Sheila Edwards

Sheila Edwards

Sheila  was born in 1937 in Sheffield.

She is being interviewed by Alice Seed.

 AS: This is Alice Seed and I’m interviewing Sheila Edwards who was born in 1937 and was at the –  was 8 in 1945 and 28 in 1965. Okay, I’m just going to start the interview off and, say between the years probably let’s starting in 1945 was reading important to you?

SE: Yes very important, yes, I was only young then and I joined two libraries because I enjoyed reading so much.  I had a subscription to Boots library and I went to the Central Library in town, and I just read masses of books; I can’t remember what they all were now but, there were one or two I remember: Noel Streatfeild- I think she wrote books about ballet, mm, Kathleen Fidler, another one called Malcolm but I can’t just remember what his surname was now, those were the main ones I remember, can’t really remember any other ones at the moment.

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AS: Did y- oh, sorry.

SE:  I mean obviously my reading changed as it got older- it was a Christmas present, the Boots one, and obviously I only read young books there and then I went onto the adult library… I’m trying to remember what I read then … I mean really round 1965, I had three very young children at home so I wouldn’t read an awful lot then, but I used to read Georgette Heyer…  that sort of book, I can’t remember any more, sorry.

AS: Ddid you have any like particular favourite genres that you’d read, like romance or fantasy?

SE: Mm, I didn’t like murder things, yes it was probably romance and just interesting stories about people. Norman Bennett, I’ve got that at home now, I’ve not read it yet but I’ve got it at home waiting to be read … and I love cookery books I’ve got loads and loads of cookery books and I just read them for enjoyment.  I do read them properly, and for years I’ve had a subscription for Good Food Magazine which I read cover to cover. I’m not bothered about Woman and Home and Good Housekeeping –  that doesn’t interest me at all.

AS: Mm, when you were younger- probably around 1945 around that age, did you have any book you’d read over and over again or did you always read different books?

SE: Mainly different books you know. I had these certain authors and I used to wade through everything that they’d written and if I could- if I couldn’t find it on the library shelves then I would order it, erm, and of course as a child I used to- oh and Enid Blyton was a favourite wasn’t it, in those days? And I had her. She did like a magazine called Sunny Stories, … and of course Enid Blyton is still read now isn’t it, although when I read some of these books now and I look back they’re so old fashioned. I mean Georgette Heyer, I tried to read them recently and I just found them boring. They’re not my taste anymore. And you obviously change over the years and the sort of thing that you do, you do enjoy.

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AS: Yeah

SE: At the moment I’m reading, well, Lesley Pearse and, mm, Santa Montefoire,  quite a mixture really, and  I can’t remember who else, there’s a little bit of, lot of stories about Burracombe [by Lillian Harry] which is a village, and I’ve read all those but I can’t remember the author of them. Because I worked in the libraries, I worked at Firth Park, started off that was in the first job when I left work, when I would be 18, which of course comes within these years doesn’t it?

AS: Yeah around 1955-

SE: and when I went on to Park Library, which is of course where Mary was showing us and I went and ran the children’s library there and of course some of the children there were very poor and very rough and [we] used to have a story time for them and they used to come and sort of, play games and then we’d have a story at the end and d’you know those children absolutely loved that, they would sit as quiet as a mouse and listen – they’d obviously never had parents read to them at home which to me is very important I think, I’ve always loved reading books to children and uh, I was there for quite a few years until I had my family.

AS: Yeah

SE: And of course I didn’t, I didn’t work for several years then. It was, it was quite a place, because as Mary said there were the baths in that building and, lots of other things – there was a reading room where we used to have … oh no that was Firth Park library, used to have a reading room where the old boys used to come, I think mainly for a warm, but we had all the papers in there and they used to sit and read the papers. They’d spend all day there just because it was warm and they’d obviously nowhere else to go.

AS: Yeah … and did you, ‘cause you like you said you enjoyed reading to children, did you ever read to your children?

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SE: Ooh yes, all the time, yeah I did, and there were three of them and [we] all had to have separate stories read every night so we started with the youngest and worked up, and then of course since then I’ve had grandchildren and that and I get a lot of pleasure out of reading to them. There’s something very special I think about reading to children, and I think you know, they all love books now probably because, you know, we started off like that and I got rather disappointed when they began to get older and they used to say they would read the stories. [laughs] I lost my job.

AS: Yeah.

SE: And, well, now my little granddaughter who is now 7, she’s starting to read now and she likes to read the books but, sometimes she doesn’t quite get the words but she tries very hard  and she’s very interested in books and I think it’s terribly important for children to you know, read and it carries on through life, doesn’t it?

AS: So, did you always use like, the Central Lending libraries or did you ever like, did you have any particular favourite places you liked to get your books from?

SE: No, I mean I do go to Broomhill Library now because it’s nearer but I still use them both and – I’ve got a card for the Central Library now because  they’ve got a few more on the shelves, but there will always always get them for me so if there’s a particular book I want, you know, they get it for me.

AS: Hm, you mentioned the, Boots Library earlier, did you use that a lot?

SE: Yes, I used to go there every Saturday that was my – you know, when I was allowed to go to town because it was easier in those days you used to go down on the bus and spend all Saturday there I don’t remember Boots Library having tables where you could sit down but the children’s library did, … , so you know, it was somewhere to go and, thoroughly enjoyable but I would imagine that I don’t remember going and buying and getting adult books there so I obviously probably must have had a subscription that finished when I got to, perhaps about 15 or something like that .

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AS: Mm,  a lot of people say that when they’re younger and they read a book it was very important to them or it spoke to them, did you have any books like that, that you- were really important to you as a child or anything at all?

SE: I can’t remember what, but I mean it was company for me because my sister was quite a lot younger than me so I, she wasn’t really a companion. She was still only, you know spending time with my mother and father so it was something for me to do on my own, and I perhaps I was a little bit of a loner anyway you know, so I just used to wrap myself up in books- and I mean now I don’t know what people do if they don’t read books I absolutely love reading I’ve always got something and in fact I’ve got one at the moment which I tend to pick up first thing in the morning when I’m still in bed and I read a bit more and a bit more and more and a bit more and it gets late, but, no I get a lot of pleasure out of- I’d rather read a book than watch television, quite honestly.

AS: Was reading a large part of you, so obviously it was a large part, but I mean like, would you talk about books with your friends and discuss like where you could get books from if you were looking for them?

SE: Yes, yes I did and I don’t remember my parents ever reading to me or you know, having any interest in books but I don’t remember.

AS: I guess there’s just something about reading once you start it’s really hard to  stop.

SE: Well that’s right, the slightest, you know I just don’t understand people that don’t read.

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AS: Yeah, it’s like all those –

SE:… hours of pleasure, puts me to sleep sometimes [laughs]. I’m reading and I’ll suddenly find the book starts going down and I’ve nodded off, but yeah it’s good.

AS: Erm, so… erm… trying to think of something else to ask.

SE: I’m trying to think of something Mary said that sort of sparked memories …

AS: Mm … well did you ever use bookshops like, I think it was called the Red Circle Library?

SE: No, no I don’t remember that at all, no … but, mm, some of the older ladies they remember that so perhaps it as a little bit perhaps before my time. I don’t know. Is it still going now?

AS: Well I’ve never seen any, so …

SE: No, they talked about the Boots down on the Moor and I don’t remember that. The one I remember was on Fargate. And there was a lot to choose from, and she mentioned that too, I read Nevil Shute and Mary brought a book out and it was a book club and I didn’t belong to that butI still got a lot of their books on the shelf. I can’t remember – we must have paid a subscription and got one every month I should think.

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AS: … I don’t know what else to say.

SE: [laughing] I think I’ve dried up now.

AS: I had a prompt sheet of questions but I think I’ve gone through most of them

SE: I shall probably get home and remember lots of things that I should have said to you [laughs].

AS:  Well, I was going to ask, do you prefer when, well, between the years I guess when we’re looking at, were you more of a fiction or non-fiction …?

SE: A fiction, yeah. I did read, there was a sort of Romany books I used to read but I can’t remember who wrote that, mm about the countryside. I enjoyed that, I really can’t remember who- it’ll probably come back to me when I’m at home ]I should have made notes shouldn’t I but, you don’t.

AS: Ah you never do, you think, ah I’ll remember it.

SE: I do write down what I read now ‘cause, you know I’ve read so many sometimes I forget how much I’ve read so I have a quick look through to see if I’ve read it before, so I’ve got a little book which I take out  when I go to the library, just to prompt me.

AS: Mm … I think, I had a question but then I forgot it [laughs] mm, oh lord I’ve totally forgotten how to talk.

SE: It’s gone a lot easier than I thought you know, because when Mary first asked me I thought, oh I just cannot think, but as soon as I got in here and I knew the years and how old I was it got easier for me.

AS: Yeah, is there anything else you want to say regarding books about, you know, the impact they had or, …

SE: No, I don’t think so no.

AS: You think so? Okay … well for a first interview that wasn’t so bad, and thank you for letting me ask you questions.

SE: It’s a pleasure.

Access Sheila’s reading journey here.

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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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