Margaret C

Margaret C

Margaret was born on 17th April 1934.

Margaret C is being interviewed by Loveday Herridge on the 23rd February 2013.

 

Loveday Herridge: Margaret is kind enough to talk to us for Reading Sheffield because she was an assistant librarian during our period. The main direction of this interview will be about libraries but you have already told me, Margaret, that you love books. Tell me as much as you want about how you think you developed that love of books.

Margaret C: I really don’t know. My mother was a reader. My father wasn’t. He never read a book to my knowledge.

Loveday Herridge: What was his job?

Margaret C: He was in the steel works. He wasn’t a steel worker. He was in the offices. He was a clerical officer in one of the steel works.

LH: Did he work for one of the big companies?

MC:  Yes, at the time it was ESC. English Steel Corporation.

LH: So he was not a reader. Did he read a newspaper?

MC: Yes, he did read the newspaper.

LH: Was that something he did every day?

MC: Yes it was.

LH: But your mum was a reader?

MC: Yes, she was.

LH: Can you remember the sorts of thing she read?

MC: [laughs] Yes, mainly romances which she borrowed from the Red Circle Library.

LH: Did she? Where did you live, Margaret?

MC: We lived in Handsworth in Sheffield but the library was at Darnall.

LH: The public library?

MC: No, The Red Circle Library but eventually they opened a library and I think it was in the Church Hall in Handsworth. So then she went to the library, the proper library, and so did I.

LH: Do you know, a couple of people I have spoken to have had their mothers make this transition from the Red Circle Library to the public library. Can you tell me why that happened? It seemed to have been a social thing that happened.

MC: I don’t know, unless the Red Circle Libraries were usually where the shopping areas were and they were the only ones that were available.

LH: Were they the only ones that were available?

MC: Yes, they were. There was a shopping centre, a small one, in Darnall and the Red Circle was next to the shops and maybe it was convenient and apart from which there was no other library in Handsworth at the time.

LH: So what date are we talking about? Say when you were about ten, your mum was reading from the Red Circle Library about then? 1944?

MC: I really can’t remember when they opened at Handsworth.

LH: We can find that one out. So did you go to the Red Circle Library with your mum?

MC: Yes, but I didn’t read many of the books.

LH: Why do you think that was?

MC: Well, I did read some of them but they seemed to be mainly romances, cowboys and all the things that I’m not really interested in.

LH: How often did she change her books?

MC: I can’t remember. Maybe once a week.

LH: What was the cost, do you know?

MC: No, it never came to me that there was a cost.

LH: Was it busy?

MC: Yes it was quite busy.

LH: Was it busy like a busy library with people browsing or was it like a bookshop?

MC: Yes, more like a bookshop, I think. There wasn’t a lot of browsing. I can’t really recall. I didn’t really realise there was a fee. I suppose there must have been.

LH: Did you take a book off the shelf and take it to someone to be stamped?

MC: Yes, I think so. I can remember very little about that actually but I can remember exactly where it was. And the type of the books but I can’t remember the mechanics of it.

LH: Can you remember when it closed?

MC: No.

LH: OK, so your mum was a great reader of their books. Can you remember any of the authors?

MC: No.

LH: Well, what did they look like, the books?

MC: Well, like books you used to see in magazines you see, like Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with attractive girls on them and that sort of thing.

LH: So how did you learn to read? Did she read to you?

MC: No. Oh, she did read to me. But not the books from the Red Circle Library.

LH: Is that how you learned to read? She read to you?

MC: I suppose so. Well each Christmas and birthday I always had books for presents and I always wanted books for presents.

LH: And so you went to what school?

MC: I went to Handsworth School to begin with then to Woodhouse Grammar School which is now a lower level.

LH: So you passed the 11+.

MC: Yes, and then at 16 I left.

LH: Just one thing, it was just after the war, so tricky times and your dad in the steel industry. Did you have siblings?

MC: No, an only child.

LH: Right, do you think it was difficult for your parents to send you to the grammar school?

MC: I think it was, yes, and maybe I shouldn’t say that really, but I think that was one of the reasons I didn’t go to university really. Not that they didn’t want me to go but I felt it might be a burden to them. And also I hated exams. But I was always very good at English at grammar school and they encouraged me to go to university but I didn’t. Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.

LH: Did you take the public exams at 16?

MC: Yes, at that time it was the School Certificate and I passed with flying colours in all subjects that I took.

LH: So there was a disagreement or..? How did you manage to persuade your parents that it was the right thing to do?

MC: Not to go?

LH: To leave school? Was there a sixth form at Handsworth?

MC: Woodhouse Grammar. Yes.  No they didn’t seem to persuade me one way or another. It was the teacher.

LH: Did a lot of children from the school go to university?

MC: I think so. In fact, this isn’t really relevant but one of the boys in my class at school eventually went to Bangor University to study music and he is now a famous composer in America and he’s now an American citizen. I brought it up on the internet. He was always very good at music as were my family, on my mother’s side. They were all musical. So music and books really have been through all my life. I really enjoyed it.

LH: Did you play an instrument?

MC: Piano. I don’t now because I don’t possess one. But I did. And my mother was one of three sisters and they all played the piano and they all sang. My mother’s elder sister and her son were both in Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus so we used to go to the concerts there.

LH: Did you not want to follow the footsteps and sing in the choir?

MC: No. I don’t think I have a voice, no. [laughs]

LH: So you decided to leave school and you have already told me but could you say again what you then did about trying to get a job.

MC: Oh, I applied to Sheffield City Libraries. There wasn’t a vacancy at the time. I then managed to get a job with the West Riding Education offices which were in Church St in Sheffield and I enjoyed it there. I was the tea girl and answering the phone and that kind of thing. But I was there about three months and then a letter from the library saying that now, there is a vacancy, so I took that.

LH: Can you tell us how it was that you had developed this passion to work in a library, from the age of 16?

MC: Because from being a little girl, I always loved books and I remember when I was allowed to go on the bus, into Sheffield, to the Junior Library. I think maybe I was about ten. And I thought that was great and I used to go almost every Saturday morning to the Junior Library.

LH: At the Central Library?

MC: Yes.

LH: You would have seen one or two of the other people we interviewed.

MC: Yes. I can remember some of the first books that I borrowed.

LH: Can you tell us what they were?

MC: One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all which I think is a bit, it might not be strange, but for a child of ten years old seems to me a bit unusual.

LH: Why do you think you chose those books?

MC: I was just interested in music. Why I chose George Washington I can’t imagine.

LH: Can you picture yourself in the library looking at the shelves? Did anybody direct you?

MC: I can’t recall, no, but I do have a wide range of range of reading habits and I’ve always read anything and everything. I’m not really into romance type things but anything else, travel books. The one thing I’m not particularly interested in is history. I’m not particularly a history person, but geography, travel or anything else [pause].

LH: And fiction?

MC: Oh yes.

LH: So did you move up? Did you take yourself up to the adult library when you were fourteen, was it?

MC: I don’t remember. I suppose I did. And then when I was sixteen and got a job at the library or, going on seventeen, there was no need to do it because I had read everything that was around. I didn’t need to go.

LH: Yes, so just to go back to the process by which you got the job, Sheffield wrote to you …

MC: … and said there was a job, for a junior, so I went and I suppose I must have been interviewed. I can’t remember that. My first job was at Firth Park Library and I can remember being there. Mr Hampson was the librarian and the people who came into borrow seemed always, ‘Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?’

LH: Cowboys and detectives!

MC: [laughs] Yes, that’s all I can remember.

LH: And did they ask you?

MC: Yes.

LH: You said you were a library assistant but what did you do? What was your role?

MC: Well, everything really – just booking them in and booking them out, stacking the shelves and all that kind of thing.

LH: You had quite a lot of interaction with people really?

MC: Oh yes, and from Firth Park. I don’t know how long I was there. I can’t remember anything between Firth Park and School Libraries so maybe there wasn’t anything.

[LH shows MC a list of the branch libraries in 1950/1 to jog a memory. MC shows LH a book which is the centenary of the birth of the libraries published in 1956. They discuss the film, Books in Hand, which MC had managed to see a clip of on the internet. She had also seen the whole thing at a Reading Sheffield celebration where she had seen a picture of a neighbour who had introduced her to detective novels.]

MC: [She says that though she doesn’t usually like detective novels she was at home with tonsilitis once and quite ill in bed and Fred, who lived next door, said, ‘I’ll bring some books for you to read’ and they were nearly all detectives.]

LH: He thought they were light reading suitable for an invalid!

MC: Yes, and one of them was George Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all but beyond that I don’t usually read detectives.

LH: So, you began by doing librarian work and then you moved on to …?

MC: I can’t remember the period but I think I must have gone from Firth Park immediately to School Libraries. It was quite different. I did go to other branches because –

LH: [reading] ‘170 school libraries’ –

MC: Yes, libraries in schools but we were based in Tudor Square and we had loads and loads of books. And we used to go out each day to each school and every class had a library and we went to check through and see if they needed repairing and if they were sick of them and we took out new ones, not exactly new, and we had lists of requests and we always tried to send out to them next time whatever they had requested. It wasn’t always possible.

LH: No.

MC: And we did, once each week, the librarian of School Libraries was a woman, each member of the team were given time, I can’t remember if it was an hour or two hours in the afternoon, to read any of the stock and I didn’t really enjoy that.

LH: To read the stock …

MC: Read any book you wanted to read …

LH: … even at that time, in your working day.

MC: Maybe it was just an hour. There was very high to the ceiling – books in stacks – and you would take a chair down there and sit and read but there were distractions and I never really enjoyed that. I found I’d read a couple of pages and then there was a distraction.

LH: What was the purpose of that then?

MC: I really don’t know.

LH: Do you think it was so that you knew the stock?

MC: Maybe. She had some strange ideas.

LH: Do you remember the name of this woman?

MC: Yes. Edna Buchanan. She’s in this book. [Editor’s note: presumably one of the books LH has about Sheffield Libraries.]

LH: So Edna Buchanan was the Head of the School Libraries?

MC: Yes.

LH: I didn’t understand that that meant a library in every class in every school, both in primary and secondary schools.

MC: Yes.

LH: And what did the library look like? Was it a box of books?

MC: Well, they probably had a couple of shelves. It didn’t look particularly attractive.

LH: Did you provide the shelves?

MC: Oh, I don’t know. [They weren’t] from the Library. They’d be on a table.

LH: Right.

MC: But we used to take them out in cartons. Cartons, of washing powder, anything.

LH: So how many books were in each class library? Or did that depend on the age?

MC: It depended I think on how many pupils were in the class. You know, if there were 36, maybe they’d have 40 books so there wasn’t really a lot of choice.

LH: And were there 36 different titles or …

MC: Yes,

LH: Were they bunched in little groups of three or four, so four Enid Blytons or four …

MC: No, we didn’t have Enid Blytons and I can’t remember why. But Enid Blyton was a definite no. We didn’t stock them at all in school libraries. I loved them. I think every child did. But we didn’t have them there.

LH: You don’t know why?

MC: I don’t know why. It wasn’t a politically correct time, was it?

LH: Was it about quality?

MC: I think it must have been, yes.

LH: So thinking about Enid Blyton for a certain age of child, what would have been the right thing for a child to read according to the library service?

MC: I don’t think it mattered really. I mean the older ones loved Biggles and Worralls. And then there were historical novels, Rosemary Sutcliffe. The younger children, I liked the books for the younger children better than the ones for the older children: Alison Uttley, Amelia Ann, which I loved, and I can’t really remember any more,

LH: Arthur Ransome?

MC: Yes, well we sort of pushed Arthur Ransome. In some schools he was popular, depending on the area.  Well it sounds rather … Children who lived at Ecclesall and Fulwood would appreciate them more than the children … I’d rather not say that.

LH: I’m sorry to press you but I imagine that may be the reason.

MC: Well, the others; Just William, that was popular, those kind of things. I think some other things we sent out, we had to send out because we had nothing else. Sometimes they’d request something and you’d think, ‘What a shame! We hadn’t got a copy in. Maybe somewhere else.’ We did have more than one copy obviously. I used to hate it when we had to put these books in and we had to send them out and they weren’t attractive. They’d go into the old leatherette bindings and nothing looked attractive in those.

LH: Did you have to cover them then?

MC: Not the old ones, but as new books came in. It did get to the stage with school libraries you did a lot of work with that putting on the plastic covers to cover the others to keep them attractive. We did a lot of repair work. When we went out to a classroom, if something was falling apart, we took them back and repaired them: all kinds of things, not just the spines, even tears, feathering. It was quite interesting, time-consuming.

LH: Did the children treat the books well?

MC: Yes, mostly they did. But sometimes, when we were short of books they would get to look a bit scruffy. It was awful to have to leave them there rather than bring them away and replace them but I suppose it was like it is now, money was the reason.

LH: [Margaret is looking at our booklist.] You are looking for authors there?

MC: No, I’m not. I just wondered whether you were interested in the other things we did in the schools libraries?

LH: Yes.

MC: Teachers used to borrow books. They’d come to Schools Libraries and they used to borrow books and pictures for education purposes and they were pictures of all kinds of things pasted on to – it wasn’t card but it was dark brown heavy duty paper stuff and we used to have files and they were all put in these files in alphabetical order, I suppose, or geography or history, what have you, and that was popular with teachers. They used to borrow a lot of those and use them in school. And they also borrowed books …

LH: Textbooks?

MC: I suppose, but I could never understand why. And councillors were allowed to come and borrow books from Schools Libraries. I can remember Mrs Hattersley, who came in to borrow books from the Schools Library and a guy who was called ‘Uncle Timothy’ and he was something to do with the Children’s Ring in the Sheffield Star, [laughs] whether he was a councillor or not!

LH: Various officers were allowed to borrow as well?

MC: Yes, yes, and the vicar used to come in – I remember him because his name was Mr Le Bridge.  Now why they were allowed to come to Schools Libraries I can’t imagine.

LH: Did you have – you said the offices were in Tudor Square – did you have several rooms?

MC: No, only one. It was quite a big room. It was packed. So much so that the stacks went almost to the ceiling. But we had books on top of the stack and we had ladders to go up and try and find things. Fortunately I seemed to have a photographic memory and usually I could say. We were right on the top floor, facing over to the Lyceum and sometimes we could see the people who were playing at the Lyceum, sitting out on the roof in the sunshine.

LH: How lovely! So there were the books … Just one question: how frequently did a new box of books go to a school?

MC: Well, as there were so many schools it couldn’t be once a week. We hadn’t the facilities or the staff. We used to go out in a van; Mr Booth was the van driver and he used to help us carry things.

LH: And there was just one van. And how many staff with you?

MC: I think about … there was the librarian and me. There’d be six of us, not more. So, we’d go out first thing in the morning to school, not come back until lunch-time because it took a long time getting round each class, then have a spot of lunch then out again in the afternoon.

LH: Did the children look forward to seeing you? Were you allowed to talk to the children?

MC: No. [laughs] Perhaps if someone came up to you, but no. There was a lesson, I think.

LH: So you just crept in to the lesson.

MC: I suppose they couldn’t stop a lesson just because we were going in to check the books. It must have been a bit distracting for the children. [both laugh]

LH: So the books came in, the pictures, obviously they were teaching aids. Presumably the schools … I am trying to think; how did your books work next door to the school’s books? Did the school have textbooks?

MC: Yes, the school had textbooks and we had the ones that were for pleasure.

LH: And then there were these lovely pictures in all the different subjects.

MC: I really can’t think of anything else apart from all the time we spent repairing them and putting the plastic jackets on which made them look so much more attractive. We hated sending out the books with the old binding because children were just not interested even if it were a book – if you pick something up and it’s got one of these horrible bindings, leatherette, but if it’s got a cover on with pictures, even now, if it’s got a cover on with pictures, it’s a lot more attractive.

LH: So how long did you stay in this work then?

MC: Almost all the time. And the last, I can’t remember how long it was, I worked in book selection and order department.

LH: You must have been very experienced.

MC: I suppose I was. I had been there a long time.

LH: From 1951-ish you weren’t promoted.

MC:  No, I suppose it was because I didn’t take any exams. To be a librarian you needed to take the exams and that. But I was quite happy. I really enjoyed it because I was surrounded by books. And then I mentioned we were sent out to branches on relief. If someone was on holiday, we were sent out to any branch even if we were on School Libraries.

LH: So it was more important to staff the branch libraries …

MC: I should think I have been in every branch library in Sheffield. We didn’t really enjoy being sent on relief.

LH: What was it like?

MC: Well you were all right once you were there but school libraries had office hours and very often you had to go out at night-time and you didn’t really want to do it, but you did it.

LH: You did it on top of the work that you did? Oh goodness, so you did an evening shift in the library?

MC: Yes.

LH: So you would know this whole list of libraries then? [showing Margaret our list]

MC: Yes, yes, I think I’ve been to them all. I can’t quite remember Upperthorpe but I may have been there.

LH: So what were your main jobs when you went there?

MC: Oh, just the normal serving the public, that’s all. Stacking the shelves and refilling the shelves, not stacking, going through the little tickets and stamping them. And another little job I had was what we called the bonus. In the library theatre we had somebody there – they didn’t have tickets.  It was free – but you had a little thing in your hand and you clicked it [for] every person who came in, and Mr Birch was in charge and if he said, ‘Is anyone willing to do a stint tonight?’  We were all always willing to do that because we were paid a little bit – no, I don’t know whether we were paid a little bit extra or whether we got time off.  And we always like to do that because it was a bonus.

LH: And could you watch the performance?

MC: Oh, yes, usually film. I can’t remember for doing it for any theatre work. Just film in the Library Theatre.

LH: Were they well attended by the way?

MC: Yes, they were quite well attended as far as I can remember.

LH: So what date would that be?

MC: I’d be in my twenties I suppose, yeah.

LH: So that must have been in the late fifties, yeah. And were there any other roles that you had?

MC: No.

LH: Over the time that you were working in the school libraries, did you see any changes happening in that period? Through that decade, the fifties to the sixties?

MC: The only thing that did change, I suppose, was that the books became more attractive, but otherwise we just carried on as usual. Big tables, two on one side and three on the other, all kinds of things.

LH: What do you think was the usefulness of the public libraries? What service did they provide?

MC: They have always been there and people have always read books. As for me, I would have hated to be without them. But I suppose for anyone who was into reading they were a real boon.

LH: Did you get to know any of your regular customers?

MC: Yes, [laughs] in fact I was saying to my husband last night when I started, 16, at Firth Park Library, one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter, I can remember the names!

LH: She was the official changer.

MC: And especially if they came in and you were on evening work. She would come in at about ten to eight  You’d be thinking, ‘Why can’t you come a bit earlier?’ [laughs]

LH: And she would change all those books for everyone every week.

MC: Yes, and she used to come about every week. And I suppose to me she seemed elderly then, she may not have been.

LH: She came after work.

MC: I don’t think so.

LH: And unfortunately you didn’t seem to have been allowed much contact with the children either, in school libraries, which is odd isn’t it, because nowadays the relationship between the librarian and the child is very …

MC: I think we were too busy sorting things out and the children were just under control, if the lesson was going on. We used to just sneak in with a few books.

LH: But it’s amazing, isn’t it, the service you provided.

MC: Yes, yes.

LH: Because lots of people have spoken of the importance of the books they borrowed from their school libraries. [MC: Yes, yes.] I’ve heard people say, ‘We had this row of books in the classroom and we borrowed this and borrowed that’ and you were the provider.

MC: And it was quite heavy work in some cases. Because it wasn’t often we changed the whole lot. Maybe three-quarters, perhaps less. We would leave them outside the classroom, leave them in the box and go into the van. I suppose it was quite heavy. And then what to do with them when you got back? Because some were for repair, and some were beyond repair and some were discarded. You see, when we discarded books, we were not allowed to put them in the sack whole. We’d to rip them apart presumably so that no one could use them. And that’s quite hard work, if the binding’s still strong. You’d had to pull out the middle and rip it apart and then put it in the sack.

LH: So they weren’t sold on, like they are now, little jumble sales?

MC: No, no. I don’t know where they went because in those days there wouldn’t be any recycling.

LH: No. Did you not wonder about the wastage of books?

MC: No because they just went in a sack and we were just glad to see them go. [laughs]

LH:  … those horrible, decrepit things.

MC: Mm.

LH: But it was when they were deemed to be too damaged …

MC: …  or too dirty. Some of them were really grotty.

LH: And the sack went just out of the back door.

MC: Yes. More than likely. I don’t know actually.

LH: You were going to tell me something about library tickets.

MC: Yes, they don’t have them any more, I suppose. Well each book had, not a title page, a date stamp with a card in and you took it out and you stamped the book and that was it, which, the library I go to now, it is not related to this and you take the book out yourself. Have you seen it? I go to Dinnington which is part of Rotherham Library and you just stick it under the thing, …

LH: … electronic reader …

MC: Yes, and I said to the girl, ‘I hope it’s not going to make you all redundant’. And she said, ‘No, it’s to relieve us from doing the stamping. We can talk to the public and help them out.’

LH: And what do you think of that, as a librarian?

MC: [a little laugh] Well, I don’t know really. She showed me how to do it, which wasn’t difficult. I thought, ‘What a good idea really.’ It’s easier than standing in a queue but I don’t how it will work out really and then when you take them back, they do it all on a screen, don’t they, these days … through the tickets. I suppose all the fun’s gone out of it really! [both laugh]

LH: Well, it’s interesting. People have spoken about the memory of that satisfying ‘clunk’.

MC: Yes, well you can still do that. With the machine, she said, ‘If you want to stamp it to remind you, you can still do it.’ You do it and a thing comes out like a till roll with what you’ve taken on and the date on you’re to take it back. But she said, ‘You can stamp it as well if you like.’ So I did because I enjoy doing it!

LH: Because everyone likes that when you go ‘donk, donk’! [both laugh]. Were there other things you wanted to say?

MC: The other thing was book selection and order. I don’t know whether you wanted to hear. And the other things I’ve written down, about reading

LH: So, book selection and order.

MC: I moved into book selection and order. And there we used to go through the Literary Supplements and the Bookseller. We all did it – the librarian and we used to go through it to see which were worth ordering and buying for the library and there were lots of them and we all used to tick it off but I think the librarian, Mr Ashmore, he’d have the final say. We made out cards, printed out cards and then the librarians would come in each week, look through the files and then tick off any that they wanted for their particular library. Then they all came in, still in their old cartons, and we had to unpack them all and check them all off with the invoice, and then they were sent out to the branches in the same cartons which we’d then have to use, to tie them together with very thick twine and the jackets were put on by two of the janitors, not the staff. It was the men who were the janitors from the libraries had to put the jackets on.

LH: Were you aware of anything that we would describe as censorship in book selection?

MC: No, I can remember, I don’t think it was when I was in book selection, it was something … Nevil Shute, there was something that was not so good. We did have books on Nevil Shute but I never knew why because I’ve never read any actually. But there was something considered not quite right and I don’t know why.

LH: Was it sexual?

MC: That’s the only one I can think.

LH: Someone mentioned to me that there were certain books that weren’t actually on the shelves but they were in a sort of empty box.

MC: I had forgotten about that. No, I can’t remember what they were. Perhaps Lady Chatterley’s Lover was one of them, I don’t know.

LH: That’s the one that comes immediately to mind.

MC: No, I can’t remember.

LH: So if you saw something that you thought was interesting and put it forward, you were pleased, I suppose, when you saw it actually come through, as a librarian.

MC: And the thing is, working there, we saw all the new books that came in and we used to read them before they went out, and there again, some people could borrow them, and I think they were councillors, but I used to have a pile of them and I’d think, ‘They’ll never get to the branch.’ And I’d have a pile on my desk and eventually I had to let them go because I’d got too many.

LH: You were encouraged to read them before they went out?

MC: No, we weren’t, but we just did. If it was something we really liked. But there used to be lots of copies; there would never be one copy of a book, there’d be a dozen books, so they’d go round each branch.

LH: And you mentioned that there would be a slight difference in the kinds of books going out to schools in different geographical area in Sheffield. Was that the same in the libraries?

MC: I am sorry, I don’t quite …

LH: Well you said that Arthur Ransome might be sent out to Fulwood and so on …

MC: Oh yes, I see what you mean. No, I don’t think so. I suppose the librarians would know their customers, wouldn’t they, but no, I think most people got everything. Oh and one person in book selection was in charge of Hansard. I can’t remember if it came daily but she was very protective of Hansard. She was one of the older ladies and that was her baby. [laughs] Very keen.

LH: Was that in a special spot in Central Library?

MC: Probably. Because actually once you work in book stocks and selection you don’t go much into the library because it’s all there around you, unless it’s something specific.

LH: And you’ve brought some things to talk about.

MC: Well I just made a note of things that I used to read, and then my children read and my grandchildren read. I don’t know if you are interested.

LH: Absolutely.

MC: Because I used to read everything I could get my hands on and I still do. And I remember, strangely, when I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley, and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family From One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?

LH: Oh I loved it as a child..

MC: And I loved it. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose!

LH: It’s a long time since I’ve thought of that.

MC: And a few years ago and we went on holiday, to Northumberland. And there was a place, Barter Books. Have you been in it? [LH: No.] Well, it’s a huge place and I bought myself four Beatrix Potter books because I love Beatrix Potter and I’d never had a Beatrix Potter book. Bit silly at my age but …

LH: Not at all …

MC: This [showing LH a book] I don’t know how many children had this, but I had this, it says 1941, so I’d be seven. Can you imagine many seven year-olds having that for a present these days?

LH: Yes, Arthur Mee …

MC: And I got The Children’s Bible and A Thousand Beautiful Things, but that, that was my favourite, and I liked it. But I can’t imagine … But things are so different now.

LH: They are, they are. So this is Arthur Mee’s Children’s Hour.

MC: But I was surprised when I saw the date in front, 1941, I was born in ’34, how young I must have been to receive a book like that for Christmas or whatever. Oh and also these two, I don’t know whether you have heard of these, have you?

LH: No.

MC: Well, I read those when I was young and I think one of those I got for Christmas and I kept those books.

LH: They are lovely, Scandinavia …

MC: And then they did another. I loved them and I think I had one of those was a Christmas present. I just loved those and I’ve had them for years! Yes, 7/6d.

LH: And you had them for Christmas?

MC: Maybe. I think the other one were a birthday present. Yes, Christmas 1947.

LH: And that’s the Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, 1947.

MC: So I had a lot of books and it’s a shame you can’t keep them because you physically you haven’t the room. And I regret many …  but I couldn’t bear to part with them.

LH: They are lovely, aren’t they? As you were saying, it would be a pity for the children not to see the covers.

MC: Yes, and the first one of those that would have been from the library. And I don’t know how I got that but it’s obvious how I got that one.

LH: They’re very pretty, aren’t they?

MC: Yes. Seen better days, that one.

LH: You’ll have to put your conservation skills to work on them. Do the feathering of the covers on them.

MC: [Laughs] But my children won’t want them! Nearly 50 and the other one is 45. But they all like Little Grey Rabbit. And Rupert. And Winnie the Pooh. And we got a lot of fun from When We Were Very Young. A. A. Milne’s poems.  And then when the grandchildren came, they still loved Rupert. And they still love Winnie the Pooh and they really liked When We Were Very Young. We have got a very battered copy of When We Were Very Young. And they liked the Ladybird Books, particularly the Seasons ones: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. My grandchildren used to love those. I’ve still got those.

LH: Yes.

MC: I’ve not thrown them out. But one of those, I’ve fished this out. This … is nearly fifty years old but my David, it was bought for David, he loved it and my grandchildren really loved it, so much so that I really got a bit tired of reading it to them [laughs].

LH: Can I just see that? It is The Happy Book by Betty Larom and there are lovely illustrations. Actually it has a slight Noddy feel to it, that little character.

MC: Yes. [laughs] But my grandson[s], they knew exactly what was coming next. They knew it off by heart, so I got a bit tired of The Happy Book.

LH: So both your sons are readers, are they?

MC: No! The younger one is and David, the older one – he’s nearly 50 – he loved books when he was younger.  He would read them all but he doesn’t read a book now. But my other son is like I was. He reads everything. In fact he goes on Amazon sometimes and he got a whole set of Somerset Maugham, really cheaply, paperback. Now I’d never read any and he said, ‘I’ll bring them down’ so I read through them, I’d never read Somerset Maugham before. And he goes into all these things. And the other one, I don’t where this was taken but this was Edna Buchanan … [Editor’s note: showing a photo]

LH: … your boss. [reading out] ‘School leavers practising books

MC: Oh, you’ve seen this before,  haven’t you?

LH: That was one of those …

MC: One of the files that we used. When librarians came to book selection. It was on these little files and they used to write down what they wanted.

LH: And this ‘enquiring mind’ – a colleague of yours?

MC: No, [laughs] I just brought that out. Well you’ll have seen these before but perhaps not these files I suppose.

LH: These pictures?

MC: No, that’s not in school libraries. I think that’s in the Junior Library. I don’t know what I put that in there for … ‘Every child of school leaving age in the use of books in school libraries proceeded from the experimental to the proficient stage’ and that was in 1943. School Libraries maybe were started in 1943.

LH: And all this was going on when the war was going on.

MC: Yes, and film weeks in the Library Theatre. [reading] ‘Good documentaries and foreign films which Sheffield has little other opportunity of seeing.’ ‘Films made from classic plays and novels’.

LH: It just passed through my mind. Did you have in the school library classic fiction, Dickens and so on as well …?

MC: I can’t remember sending many Dickens out. I can’t get on with Dickens. I mean Richard, my youngest son, he bought a whole set of Dickens and he’s reading though those. I’ve not read a Dickens all the way through. I might have read Great Expectations.  And I must be the only person on the planet who doesn’t get on with Harry Potter and my grandchildren have read all Harry Potter and they said, ’Nan, you ought to read Harry Potter.’ I don’t know what it is. I don’t think I’ve got the imagination needed. [laughs]

LH: Well, is there anything else you would like to add. Have we missed anything?

MC: I’ve put Enid Blyton, no. Oh one thing I didn’t mention, librarians, when we were in libraries, they used to make out a report for each member of staff, which was frightening, as was she.

LH: This is Miss Buchanan. A report in what sense?

MC: Like a school report. I can’t remember whether it was every term or what it was.

LH: And what were the issues that were covered?

MC: I can’t remember that either. I seem to remember one time she said something about I was very accurate and a good team leader, which I wasn’t really, but I knew a lot about it, and I remember she said, and I was a bit miffed, ‘… isn’t always used in the correct way’.

LH: What did she mean?

MC: I don’t know really, but she was a bit scary.

LH: You were a rogue librarian?

MC:  No. [laughs] I think she must have thought I was influencing them in the wrong way but I don’t know why. I mean we were all friends together. One of the girls I worked with there went to the same school as me but she was younger than me so we weren’t there together and she lived in Handsworth and we used to travel together. She emigrated to Australia and I am still in touch with her.

LH: You were young women together, obviously. So what age were you when you left, Margaret?

MC: Twenty-eight, about I think, twenty-eight.

LH: So that was when you married.

MC: I got married in 1960 and I left in 1963.

LH: With the birth of your sons, yes. And have you ever thought of returning?

MC: No. I have thought since when I came to live here and I go into the library here, ‘Oh I could be doing this’ but they’re not taking people on, are they? When the girls showed me how to put my own books through the machine and I said, ‘I hope it’s not going to put you out of work,’ she said, ‘We are short of staff. We’ve a member of staff missing. So that’s why we’ve got this machine so we can spend our time with the public.’ But how libraries have changed because we’ve got a row, two rows, of computers where people can go. In fact I did go and my husband went for instruction – an eight week course.  It was free – and that was helpful, before we got a computer.

LH: The library moving to take account of changes.

MC: And people now can talk, which they didn’t used to, did they? You had to very quiet in the library [laughs] which I suppose in some ways is better.

LH: Did you have to tell people to be quiet in the library? Did you have that function?

MC: No. It didn’t occur in school libraries. I don’t remember anyone in Firth Park making a noise but I’ve heard them in Dinnington, which is the library I go to, when you get some boisterous kids in, usually boys, on the computers.  I’ve heard them telling them, ‘You’ll be out if you don’t be quiet.’ But they do make a lot of noise, not just talking.

LH: Is there anything else?

MC: Are there any more questions?

LH: I’ve got a list here of books that people have been talking to us about if you want to have a look at that and see if any of those particularly remind you of your own experiences. [look at list]

MC: Well, of the first lot, I can’t remember reading any of them. I read the Somerset Maugham because David got them … Tarka the Otter – we used to have a lot of copies of that.

LH: Because it was popular, wasn’t it?

MC: I don’t know. Now, I did read some Georgette Heyer, but no, I need to read Call of the Wild by Jack London because you hear a lot about it. Thrillers.

LH: Of course these are adult books so this would be about your own reading rather than your work with children.

MC: I’ve read Gone with the Wind but looking at this, I wouldn’t read Mills and Boon, but looking at this, I’m not very well read at all. Biographies I like.

LH: These are just things some people like but what’s remarkable is that it is just impossible to say that certain people read certain kinds of books. It is just people read everything, I mean that’s one of the things that is most striking to us.

MC: Now this reminds me, when I was [a] teenager, the guy next door to my mother and father, he always used to say, ‘Have you read any Ethel M. Dell?’ and what’s the other, Ethel Mannin.

LH: Was this the librarian?

MC: No, the other side. And I’ve still not read Ethel M. Dell or Edith Mannin. No I m not very well read looking at this [laughs]. Excuse me, I’ve got a very old book in there, The Road Mender.

LH: I’ll turn this off, Margaret. Thank you so much.

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On the BBC: ‘The more we read the more we live.’

The more we read the more we live. The better our reading is the better our living is sure to be. Food, clothing and shelter are requisites of life, but reading is necessary for complete living.

This sentiment – authoritative, clear and aspirational – is at the heart of a talk given on the BBC’s first Sheffield station, 6FL, on Thursday 27 January 1927.[i] The speaker was the city librarian, Richard J Gordon (1881-1966), and the broadcast was for a series entitled ‘How Sheffield’s City Departments Work’. As a whole, this sounds worthy, even dull, but Gordon, who had, a colleague said[ii], ‘an innate flair for saying and doing the right thing at the right time,’ is fascinating for what he tells us about the ambition felt for public libraries by the people who ran them in the early twentieth century.

Sheffield was lucky to have Richard Gordon. A ‘dynamic person who believed so passionately in the civilising mission of public libraries’, he ‘added lustre to his profession,’ say his obituaries.[iii] His lifetime contribution was recognised when he was chosen as President of the Library Association in 1947.

The converted music hall on Surrey St, which served as half of the central library in Gordon’s day. It was inconvenient and unsafe.

Gordon arrived in Sheffield in 1921, when the public libraries were stagnating (a strong word but the one used in the official history[iv]). Sheffield had made a good start: in 1856 it was the first city in Yorkshire to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act allowing corporations to establish free libraries. For the next half century, things went quite well, with central lending and reference libraries and  branches opening. But then the service declined, to the extent that in 1920 the Council shamefacedly asked the chief librarian of Leeds to assess the problems and recruited, from 60 applicants, the chief librarian of Rochdale, Richard Gordon, to rebuild the service. The challenge is set out in City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956:

… the bookstocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind … What little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding… The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally… The staff … had been actively discouraged from attempting to qualify in their profession …

A letter to the Sheffield Independent in April 1920 said that the libraries were a ‘disgrace to a city of such importance’ and blamed the ‘Council’s absurd policy of parsimony’.

By 1927, when he spoke on the radio, Gordon was revolutionising the libraries. New books were bought and old, worn-out ones removed. The staff were re-organised and new systems designed. Open access shelving was introduced.[v] Information and publicity campaigns were initiated. The central libraries were reformed, five branch libraries attractively renovated, a children’s branch library opened, the school library service expanded and plans laid for a much-needed, new central library building.

Walkley library – where Gordon opened a  children’s library in 1924, which was used by many of our readers.

Highfield Branch Library, renovated and re-opened in 1923.

These achievements are evident in Gordon’s radio talk: ‘Much has been done to make the libraries worthy of their name, but much more remains to be done.’ More importantly, Gordon used the opportunity to make the case for reading and for public libraries. (Although our situation today is very different, his arguments still have merit). Libraries were, he said, ‘community schools where all may increase and supplement their education’, although their contribution to the ‘national educational structure is but, as yet, dimly recognised.’ An experienced local authority man, Gordon pointed out that the libraries were good value (11d – £4.70 today – per head, less than in other northern cities), offering ‘[information] freely placed at the service of the public; competent counsel in the choice of books; [and] where to look for the required information…’ He aimed, he said, to ‘attract and cultivate readers’, including children, and to anticipate and supply people’s needs:

If we have not the book wanted don’t hesitate to say so. If you do not tell us what you want, we are only able to guess at your requirements …

He went on:

Please do not mistake my meaning regarding this, I mean requirements of books of real value, and not merely of recreational interest.

‘Books of real value’ is an important phrase for Gordon and other librarians of the day. Free libraries were part of the great social reforms of the mid-19th century, founded with a view to the improvement, the self-improvement, of the working classes. Reading for pleasure and reading fiction (particularly the cheaper sort) were frowned upon. By the 1920s, librarians had mellowed somewhat, but the focus on education remained, along with the feeling that ratepayers’ money must be spent on the worthwhile, rather than the entertaining. So Gordon said:

[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should happen to be the work of a novelist of admitted quality. In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

And:

Too often the public library is only thought and spoken of in connection with the reading of novels, and without detracting in the slightest degree from the value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading, yet I would emphasise the contribution it offers to the raising of the standard of general intelligence which is the library’s greatest value to the city.

Gordon concluded: ‘I believe the libraries have something for everybody … I hope many more will … find pleasure and profit in [them].’ The broadcast was clearly part of a communications strategy, aiming to draw Sheffielders in. There were also updates in the local press and trade papers, public lectures, reading lists, exhibitions and slogans such as ‘The Library exists for Books, Information, and Service’. But it seems likely that Gordon was also talking to his employers, the Council. He emphasised the benefits of the library service, including as a means of profiting local industry, and he talked confidently of growth: ‘…when our library service expands, as it must expand…’ A library, he said, is ‘books made productive’.

1927 was to be Gordon’s last year in Sheffield. Shortly after the broadcast, he started a new job as chief librarian in Leeds. There were press suggestions that Sheffield had itself to blame, as the salary offered was well below that of other northern cities. He stayed in Leeds for the rest of his career, and was much praised for its libraries. In Sheffield, he was succeeded by his equally energetic and insightful deputy, Joseph Lamb, whose work is explored elsewhere on this website.

Gordon presided over an increase in borrowing in Sheffield from 711,000 books in 1921 to over 1.5 million in 1926.  His friend Lamb wrote of him: ‘when he was in charge libraries became marvellously alive’.[vi]

 

[i] The script can be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

[ii] Obituary by J P Lamb, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.418.

[iii] Obituaries by E Hargreaves and A E Burbridge respectively, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.420.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield, 1856-1956 (Sheffield, Libraries Galleries and Museums Committee, 1956).

[v] Open access, i.e. shelving accessible to the public, is almost universal today. In the early twentieth century, closed access, where books are chosen from catalogues and brought to borrowers by staff, was the norm.

[vi] From (ii) above.

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