You can’t always rely on libraries for exact history

Wetherby library being built in the 1960s.
Wetherby library being built in the 1960s.

By Roger Bealey

Our Wetherby columnist

It’s all too easy to think that history is recorded in tablets of stone and will be there for ever – and then find it isn’t. I had this type of problem when I was trying to find out the date when the Wetherby Library was opened.

I was told that there was a plaque near the door – or maybe the window, which commemorated the occasion. I couldn’t find it. The library frontage had a facelift a few years ago. Was it removed then?

Perhaps the library staff would be able to find the answer for me. They couldn’t – or not yet anyway. But I don’t blame the library staff for not finding the information.

You see the library was built by West Riding County Council and when West Yorkshire was formed as a metropolitan county in 1974, there was a complex collection of 3,000 boxes of the old Count Council archives to be stored centrally in Wakefield.

They wouldn’t have been stored as computer records in those days. Then in 1986 the functions of the county council were devolved to the boroughs and Leeds City Council was formed. My Leeds Library card has the slogan “The world @ your fingertips” and then goes on to say “your library is changing – but don’t just take it as read.” How appropriate!

There are other methods of tracking information down – newspapers for example. But these are archived as paper copies in date order and difficult to search unless you have at least an approximate date.

I learn that pegging out of the site of the new British Library newspaper archives building commenced last week. Even so, it will probably be years before archives of local newspapers such as the Wetherby News are transferred from Colindale and scanned so that they can be made available as computer records which can easily be searched for specific information.

Meanwhile, the only ‘easy’ way of accessing information contained in old copies of the Wetherby News would be for me to search the paper archives page by page – a daunting and lengthy task unless you know the year and the approximate date. If you don’t find what you are looking for, is it because you missed seeing it, or because for some reason it was not reported?

Scrapbooks of photographs or of newspaper cuttings of local interest can be quite helpful – if you can chance upon the right one.

Even then, they may not show the date or other critical information. Minutes of club and organisation meetings may be comprehensive enough to show useful information – but until recently were usually handwritten and may have been scrapped before the importance of such archives has been recognised.

This usually happens when someone else ‘inherits’ a collection of old papers or photographs and doesn’t have the same interests or storage space. It even happens with old family photographs when the only people who might have recognised century-old photographs of ancestors have themselves died before the details could be recorded. I know. I’ve been there, done that and there’s no easy solution.

Now it so happens that I was fortunate enough to be shown a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings containing details of the opening. It wasn’t dated. But other cuttings which were dated helped me narrow the date down to being around early to mid 1965. It’s a start.

There’s a sequel to this story. I’d mentioned to the kind librarian that the library would have opened in 1965 and with this additional information she managed to find a reference in a Wetherby News story of the opening of the library on Wednesday, September 8, 1965. Both of us had made previous searches without success and including the year in the Google search had made all the difference. The summary of the headline stories of that edition of the Wetherby News had only been published online during 2005 and gave information of the opening:-

“Take the time to read. It is the fountain of wisdom.” That was the advice given by County Alderman Major J H Hudson, vice-chairman of the West Riding County Council, when he opened Wetherby’s £19,000 library in Westgate on Wednesday.