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.