Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Two: School Instruction

Barbara Prater told us here about how she moved to Sheffield, to work in the public library, in the 1970s. In the second part of her story, she moves from Lane Top Branch Library to work with schools.  

Carving of Knowledge high up on the corner of the Central Library (by Frank Tory and Sons)

I applied for the post of School Instruction Assistant in Sheffield Central Library, working for the lovely Edwin Fleming, who sadly passed away last year. School Instruction, which Sheffield Libraries had been running since before WWII, involved delivering every 14 year-old student in the Sheffield area for a morning or afternoon class visit to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The idea was that they learned how to use a library. Every morning and every afternoon I had to plant 40 non-fiction books in their correct shelf order around the shelves. They had to be ready for the students to locate using their question papers, after they were taught how to use the catalogue. They had to fill in the answers to questions like ‘what is the name of the village pictured on page 26?’ to prove that they had located the right book. They then discarded the book anywhere they fancied, which I had to track down again before the next session. We also taught everyone the use of reference books, using sets of encyclopaedias, Who’s Who etc, which were shelved in the ornate Library Committee room upstairs.

Traditional card catalogues

Councillor Enid Hattersley[1] was chair of the Libraries Committee at that time and would often arrive early for her meeting in order to enjoy watching the scrum. There were always shouts of ‘Miss…tin tin!’ (that is, ‘t in’t in.’ Translation: ‘Excuse me but I don’t seem to be able to find the capital town of County Fermanagh within this particular volume of encyclopaedia, despite its being named on my quiz sheet.’)

If we finished our sheets in time, we took the students down to ‘the stacks’. Here we proudly informed them that there were six and a half miles of book shelves. I don’t know where that fact came from … can it have been correct?[2] I recall a member of staff who worked down there in the darkness all the time and allegedly only spoke Esperanto. Perhaps one lead to the other. We used to catch glimpses of his scampering, mole-like form, as he searched for the books requested on slips of paper which arrived in the squeaky wooden dumb waiter, down in the bowels of the building.

The School Instruction department also produced a magazine for all junior libraries, discussing and recommending children’s books. I used to take delivery of beautifully engraved shiny copper plates of book illustrations for the printers. There was a huge cupboard full. I wonder what became of them?

My boss Edwin Fleming was always very busy and not often in our tiny office, which overlooked the night clubs across Arundel Gate. I sometimes took calls for him and would hurtle round the building trying to locate him. He would then gallop down the stone stairs behind me back to our office, tremendously fast in his black shiny leather brogues like a suited cart horse. One day I took a call from the police telling me to ‘stay away from the window. The IRA say they have a gunman on the roof of the Fiesta Club.’

During the school holidays, I used to enjoy doing supply work in Central Junior, the branch libraries and even on the mobiles. I also became a NALGO[3] rep whilst at Sheffield Central, with Martin Olive from the Local History Library. I imagined exotic weekend conferences by the sea – I only ever got to go on one and it was in Huddersfield.

At this time I remember the computer room being constructed across Surrey Street from the library. We all stood on tiptoe to peer in the windows. We saw an enormous edifice covered with dials and knobs which seemed to fill the vast hall – it looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I used to love going across Surrey Street to the Town Hall canteen for dinner – their suet pudding and custard was awesome. I got married in the register office, which was also across Surrey Street but further along, on 15 October 1971. Everyone came out of the library to watch the happy event and throw confetti as I became Barbara Rodgers.

The third part of Barbara’s story will be posted soon.


[1] Cllr Enid Hattersley (1904-2001) chaired Sheffield’s Libraries and Arts Committee for many years and served as Lord Mayor in 1981. She was the mother of Labour politician Roy Hattersley.

[2] A debatable question. Some say 12 miles of shelving. The staff in the Central Library today still mention all this if they show you around.

[3] NALGO, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part One: Up to Lane Top

In the first of three posts, Barbara Prater, who now lives in Scotland, recalls working for Sheffield Libraries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Here she talks about the beginnings of her career and her move to Sheffield, ‘City on the Move’. Her first post was at the new Lane Top branch.   

I was born Barbara Page in East Ham, London in 1948. I left grammar school on a Thursday in July 1965 and, as instructed by my father, began my library career with East Ham Library the following Monday. After detailed training – a group of us were shown the only acceptable way to shape letters and numbers in order to ensure consistency with spine labels and book cards, and correct positioning of date sheets and book pockets – I was launched onto the unsuspecting public (and library staff) at Boleyn Branch Library, next to West Ham football ground.

I enjoyed the Swinging Sixties to the max, my friend and I regularly going ‘up London’ to the clubs and dance halls and arriving home on the last tube of the night. Life was perfect. Then in 1967 my father’s employer transferred him to Stirling – Gateway To The Highlands. After a couple of years I couldn’t stand the excitement of knitting on a circular needle and not being allowed in pubs. No self-respecting lady was ever seen in a pub. As a matter of interest, local government rules refused married ladies a permanent contract lest they become pregnant – regardless of their age. It was not quite like swinging London.

In 1970 a friend took me to visit his home town, Sheffield – City On The Move. I fell in love with the buzz of the smart new shops, clubs and markets, compared to sleepy old Stirling. I phoned Sheffield Central Library and asked if there were any vacancies. Soon after that I was busy on the issue desk in Stirling when the Deputy Librarian came and announced that I was summoned to the Chief Librarian’s office immediately. I hurried to the imposing, oak-panelled room wondering which of my many misdemeanours he had discovered. Mr Robertson gestured wordlessly towards the telephone receiver resting on his desk. I held it to my ear to hear the offer of a post with Sheffield City Libraries, processing stock for the new library opening at Lane Top, over Hillards Supermarket. I accepted, and headed off for the bright lights of Sheffield Lane Top.

The new Lane Top Library, above Hilliards

Whilst we sat up there at the worktops in front of the window, processing books and chatting, I noticed some suspicious activity down below us at the back of the terraced houses. I public-spiritedly dialled 999. We all looked on as the boys in blue hurdled the back fences in a pincer movement, from either end of the long terrace, before tackling the young lads who were trying to break into the house. We all let out a huge cheer as they were successfully captured. Later on one of the policemen popped round to inform us that the lads actually lived there and had lost their door key, but he praised us for Doing The Right Thing.

When the library was ready to be opened, the photographers arrived to take photos for a promotional brochure. We all (Peter Bayliss, Barbara Sorby and others whose names have sunk in the porridge of my brain) had to don our coats and strike Member Of The Public attitudes, to lend authenticity.

Pretending to be members of the public – Barbara is sitting at the desk.

During the time I was there, I got more training. I went on Mary Walton’s* excellent book repair course, which has stood me in good stead ever since. I learned how to bleach out biro scribble with a fine paintbrush, invisibly mend torn off corners, repair ‘perfect binding’ and re-attach spines constructed in various mediums.

When we opened, we had to deal with the culture shock of ‘decimalisation’ which had occurred during the time we were out of circulation. Charging fines in decimal currency seemed very exotic, and we were equipped with special charts to help calculate ‘new money’.


The next part of Barbara’s story will be posted shortly.

* Mary Walton was the first Sheffield Archivist and author of various books about the city.

Christine’s reading journey

By Sue Roe

Christine was born in 1940 and her reading journey was inevitably influenced by World War Two, though her parents and her choice of career in librarianship were clearly also important factors.

Christine, aged 14, playing snowballs at school

Christine has difficulty remembering her first experiences of reading:

You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The war meant that fewer books were available. Christine read what and where she could:

I can remember a boyfriend [of Christine’s sister] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals… I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was second-hand!

Clearly even schools seemed short of books:

[At] about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a second-hand book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a second-hand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

The prize seems to have been Anne of Green Gables, the children’s classic much loved by many of the Reading Sheffield interviewees. Christine was also reading Enid Blyton (whose books were ‘exciting. Different. A different world’) and books about life in girls’ boarding schools.

Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

It was at this stage that buying books became important, although she didn’t have much pocket money: 

We used to go into Andrews [a Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury.

Although he was away in the army for the duration of the war, Christine’s father played an important part in her reading. This was in contrast to her mother whom Christine ‘can’t ever remember … having any direct influence’. Christine still recalls her father’s collection of books:

The only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett… As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them …

After the war, he would:

…push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group… I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read.

He also encouraged her to enter competitions in the Children’s Newspaper which they had at home:

It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

When she moved to the grammar school, Christine was able to take advantage of the class library – a cupboard of books such as H G Wells’ Kipps. At this point she started reading war stories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and … we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd and then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader…


Generated by Carsales Image Server on 04:42.09 05/09/2015

These war stories had a profound effect:

I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid … I think he[her father] thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was 18, 19, I’d already joined CND.

Libraries were an important stop on Christine’s reading journey from an early age:

I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve.

When she was 16, Christine went to stay with a distant relation who was ‘deputy chief librarian for Tottenham libraries’. He gave her a ‘book list’ and brought books for her to read, including The Crowthers of Bankdam and Marjorie Morningstar. Christine herself started working in libraries around then. This influenced her reading in several ways:

I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

Christine took an Open University course and professional librarian exams over the years, with the support of her employers. This led to her reading particular sorts of books, not always to her taste:

The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. … Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else.

[With] the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

Her love of books continued after retiring from the library service. She worked part-time in a children’s bookshop and had her favourites there too:

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs… [Also]  The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform.

Nowadays Christine enjoys crime rather than war stories:

I go more for the detective solving the crime… It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

It is amazing Christine managed to fit in so much reading:

Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full-time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.


You can read Christine’s full interview or listen to the audio here.


Librarians’ Voices: Maureen A: ‘Like a large family’

Maureen worked in Sheffield Libraries between 1967 and 1997.   She remembers the fun she and her colleagues had.

We really were like a large family, with all the problems that families have but in the knowledge that we’d got support from colleagues when we needed it.

Maureen’s first experience of the public library was in the Ecclesall branch, then located in a grand Victorian house bought by the city and converted.

It was a pleasant place to work, and power cuts made life interesting on winter nights, with lamps at each end of the counter, and eager borrowers hunting for their books with torches.  I’m ashamed to say that the staff took great delight in embarrassing those readers who wanted a particular title.  We would call through to the office, saying that Mr So-and-so would like to borrow this title, and make sure that the whole library could hear!  Saturday afternoons were busy, and livened up by blokes rolling in from the Prince of Wales pub just across the road.   

The Central Lending Library in Surrey Street was very different.

Sheffield Central Library

This was quite an eye opener, as it was vast, with an equally vast Browne charge.(1)  I often wondered how many miles we covered simply shelving books.

On my first evening duty a woman brought in a beautiful fox cub, but it leapt out of her arms and disappeared around the bookshelves.  It obviously hadn’t received obedience training!

This was before computerisation, and Maureen remembers the changeover from paper, which was successful ‘due to the tenacity of the Lending Librarian and his deputy’.

Every pink catalogue card had to be checked, and by the end of the day all the staff were seeing everything in green.(2)  There was near hysteria when word came from on high that all the book cards were to be thrown into bins, and five minutes later that they were to be kept!

In 1975 Maureen moved to the Sheffield Interchange Organisation (SINTO), a partnership between the library service and industry.  One of her jobs was to organise the SINTO AGM, to be held in the Graves Art Gallery and chaired by the redoubtable Councillor Enid Hattersley.

[In the gallery] there was the famous picture of some 50 naked women stuffed into a phone box.(3)  Councillor Mrs Hattersley … was standing right in front of this picture with her drink, when a press photographer arrived, and Mrs. Hattersley, always ready for a picture, smiled.  And click!

Occasionally Maureen had to ‘descend into the depths’.  This was the library stack or basement store, with six miles of shelving – or was it twelve? Maureen wonders.  It stretched across the whole site and housed ‘a vast amount of technical journals, standards, patents, EEC documents, as well as an overflow of lending material’.  It could be spooky at night.

One dark night I went down for something, and nearly had a heart attack, because someone with a hideous face and long fair hair appeared, leaning against a wall.  I got out fast!  It turned out to be a prop from the production in the Library Theatre.

The ‘stack ladies lived a troglodyte existence’.  They looked after the strongroom where the most important materials were kept.  If the Local History librarians upstairs asked for something from there, this was quite a job.  The stack lady had to be:

‘strong enough to open the door.  You would think that there were gold bars in the place, and the books themselves could be very large and very heavy and the book lift up to Local Studies wasn’t exactly close.

Maureen remembers many Christmas celebrations.

[We had a meal] at the Norfolk Arms at Ringinglow, on one very snowy night.  It was decided that a cabaret would cheer up the festivities, so four of the male staff dressed in ballet tutu skirts and walking boots and performed the Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake.  It was so funny that all the bar staff rushed in followed by umpteen customers, and the whole place was heaving with laughter.

The highlight of the year was the panto, ‘very well organised’ by various colleagues.  Maureen did the music.

Peter Pan was the first, followed by Aladdin, Robin Hood and then Snow White.  Someone sang the very deep bass priest’s song from the Magic Flute, and I played a piano version of George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows.  From the sublime to the ridiculous.


(1) The usual borrowing system before computers.  The library assistant would take the record card from the book and file it with the borrower’s ticket in long trays, in date order, until the book was returned. Here is a photo.

(2) Looking at one colour (pink in this case) for a long time makes you see the complementary colour (which is green).

(3) Sadly, we’ve been unable to trace this interesting painting.


Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Sorby: ‘Gosh…where to start?’

Barbara Sorby worked in Sheffield Libraries for about 40 years, starting and finishing her career at the Manor Library in the east of the city.  Manor also happened to be the library she belonged to as a child and growing up.  It opened in 1953 (it was supposed to be 1938 but World War II and its aftermath got in the way).  It was the country’s first modular library: that is, the interior walls were kept to a minimum to allow maximum flexibility in use.  More than sixty years later, Manor Library shows its age a little but remains a harmony of light and space.

The Manor Library today

Manor Library today

‘Gosh …where to start?’ she says.  With a scent…

My enduring memory of Manor is of my first day there, which was actually my very first working day.  I had used Manor since the age of 8, and year on year the foyer was filled with beautiful flowers and plantings from the Parks Dept.  On my first day in January 1963 the foyer was full of hyacinths, and the smell of them is so evocative, every year I return to Manor in thoughts as I smell those flowers, wherever I am.

But Barbara might have taken against Sheffield Libraries forever…

At the age of eight, I and three friends from Charnock Hall School went to join the library, following a ‘marketing’ visit to the school by the then children’s librarian.  Unfortunately she had omitted to tell us that, if we were from ‘over the Derbyshire border’ (which then split Gleadless Townend in two at Ridgeway Road), we would have to pay to be members.  At five shillings per person [about £6 today] we were appalled…one small boy declaring that we had come to borrow books, not to buy the blooming library!!

Manor Library in the 1950s, when Barbara would have first known it

Here and below, Manor Library in the 1950s, when Barbara would have first known it


And it might have all ended in disaster…

I once had my hair set alight by a firework thrown into the children’s library.  And I was impressed to find that the perpetrator had been chased by another member of staff and brought down on the Ridgeway Road zebra crossing with a zealous rugby tackle.

The days were full…

The library used to be frantically busy, with borrowers stalking staff who would be shelving huge piles of books…and trying to grab the Catherine Cooksons and Zane Greys.  And it wasn’t always the men wanting the cowboy stories or the women wanting the romance!

I worked there for five very happy years…with the National Fiction Reserve Scheme as part of my job, acquiring every ‘fic’ title published in the UK by authors whose surnames began N-S.

These and many more books were stored in the Manor basement, and we had great fun switching out the lights on colleagues working down there and setting the stacks rolling!

A day Barbara could not forget…

I remember being on the counter when a shocked borrower came in to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot.  They say you always remember where you were at that time.

Four decades later…

I finished my career at Manor too…four decades later!  I was Area Librarian for South East Sheffield and based at Manor.  It wasn’t half as much fun then…nor a fraction as busy!


Librarians’ Voices: Alysoun Bagguley: ‘I can’t imagine doing anything more interesting.’

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.’