‘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.

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