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. 

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