Alma

Alma

Alma was born in 1928

She is being interviewd by Liz Hawkins.

LH:  Alma was born in Sheffield on …

A:  I was born in Rotherham.

LH:  In Rotherham, sorry, on …

A:  In 1928.

LH:  In 1928.  And lived in the Rotherham area of Sheffield or in Sheffield as well?

A:  The Rotherham area until I married and then I went into Sheffield in 1921 … when I was 21.  Sorry.

LH:  Oh right.  So which area of Sheffield did you live in then, Alma?

A:  Pitsmoor.

LH:  Pitsmoor, great, brilliant. Well, thank you very much for agreeing to take part in our Reading Sheffield interviews and what we are really interested in is really your reading history so it is a question of looking back into your life and finding out what you were reading when you were a young adult. But first of all, thinking back to childhood, did anybody read to you when you were young, can you remember?

A:  Funnily enough, no, I can’t remember anything like that.  We were a working class family and my father was an engine driver and my mother did not work, in those days, but I honestly cannot remember anybody reading to me at bedtime or reading me a story.

LH:  It wasn’t the done thing in working class families?

A:  But I had some aunties who gradually got me reading and bought me books, yes.

LH:  And what were the first books that you read, in that case, that made you feel that you were now kind of reading proper books?

A:  When I was reading?  I can’t remember learning to read, I can’t remember at all.  I’ve been thinking about this; I can’t remember learning to read at all.  I went to school, obviously, and I must have learnt to read … but I can’t remember, I just can’t remember.

LH:  Moving a bit further on then, when your aunties bought you books, what kinds of books did they buy you?

A:  Well, I had this lovely aunty Alma who bought me a Peter Pan book which had a picture and tissue paper from this bookshop and I wanted to read it and I just read it!  So I must have been able to read.  And I can remember loving that book because of the tissue paper pictures.  So that was my very first book.

LH:  So you can still feel it almost, fantastic!  So where do you think she got the books from?  Would your aunts have bought them?

A:  Oh she bought it!  It was for a present. I had another auntie, Rosie, who bought me another present but it was a Dickens book and I didn’t really like that one, I didn’t like that one. But I loved Peter Pan, I remember that. We had books in the house!  We had books in the house. We had a bookcase!

LH:  What kinds of books did you have on the bookcase?

A:  Well there was a set of Wonderland of Knowledge books which we used to get down and look at those. I can remember looking at those. There was a bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays which I remember had sort of vellum covers, we looked at that. A book I did love, it was called A Century of Humour and that was full of short stories, short humorous stories. I remember reading that, I do remember that. Dad had a lot of political books. They were all bound with brown paper, they were … we didn’t touch his books. [Laughs.]

LH:  Did he read those books?

A:  Oh he did, yes, he was very politically-minded. I had a Chips comic every week, Chips comic which I must have read from cover to cover. And we [had] a Picture Post every Friday and I used to sit on the settee, I remember looking at pictures – I loved the Picture Post we had on a Friday and there was a daily newspaper but I don’t remember reading that. It was a News Chronicle. So that was my reading at home.

LH:  Oh fantastic. So moving on a bit then, when you were becoming a young adult, what kinds of books do you remember reading at that stage?

A:  Well that was the time when I got the ticket for the local library and I remember Dad saying, ‘You must never let a library book go overdue. Don’t forget that – you must always take them back before they are overdue’. So off I went to Rotherham Library which I loved going to. It was like a cathedral.  It was all hushed and quiet and wooden floors and everything cleaning [sic] and polished and nobody spoke to you and all the books were still hard-backed books, you know, with the covers, no fancy covers like they are today.  And I loved it and I liked …

LH: Did it smell of polish?

A:  It smelled of polish. [Laughs.]  And I really did want to be a librarian. I really did want to work in a library when I was that age. That was my ambition.  However, the books I liked, very much, were Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne of Green Gables.  And the Pollyanna books which, of course, were another thing. I liked plays and I read a lot of J B Priestley’s plays.  And I’d always go to the section because everything was alphabetical – the Ps – to find J B. Priestley.  I read all his plays and loved them.  I did like plays.

LH: That’s quite unusual.

A:  The best book, the best book which I read over and over again was his book called The Good Companions and I did love that. In fact I read it so much that when I travelled to school on the bus I used to look at people on the bus and fit them into the characters.

LH: Who was the author?

A:  J B Priestley, J B Priestley.

LH: Oh I see what you mean.

A:  Yes, that was good.  I read Pygmalion, Shaw’s Pygmalion, I remember that.  Frances Brett Young was another writer that  I liked in those days.  Somerset Maugham that I didn’t really quite understand. [Laughs.]  Can I tell you a funny story? There was a word in the book and it was spelled G-I-G-O-L-O.

LH:  G-I …

A:  G-I-G-O-L-O.  And I used to read it as ‘gig-ola’. I knew what it meant, sort of, I never dared … But ‘gig-ola’ and as I read it. it was ‘gig-ola’ and it was years and years and years later when somebody said ‘gigolo’ and I thought, ‘That’s what it was’. And then there was another one. We all read the Angela Brazil books, of course, which were about schools and things which we knew nothing about. There was this girl called ‘Penny-lope’. [Laughs.]  I always read her as ‘Penny-lope’ and it was only years later that I realised it was ‘Penelope’.  [Laughs.]  I guess nobody – nobody was called Penelope where I lived.

I loved my teachers at school.  My English teachers really were wonderful when I think back – they really were wonderful – they introduced us to lots of poetry: Walter De La Mare, John Masefield.  That was very interesting.

LH:  How old were you when you left school?

A:  When I left school … er … I left … I went to Rotherham Central School and I left when I was 14.

LH:  Right, right.  And was that the age to leave school in those days?

A:  Well, I unfortunately did not pass the 11+, to everybody’s horror, and so I did go from when I was nine to Rotherham Central School, which was a very good school, and I loved it really but you did leave at 14 and they did try to help you get a career, they did, they were very good at that and so …  Do you really want to know all this?  It’s not about reading really.

LH:  Well yes, no, that’s true but it sort of fits into another picture of your life really.

A:  Fits into another picture. Well, it does really because it made a lot of difference to me. There were three things you could do.  You could go and work in an office so that was good.  Or you could go to be a nurse, you could go and work in a hospital and, as my aunties had all been nurses, they all thought I was going to be a nurse.  Or you could go and apply for an art school.  Now I’d got these three choices.  Now, as my best friend was going to an art school, I decided I would go to an art school so I went for the interview and I got accepted to go to art school for two years.  So from 14 to 16 I was at Rotherham Art School.

LH:  Fantastic.

A:  Which was fantastic.Not that I as particularly good at drawing but I was learning and I loved it and that was when I went to the library a lot because it was just down the road from the college and it was lovely. So I had two lovely years there.  So at the end of those two years they said they were going to find you a job and I remember going to the office to Mr Thomas [?] and he said, ‘What do you want to do, Alma?’ and I said, ‘Well really I want to be a teacher.’  I’d always wanted to be a teacher and the fact that I had failed my 11+ and I hadn’t got to high school and I hadn’t been able to do my school certificate or anything. I thought that had gone. I said, ‘I really always wanted to be a teacher,’ and to my surprise he said, ‘But you still can.’  And it was just as if a light had gone in my world; I thought it was wonderful!  Wow, I could be a teacher!  ‘How?’ I said. ‘How?’  And so he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to transfer from here to Rotherham High School’  which is where I would have gone if I’d passed my 11+.  ‘What will I do there?’ I said  ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to work very hard because you will have to get your School Certificate in a year.’

LH:  Wow.

A:  Right.  ‘Do you think you can do that?’  ‘Yes, of course I can!’  I said, and I did.  It was wonderful.  And I ran home.  I remember running home to my parents and saying. ‘I can go.  I can be a teacher!  I can go to the high school!’  ‘Wow,’ they said. Oh yes, they were hundred per cent behind me because they had always been a bit disappointed because I hadn’t passed this flipping 11+.  So, erm, there we were, so I went to Rotherham High School and I was the only girl in the whole school who hadn’t got a uniform.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  I did have to go for an interview and I did have to do an English test and a maths test but, because the art school used to do maths one morning and English one morning, I was okay with that and so I got in.  So I was in with all these very clever girls, feeling very, very much the odd one out but taking in every word and writing everything and learning like goodness-knows-what and, when we did have the exam, I passed with flying colours. I did. I got a distinction in everything.  I don’t know why but I did.

LH:  Oh, it was just your time, wasn’t it?

A:  This was, this was, like … Well, this was wonderful.  So that was my passport into training college.

LH:  Well, that’s absolutely brilliant.  What … er … you know, you are obviously quite a conscientious sort of person.  When did you find time to read?  What were the slots in your life that you chose to put reading into?

A:  Ah, yes.  Well, when I was at home, I can remember reading in bed a lot.  I read in bed a lot.  I used to go to bed early and read and I used to read in the morning, early in the morning.  I used to read a lot in bed – yes, I did.

LH:  And was that encouraged in your family?  Because you said they weren’t really readers.

A:  Oh yes, yes, oh yes.  They were one hundred per cent behind me, my family.  Oh, yes they were.

LH:  So they didn’t make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

A:  Not at all.  No, not at all.  No, I think they were glad and they were delighted for me when I got this second chance to do what I really wanted to do.  And they backed me a hundred per cent because they hadn’t a lot of money and I needed a lot of things to go to teacher training college and I know it was a hardship, because they send you a list from college of all the books you need, no matter what course you were going to take, there’s a history and everything that you are going to take so I got all these books.

LH:  So did you … the books that you have been talking about up till now have been largely fiction and plays as well.  Did you read non-fiction at all?  Or was that just because you were doing courses at college?

A:  No, no, they were all – light reading we’d call it, wouldn’t we?

LH:  Right.  I don’t know that J B Priestley’s plays would be considered light …

A:  Oh, yes, the plays, yes.  I loved the plays and I was in a drama society that I acted in some plays. I love plays, yes.

LH:  So you didn’t read non-fiction apart from your courses at college?

A:  No, at college, yes I think I was on the courses – yes.  I did read a book which made a big impression on me and it was called I Bought a Mountain and it was by Esmé and Thomas Somebody and I can’t remember who they were.  And this couple had bought a farm in Wales and, you know, set about it and made it work, and it was a sheep farm, of course.  It was lovely.  Years later, after I was married and we did a lot of camping, we actually went to camp on their grounds and I met Esmé and Thomas, and told them that as a teenager I had read their book.  And by that time they were, you know, quite grizzled people.  Yes, it was, that was fantastic.  So that was a book that really made a …

LH:  Do you feel that you read for inspiration in some cases?

A:  I wanted inspiration?

LH:  Yeah, did you read in order to get inspiration?

A:  Not particularly, no. But if I did read a book that I liked, I did like it. It was another thing. I read Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood at that point and I can remember, again, looking for the characters as I walked about and ‘that one would be that one, and that one would be that one’.

LH:  You’re obviously an observer of people.

A:  I loved that, yes.

LH:  So can you think about books that you read as you were becoming an adult?  Was there anything that you felt, you know, guilty pleasure in reading and thought, ‘Oh!’  I’m thinking about the gigolo, for example?

A:  Well that’s right!  I was amazed when I thought about it because Somerset Maugham is an adult writer, for adult people, but I do remember liking that.

LH:  So you didn’t feel that you had to hide your books from your parents or anything?

A:  No, I never, no. I wasn’t that sort of a reader.

LH:  Not under the covers.

A:  No.  What I can remember is going to my Grandma’s and seeing a little magazine called Peg’s Paper and it was a gaudy cover of a girl hiding behind a door or something and I thought, ‘What’s that?’ and I started reading it, little short stories, and I thought, ‘This is rubbish’.  I never looked at it again, I don’t know who got it, who was having this Peg’s Paper. I thought I’m not wasting my time reading that rubbish.

LH:  Do you think there were things around that was [sic] light reading for people, like magazine sort of stories?

A:  Erm, magazines.  No, I can’t think of magazines.

LH:  Proper books.

A:  We used to have proper books.  I know I always had three books on the go.  I used to get three books from the library. John Halifax … I can give you a list of some of those that I read.  I liked Three Men in a Boat and I still like Three Men in a Boat and, if I’m feeling a bit miserable, I read Three Men in a Boat.  I loved that.  I read Oliver Twist.  Francis Brett Young, I read all of his.  I used to find an author and sort of read all their books you see.  I love poetry; I read lots of poetry books.  I read Pride and Prejudice at that point, yes I did, and Under Milk Wood.  I liked that one.  School books were pretty grim.  I read a book called Althan that was a task book, and we did Merchant of Venice which I loved. So that was our exam book.

LH:  So it was quite a range then, from fantastic through to comedy.

A:  Yes I suppose so. T S Elliot’s Cats – I loved those poems. It is hard to remember actually.

LH:  Well I think you have remembered a lot.  Are there books that you can remember reading then that you enjoyed but wouldn’t dream of reading now?  In terms of tastes changing.

A:  Yes, certainly, I don’t think I would read Somerset Maugham anymore or Francis Brett Young anymore.  No I don’t think so.  Oh at that point I read Jane Eyre, and writing [sic] a play about Jane Eyre.

L:  Really, just yourself?

A:  Yes, because it was wartime and I used to do lots of things at home.  And I can remember writing a play, the one where she made her stand on a chair because she went out in the rain walking around a yard or something.  I can’t remember it very well but I do remember that.

LH:  Did the war have any other effects on you?  Because you must have been a young teenager during the war.

A:  Yes, well, we lived in Rotherham which was near Sheffield and we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there.  There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air!  So we had got an aunty – it was Aunty Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter.  It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright.  Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and we found out that … our shelter was sort of in the bank of this field at the top of the garden and so there was a field higher up, and so I didn’t go but I can remember my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something.  So that was exciting.

LH:  So you were saying in the war that people did more things at home so in fact there was more opportunity to read, was there?

A:  Not really, no, you’re right there, you’re right there.  Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table.  I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.  And we did a lot at home.  We played games around the table, we played cards a lot.  Yes, we were a very close family.  My cousin from London came up, for safety – Theo, they called him – and I got my brother and myself, so I was the eldest of the two boys and they did exactly what I told them to do and I was a real bossy boots.  We did all sorts of things, we made things and cut things out and models and yes, yes, when I think about it, the evenings were lovely, we didn’t have television but I don’t remember reading that much.

LH:  That’s interesting.  Perhaps you did start your reading career as you became an adult.

A:  Yes.

LH:  Well you’ve told me loads, Alma.  I don’t know whether there is anything else in your notes that you want to mention.

A:  Yes, oh I’m sorry about this.  We’ve gone off the point.  I’m sorry about this.

LH:  No, it is all really interesting.

[…]

A:  No I haven’t … do you want to know about when we were married in 1950.  Has that gone too far?

LH:  No, we are still in the period of time there.

A:  Because my husband liked adventure stories and so I got sort of into that as well.

LH:  What sort of adventure stories?

A:  Kon-Tiki and things like that.

LH:  Did you read Rider Haggard?

A:  Yes I did.  Perhaps if you mention some people I can remember.

LH: John Buchan?  Did you read any Jack London?  Dennis Wheatley?

A:  None of those.

LH:  Well perhaps he found his own.  Who was the author of Kon-Tiki?

A:  Oh, Agatha Christie, I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. Yes I read a lot of those, yes, yes.

LH:  Lovely, so during married life … Did you carry on reading after you were married?

A:  Not for a while, because we lived with Raymond’s mum and dad while we were saving up and they didn’t have any books at all.  They used to read the paper from cover to cover but no books.  I don’t remember doing a lot of reading then.  I remember going to Sheffield Library and being a bit overwhelmed by Sheffield Library, it was very big and I didn’t like it so I didn’t go.  So I didn’t get access to books you see at that point.  So it was only when we actually moved to our first house in 1952 that I began to read again.

LH:  Yes, you could do what you wanted then.

A:  Yes, I wanted to go to the library then, yes, and then I read; I liked biographies, Dame Laura Knight and … and ballet, I liked ballet books, all about ballet and dancing.  I loved books like that.

LH:  Really?  Fantastic!  So you’ve got a wide range of tastes.

A:  Yes, well I’ll read anything.  Raymond used to like Wilbur Smith.  He liked that, he liked adventure.

LH: Right.

A: In fact he used to have two books on his side of the bed and I used to have four!

[Both laugh.]

LH:  Keeping track of four is quite something.

A: Yes, because I still read in bed.  I used to like reading in bed.

LH:  Well, that’s fascinating.

A:  How are we doing?  I’ve gone over the time now, haven’t I?

LH:  Well, from my point of view, if you would like to say anything else about the authors there. you can, but you’ve given me a really good impression of the books that you were reading and I suppose my final question to you would be: do you think there are any ways that reading has changed your life?

A:  It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

LH:  It has fed your imagination.

A:  It has fed my imagination, yes.  I know very well that I couldn’t live without books.   That’s a dead cert.  I need books, yes.

LH:  I think that is a good place to end our interview.  Thank you very much indeed.

[As Liz was switching the machine off, Alma said that she can’t get to the library now and sounded sad but the machine was turned off.]

Access Alma’s reading journey here.

 

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Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

File:Abbeydale Cinema - Abbeydale Road 26-03-06.jpg

Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

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