The Library at One Birdcage walk not only retains many of its original architectural features dating back to the opening of the building in 1899, but also some of its collections! 120 years to the day since the official opening, we’re reflecting on what the Library was like at that time.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers was founded in Birmingham in 1847 to “give an impulse to invention likely to be of use to the world” so it’s unsurprising that it had library even before moving into One Birdcage Walk in 1899. The earliest reference to the Library in the Council Minutes was in 1854, (while the Institution was still based in Birmingham) and bookplates in some of the collection’s earlier works display a Victoria Chambers address, where IMechE was based before moving into One Birdcage Walk. The Library room remains one of the most prestigious spaces in the building and retains many of its original features, most obvious and spectacular of which is its Jacobean-style ceiling.
In preparation for moving into the new building, the Library began to keep detailed records of the books that entered the collection. The numbering system started at 10,000 based on estimates of how many items they already had. A count in 1908 (noted in pencil in the acquisitions register – pictured below) totalled 11,387 items, largely made up of the Institution’s Proceedings and other periodicals. These records also tell us which books were present in the Library at its official opening in May 1899. Books adorning the shelves during event which are still present in the collection today range from Sir Guildford Molesworth’s Report on the Ugandan Railway dated March 28 1899 to De Salis’s Chronology of inland navigation in Great Britain (1897) and Armstrong’s Electric movement in air and water (1897)
In 1899 the library also extended to other parts of the building, leaving Members to enjoy ‘freedom from conversation and from smoking’ in the Library room itself. The ‘reading room on the mezzanine floor’ (now the Manufacturing Room) was to be for ‘conversation, writing and smoking’. It is very rare in this period for a library room and the books within it to be kept away from smoke, which perhaps explains why the historic volumes don’t smell quite so foul as those housed in other collections!