The library at Warwickshire County Cricket Club

The library at Warwickshire CCC, one of three county clubs that are not members of the County Cricket Heritage Forum

© Warwickshire CCC


Shelf life

Libraries and museums add to the game's lustre, but not many have figured out how to keep up with the times

Scott Oliver  |  

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library," declared the Anglophile, if not cricket-loving, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, and in one of his famous ficciones, "The Library of Babel", Borges recasts the universe itself as a kind of infinite library: "When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be masters of an intact and secret treasure."

It is a both a sentiment and a cosmology that many cricket lovers would endorse, given the sport's symbiotic relationship with literature. It is certainly a sentiment with which Nottinghamshire's octogenarian librarian Peter Wynne-Thomas would agree, for despite receiving an honorarium allowing him to "come and go as I please" he still spends five or six days a week ensconced in the bibliophile fantasy-made-reality of a converted squash court at the back of Trent Bridge's grand old Victorian pavilion. At least, he would usually be ensconced there had he not been made club president earlier last year, a position conferred a few months after the library was renamed in his honour.

The Wynne-Thomas Library may not be infinite - although, with over 15,000 books, it is the second-largest dedicated cricket library in the country, after MCC's at Lord's, which has over 20,000 - but it is certainly a kind of paradise. Surrounded by his typewriter and Wisdens and papers and files and assorted paraphernalia and memorabilia, "Whizzer" is the pig in the proverbial, each day steeped a little more in his beloved game (he was only an occasional, peripatetic cricketer, "a bowler off the wrong foot" who had been coached by Joe Hardstaff Jr and Bill Voce). Nevertheless the popularity of the library has meant that, even before he was made president, actually watching the cricket was increasingly becoming a rarity for him, although he still has regular if ersatz contact with the game in the form of updates piped in through the PA.

An institution within an institution, Whizzer has been the club's archivist since returning from London in the early 1970s when his first book, Nottinghamshire Cricketers, 1821-1914, won the Cricket Society's literary award, allowing him to devote his time fully to what had till then been a hobby. Since then he has written "between 50 and 60 books, although I've lost count" and considers as his greatest honour being asked by Her Majesty's Stationery Office to write an official history of cricket. Prior to this mid-innings transformation, Wynne-Thomas had been an architect, flunking his final exams at University College London, yet soon picking up a job at Arthur Swift and Partners on Grosvenor Square, for whom he designed slaughterhouses while paying 30 shillings a week for a YMCA room. "I retired from architecture in broad terms in 1971," he says, "the year everything changed to centimetres."

If you happen to intrude upon Wynne-Thomas setting a small audience straight on some matter or other, you should take it as a mark of the greatest affection to be gently insulted, within earshot, in a warbling Lincolnshire lilt: "Oh Lord, what does this idiot want now?"

His training helped him produce initial drafts for Trent Bridge's iconic Radcliffe Road Stand, as well as plans for the new library, officially opened by local MP and former Home Secretary Ken Clarke in 2002, after the old one in the pavilion, now the club's museum, was outgrown by the volume of books and memorabilia donated by members.

The Wynne-Thomas Library is relatively spacious, its previous existence bequeathing a high ceiling and room for a gallery where, laid out on a pair of large fold-out tables, such as a decorator might use to wallop wallpaper, sits a vast indexing system for the Cricketer, from inception in 1921 up until 2004, all written out on thousands of cards. It took Whizzer 25 years to complete - "A spare-time job at home: they used to phone me asking whether they'd ever printed pictures of so-and-so" - and it's far from the only Sisyphean labour he has undertaken. Over the course of five years, he has painstakingly checked all Notts' first-class scorecards, going back to 1821, for inaccuracies pertaining to extras, the toss, and which batsman took strike - all of which irks his sense of statistical propriety. In 1973 he was a founder member of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians - he even gave them rent-free office space at the back of a bookshop he bought across the road from the Trent Bridge Inn in 1987 - which years later went on to provide many of the principal contributors to one of the game's most useful online research tools: the scorecards database

His imprint on the club is substantial, yet the library is his greatest contribution, his habitat. Not that he is remotely territorial or proprietorial about it. Visitors are warmly welcomed, although the only time a cricketer has ever set foot in there, he says, was for a magazine photo shoot: "I'm not even sure they know where it is." Despite the advancing years and sense of urgency this inevitably imparts to a still-industrious man; despite receiving many telephone enquiries each day from people asking whether their great uncle played for Notts; and despite, on match days, being inundated with members coming in at lunch and tea to browse and propound their various Harold Larwood conspiracy theories, Whizzer remains an avuncular, amiable figure, incredibly generous with his time. Indeed, if you happen to intrude upon him setting a small audience straight on some matter or other, you should take it as a mark of the greatest affection to be gently insulted, within earshot, in a warbling Lincolnshire lilt that's a dead ringer for the actor Jim Broadbent: Oh Lord, what does this idiot want now?

"Whizzer", the affable archivist-in-chief of Notts cricket © Nottinghamshire CCC

On top of their obvious utility as research tools, cricket books - and, more broadly, libraries - also form a sub-category of heritage, and it is apt that the Trent Bridge library has played host to what Wynne-Thomas calls "a self-help society", dedicated to heritage matters in county cricket.

The ad hoc group that calls itself County Cricket Heritage Forum (CCHF) emerged out of conversations between the secretary of Sussex's Museum and Educational Trust - also the club's vice-chairman and himself owner of a private cricket library of over 2000 books - Jon Filby, and a counterpart at Kent, the cricket historian Jo Rice. Given the neighbouring counties' status as the cradle of the game, it should be no surprise that they have provided much of the group's impetus as it looks to preserve cricket's exceedingly rich heritage, books and all.

CCHF was conceived, says Rice, as "a way for all the counties' heritage people to talk to each other. We've all got the same problems, we're not in competition with each other, and we can learn from each other's mistakes and successes." The first gathering was at Lord's in March 2015; that and three subsequent meetings were attended at least once by a representative from 15 of the 18 counties. The exceptions were Leicestershire, Middlesex (whose library, beyond a few papers in a box in the Allen Stand, is subsumed by MCC's) and Warwickshire, the last of whom "turned us down flat", says Rice. "They weren't remotely interested in anything to do with such a thing."

With several counties either heavily in debt or under the chairmanship of business people not entirely sympathetic to heritage and history, a common set of issues was arising. Principal among these was actually keeping hold of their heritage material: in 2006, Kent auctioned Albert Chevallier Tayler's painting, Kent vs Lancashire at Canterbury, 1906 which had been on long-term loan with MCC because Kent couldn't afford to insure it. It fetched £600,000, and the purchaser immediately re-loaned it to Lord's, where today it hangs in the Long Room.

"I brought Mark Ramprakash in one day and told him that Bob Willis had given us this, Bob Willis had given us that, but the penny didn't drop. Then again, he isn't proper Surrey, is he?" Bill Gordon on his efforts to collect Surrey cricket memorabilia

The sale was a rare occurrence, and an exceptionally valuable item, but it did provide a hefty dose of reality. The shock prompted a number of counties - Kent and Sussex among them - to establish trusts, separate legal entities that take possession of and safeguard their heritage material.

The esteemed cricket writer David Frith - who has a personal library of over 5000 books, most of them signed, as well as some 6000 letters and myriad other items of cricketana, all catalogued in a 1100-page book that took six years to compile - has been honorary vice-president of the Cricket Memorabilia Society since 1987. He had been seduced decades earlier, when he paid a visit to former Australia wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield's shop in Sydney in 1953, leaving with his blazer from the 1930 Ashes tour. "Collecting is like a romantic tremor that runs through you", he says. "Even now, I'm not beyond the age when I get a shiver from pulling out and touching one of Stoddart's scrapbooks, with all his notations. It's contact with the past, and there's some sort of weird communication that lasts for half a second."

Frith is a regular visitor to The Oval, where the club-owned museum contains several items of value and/or interest. Most notably, there is the world's oldest surviving bat, the John Chitty bat, from 1729. There is also Jack Hobbs' last England cap, the first stump camera, and Michael Clarke's training gear from his final Test appearance. Kevin Pietersen has donated silver bats commemorating Test centuries, and Mark Butcher the ball from his career-defining 173 not out at Headingley. There are blazers, balls and bats belonging to the very many greats to have worn the famous brown Surrey cap: from Douglas Jardine to Ken Barrington and Jim Laker through to Alec Stewart, all lovingly curated by Bill Gordon, the only non-cricketer to be capped by Surrey, reward for 53 years of dedicated service, the vast majority of those as a member of the ground staff.

From the mountain of papers on his desk, Gordon digs out a letter from the ECB, thanking him for preparing exactly the sort of pitch they were after for the 2009 Ashes decider. Gordon is always looking to add more memorabilia to the collection, and recalls bumping into Bob Willis and asking whether he had anything to donate. He was given a coffin full of kit, packed away after Willis' final day of international cricket in 1984 and untouched since. "I brought Mark Ramprakash in one day," Gordon recalls, "and told him that Bob Willis had given us this, Bob Willis had given us that, but the penny didn't drop. Then again, he isn't proper Surrey, is he?"

Gordon sits in the Oval's club-owned museum, of which he is the curator

Gordon sits in the Oval's club-owned museum, of which he is the curator © Scott Oliver

For Ramprakash memorabilia, you need to head across the river to Lord's, where, alongside signed jigsaws of Denis Compton, the museum holds one of Ramprakash's outfits from Strictly Come Dancing, which he won in 2006. Somerset's museum displays one of Joel Garner's size-16 boots, Sussex have photos from Ranjitsinhji's coronation, Kent have the wallet that Colin Blythe was carrying when he was shot and killed at Passchendaele in World War I, complete with bullet hole, and Warwickshire's has Andy Lloyd's helmet from his all too brief Test career.

The museum curator at Edgbaston, Phil Britt, says that, due to the amount of pilfering, visitors to the county's library must be accompanied by a steward, although he recognises the books may not be worth a great deal. Frith concurs - "A box of 50 modern titles, by which I mean after 1980, would sell for about £50 at a car-boot sale, even if most of them are signed" - but does wonder about the security of memorabilia loaned to libraries, not only in terms of safekeeping but also not having them sold on. Indeed, he is occasionally shocked at what comes into the market: "In 1987 I took [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts to an auction and there were items on sale from Lord's that simply shouldn't have been there, like an original oil painting of JT Hearne. I know of two or three counties that have had things quietly removed, and I feel sorry for people who've been told, 'This is a safe place to put your late uncle's books' or whatever it is. These libraries are not secure. They're not the Bank of England."

The motive for selling material on isn't always nefarious. Often it's a simple question of space. Britt says that while Warwickshire haven't sold anything since he took over as museum curator in 2001, they are considering doing away with the library altogether. This is partly due to lack of interest and also to free up more space for the museum, which receives around 12,000 visitors annually: "I have shelved about 10 to 15% of the books owned, and despite realising that the value of cricket books on the open market has plunged, we are considering moving them on. This is difficult, as many of the books were bequeathed and date back to the late-19th and early-20th century, but at the moment they're boxed up and occupying a huge amount of my heritage storage space." That almost proves Frith's point.

"Collecting is like a romantic tremor that runs through you. Even now, I'm not beyond the age when I get a shiver from pulling out and touching one of Stoddart's scrapbooks, with all his notations" David Frith, veteran cricket writer and historian

And therein lies the dilemma for those responsible for maintaining and augmenting heritage collections: they beetle about the countryside like Bargain Hunt contestants, attending auctions, rummaging through boxes at car-boot sales and in second-hand shops, yet the lack of space within museums and libraries - assuming there's space for them at the county ground in the first place - means that collections are constantly being "rationalised" or "consolidated", with many of the ten currently operating county libraries stripped back to Wisdens, Playfairs, yearbooks, magazines, and a smattering of county-specific texts. Indeed, three separate archivists used the same example as a byword for the problem with well-intentioned donations of superfluous books: "Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against Dickie Bird, but you don't need four or five copies of his autobiography… "

One of the benefits of the CCHF was the pooling of information on how best to catalogue, classify and display heritage material. "Everybody told each other where they were in terms of archiving and memorabilia," says Rice of the first meeting at Lord's. "The problem is, they are all cricket buffs. They know everything there is to know about their county, but there's no one in there who could remotely be described as a museum professional. Anyone who does know anything is pounced upon."

The knowledge gleaned from professional curators included information about the optimal cabinets to display different types of artifacts, the correct humidity levels and temperatures in which to store scorecards and minute books, how to recognise damp spores, and the discovery that silver only tarnishes when it's placed on wood. Beyond that, ideas were shared about presenting their history in contemporary ways.

Sussex's club vice-president Jon Filby co-founded the County Cricket Heritage Forum (CCHF)

Sussex's club vice-president Jon Filby co-founded the County Cricket Heritage Forum (CCHF) © Sussex CCC

There is of course a delicate balance to be struck between, on the one hand, the veneration of history for its own sake and, on the other, turning your back on that past out of some misguided sense of scorched-earth modernism that has been blindly conflated with progress. Indeed, the task facing the counties is to engage with and renew history, and in so doing, create new emotional bonds with community traditions that are perpetually open to revision. As the novelist William Faulkner said: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Indeed, this revisiting and revival of tradition was the impulse behind the interactive displays at Glamorgan's SWALEC stadium, curated by Dr Andrew Hignell, the county's statistician since 1982 and chief archivist since 2004. Of course, the Museum of Welsh Cricket carries the extra emotional charge concomitant with representing a nation rather than merely a county, yet there remains the task of connecting people emotionally with the history of their de facto national team. Thus, there are eight plasma screens, including a Wii-based display called Batio that allows visitors to virtually face three of Welsh cricket's most illustrious bowlers - Robert Croft, Don Shepherd and Simon Jones - which earned them an innovation award at the 2013 Celtic Media Festival. "We didn't want it to be bits of kit and little labels," says Hignell. "We wanted it to be dynamic and in a format that people could enjoy," - an "iPads not thigh pads" approach that has been replicated elsewhere.

So, where do (cricket) libraries fit into the fast-changing world being wrought by this equally fast-changing technology and the economy it engenders - a world in which text is increasingly consumed as digital information, on the move and off a screen? Are they already sliding toward obsolescence? Is the object-status of books changing from intellectual tools we get our hands on to cultural artifacts kept behind glass or in attics? Does a library metamorphose into a museum? And is this anything to worry about? Surely it would be an unequivocal boon for cricket writers, historians and researchers to have a remotely accessible online digital library? It would certainly save a few trees - though one suspects Wynne-Thomas wouldn't have much call to use it since he doesn't own a computer.

At any rate, the full digitisation of cricket libraries is unlikely to happen any time soon, if only because of intellectual-property laws. Copyright expires 70 years after the death of an author, so anything written by a writer who was alive in 1947 is still protected. Regardless of the benefits of being able to carry millions of pages in your pocket, many people's preference for physical books - much as with vinyl records in an age of mp3s - is perhaps more than a simple nostalgic reluctance to embrace the future. Rather, it could well be because physical books offer the optimal way of committing ideas to our memories and intellects, promoting greater attentiveness and immersive contemplation. Such is the thesis of the technology author Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, which depicts the web as "an ecology of interruption technologies" sponsoring "cognitive overload" and widespread distraction.

Is the object-status of books changing from intellectual tools we get our hands on to cultural artifacts kept behind glass or in attics? Does a library metamorphose into a museum? And is this anything to worry about?

Whatever the cognitive benefits or sensual pleasures of reading from a book, libraries have to adapt or die. They must make themselves relevant. It's not only people who need to multitask in the digital age but institutional spaces as well.

Glamorgan has been at the forefront, entering into a partnership with the Alzheimer's Society, hosting coffee mornings for those suffering from the condition, where cricket becomes the vehicle through which old, fragmentary, elusive memories are accessed, rekindling the past, painting in its gaps in order to create continuity with the present. At the other end of the age spectrum, Trent Bridge's library each winter throws open its doors to a thousand local schoolchildren, in batches of 35 per day, twice a week, using the Notts archive as a vehicle for literacy and numeracy, Whizzer dipping into his bottomless font of knowledge to teach them about county players from their towns or schools.

In many ways, Wynne-Thomas is the living embodiment of the club's connection to its wider community, to the county it represents. One of his more baroque projects involved travelling to every village in the county, visiting all 463 of its extant or extinct cricket grounds, his wife in tow, her taking photos, him drawing sketches. While researching Cricket Grounds of Nottinghamshire, he heard of time being called on one ground after the farmer who owned the field wasn't afforded an opportunity to bowl, and so promptly ploughed the whole lot up. Others among his "50 or 60" books are: Trent Bridge: A History of the Ground, to commemorate the 150th anniversary, and William Clarke: The Old General, about the man who established Trent Bridge, principally for gambling; there's The History of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, as well as biographies of the Nottinghamshire players George Parr, Arthur Shrewsbury, Larwood, and in the pipeline, Arthur Carr.

While cricket libraries, like the MCC library at Lord's, should be preserved, they must also find ways to stay relevant to generations brought up in the digital age

While cricket libraries, like the MCC library at Lord's, should be preserved, they must also find ways to stay relevant to generations brought up in the digital age © MCC

As quiet and yesteryear as the Wynne-Thomas Library feels, it's still working, still a place in which things get done, not (yet) a museum. And yet the order within it - the key to accessing the information it contains - is in some ways mysterious to all except the eponymous librarian, which the CCHF found to be a not uncommon problem around the counties. Indeed, one of the more delicate issues on the agenda, something the counties tend to "pussyfoot around" according to Jo Rice, has been succession planning. Many of the people who curate the collections are old "and don't have any successors in sight": they are the heritage, and it is vital that their embodied knowledge is externalised, systematised and transmitted. "There are lots of curators or archivists who have lots of information in their heads but don't have a way of handing it on. We need to prise out that information without it looking like they're being given the heave-ho".

So it is that under the gallery, next to the buzzing telephone, stand four large filing cabinets, four drawers in each, all stuffed to overflowing with an assortment of documents that are being painstakingly catalogued by an 18-strong team of young volunteers working under the auspices of the archivist from nearby RAF Cranwell. In they come, one at a time, to number, scan and file the miscellanea and esoterica, before committing them to an orderly place in cricket's dusty, distinguished archive. The first two drawers have taken a year to catalogue, so "it will probably take them another seven years to finish off" calculates Wynne-Thomas, who by that stage will be approaching his nervous nineties. "Hopefully someone will emerge from that lot who can take the library on."

It will not be easy, though, as Rice admits: "There's no one else in county cricket quite like Peter, and no one has a library like his."

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper