Museum library

Treasure at the heart of the Museum: The Armstrong Library

We look back over the development of one of the Museum’s most important heritage assets – the library – and consider its value for lovers of historic buildings.

From the earliest beginnings in the 1960s a principal objective for the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (as it was then called) was to create a centre for research and records of traditional buildings in the region alongside the vital work of rescuing and re-erecting traditional vernacular buildings under threat.

The Armstrong Library developed over nearly 50 years into what is thought to be the only specialist library of its kind in the country. Roy Armstrong, the Museum’s Founder, wrote in 1988: “The library should do what the exhibits by themselves do not. Whereas the latter can provide a few selected examples of buildings typical of a limited area and period, the library provides details and explanation of their setting within a larger context”. Roy, and his wife, Lyn, were themselves deeply involved in the detailed work of the library itself, and after his death the library was named after him.

The rescue and re-erection on the Museum site in 1978 of an early 16th century upper hall from Crawley was an essential step in achieving the aim of creating a distinctive and recognised library. This building provided the Museum with a lecture and meeting room on the first floor and a reference library below. Since then, a loan library has been established in an adjacent building for the use of volunteers, staff, and students on the Museum’s two MSc courses in Timber Building Conservation and Building Conservation, validated by the University of York.

Carol Brinson, a long-serving volunteer, has worked in the Museum’s library for seven years. She explains: “Based mainly on donations, a remarkable library developed, now containing over 25,000 books, journals and offprints, and specialist collections (such as those of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers and a large number of publications on mills from the late Frank Gregory). The library focuses on three areas: buildings and architecture, especially vernacular architecture and building trades and crafts; local and social studies; and museum theory and practice, particularly open air museums worldwide”. This ecology of themes combine to offer a very special treasure at the heart of the Museum. “The Museum’s first Honorary Librarian appointed in 1975 was Jenni Leslie (of West Sussex County Council’s Library Service and whose husband Kim, of the West Sussex Record Office, was the first Honorary Treasurer of the Museum),” says Carol. “In 1982 Marjorie Hallam took over the position. One of the earliest Museum supporters, sometimes described as ‘deputy founder’, Marjorie was a key figure in the establishment and development of the Museum. A member of the promotional committee for the Museum since 1966, she made an important contribution to the rescue and interpretation of some of the earliest buildings to come to the Museum in the 1970s and during its rapid development in the 1980s. Working with volunteer Annelise Fielding, Marjorie devised a unique cataloguing system which is still in use today. On her death in 2006 her collection of books and papers on vernacular architecture came to the Museum”.

Starting in 1984, a series of Manpower Services Commission (MSC) teams spent three years working alongside volunteers in the library under the guidance of Marjorie Hallam and a succession of super visors including her daughter Caroline. Using a computer programme written by the then Research Director, Richard Harris, this project established the catalogue on Apple computers. “Thanks to excellent hardware support the data produced has been successfully migrated through several further systems and is still in use”, Carol says. When the MSC project ended the library was run by Jon Roberts (who is still with the Museum as its Rural Life Interpreter), under Richard Harris, followed by the Museum’s Social Historian, Danae Tankard, with an increasing number of dedicated volunteers. Today it is the responsibility of Lucy Hockley, the Cultural Engagement Manager, and is staffed by three volunteers. The museum hopes in the not too distant future to bring together the library and its own archives in improved high standard accommodation for the benefit of books and users alike.

The Museum is a member of the newly formed Chichester Area Research Libraries & Archives group, which is publishing a booklet of information and a website detailing local research facilities. A summary of the Museum library catalogue can be found on www.weald down.co.uk/explore/library and enquiries can be made via [email protected] or by calling 01243 811027.

* Some text for the article above was drawn from Building History: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum: 1970-2010 – the first forty years; pages 122-123, ed. Diana Zeuner