Handsworth Library, on the Soho Road, was opened on 1 May 1880. There were books to borrow, and newspapers in the Reading Room. The first Annual Report in 1881 stated that the Committee: "had the pleasure of congratulating the Local Board and the inhabitants of the District on the great success which has attended the adoption of the Public Libraries' Acts in Handsworth."
28,810 volumes had been issued in the first year. In July 1882 music books were added to the stock; the 1887 Report affirming that "our Music Library is acknowledged to be of special and almost unique excellence amongst Free Public Libraries."
By 1882 there were 2,434 borrowers. This would continue to increase over the next thirty years, partly due to universal education, and partly due to the increase in population. By 1911 the population was given as 73,000; and there were 4,235 borrowers.
In 1890 there were proposals to extend the library. This was discussed in the papers, as it would mean 'additional burdens on the ratepayers'. One writer, in favour of the extension, described the library as it was then: 'On the ground floor... is the lobby or entrance hall, to the left as you enter the lending library, where through a window books are exchanged and all the library business done. This is a fairly good sized room, pretty well filled up with book stands, counter, tables, desks and other requisites... In front of you as you enter is the reading room, where a good supply of newspapers, magazines and periodicals will be found. Sometimes this room is very full, and during the periods when political excitement or local questions run high there will be great numbers ... just to see the papers.'
In some respects the library was very different from today. Readers could not browse along shelves. They had to look in the catalogue for books to borrow, and for reference books, then make requests at the counter. Reference books were locked away in a glass case in the reading room. The Handsworth Herald, in an article praising the librarian J W Roberts, describes this: 'The trap door at the Handsworth Library is quite large enough to allow the books to be passed through... Not one single borrower appears at the counter without expecting that you are fully acquainted with every book that is catalogued. No matter what the author or subject may be, you must be prepared to give some idea of what it is all about.' The reporter also mentions borrowers asking the librarian to 'give them a nice book' - understandably, when they could not look at them themselves.
Death of a Librarian
'Shortly before five o'clock on Thursday evening the body of a respectably dressed man was found lying in Harborne Lane at Quinton, with a bullet wound through his right temple, and a five-chambered revolver near him. Three chambers of the revolver had been apparently discharged recently...It was found on enquiry yesterday that the deceased was Mr J W Roberts, the respected Librarian of Handsworth Public Library...Miss Jessie Burt said that she saw Roberts earlier in the afternoon lying by the side of Harborne Lane. He was in a stooping position, as though he was in pain. He was at times pressing his hand upon his left side... she returned to the spot about quarter of an hour later. Then she saw that deceased was asleep, and he was snoring heavily. Witness woke him and asked if he was ill, when deceased replied: 'No, thank you, I am quite well.' Deceased then raised his hat and witness walked away. She afterwards visited a farm in the locality, and upon returning to the place where she had last seen deceased about an hour later she discovered that the deceased had moved to the opposite side of the road and was then quite dead.'
The first librarian had been Mr George Catlin. Mr J W Roberts, of Swansea, had been appointed in 1883. In the years that followed Mr Roberts was consistently praised in the Annual Report. In 1891 he was of sufficient standing to be featured in the Handsworth Herald series, 'Letters addressed to Public Men'. It was suggested that he had committed suicide because he was overworked. The Library Committee denied this. There was no mention of Mr Roberts' death in the 1904 Annual Report.