‘Books. This will be good.’

Kath Kay told us here about a Christmas play put on for the children of Walkley and Woodhouse Libraries in 1949 and 1950. Now she shares further memories of libraries in Sheffield, Kent and London. Kath was born at home in Crookes, a suburb of Sheffield in 1931.

It’s been an interesting career. I’ve worked as a school, public, government and university librarian. Working in libraries all my life has given me great curiosity to find things out. Now I’m constantly using my iPad. It’s all part of the information process.

Kath Kay in a school play (Kath, wearing a hat, is in the third row, second from the right)

Kath Hunt, as she was then, left Notre Dame High School in 1947. She was 16 and had no clear idea of what she wanted to do. Stay on at school? Or go to the Commercial College? Then she got a job in the first-floor book department at Boots on Fargate in the centre of Sheffield. The staff ‘had to pencil a very small letter B, near the spine, on page 17 of every book’, Kath says, the idea being that it would help track books if they were stolen.

Edith Sitwell, by Rex Whistler (1929)

One of the bookshop customers was Dame Edith Sitwell, whose family home, Renishaw, is near Sheffield. In the Renishaw museum, there are memories from Boots staff: ‘I was fascinated by a one inch square ring she wore. I wondered how she could wear a glove over it.’ And another said, ‘…she would shake hands with us and we all bobbed a tiny curtsey. … A wonderful fairy-tale experience.’ Kath has her memory too. ‘Long red nails, long hands, lots of rings, very grand,’ she says instantly, nearly 70 years later.

The job in Boots set the course of Kath’s life. ‘Books. This will be good,’ she thought. ‘Perhaps I’d like to work in a library.’

Walkley Library

At first, there were no vacancies in Sheffield Libraries, but then Jack Walker, the Deputy City Librarian, said, ‘You can start next week.’ On 2 January 1948, Kath joined the staff at Walkley Library, a Carnegie library and one of the busiest branches in the city. By coincidence, the young woman who lived next door to Kath started the same day. In the fashion of the time, she wore her hair in a ‘peekaboo’ (that is, falling over one eye). When the formidable City Librarian, J P Lamb, came on a visit, he greeted her by saying ‘Ah, I see we have Veronica Lake with us today.’ (For younger readers, Veronica Lake was a Hollywood star famous for the peekaboo. It was so popular that, during World War II, the US government asked Lake to change her hair, as the impractical style was thought to cause accidents in factories.)

Veronica Lake, with her trademark hairstyle, and Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Kath liked Walkley and her job. She remembers with affection the librarian, Mr Broadhurst, known to his staff as ‘Broady’, who used to throw Christmas parties at his home in nearby Northfield Road. There was also her friend, Olive Phillips, the Children’s Librarian, with whom Kath wrote and produced the play, The Magic Story Book, in 1949. ‘We loved it. We were young. We just did it.’ By 1950 Kath had been posted to Woodhouse Library, where she put the play on again, and was chronicled in the local newspaper. After Woodhouse came a job in the children’s library at Hillsborough. Kath remembers that staff were often transferred without warning from one branch to another and that all her professional training took place on the job.

Kath left the library service in 1952 when she got married.

I didn’t have to leave but my parents had opened a general store and I went to help out. We lived with my parents.

By 1954, Kath and her husband were established enough to sign the contract for a house. Kath returned to Sheffield Libraries, but

the only job was in Central Lending, and meant sometimes sitting on the enquiry desk which wasn’t a good experience. I’ve never been so frightened in my life.

She asked for a transfer and was sent as a Senior Assistant at Attercliffe Library, which turned out to be much better.

Tommy Osborne was the librarian. He had a tied cottage at Chatsworth, and told us that in the awful winter of 1947 he couldn’t get to work for eight weeks. But he used to invite us out there in the summer.

Tommy Osborne, his wife and some of the staff from Attercliffe Library at Chatsworth (photo by Kath Kay)

Some of the Attercliffe Library staff, at Tommy Osborne’s cottage at Chatsworth (photo by Kath Kay)

At Christmas 1958, ‘the Attercliffe children’s librarian made a model of Sputnik’, the satellite the Russians had put into space the year before, and suspended it from the library ceiling.

There was one ritual Kath recalls which applied no matter the library. Every Friday afternoon, someone from each branch made the journey, long or short, to the ‘Bin Room’, as it was called, at the Central Library. The purpose was to ‘collect the cleaners’ wages and clean tea towels’, but the occasion turned into an informal staff meeting, where you ‘met and chatted with everyone from the other libraries’.

In 1958 Kath became pregnant with her son, Chris, and left the library again. A couple of years later, the family moved to London, where Kath’s husband, a Customs & Excise official, had been posted. Kath got a job, mostly part-time, in a school in Kent for about eight years, where in the few hours a week she worked, she had to:

devise a system for a library of 20,000 books and choose new books with the teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was there for years. It was convenient for looking after my own children. The library was on the top floor of a new 6th Form block.

In time this job led to another – library assistant in the science and engineering library at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). ‘I got the job,’ Kath says, ‘because I had worked with 6th formers.’ Kath also looked after quite a few graduates doing a year’s work experience before doing their Masters course in Librarianship.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

In 1987, after 27 years in the south, Kath returned to Sheffield. She worked in the Health and Safety Executive library for a year and, in 1989, returned to Sheffield Libraries for the third and last time. Her job was at Upperthorpe, a grand Victorian building and the oldest branch library in the network. Someone had the idea of running some classes and said: ‘You’re interested in sewing and things. You could pass on some skills.’ The classes didn’t quite materialise, but a discussion group, the Tuesday Club. did. One member wrote:

I found [the Tuesday Club] filled a need in my life that until then I hadn’t realised I had. To meet new people who were not already sharing my hobbies and pursuits. … I had not realised how diffident I had become over the years, I didn’t want to meet new people and avoided even casual conversations on the bus or in the shops, in fact I had built a nice comfortable shell around my life and resented any intrusions. … I can’t say the Tuesday Club has changed me into a different person, but it has certainly broadened my outlook and made me friendlier, and I have found a lot of the confidence I had lost over the years.

You can read the letter in full here.

Kath retired in 1992, at the age of 61, but she was on the standby list until she was 65, working when she was needed, at Stannington and Walkley, where she had started all those years before. And librarianship remains a family profession. Kath’s daughter became a university librarian. And Kath enjoys her retirement.

The Secret Garden is still one of my favourite books to read, and I have a first edition now.

The Magic Story Book (1949 and 1950)

Bobby: (turning aside wistfully). Do you really think Father Christmas will bring me my engine, Betty?

Betty: Yes, I should think so. I am feeling rather worried about my doll and pram. Do you think it was too much to ask for both?

Bobby: I don’t see why you shouldn’t get them, as you want them so much. Besides, Cousin Mary asked for lots and lots of things last year, and got them all.

Betty: Yes, so she did. Well, anyway, we usually get more things than we ask for, so I don’t think he will mind my asking for two things.

In autumn 1949, the staff at Walkley Library were already planning for Christmas. What festivities could they lay on for the children who ‘regularly attended the Reading Circle’? Olive Phillips, the children’s librarian, and Kath Hunt, then a ‘humble library assistant’, decided to produce a  play. ‘We loved it. We were young. We just did it.’ Here are Kath’s memories.  

Carnegie library at Walkley

The Reading Circle was held four evenings a week, starting at 6.30pm. The children were told a story and then a book – maybe the latest Enid Blyton – was read as a serial. (Remember this was when Enid Blyton was accepted as a popular children’s author.)

Olive Phillips and I had the idea of producing a play for Christmas, rehearsing during the Reading Circle time. We looked at some plays but royalties were required to perform these to the public so we then thought of writing our own play. We did this with the encouragement of the librarian, Mr Broadhurst, or ‘Broady’ as he was thought of by us!

The Magic Story Book tells how Bobby and Betty Brown creep downstairs on Christmas Eve, hoping to see Father Christmas. They want proof of his existence, to convince their sceptical cousins Mary and Robert. But they fall asleep, and are found by Wee Willie Winkie and his friends from Nursery Rhyme Land. They decide to test the children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes. Who, for example, is this?

I come from far across the sea,

My magic lamp I’ve brought with me,

I’ll rub it once, and then again,

Now, can you tell me who I am?

Father Christmas appears and is angry that they are not asleep, but he forgives them when he hears about Mary and Robert. ‘Now rub your lamp, Aladdin,’ he says. ‘Then I will get on with my rounds or I shall never get finished before daybreak.’ The next day, Betty and Bobby tell their adventure to Mary and Robert and their friends, but to no avail. ‘There is no Father Christmas. You’re making it all up,’ says Mary. They summon Aladdin who carries Betty, Bobby and Mary off to Nursery Rhyme Land. Their friends who are left behind pass the time making up rhymes:

Something has happened, it’s very weird;

Betty and Bobby have disappeared,

Taking Mary with them too;

Oh, whatever shall we do?

When Betty, Bobby and Mary return, they tell their story:

Mary: We’ve been to Nursery Rhyme Land. It’s been such fun and we saw Father Christmas’ toy shop. He was asleep in his cottage, but we peeped through the window and saw him. I’ll never disbelieve again. Mary Mary quite contrary gave me these flowers from her garden, and the Queen of Hearts made some tarts for us.

And the play ends with carols. You can read the play here.

Olive and I were very enthusiastic, even rehearsing on Thursdays, our day off. We had much support from the Branch Libraries Supervisor, Mr Harry Marr and the Deputy City Librarian, Mr Jack Walker. They arranged for copies of the play to be duplicated (no photocopies in those days). They even lent us a platform to use as a stage in the old reading room where the play was to be performed. As the platform was not high enough, we had to balance it on four dustbins to make sure that the audience would be able to see all the children. Would we have got away with this today? Perhaps not, but it was most important as the audience were mainly parents, brothers and sisters and grandparents of the participating children. They had to have a good view.

Unfortunately there is no record of that performance but it was judged a great success. The following Christmas, 1950, when Olive had moved to Firth Park Library and I was working in the children’s library at Woodhouse, I produced the play again. This time the event was reported, with a photo, by the South Yorkshire Times and Woodhouse Express:

Woodhouse children in The Magic Story Book (1950)

Library Play

Woodhouse Debut Before Child Audience

An audience of about 100 children on Thursday saw a play. ‘The Magic Story Book,’ presented in Woodhouse Library by members of the children’s reading circle. The play was written by Miss Kathleen Hunt (19) and Miss Olive Phillips (20), of 39, Bishop Hill, Woodhouse, junior librarian at Firth Park Library, Sheffield.

The play was presented at the Walkley Library, where Miss Phillips and Miss Hunt were employed last year. Parents could not be accommodated in the Woodhouse Library.

About 30 children were in the play, which concerns the attempts of two children to convince their cousin that there is a Father Christmas.

Taking part were: Maureen Fox, Barbara Grant, Kathleen Crossland, Carol Macintyre, Carol Macvinnie, Maureen, Eileen and Barbara May, Carol Pickeridge, Auriol Wheeler, Marlene Grice, Barbara Simons, Rita Hall, Pauline Cardwell, Carol Gummer, Eileen Price, Ann and Pat Roebuck, Lynne Hartley, Sandra Taylor, Joseph Firth and Stanley Rodgers.

Kath remembers the whole experience of the play very well, and now thinks back about her friend and co-author with some sadness. Olive Phillips married and moved to the Birmingham area, and died in her early fifties, in the 1980s.

If anyone recognises the names of the Woodhouse children, or remembers the Walkley performance, please leave a comment.

Old Jack Frost comes round at night;

Fingers and toes he tries to bite,

I hide myself beneath the clothes,

And then he cannot bite my nose.

 

More of Kath’s memories will be posted soon.

Librarians’ Voices: When the library came calling…

Sheffield’s Mobile Library Service started in 1962. Here are the memories of one of the staff who joined it in 1968.   

In those days we had three vehicles, imaginatively called Mob 1, Mob 2 and Mob 3.

Mobs 1 and 3 were custom built but Mob 2 was a converted (old) single decker bus, with a back entry, so when we reached a stop, the driver had to get out to come round the back, whatever the weather. But most of my memories are of the custom built vehicles.

There were three crews, consisting of driver, librarian or assistant, rotated round the three vehicles, so everyone had to endure the old one which had a more or less non-existent heating system

At that time we were based in Highfield House, in the back of Highfield Library, on the 1st and 2nd floors.

Highfield Library

Highfield House

Some places were visited only once a week but busier stops had up to three visits but with different crews and vehicles during the week so they had as varied a selection of books as possible.

We all had office time, on the first floor in Highfield, as well as vehicle time. The office time was for processing new books, repairs and satisfying reservations – normal back-room work.

Busy places were visited for a whole morning or afternoon but small, quiet places might have as little as half an hour so there would be several stops during those morning or afternoon sessions.

For those going out, the first duty was to pick up the skips containing reserved (requested) books for the day’s routes from the bin room on the ground floor, along with the correct Browne charge (the old, manual card system of recording loans) for each stop. The skips were then loaded into a space behind the driver and assistant. The charge was wedged in the top of the skips with a fervent hope for no emergency stops along the route. Not fun sorting a spilled charge of three or four trays.

Also stowed in the front was the all-important flask of boiling water for drinks during the day. This went just under a little sink which worked on a pump system. One of the driver’s duties was to make sure there was plenty of water in the reservoir.

When we reached the first stop, the charge was put on a little counter halfway down the vehicle and the reserves on a shelf above it. People would come in brandishing their green postcards telling them their request was ready, just as in an ordinary branch library.

Customers would bring their returned books to the counter to be discharged and/or collect reserves, then they could browse the shelves which were arranged as if in a miniature branch library.

There was another little counter just behind the passenger seat where the driver would stamp books to issue them, where he had spare trays to put the issued items.

Any books returned which were needed for requests were put aside to go back in the skips. These would have been marked up as part of the backroom work from the trays which were available and any not found would be looked for on the returning charges from that day’s visits.

The drivers also wrote tickets for new members as the assistant wouldn’t usually have enough time as requests and enquiries had to be dealt with, along with putting the stock in order. This in itself took a little longer than in a branch library as each book which needed moving had to be lifted above the strip of wood which ran along the length of each shelf to prevent books falling off in transit.

At the end of the visit, the skips and charges would be stowed away again at the front then the whole process would be repeated at the next stop.

Breaks would be taken between stops, preferably somewhere with a nice aspect and definitely near a toilet. I think we knew the location of all the public toilets in Sheffield.

If it was a whole session stop, I think we just had a drink at the front counter – made by the driver from the water in the flask, which got colder as the day wore on. At some stops, we were given fresh drinks by kind customers – usually at the more remote, short visit places.

Endcliffe Park was a favourite lunch stop because on nice days we could have a walk and feed the ducks.

Little things stand out in my memory, usually concerned with hospitality.

  • At the Lane Top stop we always got tea and cakes from the lady who lived there.
  • At Halfway, the farmer’s wife, a lovely French lady, always brought us tea and whatever had just come fresh from the oven.
  • One particularly cold and snowy day at Crosspool on the old Mob 2, the driver and myself were shivering on the back seat when a couple who visited regularly arrived and were horrified at our working conditions. They went straight back home and returned shortly with a thick jumper each and a flask of coffee heavily laced with whisky. They said to keep the jumpers until we next visited.

To finish with the old mobile, one snowy day, we skidded all the way down steep Granville Road, backwards. Miraculously, we reached the bottom and stopped, facing the correct way!

The Mobile Library Service was closed in 2014, after 52 years. Sheffield City Council now operates a Home Library Service, with staff delivering books etc to the homes of people who cannot get out to visit the library.. 

We don’t have any photos of the Mobile Library Service, but here is a photo of the first vehicles, dating from 1962, and here is another, dating from 1971, which looks like the bus being retired. 

Librarians’ Voices: Looking Backward

After the reminiscences of Victorian Iibrarian Herbert Waterson, here are the memories of a colleague known only as ‘1905’. The article* appears, alongside Waterson’s, in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine marking the opening of the new Central Library in 1934.   

In 1905, Sheffield’s Central Library was still in the Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street. Unlike in the early days, when it shared space with the Council and the Institute itself, the library now occupied the whole building. The Council had moved out to its splendid Town Hall in 1897. 1905 gives us a detailed description of the library arrangements.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Lending and Reference Libraries were on the ground floor, with an entrance in Surrey St. As Sheffield Libraries still used the ‘closed access’ system#, a long counter ran the length of the Lending Library with the issues ledger – the equivalent of today’s bar code readers – in the middle. On the left there was a bookcase where borrowers could inspect a few books, including ones on approval from W H Smith. The stock room was next to Lending on the same side of corridor.

This room was shelved to the ceiling, with metal stacks….

Reference was on the opposite side of the corridor, and was furnished with ‘long tables with comfortable chairs.’ There were books shelved in this room, but the public had no access. Beyond the libraries there was more book storage.

On the first floor was an office and, in the corner, the Chief Librarian’s room. There were separate Reading Rooms for men and women, reached from Tudor Street ‘up a long flight of stairs to the first floor’. The larger room – for men – had periodicals and magazines ‘tethered in alphabetical order on wooden benches … arranged in circular rows.’ Newspapers were placed on slopes in a large square. ‘Illumination was supplied by electric lamps augmented by large gas brackets fixed on the walls.

The Ladies’ Room was on the right of the entrance to the main room, and was much pleasanter. Small square tables with comfortable seats were provided, and the number of readers who used the room was perhaps astonishing.

(Query – why was this astonishing?)

On the top floor was the book-binding department and the caretaker’s flat, which had been moved up from the basement.

The carrying of volumes of books, newspapers and patents [up to book-binding] … was heavy manual labour, but the view obtained from the windows was generally considered adequate recompense…

The basement was used for storage and the ‘staff mess room’. This sounds woefully inadequate:

‘a large table by the kitchen fireplace with a small cupboard in which to keep crockery. … The washing arrangements … were very crude, two small hand basins being fixed under [a] flight of wooden steps.

1905 doesn’t mention facilities for children, but this is hardly surprising. Although some library authorities, such as Manchester, Cardiff and Nottingham, had services before 1900, children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development. There were some children’s books in Sheffield’s 1850s library, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but no-one under 14 years could join. According to The City Libraries of Sheffield, there was some progress towards the end of the 19th century, but it sounds rather dispiriting:

…some rather timid efforts were also made to cater for a school population … At first children were only allowed to come with their teachers. Later, tickets were given out in school and signed by the teachers, and could be used individually, but only the most fervent readers persisted long in their attendance, as there was very little stock suitable for the average child.

It would be 1924 before Sheffield opened its first separate children’s library, based on the very latest thinking, in the branch at Walkley.

To staff sitting in their room in the new Central Library in 1934, idly reading 1905’s article, things must have looked very different. The Daily Independent of 6 July 1934 reports:

As Sheffield was a pioneer among Yorkshire towns to provide a public library, it is not surprising that the New Central Library and Graves Art Gallery should once more give a lead to the county and, in many features, to the whole of England.

The new Library, which is certainly an up-to-date wonder treasure-house of knowledge, contains many features that are not to be found in any other library in the country…

Sheffield Central Library, opened in 1934, not long after the establishment of SINTO

 

* Looking Backward, by ‘1905’ (Wicket, 4 (2), 12-13, 1934). Quoted in An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

# In a closed access system, borrowers choose from a catalogue and library staff retrieve the books from stock.

Librarians’ Voices – When We Were Very Young

I turned a page and found an article by Herbert Waterson, published in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine.[1] He was writing in 1934, perhaps to mark the opening of the new Central Library. What was exciting was that he started work in 1869. Here were the reminiscences of a Victorian librarian.  

Herbert Waterson on holiday in Llandudno (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

Herbert Waterson started as a junior assistant on 27 December 1869, when he would have been about 11 years old. He followed his two older brothers into the job, he says, and already knew the library well from sitting in the reading room, devouring books like R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857) and The Dog Crusoe (1860). Perhaps his brothers let him in, as no-one under the age of 14 could join the library, although there were some children’s books in the catalogue. Or perhaps children were allowed in the reading rooms.

 

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Sheffield’s public library had opened in 1856, in the Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street, on the site of today’s Central Library. According to Waterson, the library occupied the ground floor and basement and shared premises with the Institute itself and the Council. The Council Chamber and various offices were located in the Institute. The chief librarian’s office ‘doubled as the Mayor’s Parlour’, and the caretaker and his family shared the basement with the library.

The library had few staff, we learn. There was the first chief librarian, Mr Parsonson, with Mr Hurst and Mr French and three boys. (According to the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield (1956), Walter Parsonson, a former silverplater’s apprentice, was in charge from 1856 to his death in 1873, when Thomas Hurst took over.) At Upperthorpe, a couple of miles away, there was Mr Bramhall and ‘one boy assistant, J Bunn’, looking after the only branch library. This had opened in October 1869, in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Albert Terrace Road. The building is no longer there, but here is a photograph.

The City Libraries of Sheffield says that the staff worked hard.

They were at first on duty every day during the whole twelve and a half hours that the library was open. … every effort was made by the Committee to see that each [person] in turn got a chance to go off duty at 8.00 pm instead of 9.30; and in 1859 they were each allowed half-day off a week – a good custom which continued for ten years before the Council knew about it, and, apparently, promptly stopped it. (pp.14-5)

Waterson describes the lending library, with its two counters, for lending and reference. The ‘closed access’ system was used, with the public choosing from catalogues and staff retrieving the books. There were separate reading rooms for men and women and, in time, a reference library room. The basement staff room was also the store for bound newspapers and Patents, which sounds uncomfortable.

One of Herbert Waterson’s duties was to locate books requested by borrowers. They were stacked up to the ceilings, in rooms behind the counters, and it was, it appears, hazardous work.

Owing to the system of storing the books on shelves to the ceilings of each room, we Juniors became adept at ladder-climbing…This system of ladder-climbing was somewhat dangerous as was proved by a severe accident to one of the staff, Mr French, who fell by over-reaching and was seriously injured; afterwards a grill was fixed to the shelves and hooks were attached to the end of the ladders.

The closed access system continued until the 1920s, but presumably the measures adopted after the accident made it a little safer for the intrepid boy assistants.

In August 1875, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Sheffield, to open Firth Park, given to the town by the then Mayor, Mark Firth. Waterson remembers that the library was closed for the visit, and that a formal lunch was served in the men’s reading room.

Opening of Firth Park in 1875 (public domain)

In the mid-1870s, Waterson says, a new librarian came to Upperthorpe. Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a library enthusiast. In 1886, he published the first manual of library management, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. ‘He did not ‘leave any identifiable mark,’ says the official history, but Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in so ‘it seems certain that Sheffield left some mark on him.’

Meanwhile the network of libraries was slowly developing. In 1872 a branch opened on Brunswick Road in Brightside.[2] In 1876 Upperthorpe got a whole building in place of two rented rooms in a church, and Highfield on the other side of town got a branch too. These two were known as the ‘twin libraries’, designed by E M Gibbs,in the Florentine Renaissance style, and each had a librarian’s house attached. Waterson says:

Those branches were considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Highfield Branch Library

He also reveals that Sheffield’s first female library worker started at Highfield:

The first lady assistant was a Miss Barker. She was engaged at Highfield Library in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and was very satisfactory, although the old system of ladders was in use at the time; afterwards other lady assistants were not so satisfactory.

In 1876, when he was 19, Herbert Waterson became head assistant to the chief librarian, Thomas Hurst, and his memoir stops. But we know more. The Sheffield Independent tells us that he became branch librarian of Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. He would have lived comfortably in the librarian’s house attached to the library. He was 70 years old by the time he retired and had worked in Sheffield Libraries for almost 59 years. Has anyone ever broken his record? (We suspect not.)

Herbert in Sheffield High Street (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

The librarian’s house at Upperthorpe

[1] When We Were Very Young (Waterson, H), The Wicket, 4 (2), 9-11 (1934). Appended to An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

[2]  The name was later changed to Burngreave Library. The building is now the Al-Rahman Mosque)

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Three: Park Library and beyond

Former Sheffield library worker Barbara has told us about her days at Lane Top Library and her work on School Instruction, helping groups of children learn how to use a library. Here she describes her move to Park Library and brings us up-to-date.  

Eventually the regular 9am smell of Hubba Bubba bubble gum and pickled onion Monster Munch rising from thirty excited 14 year-olds herded into the entrance hall for their School Instruction session got too much for me to bear. I joined Astrid Gillespie, Irene Collumbine and Pauline – what was her name?- at Park Branch, upstairs in the children’s library. As the other half of the building housed a swimming pool (Park is an Edwardian municipal complex, housing a library, swimming pool and public baths), we enjoyed tropical temperatures throughout the year.

Park Library

The worst thing about that job was ‘film night’. A projectionist equipped with folding benches and film equipment arrived regularly at selected children’s libraries. Admission was by ticket only, but with only me to hold back the crowds it quickly became a free-for-all. There existed a local gang of ‘children’ who were notorious and, whilst I never issued tickets to them, they always managed to obtain one. The projectionist and I would set up the rows of folding benches – which often did just that during the general rammy [brawl] – and I guarded the doorway with my heavy rubber torch held menacingly across the gap. But they always managed to smuggle their way in. I shall not name the ring leader for fear of legal action, but I heard some years later that he went down for murder, having been disturbed during a break-in.

In 1974 my then husband’s job relocated to Teesside and we moved to Guisborough near Middlesbrough. I worked in their Central Library and then Guisborough Branch Library, until my children were born.

But Sheffield City Libraries had not seen the last of me.

In 1984 my husband’s job moved again, this time to Rotherham and the family decamped to Eckington on the outskirts of Sheffield. My motherhood experience did not match up to that of Children’s Librarian, as I presented my hapless 5 year-old to the school doctor with his unreasonable (to me) behaviour. She observed me over the top of her specs:

‘Do you have a job, Mother?’

‘How could I have a job when I have two children who are as mad as a box of frogs and driving me demented?’

‘I suggest you work on Saturdays and let your husband look after them.’

So began my weekly holiday in Sheffield Central Children’s Library. I would have paid THEM to let me work there. I went upstairs for my break that first blissful, child-free Saturday – and to my amazement there were the same tables, covered in the same wipe-able cloths, with the same departmental faces gathered around them as I had last seen ten years previously. I had travelled all over the place (it seemed to me) and experienced so many things, and yet time seemed to have stood still here in this little room.

Sheffield Central Library

As my children got older, they became more human and my life settled. I no longer sought refuge down the magic staircase to Central Junior. I spent many very happy years working in the classroom with children who had behaviour problems, whilst teaching library skills in the school library.

I now live in the Scottish Borders with yet another surname – but I’ll go no more a-roaming. I have found the perfect husband, live in the perfect town with a sandy beach surrounded by rock pools at the bottom of my road and I live in the perfect house with a sea view from my lounge window.

I will never forget Sheffield City Libraries, but I still can’t stand the smell of bubble gum or pickled onion Monster Munch.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Two: School Instruction

Barbara Prater told us here about how she moved to Sheffield, to work in the public library, in the 1970s. In the second part of her story, she moves from Lane Top Branch Library to work with schools.  

Carving of Knowledge high up on the corner of the Central Library (by Frank Tory and Sons)

I applied for the post of School Instruction Assistant in Sheffield Central Library, working for the lovely Edwin Fleming, who sadly passed away last year. School Instruction, which Sheffield Libraries had been running since before WWII, involved delivering every 14 year-old student in the Sheffield area for a morning or afternoon class visit to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The idea was that they learned how to use a library. Every morning and every afternoon I had to plant 40 non-fiction books in their correct shelf order around the shelves. They had to be ready for the students to locate using their question papers, after they were taught how to use the catalogue. They had to fill in the answers to questions like ‘what is the name of the village pictured on page 26?’ to prove that they had located the right book. They then discarded the book anywhere they fancied, which I had to track down again before the next session. We also taught everyone the use of reference books, using sets of encyclopaedias, Who’s Who etc, which were shelved in the ornate Library Committee room upstairs.

Traditional card catalogues

Councillor Enid Hattersley[1] was chair of the Libraries Committee at that time and would often arrive early for her meeting in order to enjoy watching the scrum. There were always shouts of ‘Miss…tin tin!’ (that is, ‘t in’t in.’ Translation: ‘Excuse me but I don’t seem to be able to find the capital town of County Fermanagh within this particular volume of encyclopaedia, despite its being named on my quiz sheet.’)

If we finished our sheets in time, we took the students down to ‘the stacks’. Here we proudly informed them that there were six and a half miles of book shelves. I don’t know where that fact came from … can it have been correct?[2] I recall a member of staff who worked down there in the darkness all the time and allegedly only spoke Esperanto. Perhaps one lead to the other. We used to catch glimpses of his scampering, mole-like form, as he searched for the books requested on slips of paper which arrived in the squeaky wooden dumb waiter, down in the bowels of the building.

The School Instruction department also produced a magazine for all junior libraries, discussing and recommending children’s books. I used to take delivery of beautifully engraved shiny copper plates of book illustrations for the printers. There was a huge cupboard full. I wonder what became of them?

My boss Edwin Fleming was always very busy and not often in our tiny office, which overlooked the night clubs across Arundel Gate. I sometimes took calls for him and would hurtle round the building trying to locate him. He would then gallop down the stone stairs behind me back to our office, tremendously fast in his black shiny leather brogues like a suited cart horse. One day I took a call from the police telling me to ‘stay away from the window. The IRA say they have a gunman on the roof of the Fiesta Club.’

During the school holidays, I used to enjoy doing supply work in Central Junior, the branch libraries and even on the mobiles. I also became a NALGO[3] rep whilst at Sheffield Central, with Martin Olive from the Local History Library. I imagined exotic weekend conferences by the sea – I only ever got to go on one and it was in Huddersfield.

At this time I remember the computer room being constructed across Surrey Street from the library. We all stood on tiptoe to peer in the windows. We saw an enormous edifice covered with dials and knobs which seemed to fill the vast hall – it looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I used to love going across Surrey Street to the Town Hall canteen for dinner – their suet pudding and custard was awesome. I got married in the register office, which was also across Surrey Street but further along, on 15 October 1971. Everyone came out of the library to watch the happy event and throw confetti as I became Barbara Rodgers.

The third part of Barbara’s story will be posted soon.

 

[1] Cllr Enid Hattersley (1904-2001) chaired Sheffield’s Libraries and Arts Committee for many years and served as Lord Mayor in 1981. She was the mother of Labour politician Roy Hattersley.

[2] A debatable question. Some say 12 miles of shelving. The staff in the Central Library today still mention all this if they show you around.

[3] NALGO, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part One: Up to Lane Top

In the first of three posts, Barbara Prater, who now lives in Scotland, recalls working for Sheffield Libraries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Here she talks about the beginnings of her career and her move to Sheffield, ‘City on the Move’. Her first post was at the new Lane Top branch.   

I was born Barbara Page in East Ham, London in 1948. I left grammar school on a Thursday in July 1965 and, as instructed by my father, began my library career with East Ham Library the following Monday. After detailed training – a group of us were shown the only acceptable way to shape letters and numbers in order to ensure consistency with spine labels and book cards, and correct positioning of date sheets and book pockets – I was launched onto the unsuspecting public (and library staff) at Boleyn Branch Library, next to West Ham football ground.

I enjoyed the Swinging Sixties to the max, my friend and I regularly going ‘up London’ to the clubs and dance halls and arriving home on the last tube of the night. Life was perfect. Then in 1967 my father’s employer transferred him to Stirling – Gateway To The Highlands. After a couple of years I couldn’t stand the excitement of knitting on a circular needle and not being allowed in pubs. No self-respecting lady was ever seen in a pub. As a matter of interest, local government rules refused married ladies a permanent contract lest they become pregnant – regardless of their age. It was not quite like swinging London.

In 1970 a friend took me to visit his home town, Sheffield – City On The Move. I fell in love with the buzz of the smart new shops, clubs and markets, compared to sleepy old Stirling. I phoned Sheffield Central Library and asked if there were any vacancies. Soon after that I was busy on the issue desk in Stirling when the Deputy Librarian came and announced that I was summoned to the Chief Librarian’s office immediately. I hurried to the imposing, oak-panelled room wondering which of my many misdemeanours he had discovered. Mr Robertson gestured wordlessly towards the telephone receiver resting on his desk. I held it to my ear to hear the offer of a post with Sheffield City Libraries, processing stock for the new library opening at Lane Top, over Hillards Supermarket. I accepted, and headed off for the bright lights of Sheffield Lane Top.

The new Lane Top Library, above Hilliards

Whilst we sat up there at the worktops in front of the window, processing books and chatting, I noticed some suspicious activity down below us at the back of the terraced houses. I public-spiritedly dialled 999. We all looked on as the boys in blue hurdled the back fences in a pincer movement, from either end of the long terrace, before tackling the young lads who were trying to break into the house. We all let out a huge cheer as they were successfully captured. Later on one of the policemen popped round to inform us that the lads actually lived there and had lost their door key, but he praised us for Doing The Right Thing.

When the library was ready to be opened, the photographers arrived to take photos for a promotional brochure. We all (Peter Bayliss, Barbara Sorby and others whose names have sunk in the porridge of my brain) had to don our coats and strike Member Of The Public attitudes, to lend authenticity.

Pretending to be members of the public – Barbara is sitting at the desk.

During the time I was there, I got more training. I went on Mary Walton’s* excellent book repair course, which has stood me in good stead ever since. I learned how to bleach out biro scribble with a fine paintbrush, invisibly mend torn off corners, repair ‘perfect binding’ and re-attach spines constructed in various mediums.

When we opened, we had to deal with the culture shock of ‘decimalisation’ which had occurred during the time we were out of circulation. Charging fines in decimal currency seemed very exotic, and we were equipped with special charts to help calculate ‘new money’.

 

The next part of Barbara’s story will be posted shortly.

* Mary Walton was the first Sheffield Archivist and author of various books about the city.

Christine’s reading journey

By Sue Roe

Christine was born in 1940 and her reading journey was inevitably influenced by World War Two, though her parents and her choice of career in librarianship were clearly also important factors.

Christine, aged 14, playing snowballs at school

Christine has difficulty remembering her first experiences of reading:

You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The war meant that fewer books were available. Christine read what and where she could:

I can remember a boyfriend [of Christine’s sister] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals… I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was second-hand!

Clearly even schools seemed short of books:

[At] about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a second-hand book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a second-hand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

The prize seems to have been Anne of Green Gables, the children’s classic much loved by many of the Reading Sheffield interviewees. Christine was also reading Enid Blyton (whose books were ‘exciting. Different. A different world’) and books about life in girls’ boarding schools.

Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

It was at this stage that buying books became important, although she didn’t have much pocket money: 

We used to go into Andrews [a Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury.

Although he was away in the army for the duration of the war, Christine’s father played an important part in her reading. This was in contrast to her mother whom Christine ‘can’t ever remember … having any direct influence’. Christine still recalls her father’s collection of books:

The only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett… As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them …

After the war, he would:

…push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group… I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read.

He also encouraged her to enter competitions in the Children’s Newspaper which they had at home:

It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

When she moved to the grammar school, Christine was able to take advantage of the class library – a cupboard of books such as H G Wells’ Kipps. At this point she started reading war stories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and … we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd and then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader…

 

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These war stories had a profound effect:

I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid … I think he[her father] thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was 18, 19, I’d already joined CND.

Libraries were an important stop on Christine’s reading journey from an early age:

I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve.

When she was 16, Christine went to stay with a distant relation who was ‘deputy chief librarian for Tottenham libraries’. He gave her a ‘book list’ and brought books for her to read, including The Crowthers of Bankdam and Marjorie Morningstar. Christine herself started working in libraries around then. This influenced her reading in several ways:

I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

Christine took an Open University course and professional librarian exams over the years, with the support of her employers. This led to her reading particular sorts of books, not always to her taste:

The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. … Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else.

[With] the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

Her love of books continued after retiring from the library service. She worked part-time in a children’s bookshop and had her favourites there too:

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs… [Also]  The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform.

Nowadays Christine enjoys crime rather than war stories:

I go more for the detective solving the crime… It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

It is amazing Christine managed to fit in so much reading:

Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full-time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.

 

You can read Christine’s full interview or listen to the audio here.

 

Librarians’ Voices: Maureen A: ‘Like a large family’

Maureen worked in Sheffield Libraries between 1967 and 1997.   She remembers the fun she and her colleagues had.

We really were like a large family, with all the problems that families have but in the knowledge that we’d got support from colleagues when we needed it.

Maureen’s first experience of the public library was in the Ecclesall branch, then located in a grand Victorian house bought by the city and converted.

It was a pleasant place to work, and power cuts made life interesting on winter nights, with lamps at each end of the counter, and eager borrowers hunting for their books with torches.  I’m ashamed to say that the staff took great delight in embarrassing those readers who wanted a particular title.  We would call through to the office, saying that Mr So-and-so would like to borrow this title, and make sure that the whole library could hear!  Saturday afternoons were busy, and livened up by blokes rolling in from the Prince of Wales pub just across the road.   

The Central Lending Library in Surrey Street was very different.

Sheffield Central Library

This was quite an eye opener, as it was vast, with an equally vast Browne charge.(1)  I often wondered how many miles we covered simply shelving books.

On my first evening duty a woman brought in a beautiful fox cub, but it leapt out of her arms and disappeared around the bookshelves.  It obviously hadn’t received obedience training!

This was before computerisation, and Maureen remembers the changeover from paper, which was successful ‘due to the tenacity of the Lending Librarian and his deputy’.

Every pink catalogue card had to be checked, and by the end of the day all the staff were seeing everything in green.(2)  There was near hysteria when word came from on high that all the book cards were to be thrown into bins, and five minutes later that they were to be kept!

In 1975 Maureen moved to the Sheffield Interchange Organisation (SINTO), a partnership between the library service and industry.  One of her jobs was to organise the SINTO AGM, to be held in the Graves Art Gallery and chaired by the redoubtable Councillor Enid Hattersley.

[In the gallery] there was the famous picture of some 50 naked women stuffed into a phone box.(3)  Councillor Mrs Hattersley … was standing right in front of this picture with her drink, when a press photographer arrived, and Mrs. Hattersley, always ready for a picture, smiled.  And click!

Occasionally Maureen had to ‘descend into the depths’.  This was the library stack or basement store, with six miles of shelving – or was it twelve? Maureen wonders.  It stretched across the whole site and housed ‘a vast amount of technical journals, standards, patents, EEC documents, as well as an overflow of lending material’.  It could be spooky at night.

One dark night I went down for something, and nearly had a heart attack, because someone with a hideous face and long fair hair appeared, leaning against a wall.  I got out fast!  It turned out to be a prop from the production in the Library Theatre.

The ‘stack ladies lived a troglodyte existence’.  They looked after the strongroom where the most important materials were kept.  If the Local History librarians upstairs asked for something from there, this was quite a job.  The stack lady had to be:

‘strong enough to open the door.  You would think that there were gold bars in the place, and the books themselves could be very large and very heavy and the book lift up to Local Studies wasn’t exactly close.

Maureen remembers many Christmas celebrations.

[We had a meal] at the Norfolk Arms at Ringinglow, on one very snowy night.  It was decided that a cabaret would cheer up the festivities, so four of the male staff dressed in ballet tutu skirts and walking boots and performed the Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake.  It was so funny that all the bar staff rushed in followed by umpteen customers, and the whole place was heaving with laughter.

The highlight of the year was the panto, ‘very well organised’ by various colleagues.  Maureen did the music.

Peter Pan was the first, followed by Aladdin, Robin Hood and then Snow White.  Someone sang the very deep bass priest’s song from the Magic Flute, and I played a piano version of George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows.  From the sublime to the ridiculous.

 

(1) The usual borrowing system before computers.  The library assistant would take the record card from the book and file it with the borrower’s ticket in long trays, in date order, until the book was returned. Here is a photo.

(2) Looking at one colour (pink in this case) for a long time makes you see the complementary colour (which is green).

(3) Sadly, we’ve been unable to trace this interesting painting.