Today I will take you on a tour through a hidden gem of Sheffield University. Students who have studied here past and present have gone through here not even knowing of its existence. It is akin to the Chamber of Secrets, only with a more mysterious history. Lo and behold, the Stephenson Library!
What’s so special about it, you ask?
Imagine being transported back into time. Imagine knowing what being a uni student here in the 50s was like. Imagine being able to know what exam papers they took, and what kind of building they lived in. That is the Stephenson Library.
The library is attached to the Stephenson accommodation, which is from the Georgian era. It is located across from Endcliffe, signposted from the Edge and on Endcliffe accommodation maps. Its a 5 minute walk from Broomhill.
Picture the scene. You walk into the entrance to what feels like a hotel lobby. To the right of you is a reception which is always empty. Old painting adorn the walls. It has the smell of a very old carpeted hotel or building if , like me, you know that distinct and oh so intoxicating smell.
To your left, there is a large hall. It is a large space where an indoor sport could be played with multiple table tennis tables (is there a technical term for that?). You may see the odd soul playing it, but there are never more than a handful of people within its boundaries. You also see a piano on the other side of hall.
You go through the lobby, up the stairs. There are portraits of wardens hanging along the walls.
Wardens? An outdated concept now, they were what came before Residence Life mentors, those who oversaw the wellbeing of students and ensured they weren’t getting up to any trouble. You head straight on through a door to a large room surrounded by even larger portraits of wardens, ominously looking over you.
All old white men, they are products of a bygone era. But the largeness of their portraits makes you assume that these people were central figures in student life, with the power to expel students for naughtiness under the stricter university rules of those times.
The building currently has no computers, but this room did before they were sent to The Ridge in Ranmoor this year.
Stephenson is meant to be undergoing maintenance, explaining their disappearance. But no maintenance work has been done. Maybe at some point some work will be done, my guess would be summer, but I am unsure for reasons I will give later.
There is a router in this room, so if your laptop, like mine, struggles to pick up wifi in certain places, it will have no trouble working here. There are plenty of plug sockets in this room.
However, the true gems are in the side rooms. Accessible from both this room and the corridor you travelled through, these are two medium sized rooms with two massive wooden tables to work from. There are no plug sockets here so don’t station yourself here if you have low battery life for your laptop. However, the tables are perfect for group work with the tables easily having the space for A2 sheets of paper, which a group could brainstorm a mind map or project of the like.
But what shines through are the other things that adorn this room. You have pictures of the classes who stayed here from as early as the 1950s! This is a true piece of history. Its quite interesting to see how male-dominated university was back then, but slowly and surely girl power crept in and the ladies begin to populate the benches.
But not only this, the rooms contain the exam papers that Sheffield had since the 1950s. There are some true gems to be had here. Did you know Sheffield used to have an art course? Or that if you were to study Roman or Ancient Greek history, you’d have to know Latin/Greek? I’m sure that no matter what your subject is, it’d be incredibly interesting for you to see how much exams/your subject have changed over time. I think this is enough of a reason to visit Stephenson on its own.
And the final touch? A load of other magazines and books from ages gone by. Funnily enough, there is no way to borrow these as there are no library facilities. However if you want a break, or want to read something curious, then feel free to have a read while you’re here. You have copies of the Spectator and National Geographic from the 90s and earlier. A true treason trove.
As you walk this building, you feel a connection to university days gone by. The fact this library is connected to Stephenson accommodation conjures up images/feelings of similarity of Oxford/Cambridge, where each college has both its own accommodation and library solely for the students belonging to it. Indeed, you almost feel like you don’t belong in this building. Some people live here (apparently) including Residence Life mentors. The lounge feels like it is used by the residents for big events.
But it just isn’t. That room with the warden portraits? The last two times I’ve been there, I was the only one in there for the many hours that I studied. Even in my first year when it was slightly busier, there were always spaces to study. It seems so strange that this place isn’t used considering its proximity to Endcliffe.
But therein lies the appeal of Stephenson. Its lack of activity is reinforced by the fact its reception is always empty. Indeed, its old paintings make it feel not only like an old hotel, but a haunted one.
But it, in a way, haunted. Haunted by a lack of activity. It was obviously bustling in its day, but the more modern addition of the Endcliffe village accommodation and The Edge has drawn them elsewhere.
It is haunted by its former students and their exam papers, as I’m sure they were.
Its haunted by the wardens. They watched over their students then, and they watch over you now.
Its haunted by the inability to explain why its so empty, why students choose to go to the crowded IC rather than study here. Maybe its because first year students go to the library less…or maybe they stray due sheer lack of knowledge about it.
There isn’t any history of this available. Most of my thoughts here are simply observations, imaginings of the building. In a university dominated by high tech building, this building has been forgotten. Its been forgotten by the students. Its been forgotten by the university, for it doesn’t even have facilities to oversee its collection of antique books and magazine. I wonder if the computers will be forgotten, and it’ll be decided that they’re better used at Ranmoor.
But most of all, considering the antiquity of the building in its entirety, the Stephenson Library has been forgotten by time itself.
And that is why I love it. If the building maintenance actually happens and it gets renovated instead, we may see it get ‘sexed up’ by high tech facilities.
But it will never be the same. It will no longer be the distant portrait of time which you will find me in, shuffling my notes, as so happened half a century ago.