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 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.)

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)

4 thoughts on “Librarians’ Voices – When We Were Very Young

  1. Pingback: Librarians’ Voices: Looking Backward | Reading Sheffield

  2. Pingback: A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part I) | Reading Sheffield

  3. Pingback: A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part II) | Reading Sheffield

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