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!


11 thoughts on “Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Sorby: ‘Gosh…where to start?’

  1. Pingback: Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part One: Up to Lane Top | Reading Sheffield

  2. Hi Val,
    I’m not sure if you know about the existence of our retired library staff social ‘gang’!?… the Red Hats.
    We decided in 2007 at my retirement party at Manor Library that as so many of us were retiring/taking redundancy in the following couple of years that we would try to keep contact with each other.
    Our name’ Red Hats’ comes from a poem ‘A warning’ about growing old disgracefully, by Jennie Jones,
    We meet informally for coffee etc every month and have a few extra sessions to celebrate special events. We are just in the planning stages of a ‘bit of a do’ to recognise our 10 th year. There are c. 40 of us, of whom usually 15-25 turn up regularly at monthly get togethers and others at various times.
    There’s a wealth of memories between us, reverent and irreverent! if it’s of any interest?
    Regards, Barbara

  3. I worked with Barbara during the preparations for opening Lane Top Library in 1971, I still have the brochure which was made for the opening. She was just about to have her baby…. we have lost touch over the many years and moves. I now live in Scotland with a different husband but would love to get back in touch with her!

    • Hi Barbara. We’ll see what we can do. BTW, if you’d like to share your memories of libraries in Sheffield, we’d love to hear from you sometime.

      • Thank you for facilitating a re-connection…. I am now back in touch with Barbara after 45 years! I would love to tell you about my time and various posts in Sheffield City Libraries….

        • Hi Barbara. So pleased that we have helped re-connect old friends. If you’d like to email me – – with some memories, we’d love to publish them. We’d be happy to clear any editing with you. Your contribution needn’t be long and obviously the timing is up to you. It would be good to include how you started at Sheffield Libraries and where you worked, and then anything else you remember. It can be funny anecdotes or library developments or business that you recall. If you have any photos you could send us, that would be terrific, but we don’t want to put you to a lot of trouble.

  4. These comments from librarians are so valuable. I am intrigued by Barbara Sorby’s comments about the library building and the way it was used Faye

    • Hi Faye. The librarian reminiscences add a whole dimension to the project, and we have a few yet to post. I’m interested in the buildings too and have amassed some useful material, e.g. that some branches were purpose-built and state of the art in their day (like Manor), while others were compromises or opportunities seized or the best of bad jobs (like Hillsborough, an 18th c gentleman’s residence converted in the late 19th c). I also have material on the careful interior planning and decorating – have a look at the images in Julia Banks’ reading journey to see the inglenook photo. Manor Branch is particularly interesting as the first-ever modular library in the country. It was planned in the 1930s, to provide library services on a big new estate, but was mothballed in 1939 – the unfinished building was used by the Home Guard – and not opened until the early 1950s. It still looks good, which is I think a tribute to the quality of the design and construction. Val

  5. All the librarians interviewed by Reacing Sheffield loved their work in postwar Sheffield libraries.

    • True. Hoping to post more memories soon – and would love to hear from other Sheffield library workers.

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