Acomb Branch Library
York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), 1964–1969

The Space of Light

1 1969 Acomb Front Photot
Fig. 1: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Acomb Branch Library, 1969. Photo: Jim Kershaw; York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/12).

The welfare-state provision of libraries, focusing on the intellectual perception of light, was symbolised in the architecture of the Acomb Branch Library in Front Street via a radical application of large windows and new forms of artificial lighting. The notion of light that informed the British modernist library architecture of the 1960s was derived from the welfare state’s egalitarian ideal. The Acomb Branch Library was one of the two purpose-built library buildings executed in accordance with the Library Committee’s post-war development plan (c. 1948) and was a physical document of the changing conceptions of library lighting.1 The plans were prepared by York City Architect’s Department under Ernest Firth in 1964. The library was formally opened on 3rd December 1969 by Lord Mayor Alderman Ronald Scobey.

2 1969 Acomb Drawing By E. Firth
Fig. 2: Ernest Firth, City Architect, Architectural Drawing of Acomb Branch Library, 1964. Photo: © York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/18/29).

The history of public libraries in York started in 1893 when the city of York belatedly adopted the Public Library Act.2 In the same year, the York Corporation transformed the York Subscription Library (the former Mechanic’s Institute) in Clifford Street into its first public library. The York Central Library (now York Explore Library and Archive) in Museum Street, designed by Brierly, Rutherford and Syme, was erected in 1927 with the help of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust and was subsequently extended in 1934 and 1938. Acomb was historically a farming village and become a residential area of heavy industry workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.3 There has been a library service in the Acomb area since 1929, comprising two libraries: the Dringhouses Library, operating in the village school building in Tadcaster Street, and the Acomb Library, which opened three evenings a week in the Council’s Infants School. In 1937, part of the West Riding was incorporated into the city boundary and the two small libraries were brought into the library network of York as part-time branches; the collection of the Acomb Branch was thereafter transferred to the Meeting House of the Society of Friends in Acomb. It was not ideal: during the 1940s, multiple complaints were raised regarding the substandard heating, ventilation, and, most urgently, lighting.4 While the importance of these issues were well-addressed, they were found to be unsolvable due to the building’s domestic nature. Along with Tang Hall, Acomb and Dringhouses were included in the Public Library Committee’s post-war development plan, looking for permanent public-sphere locations to continue the library service reshaped by the ethos of the welfare state.5

3 Acomb Central Library
Fig. 3: Brierly, Rutherford and Syme; York Central Library (York Explore Library and Archive); 1927-38. Photo: © Yanqi Huang, 2022.

After prolonged negotiations with the Cooperation, another temporary building was granted albeit with a very limited fund. The plans were drawn by the York City Architect’s Department under Charles John Minter in 1948 and the library was opened in September 1950. Owing to the financial constraints, the building was, perhaps the first among many, constructed of demountable prefabricated concrete units, which were later adopted widely in temporary libraries of the 1950s.6 Despite its utilitarian notion, the architecture was principally a symmetrical elevation with diluted reference to York Central Library or other Carnegie libraries in the UK (the red brickwork, the pitched roof, and the pilastered entrance). The building was designed to last 10 years, however, when it was replaced by the 1969 building by Firth, it had been serving the community for 19 years. From its opening to 1965, the annual issues of books had raised from 103,911 to 235,845.7 A new library was surely in desperate need. In the 1966 report from Acomb Branch Library, the Branch Librarian informed the Library Committee of several problems. Aside from building quality issues resulting from its extended years of service (such as poor wiring, rain seeping caused by the temporary roofing, and inadequate staff facility), the report also revealed the inadequacy of the traditional conception of library space under the new standards of librarianship.8 One of the key issues was found around the closed floor plan, which made the library unable to accommodate a more diverse set of activities (e.g. special book installations). Also noted is the inefficiency of the existing set of lighting. While the artificial lighting was inadequate to light the whole room for most of the time, on sunny days Minter’s overcautious application of horizontal thin windows flooded the space with unwanted beams of natural light.

4 1950 Acomb
Fig. 4: York City Architect’s Department (Charles John Minter, City Engineer/Architect, Ernest Firth, Chief Assistant Architect), Acomb Branch Library (temporary premises), 1950. Photo: © York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/5).
5 1969 Acomb, Photo 3
Fig. 5: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Acomb Branch Library, 1969. Photo: Jim Kershaw (1969); York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/12).

Shortly after the opening of the Tang Hall Branch Library in Fifth Avenue in 1962, plans for a new library building in Front Street were drawn by Firth. The Acomb Branch Library was a single-storey low-rise structure, part steel framed and part load bearing brick construction. Although it was recommended for the library committees to consider a location near the shopping area to ensure constant exposure to the community (as was the case of Front Street), the plan of the Acomb Branch Library incorporated a courtyard with seating and a gravelled area at the front, consciously separating the entrance from the shopping atmosphere and bringing the readers into a community setting. The front facing of the building was predominately glazed screens surrounded by calmly toned brickwork. The front entrance was significantly larger compared to that of the Tang Hall Branch Library, enabling the disabled to enter the space more easily.9 Upon entering the space of the Acomb Branch Library, readers would be greeted by a display unit that can be used for special categories of books. On the left was a service counter of Firth’s design, creating two routes that would introduce child readers and adult readers to their respective areas. The bookshelves were made of hardwood; they were moveable and adjustable in height and depth, opening the space’s capacity for various activities. The spacious open-plan reading room, made possible by the sloped elevation, was effectively lit with a set of 16 fluorescent lighting units that are further softened by the frosted panels. With the natural light through the massive windows, readers would always expect to walk into a warmly illumined space whether by day or night.

6 1969 Acomb Photo 1
Fig. 6: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Acomb Branch Library, 1969, showing the display unit and the service counter. Photo: Jim Kershaw (1969); York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/12).
7 1969 Acomb Photo 2
Fig. 7: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Acomb Branch Library, 1969, showing the Junior Library. Photo: Jim Kershaw (1969); York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/12).
8 1969 Acomb Photo 4
Fig. 8: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Acomb Branch Library, 1969, showing the Adult Library. Photo: Jim Kershaw (1969); York Explore Library and Archive (Y/EDU/5/3/20/12).

While the fluorescent lights were already widely accepted by the end of the 1960s, an organic combination of natural light and electric light was appreciated by librarians; the benefits of large windows were appreciated on their psychological values to moderate the sense of a closed space and to give publicity to the carefully designed interiors.10 To design an effective set of lighting in a library space, the architect needs to incorporate different “tasks of seeing” in accordance with its intended function; it was pointed out by Mary Ann Steane that library lighting should consider all four of what she described as “tasks of seeing”, which includes casual seeing, concentrated seeing (reading), looking (or daydreaming), and browsing.11 Though Steane signals a more nuanced mode to tune the lighting to the specified need of each smaller section, for sixties branch libraries, unanimous lighting was widely adopted both due to the financial constraints and the comparatively small scale of the buildings. Similar approaches were spotted in other single-storey low-rise libraries around the UK, the 1966 Blackhall Branch Library in Edinburgh and the 1964 (Former) Seacroft Branch Library in Leeds were two successful models in this regard.

For Steane, designing a successful architecture of light requires careful use of artificial lighting and imaginative yet precise use of natural light in architecture.12 Light, as a medium of interaction between human beings and things, is our scope to see, or metaphorically “understand”, the latent substance that is manifested in the space.13 In this sense, the structure (or architecture) of light, as a perceptive mediator between the users and the architecture, communicates a possibility for us to “understand” the symbolic conditions of the building beyond its functional purpose, for example, the economic, social, or political realities in which buildings are imagined and constructed.14

The Acomb Branch Library was the ending chapter of York’s post-war expansion of public library service. According to Black, since the Enlightenment, the political operation of socialism had granted the post-war public library such a secure position in British social life.15 In this context, the library existed as a promise of the welfare-state notion and a physical manifestation of the equality of access that post-war Britain aimed to provide. The Acomb Branch Library was one of the libraries of light, symbolising a pursuit for equality, accessibility, and openness that can now only be told in a romanticised nostalgic tone.

In 2007, the building was extended by the Council and was transformed into a comprehensive York Explore library space incorporating the Acomb Explore Reading Café.