‘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.

A New Library for Upperthorpe (Part II)

…considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time. (Herbert Waterson, Upperthorpe Librarian from 1882 to 1928, speaking in 1934 about Upperthorpe and Highfield)

In Part I, we told the story of Sheffield’s first branch library, opened in 1869 at the Tabernacle Chapel, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe. It prospered and by 1874 Sheffield Council decided to move the library into its own building, and to open a new branch at Highfield, across the city.

The Sheffield Independent thought that the Upperthorpe and Highfield buildings would be ‘a great ornament to the town, and a welcome addition to the few structures in Sheffield possessing anything like architectural excellence.’ The architect was Edward Mitchell Gibbs, of the prestigious firm, Flockton and Gibbs, who also designed Firth Court, St John’s Ranmoor and the Mappin Art Galley.[1] The Upperthorpe Library was to be built on the site of an old tan yard opposite the Upperthorpe Hotel and was expected to cost £4,670. In the end, it cost around £6,000 – perhaps £500,000 today – but that figure may include fitting it out and the book stock. The Council borrowed the money and was so keen to repay it that the fund for buying books was kept low for the next two years.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Alderman William Fisher JP, who chaired the Council’s library committee, laid the foundation stones at Upperthorpe and Highfield on 28 November 1874. He used a ceremonial trowel designed by Gibbs and presented to him as a ‘beautiful tribute of indebtedness and of the esteem in which he was held’. This is now on display in the Upperthorpe building, on the reception desk. Before the stone was laid, a bottle ‘containing a document, which set forth that the building was erected by the Town Council, as a ‘branch free library’ was placed beneath it. One of Sheffield’s MPs, Anthony Mundella, then wound up the ceremony by saying that:

Twenty years hence there would be a new Sheffield – a population almost all of whom would be educated, and more or less delighting in the enjoyments and pursuits which education afforded.

After this, the party left for Highfield, where a similar ceremony took place (although Alderman Fisher was moved to remember that he had done his courting in Highfield).

Highfield Branch Library

The new Upperthorpe Library opened on 8 May 1876 and Highfield on 1 August 1876. Today they are often described as ‘twin libraries’ but it’s a fraternal rather than identical relationship. The Pevsner architectural guide for Sheffield notes ‘plain brick with Florentine windows and an elaborate doorcase; [with] figures of a workman with an axe and a factory girl reading…’ The figures, by J W Cooper, are meant to show how much people can learn from the public library. ‘Passing through this handsome and somewhat imposing entrance,’ wrote the Independent of 6 May 1876,

the lobby, which is 19 feet by 15 feet, is reached. Running around the walls is a frame which contains a catalogue of the books in the library. … Immediately opposite the entrance is the door leading to the lending department –  a spacious room 48 feet by 30 feet. Of this 24 feet by 10 feet is set apart to the public, in which to wait until the books they require can be handed to them. In this space is fitted up an ingeniously devised indicator, by which the librarian can tell at a glance what books are out or in, and even how long they have been out. This indicator is the invention of a member of the Free Library Committee at Dundee, but certain improvements have been introduced by Mr Hurst, the chief librarian here … The number of books now in the library is 8,573; the indicator is sufficiently large to work a library of 12,000 volumes.

This tells us how the library worked, using the ‘closed access’ system.[2] Until the 1920s, borrowers chose titles from a catalogue, and then asked the librarian to bring the books from shelves behind the counter. The librarian would check the indicator, a big wooden frame with a slot and token for each book, to see if it was available. The indicator was state of the art technology in 1876, invented in 1875 and known as a Kennedy indicator. If the book was in, the book assistant – they started at age 13 or 14 – went to find it on the shelves. These were often ceiling-high and climbing ladders to get them could be dangerous. In the Central Library, one assistant, Mr French, climbed up, over-reached, fell and was seriously injured. The Council then thought to put hooks on the tops of ladders and stops on the ends of the shelves.

Libraries usually had reading rooms in the 19th century, one for ladies and one ‘general’ (i.e. for men). The sexes were routinely kept separate.

Adjoining the lending department is a ladies’ reading and news room, 30 feet by 22 feet, leading out of which are a lavatory and other conveniences. The general reading and news room is on the upper floor, and is approached by a staircase immediately opposite the counter in the lending department, so that any one passing either in or out can be seen by the librarian … This room is 70 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 27 feet high. It has an open timber roof and handsome oriel window, and is a room unequalled in the town for its comfortable and effective appearance. Both the ladies’ and men’s reading rooms will be well supplied with magazines and periodicals.

All the rooms had white brick walls, with ‘a few red bricks in bands and borders … to save the expense of painting and papering, as the walls can always be washed clean.’

The Upperthorpe librarian’s house, with separate entrance

Linked to the library by an office was a substantial house for the librarian, with its own entrance on Daniel Hill. That a house was provided demonstrates the Council’s aspiration (as do the quality of the building and the up-to-date indicator). It was described in the Independent (4 October 1869) as having: ‘sitting room with bay window, kitchen, scullery, pantry, bathroom, bedrooms, and attics’. At Highfield in the 1920s, when the library was open until late evening, the librarian used to creep from his house, in his slippers, to see what his staff were up to. This was perhaps a wise move as the staff sometimes used to kick a ball around behind the indicator.

It is noticeable that there was no service for children, although there probably were some children’s books in stock. Children’s libraries are largely a 20th century development, and Sheffield’s first separate library for children opened in Walkley in 1924.

After 140 years, the library at Upperthorpe still serves the community. In 1895 public baths were added to the building, making it an early example of the ‘community hubs’ around today. In the 20th century, there was a move to close Upperthorpe, as people moved to new estates, but it remained busy and so stayed open. Today the building – much altered on the inside and, like Highfield, Grade II-listed – is home to the Zest Centre, and a focus for community activity and regeneration. The library is now an associate library run by Zest. As Alderman Fisher said in 1869,

it would not be simply a building for the present generation, but for future generations, the building, in fact, would be all they could wish.

 

Sources: Sheffield Independent; The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956; Pevsner Architectural Guides: Sheffield.

 

[1] Now the Weston Park Museum.

[2] Today most libraries use the ‘open access’ system, with the books on open shelves for borrowers to inspect.

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)