Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. (Dr Johnson)
Alysoun Bagguley, born in Nantwich in the 1940s, worked for Sheffield City Libraries for over 40 years. She became Law Librarian, Business Librarian and, finally, Science and Technology Librarian and deputy head of the Commerce Science and Technology Department. Alysoun is the first of our Librarians’ Voices interviews.
‘No two days were ever the same,’ Alysoun says, looking back on the Commercial Science and Technology library. ‘You’d be jumping from one thing to another as one query followed another!’ The fascination was that ‘you are constantly learning.’ One hundred and fifty enquiries a day was the norm for this library in a city famous for steelmaking. An opening like ‘I’ve got this steel …’ was common, but Alysoun and her colleagues were asked everything from the weight of a cubic foot of sand to the recipe for making rose-hip syrup. Law, business, chemistry, cookery, birds – anything might come up. A particular pleasure was searching the wonderful Botanical Illustration collection – hand-coloured Victorian, Edwardian and 20th century books (demonstrating incidentally the skill of librarians in choosing books). Less happily, a man once came in to ask advice about his pet spider, a tarantula, which he produced from under his jumper, making nearby schoolgirls scream in fright.
Alysoun’s first post was in Woodseats Library in the early 1960s. The staff knew their customers by name and got to know the books they liked. The male librarian in charge appeared very ‘old school’, fierce and bluff, but his approach was to ‘give the customers what they like’. So while the prevailing professional wisdom was to exclude pulp and escapist fiction from municipal libraries, he bought romantic fiction, known to borrowers as ‘luverly books’. At Christmas, these satisfied borrowers thanked the staff with sweets and cakes. ‘Libraries were always friendly places,’ Alysoun remembers.
While at Woodseats, Alysoun went, on her day off, to classes for her library exams. In 1963, she started a sandwich course at Liverpool College of Commerce, alternating six-month periods of study and work over two and half years. Back in Sheffield, the jobs varied. Alysoun worked in the Highfield and Attercliffe branches and on the enquiries desk/telephone service in the Commercial Science and Technology library. Sometimes, she did ‘call booking’, that is, calling on people who failed to return books, to ask for the book and money. Light moments included finding a slice of bacon in one book and in another, a pay packet.
In 1967 Alysoun became, to her surprise, the Law Librarian responsible for the Assize Court Library (later the Crown Court Library). ‘The personnel officer suddenly said one week, “Next Monday you will be in the Law Library”’. She was ‘terrified. Coming from basic fiction to look after the barristers and judges …. But you just get on with it.’ She remembers barristers’ clerks commenting, in the era of the mini-skirt, when librarians climbed ladders to reach high shelves. ‘They certainly knew you were there.’
(Law became important to Alysoun in other ways. Under the National Subject Specialisation Scheme, Sheffield Libraries specialised in company law. ‘This changed my life,’ when she helped someone with his law degree dissertation. She refused a date with him. Then ‘a member of staff invited me to a party and who should happen to be there but my enquirer. Things went on from there and I am still married to him!’)
In time Alysoun became Sheffield’s first Business Librarian, and then Science and Technology Librarian. Her job included SINTO, the Sheffield Interchange Organisation. SINTO was started by Sheffield Libraries in the 1930s, to exchange information about steel and related subjects between local businesses and research and academic organisations. In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge. Sometimes representatives from the metal industries would ask to ‘see the gaffer’ and were surprised to discover a woman, but Alysoun is clear that it was all about teamwork. The librarians were under pressure all the time and ‘people buckled to and did it. It was a mutual support.’
Promoted to Science and Technology Librarian, Alysoun ran the World Metal Index – ‘a joy, an absolute joy.’ The Index is a unique collection of British and international standards and specifications, trade and technical material on ferrous and non-ferrous metals. Enquiries came from Euro-Disney, the Royal Naval Dockyards, the team trying to re-create the computers used in cracking the Enigma Code and many others. There was, Alysoun recalls, huge satisfaction in ‘solving something’. Originally, the Index was compiled by hand from original documents. Before retirement Alysoun successfully secured EU funding to digitise the service, in partnership with a research organisation and various businesses. ‘I can’t imagine doing anything more interesting.’
When she gave notice, Alysoun was asked to stay on but decided not to. She notes wryly: ‘There was one year when 100 years of experience walked out of the door and that is happening again.’ But ‘I think that I was very lucky to have worked in such an interesting and useful department when the City Libraries were considered to be one of the leaders in their field within the UK.’