Mizpah Gilbert, Chiswick’s Librarian by James Marshall, Journal 29 2020

Mizpah Gilbert Chiswick Local Studies & Archives ME1802

One hundred years ago, in June 1920, Mizpah Gilbert was chosen from a field of five strong candidates to become Chief Librarian for the Urban District of Chiswick’s Free Public Library. In choosing Miss Gilbert Chiswick became the first public library in London, and one of the first in the country, to appoint a woman as a chief librarian.

The sole female candidate for the job, she was shortlisted along with four men, one of whom was a BA with 20 years’ experience working under one of London’s most progressive Librarians. Another was amongst the then small, number of those holding a Library Association Diploma; two others were both Fellows of the Library Association.

However, said Councillor Pendlebury as he announced the sub-committee’s recommendation, “it was the duty of the sub-committee to select the best candidate and it was unanimous that the lady stood quite apart as regards qualifications and personality. The fact that she was a woman had been taken into account. That was a fault – or blemish if they liked – for which she was not responsible (laughter), and why should she and Chiswick suffer for that reason?” He had heard recently, from a very high library authority that Chiswick would be extremely lucky if they could get her. Councillor Shields agreed that, although he would have preferred to appoint an ex-serviceman, the committee had no other candidate before them whose qualifications could compare with hers (1).

Mizpah Gilbert was a school-master’s daughter, born in Bangalore, India, in 1880. Her parents’ choice of a Biblical name may reflect time spent working with Christian missions. She was a qualified Member of the Library Association with a record of published articles on both literary subjects and librarianship. She came to Chiswick from Liverpool’s Lyceum – an impressive neo-classical edifice, built in 1802 to house a private members’ newsroom and England’s first subscription library (1758-1942).

Carolyn Hammond’s history of Chiswick Library (2) describes her as having a sharp tongue and eagle-eyes. ‘Miss Gilbert, with her dark hair, pince-nez spectacles and darting movements (described by one lady as being like a blackbird defending its garden territory) was a formidable presence and the insistent buzz, followed by an abrupt command crackling down the primitive intercom, was feared by all.’ Writing her obituary in the Library Association Record for August 1967, Florence Green, then Hounslow’s Chief Librarian, remembered that: ‘From her staff she demanded unremitting toil and serious study. Those who passed through Chiswick on the route to chief-ships elsewhere remember her with affection and respect as a dragon to work for, but a librarian who helped formulate their standards and enforced their professional competence’.

She was only Chiswick’s second appointment to head its thirty-year-old public library service. She succeeded Henry Hewitt, a well-known and popular local figure, who had established the service and transferred it from its first home on the corner of Bourne Place to number 1 Dukes Avenue – a home of the Sanderson family whose wallpaper factory stood close by. The house had been given to the district council for use as a library, to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

The Lending Library counter and book indicator boards in Chiswick Library about 1920. Miss Gilbert swept this restrictive system away 6 months after she arrived. Chiswick Local Studies ME493/494

On her arrival in Chiswick, Mizpah Gilbert’s first priority was the modernisation of the library, which she achieved through the establishment of a sub-committee of councillors to whom she directed her powers of persuasion, and whose support she soon won. Open public access to the library books was achieved in January 1921. Until then, Chiswick and many other public libraries had used the closed access system, under which the titles of books available for loan were posted on an indicator board that surrounded the library counter. Borrowers had to choose a book from the indicator board, without being able to examine it first.

Nothing less than complete reorganisation of the Lending Department was required. Miss Gilbert was a forceful lady who always put the Library first and expected her staff to do likewise. Despite the councillors having sanctioned a week’s shut-down for the work to be carried out, everyone worked overtime and the reorganised department opened to the public on Monday 31 January 1921 without there having been any closure or interruption to the service. The public response was immediate and gratifying. Within a year, as Carolyn Hammond reported in her history of the library, the number of books borrowed in some subjects had doubled or trebled (religion and music showed especially high increases) and over a thousand new borrowers had been enrolled.

Miss Gilbert was also a pioneer of library services for children – on a tight budget. By moving the caretaker from his basement flat to the former librarian’s top-floor flat, it became possible to create a children’s library in the basement, accessed by a flight of stone steps from the front garden. The room was attractively decorated, monitored by selected, eager children, and its books were provided with shelves courtesy of a local carpentry class. Children’s use of the library, and their book borrowing, almost trebled over the next five years, helped by regular story times, talks for children and an annual New Year’s Party.

The Lending Library after the great fire of 11 October 1928, photo by F H Dann. Chiswick Local Studies  ME 4689

The Library Service’s progress experienced a dreadful set-back in October 1928, when the building was severely damaged by a great fire that broke out in the adjacent wallpaper factory and spread over the boundary wall. Miss Gilbert quickly summoned council workmen from their regular jobs and enlisted the help of passers-by to rescue the books from the shelves, and to salvage some of the library furniture before all was destroyed. Hardly a fortnight later, she opened a temporary library at Belmont School, with half of the book stock available for use and the rest in store.

Chiswick Library, with the Sandersons’ house right and the new extension left. Chiswick Local Studies  ME 1487

Mizpah Gilbert would have liked a new library to replace the converted private house that had been its home since 1898. But the council could not afford it. She had to settle for half-a-new-library in the form of an extension added to the house, designed to provide a new Reference Room and a Children’s Library, as well as other facilities. The restored and extended library was opened in March 1931. She doubtless shared the senti-ments of a columnist in The Chiswick Times, who wrote ‘it’s a pity that the fire brigades saved any of the old building, but then that is their job.’

A decade later, as wartime emergency requirements made themselves felt, the Library’s facilities were squeezed again. The Reference Library was conscripted for use by the local Food Control Office and the Lecture Room that had been created on the first floor of the old house, and of which Mizpah Gilbert was very proud, was turned over to the Fuel Supply and National Registration services. At her retirement, in July 1946, Councillor Brierley acknowledged her disappointment and expressed his regret that it had not yet been possible to restore the entire building to its proper use as a public library. Rationing still had a while to run.

Miss Gilbert’s care for her staff is reflected in a small archive of correspondence she maintained with library staff who were away on wartime service – including Mr. Yeats, who became a Prisoner of War at the fall of Kos in 1943. These letters are in the library’s Local Collection (3).

An enthusiast for her job and for Chiswick’s local history, the curator of the library’s own little local museum and the collector of its notable collection of nineteenth century printed books by local private presses, Mizpah Gilbert deserves to be remembered as the right woman for the job on the centenary of her arrival in Chiswick.

Some of Mizpah Gilbert’s published work

The Education of the Library Assistant, The Library Assistant 7 (1908)
Ladies’ Rooms, Library Economics, Libraco, London (1909), in which she proposed 33 periodicals suitable for ladies’ rooms in public libraries
The Position of Women in Public Libraries, Library World 18 (October 1915)
Chiswick Old and New (1932)

1 The Chiswick Times, 25 June 1920
2 Chiswick Library: 100 Years of Service to the Community, Carolyn Hammond, Hounslow Leisure Services (1991)
3 Mizpah Gilbert papers in Chiswick Local Studies & Archives

About the author
James Marshall was Hounslow Library Service’s Local Studies and Archives Manager until his retirement in December 2019. He continues to research and write the history of the area and is Membership Secretary of the Hounslow & District History Society

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