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.

 

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