mechanics Institute, 24 July 1907.

Railway Institute, Shildon, County Durham, 1913. First Railway Institute in the world, built in 1833 and housed a Library

Railway Institute, Shildon, County Durham, 1913. First Railway Institute in the world, built in 1833 and housed a Library

The outputs of railway workers extra-curricular activities, helped it could be argued by the literacy support given by libraries, can be seen in the number of books and poems produced by railway employees.  Below is an example taken from one of the earliest examples of company magazines we have in the library, and is two volume series of short-stories and railway tales written by railway employees.

The legacy left by the railways’ libraries are still being felt today.  Mechanical Institutes have morphed over time to become public libraries, universities and other civic centres. The books, articles, poems, songs and stories written by railwaymen and women over the years have given us insight into what it was like to work on the railways – in their own words. Plus many of the early books that we have in our library in Search Engine were originally from these early railway libraries and are available to you too, via Search Engine – your own railway library.

Find out more about National Libraries Day.

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