Suggested words

Marian Frost, Rebel Victorian Librarian

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Today’s Pioneering Women of Sussex blog celebrates the inspiration librarian, Marian Frost, and is written by guest blogger Katie Gledhill, Principal Librarian at West Sussex Library Service.

As part of the BBC Novels That Shaped the World campaign, the BBC asked libraries if they would like to submit stories that celebrate all the different ways in which libraries safeguard our literary heritage. Colleagues at West Sussex Library Service pointed me to the story of a remarkable Librarian who was instrumental in persuading international philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to fund a purpose-built library in Worthing in 1908. Throughout her life Marian was a real innovator and she dedicated her life to championing books and the power of libraries.

Marian Frost

After much research and a fun afternoon pouring over old newspaper cuttings at Worthing Library, we were able to put together a submission for the BBC. Marian Frost’s story was the first to be chosen and we were delighted to be able to collaborate with BBC Arts  to share the fascinating story of this pioneering local woman.

Marian’s Story

Marian Frost was a young assistant librarian in Worthing’s very rudimentary public library when she wrote to Andrew Carnegie in 1902. It was ‘an overcrowded and dilapidated building’ described as ‘merely a house stacked with books’, with little room for staff or the public. However, because of this existing provision Carnegie rejected Marian’s plea on the ground that the town already had a library.

Marian didn’t let this deter her and wrote back to the philanthropist explaining exactly why this library was inadequate. In doing so she ignored contemporaries who criticised her tenacity as having ideas “exceeding her authority”. Her determination paid off and Carnegie agreed to pay £6,200 towards the cost of a new purpose-built library – the equivalent of around half a million pounds today.

Staff of the library and museum, c1910. Marian Frost is seated in the middle. Her successor is Ethel Gerard is standing furthest left. Together they ran the library and museum for over 40 years.

By 1919 Marian was running the largest public library in the country, staffed entirely by women. She appeared in Ladies Journals of the day, profiling Careers for Women and Women Who Have Made Good. In these articles she outlines what skills and qualifications women need to become good librarians and is described having ‘that inborn love of books which can never be acquired by those who do not possess it”. She also talks of how the idea of wearing ‘on duty overalls’ originated in her library and became common practice in other libraries up and down the country.

Marian’s bold initiative created a library that would serve the town of Worthing for generations. Marian went on to have an illustrious thirty-nine-year career, gaining many offices and achieving a great deal for the Sussex town that she served. She held various offices, becoming a Fellow of the Library Association, President of the London and Home Counties Library Association and Vice-president of the Museum Association.

Marian continued to improve her local library services, providing a dedicated children’s library in Worthing and founded a special Sussex Collection which preserved novels with a connection to the County. She also opened a small community library in the local Broadwater area (which still runs today). Marian even became an author herself in 1929 publishing her own local history book, The Early History of Worthing.

Arguably one of Marian’s most pioneering achievements was to introduce one of the first public libraries to patients in hospital after an inspiring trip to visit libraries in the United States. For this project she was commended for her “professional ability with [her] warm hearted consideration for her fellow men.”

When Marian Frost died aged 59 in 1936 there were numerous obituaries published about her in both national and local newspapers. Writing in The Times, well-known art critic Mr. Frank Rutter said:

“Frail physically but strong morally and intellectually, she would fight her committees tooth and nail, on occasion, for their own good and the betterment of the library and museum. Her caustic wit was dreaded perhaps by a few enemies, but it was the unending joy of innumerable friends […] Worthing will always be in her debt.”

Caricature from the Worthing Herald, 13 January 1934

Frost’s personality shines through these tributes, whether in reference to her caustic wit, her fierce intelligence, her colourful and distinctive clothes or her dedicated love of literature.

Marian’s Legacy

The original Worthing Library building is still a key landmark in the town and is now home to Worthing Museum and Art Gallery.

Lesley Sim, current Head of Service

Marian’s passionate belief in libraries, books and reading lives on through the dedicated public librarians who follow in her footsteps. West Sussex Library Service also benefits from the leadership of a pioneering woman, our current Head of Service, Lesley Sim. Lesley has played a key role in preserving 36 public libraries across the County and is currently overseeing a refurbishment of Worthing Library for the 21st Century. Like Marian, Lesley has won recognition for her life-long service. She is a Trustee of Libraries Connected, the national advocacy agency that evolved from the Society of Chief Librarians. In 2019 she was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to libraries.


Written by Katie Gledhill, Principal Librarian – Reading and Engagement at West Sussex Library Service

More information