Library marks 50 years on Hitchin town centre site with events showcasing wider history

Librarian Vivienne Birch

Librarian Vivienne Birch - Credit: Archant

These are changing times for Hertfordshire’s libraries, with a wide-ranging restructure under way which will introduce a new three-tier structure and emphasise the place of each book base at the centre of its community.

Hitchin Library opens in May 1965, newsreader Kenneth Allsop takes out the first book issued by libr

Hitchin Library opens in May 1965, newsreader Kenneth Allsop takes out the first book issued by librarian Kay Petrie - Credit: Archant

But even though there is a focus on what the future will look like, that’s no reason not to mark a significant anniversary like the 50th birthday of Hitchin’s town centre library building.

The Paynes Park library, one of 11 across the country allocated ‘premier division’ status which will mean it offers the longest opening hours and continue to provide the widest range of services, has steadily expanded its operations since it first opened its doors on May 24, 1965.

To mark the milestone two special events have been organised next Tuesday, May 26.

During the day, from 10am to 3pm, a Hitchin Through Time celebration of the town’s history will feature displays and stalls put together by library staff as well as teams from Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, North Herts Museums Service, the town’s British Schools Museum, Hitchin Historical Society and other groups. All are welcome at the free event.

Hitchin Library

Hitchin Library - Credit: Archant

And in the evening Janice Brooker from the county archives and local studies team will be giving a presentation on researching your local town using the resources at their disposal.

The talk will also feature some slides from the second Threads of Time project which centres on the Delme Radcliffe collection from Hitchin Priory – to find out more visit and search ‘Threads of Time 2’.

Tickets for the talk, which starts at 7.30pm, are £5. You can reserve yours and get more details by calling 0300 123 4049 or visiting

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Five decades ago, when the library built at a cost of £45,000 was officially opened by hunky TV presenter Kenneth Allsop, libraries were much more sedate places than they are today.

Library colleagues Judi Broughton, Sheila Howell and Vivienne Birch.

Library colleagues Judi Broughton, Sheila Howell and Vivienne Birch. - Credit: Archant

Issuing and filing was laboriously done by hand, a respectful hush was expected at all times and story sessions for toddlers would have been unthinkable.

Loans of feature films and hit recordings were still years in the future, and the stock of 11,000 books tended towards the sober rather than the sensational.

The library was already moving with the times, though, with contempoary reports noting that the books on offer included a wide range of paperback titles.

In his remarks on the opening day, Mr Allsop said he hoped that the growing popularity of television would not seduce people away from reading, but help to ignite ideas and increase the hunger for books.

Judi Broughton, Library Supervisor

Judi Broughton, Library Supervisor - Credit: Archant

He dismissed fears that TV could be an enemy of the library, and even suggested that a set should be sited in the reference area so that people could watch a documentary and then use the reference books to research more information on the same topic. He said he was a great fan of public libraries, adding: “It’s the only thing I don’t begrudge paying rates for.”

The purpose-built two-storey library initially had the children’s library and study area upstairs, with books for adults and the reference section on the ground floor.

The 8,500 sq ft development was a step up from the town’s previous facilities, which had most recently been housed in the building next. door which was now being wholly devoted to Hitchin Museum.

Guests at the opening agreed that architect Martin Priestman, working with Herts County Council chief architect Geoffrey Fardell, had created ‘one of the town’s outstanding buildings, blending the old with the new’.

Sheila Howell and Vivienne Birch

Sheila Howell and Vivienne Birch - Credit: Archant

Tributes were also paid to the Hitchin firm of M & F O Foster Ltd which carried out the building work, with general foreman Mr Fred Foster, manager Mr Massey, clerk of works Mr Foy and joiner Phil Carter also singled out.

Mr Priestman was praised for the way he had tackled the task of adding a modern wing to the 150-year-old Charnwood, which had been presented to the town by the Moss family in 1936.

A public library was established in the building two years later, and amalgamated into the county service in 1951.

Old-fashioned card indexes began to be phased out from 1984, with Hitchin one of the first libraries to be automated.

Today’s self-service kiosks date from 2009, and the public wi-fi service followed soon afterwards.

Now the focus is increasingly on virtual services – a library app has just been launched which allows access into electronic libraries through mobile phones and tablets.

But books are still very much part of the picture, and encouraging reading from a young age is a priority.

Every summer the library joins a nationwide reading challenge aimed at children – last year more than 600 in Hitchin took part.

This year’s theme for the popular project is Record Breakers and you can find out more at

To find out more about the full range of services offered at Hitchin and other county libraries, visit