Skipton Library celebrates the 100th anniversary of its official opening on Tuesday – and to mark the occasion staff have been researching its history for a commemorative booklet. Here are some of their findings.

This week we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the official opening of Skipton Library by Sir Mathew Amcotts Wilson, of Eshton Hall. The history of the library is linked with that of the Mechanics Institute and Science and Art Schools – now Craven College – which existed on the High Street site at the end of the 19th century.

Around this time other local towns, such as Keighley, Harrogate and Ilkley, had successfully applied to the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for financial assistance to build their public libraries. Carnegie was a successful industrialist who gave away much of his fortune to fund projects throughout the world, including around 2,500 libraries.

In 1903, Skipton Urban District Council and the trustees and council of the Science and Art Schools formally wrote to Mr Carnegie asking for £6,000 (around £600,000 in today’s money).

They were granted £3,000, but the conditions were that a penny rate would have to be levied for the purchase of books, as well as extra funds raised to liquidate the mortgage on the two shops which stood on the proposed site.

The Craven Herald described the terms as “onerous”, although they were not untypical of The Carnegie Trust. His offer was put to local ratepayers on August 6 1903 at a public meeting in the Town Hall and the motion was carried unanimously. The Public Libraries Act was adopted on October 1, 1903, but it took more than three years for the rest of the conditions to be complied with.

The following three years were spent fundraising in order to meet the terms of the loan and at times the scheme seemed in danger of collapse. But in 1906 the conditions were met and the Carnegie funds granted. Architects John William Broughton and James Hartley were appointed to design the building and many local firms were awarded contracts to complete the work. The first librarian, Leonard Hetherington, was also appointed from a field of 170 applicants.

The cost of the building itself was £3,000 while the furnishings cost £450, to be paid for from local rates.

The only way to bring the scheme in on budget was to erect two buildings with a dividing wall and to use the facade to disguise this fact. The larger building to the north would be the library and the smaller building to the south would remain the property of the trustees of the Mechanics’ Institute. The ground floor and basement were occupied by Wildman’s shop.

The imposing facade is constructed from stone quarried at Eastburn and proudly advertises the “Free Library”. Over the entrance is a carved symbolic figure of Knowledge, with panels either side representing Literature and Art.

The Craven Herald report of the grand opening gives an account of how the library looked 100 years ago, particularly interesting as there seem to be no photographs from that time. It said that, after passing through a spacious vestibule, the public reading room was on the right, “comfortably furnished and heated and stocked with the leading newspapers and magazines of the day”, while slightly to the left a six-foot-wide staircase led up to the library proper.

Upstairs the space was split into a reference library and a lending library, where there were about 7,000 books available to borrow, as well as a separate children’s library, separated by glass partitions. Having books on “open access” was seen as innovative at the time as it was more usual for readers to have to look through a catalogue to make their selections, often finding that the book they wanted was already on loan. The staircase and shelves were constructed in “fumed oak” and the stained glass window on the stairwell depicted the white rose of York as well as the coats of arms of the Clifford family and Skipton itself. These features can still be seen today.

On the day of the opening, flags were hoisted on prominent buildings and streamers hung from one side of the High Street to the other.

The first part of the proceedings took place in the Town Hall, led by Coun W Farey, chairman of Skipton Urban District Council, and supported by Sir Mathew Wilson, Sir Swire Smith of Keighley and trustees of the Science and Art Schools. After a number of speeches, the ceremony crossed the road for the formal opening by Sir Mathew.

The building afterwards was inspected by the general public and the 200 invited guests enjoyed refreshments. The tea was provided by Miss Binns, of Gargrave Road, whose catering, we are told by the Herald, “was very satisfactory”.

The building was soon established as a cultural centre for the town. In 1914 The Petyt Library – 5,000 volumes of recusant (religious dissent) literature bequeathed to Skipton by Sylvester Petyt on his death in 1719 – was moved to the ground floor of the library when Skipton Urban District Council was appointed as its trustees. Later, in 1928, the new Craven Museum moved into the library building. It was originally run on a voluntary basis, but the district council took it over in 1934, safeguarding the museum’s existence. It also meant the librarian’s role increased to include the duties of a curator and, from this point on, the job was advertised as “librarian and curator”.

In the 1950s, the Craven Museum collection expanded and further room was found when the basement was redesigned as exhibition rooms and some collections were also housed on the ground floor. In 1973 the museum found a new home across the road in the extended Town Hall and the library’s ground floor reverted back to a newspaper reading room.

It was not until 1982 that the lending library was moved to the ground floor, where it is today. Local volunteers helped move the 13,000 books downstairs by forming a human chain. The new-look library opened to the public on May 20, 1982.

In 1974 Skipton Library became part of a huge network of libraries administered by North Yorkshire County Council and also the headquarters for branches in the Craven area. It has continued to evolve, but many of the original features remain. This month, a number of commemorative events will be held to celebrate the centenary and customers are being asked to add their thoughts to a “memory book” being compiled to mark the occasion. Staff are also working on a more detailed history of the library which will be published in the spring and will be available to buy.