Delia

Delia

Delia was born on 5th October 1942.

Delia was interviewed by Trisha Cooper. The interview has been edited by Delia and the audio is not available by request.

TC:  Delia: was born in … Where were you born, Delia:?

DELIA:  Stannington.

TC:  In Stannington.  Can I ask you when you were born, the date?

DELIA:  Yes, October 5th, 1942.

TC:  October 5th, 1942.  And which area of Sheffield did you live in between 1945 and 1965?

DELIA:  I lived in Sheffield at Stannington until 1962, well, early 1963 really, and then I moved to Rotherham.

TC:  Right, so we’ll start the interview now, and we’re looking particularly at the books you read as a child and as a young adult, between … up till 1965.  So, we can start by asking you when you were young, did anybody read to you, when you were young?  What are your very first memories of the books that you had around you?

DELIA:  Well, about the first book I can remember, and I don’t know if anyone’s heard of it now, it was a book about a pig called Toby Twirl, and his friend, I think, was a penguin. And I had it for Christmas, and that’s about the first one I can remember.  And then I moved on to, once I’d learned to read, in the infant school, I moved on to sort of children’s … there [sic] The Twins at Hillside Farm.  I don’t know who wrote that.  It was lovely, that.  It was about two children, twins, living on a farm in some country place and it would tell things about milk separators and things like that.  And there was one called Ranch on the Plain, which was about cowboys.  And The Girl from Golden [sic].  Oh, and another one that I really liked they called it A Pair of Red Polls, and it was about two red-headed children who lived on a farm.  But I couldn’t tell you any of the authors.  But that was between … I’d say I read those between five and seven years old.

TC:  And where did you get those books from?

DELIA:  Oh, they belonged to my older sister who’s nearly ten years older than me.  And they were handed down.  But the Toby Twirl one was bought for me when I was very small.

TC:  Were you what they describe as a bookworm?  Did you immediately take to it?

DELIA:  Oh yes, yes, I was one of the first in the class to do what they called silent reading.  So once I’d mastered silent reading, I just never stopped.  I used to like the Enid Blyton ones, and one was called The Valley of Adventure, and I really enjoyed that.  I’m just trying to think of some more.  But I was always reading, I always am.

TC:  Which school did you go to?

DELIA:  Stannington County Primary School to start with, and then … in those days there was the 11-plus and at eleven I passed for Ecclesfield Grammar.

TC:  When you were at school, how did you access books then?

DELIA:  I think I had some in classroom, but we had teachers who read to us as well.  I remember one teacher, we called her Miss Gart, and she used to read Aesop’s Fables to us, but I can’t really remember borrowing books at school.  No, the ones I had were usually the ones that were around.

TC:  And you read anything you could lay your hands on?

DELIA:   Yes, yes I did.

TC:  Were you drawn to a particular author or a particular genre?

DELIA:  I did like Enid Blyton.  I think most people did.  And … I’m just trying to think.  I can’t remember any of the other authors.  I used to like these books about children who lived on farms for some reason.

TC:  You weren’t living on a farm or?

DELIA:  No, it was really countrified around Stannington in those days. I mean, not like it is now. It was very much … It seemed miles away from Sheffield, miles.  You had to go on one bus to Malin Bridge, and then catch a tram into Sheffield town centre.  So I think I must have been about five before I even went into the town centre.  There was a little shopping centre at Hillsborough and Malin Bridge, and that’s mainly where we went.

TC: Where did your parents get their books from, and did your sister get her books from?

DELIA:  I think they were just bought, you know, I think they just bought them.  I can’t remember actually, anybody actually buying them for them, or getting them from the libraries.  Although, there was a council library at our school, thinking about it.  They used to come around and change books fairly frequently, but I can’t remember bringing any home.  But you’ve probably … I’ve probably forgotten about that.

TC:  Once you became a teenager, what books attracted you then, do you think?

DELIA:  Well, I’ve been trying to rack my brains to think. I used to read Elizabeth Goudge.  Have you heard of her?  And Anya Seton.  I used to like those.

TC:  Black Beauty.  No, that’s Anna Sewell.  Anya Seton, sorry.

DELIA:  Anya Seton, it was Katherine, she wrote.  Yes.  I remember reading that and The Herb of Grace, Elizabeth Goudge.  And Agatha Christie of course, I used to read all the detective books.  I used to love detective books.  Oh, and I remember reading one by a lady called Lillie Le Pla and it was called The Secret Shore and I think it was probably about the Channel Islands, which is somewhere that I love now.  I remember reading that one, it just came to me, it had a blue cloth back.  And it was about some … It was about a girl who would … I’m not sure if her dad had died, but they lived in this house and she found this tunnel through the cliff and there was a gate in it.  And that led up to this man’s house, and she used to go straight on and it led down to the secret shore.  And I remember this man, I think he must’ve been some connection of her mother’s because he bought her a lovely watch for her birthday.  [Laughing.]  I just remembered.  And then I think in the end there was a happy ending where they got married, where he married her mother.  I can’t remember all the circumstances, but it was about this shore that she used to go down to and be on her own and find shells and things, you know.

TC:  There’s a theme there. Your teenage reading was obviously influenced by your childhood reading of adventure and country life, of going somewhere else.

DELIA:  Yes, that was when I was a very young teenager, I was about eleven when I read that book.  And then I remember reading Gulliver’s Travels, round about then as well, and I enjoyed that.

TC:  Gulliver’s Travels is going to different places, isn’t it?

DELIA:  Yes it is.  [Laughing.]  I don’t really go to many places now.

TC:  Just in your imagination?

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  That’s what books …

DELIA:  Books are great things for children’s imaginations.  I just to live in the books [sic], you know, I was always reading, well, as I am now.  So, I started going to Sheffield Library when I left school.  I had a friend who’s a lot cleverer than me.  She was in the top stream all the way through school and she was the one who introduced me to Sheffield Library because I started work and used to meet her there.  And we used to exchange our books, you know.

TC:  What year would that be?

DELIA:  That would be 1960, I’d say.  ’59 I was still in school, so I didn’t go into Sheffield Library then.  But ’60, ’61, ’62, I used to meet her in Sheffield straight from work and then we used to go and exchange our books and, uh, you know, just meet up.

TC:  That must have been amazing though, to go into a massive library like Sheffield Library and just be [DELIA:  Yes, yes it was!] … have that much choice!  What did you make for, can you remember?

DELIA:  Well, as I say, I made for the authors that I knew. I started with Elizabeth Goudge and Anya Seton in the school library and I sort of went for those books again when I went to the main library.  And then with Agatha Christie as well, they’d always got the latest one.  And I can remember one that I never read but was advertised in Sheffield Library.  It was Frank Yerby – The Old Gods Laugh.  And I used to see it advertised on the counter and, you know, I never borrowed that book and I still don’t know what it was about.

TC: You should check it now.

DELIA:  Have you heard of Frank Yerby?

TC:  I have not, I’m afraid.

DELIA:  No.

TC:  No, who was he?  Do you know who he was?

DELIA:  No, I don’t know.  I just remember going into Sheffield Library to change my books and they had a little display and it was this one called The Old Gods Laugh and for some reason or other I never borrowed the book. It had just come out. I’ve never read it to this day. [Laughs.]  Came back to me when I was talking to you, you know, about Sheffield Library. I just remember that one.

TC:  It’s interesting how we get into different genres, you know.  You kind of latched onto an author, didn’t you?  But another way is by recommendation.  You met your school friend and you would search for books.

DELIA:  Yes, I think she started me off with the Agatha Christies while we were still at school. We used to read paperbacks. Oh, and Dragonwyck, that was another Anya Seton one.  Have you heard of that one?  It was a film as well, an old film.

TC:  I think our reading must have been a bit …

DELIA:  Foxfire, that was another one.  And My Theodosia, that was another one.  Yes.

TC:  You’re remembering all the titles.  So this is when you left school, so you’re what now, 16, 17? Okay, so you left school.  And you carried on reading with your friend from school, going to the library. Can you remember what took you on then from the Agatha Christie into other authors, other genres?  You were into detective, obviously, maybe a bit of a …

DELIA:  Yes, I don’t know.  I mean, I started reading Thomas Hardy when I was in my early 20s.  I read all his books because I liked the Dorset theme to them.

TC:  Again, that’s farming and countryside, isn’t it?  That’s a real theme.

DELIA:  It is, Yes, Yes.  Yes, so I’ve read a lot of those.  And at the moment, I’m reading Wolf Hall.

TC:  Oh, Hilary Mantel.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  Historical, fantastic.

DELIA:  I’ve only just started that.  Also Catherine Bailey, Black Diamonds, I’ve read that one.

TC:  So, historical books attracted you, well, attract you now.  Did they at that time then, in the early ’60s?

DELIA:  Yes, I think so, because Katherine is historical.  It’s about the Duke of Lancaster and things like that.  It was a romance.  I’m just trying to think of any … I mean, no, I read just about everything, you see.  I’ve read Clive Cussler.

TC:  Was there a type of … Going back to sort of the early ’60s, the ’50s and the ’60s, was there a time that you dropped off reading, or that it became difficult for you?

DELIA:  No, I’ve never dropped off reading because in 1963 I got married and immediately became pregnant with my first child and books were a wonderful escape from housework and crying babies.  [Laughs.]

TC:  [Laughing.] I found the same thing.  And did you buy books then, were you buying books or were you still going to the library?  Were you being given ..?

DELIA:  No, it was the Rotherham Library.  I was a member of Rotherham Library.  I’ve used Rotherham Library a lot over the years, but since the … When I went back to work full time, of course I didn’t have time to go to the library, so I bought paperbacks, really.

TC:  Can you remember those days with your little baby and what you were reading?

DELIA:  Oh Yes, definitely, Yes, Yes.

TC:  What were you reading?

DELIA:  Oh now then, I think carried on … I got books by the same authors, but it was Thomas Hardy.  I started off with those and I’ve read Dickens, and I went to …

TC:  All of Dickens?

DELIA:  No, not all of it, no.

TC:  Any favourites?

DELIA:  I went to night school for English Literature when I’d got the whole family and I read Hard Times at night school, which is not my favourite Dickens, that.  I like David Copperfield and I’ve read quite a lot.  Um, I don’t know whether I’ve read … It’s hard to remember when you’re trying to think.  I think David Copperfield was one of my favourites, but I wasn’t keen on Hard Times.

TC:  Great Expectations, that’s a great book, isn’t it?

DELIA:  Great Expectations, yes.  It’s not my favourite though, I don’t think.  I’m just trying to think … Oh, Christmas Carol, I read that, and Cricket on the Hearth and those kinds of things.  I’m just trying to think what other books … We’ve got a whole set of old books and I remember reading East Lynne, that’s not Dickens.  Have you read East Lynne?

TC:  Who’s that by?

DELIA:  I don’t know to be honest.  It’s a Victorian melodrama-type thing.

TC:  That’s another classic.

DELIA:  And I remember reading that and The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  And Sylvia’s Lovers, Mrs Gaskell, wasn’t it?  And Cranford, Yes, I’ve read most of those classic ones.  But, they say reading is a great way of escapism.  Particularly on a summer’s day when you take your book outside and just get lost in it.

TC:  It’s heaven, isn’t it, Yes.

DELIA:  Do you read much?

TC:  Oh, I was, yes. [Laughing.]  I was described as a bookworm, you know, when I was little at school.  And they gave you a reading age, didn’t they, and it was, “Ooohhh, you know, your reading age is twice your actual age.”

DELIA:  Yes, when I was at school, we didn’t have reading ages.  They just sort of stood back in amazement when you picked it up.  [Laughs.]

TC:  I had my nose in a book all the time, and a bit like you.  When I had my children, it was therapy.  I start … I picked up an Iris Murdoch that was on the shelf.

DELIA:  Oh, yes.  I can’t get on with Iris Murdoch.

TC:  She’s very peculiar, but it completely took me out of my …

DELIA:  Yes.  I read one of hers the other year and I can’t remember what it was called.  It was about … it wasn’t one of the famous ones.  It was where she had sort of done a mystery thing.  Oh, anyway, I didn’t enjoy it.  It was one where there was a family and they lived down south near the sea.

TC:  Was it called The Sea, The Sea?

DELIA:  No, it wasn’t that one.  One of them worked in London in the civil service.  It was sort of a … it was a funny … I don’t think it was a typical Iris Murdoch.  I got it from the Telegraph Readers thing.  I bought it as a sort of offer, but I didn’t like it at all.

TC:  You liked the classics.  Did you read Auden and Trollope or any of those authors?

DELIA:  I’ve read some Trollope, Barchester Towers.  Yes, that was good.  But I’ve not really read Auden.  Oh, Evelyn Waugh, I love those.  But I don’t think I’ve read any Auden.  Wasn’t he a poet?  W H.Auden.

TC:  Yes, he was a poet, yes, yes.

DELIA:  I’ve read one or two of his poems, but I’ve never actually read a novel of his.  I can’t think of any.

TC:  And Jane Austen?

DELIA:  Oh, Jane Austen, yes, I’ve read those.  I’ve got the complete works in one volume.

TC:  At what stage in your life did you read those?  Did you read those sort of before 1965?

DELIA:  Pride and Prejudice we had to do at school, which was ’59, ’58 – ’59.  We did it for O level.  And, uh, the way you do it at school, you’re bored to tears by it, absolutely bored to tears by it.

TC:  Especially if you’re a quick reader because you’ll have read it before anybody else.

DELIA:  Yes, we had to go back and forth over it and I got fed up with it.  But I’ve read it since and enjoyed it.  I’ve read all the others as well:  Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and all of those.  As I say, I have the omnibus edition of her works.  It came out from Pan Books some years ago and so I’ve actually got all of those.  And the Brontës.  Jane Eyre I read at school.  Yes, I liked Jane Eyre.  I remember reading it when I was ill once.  [Laughs.]

TC:  So school introduced you to those authors again, gave you an author and you then explored the rest of her output.

DELIA:  Yes, I think Jane Eyre was bought for me.  I can’t remember who bought it, but I remember reading it.  And Wuthering Heights I read after I got married, like I say, when I got babies.  So, yes, it was um … I used to get really into them, you know.  Well, I still do. [Laughs.]

TC:  Well, it’s great writing, isn’t it?  Did you ever explore any other types of books, like horror or fantasy?

DELIA:  Yes, yes, that’s why I say I’ve read Clive Cussler.  Clive Cussler’s are a bit horrific.  One of them, Sahara, is.  It’s not like the film.  And I’ve just read one called The Ritual, which is pretty horrific.  Have you heard … I don’t know what author that one was either.  I’ve only just finished that one.  And The Rome Prophecy I’ve just finished.  They’re all a bit gruesome, those.  But, I really just pick them off the shelves when I’m out and read them, you know.  But yes, I’ve read some of the horror ones as well.

TC:  In those days at school, they were also encouraging us to read people like H.G. Wells and Orwell.  Did you get into those authors?

DELIA:  Yes, I read some H.G. Wells when I was at school, but Orwell I haven’t read.  No, I haven’t read any Orwell.  I’ve heard of it, you know.  I’ve heard snatches of it, but I’ve never actually picked it up and read it.  I find it might be a bit depressing.  I was listening to the radio about a year ago and they had The Road to Wigan Pier on it and the description of the tripe shop, I don’t think I want to read any of it.  [Both laugh.]  Have you read that?

TC:  Do you know, it’s on my shelf and I haven’t.  I read 1984 … Oh no, I read Animal … We had to do Animal Farm at school.

DELIA:  Oh Yes.

TC:  And I read a few around that, but I haven’t read The Road to Wigan Pier.  I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

DELIA:  Oh no, I haven’t read that either.

TC:  What … I just wanted to ask you.  I’ve forgotten my next question.  I can’t remember what it was.

DELIA:  Oh dear.  [Both laughing.]  We used to do that all the time.  It’s terrible, isn’t it?

TC:  Oh my word.  I can’t remember really … Oh yes.  I was wanting to ask you, particularly focusing on those books that you read, you know, as a sort of teenager and into your mid-twenties.  Is there a book that you could identify as one that had changed your life in any way?

DELIA:  Oh no, that is a good question.  [Laughs.]  Oh dear.  I’ll think of it when you’ve gone, but …

TC:  I’ll just ask you another one whilst that is sort of going around in your brain.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  Were there any foreign authors, any European authors or American authors that you were attracted to?

DELIA:  Ah, now, the American detective one, I can never remember his name.

TC:  Chandler?  Raymond Chandler?

DELIA:  No, there’s another one, a very famous one.

TC:  Elmore Leonard, no?

DELIA:  The one who wrote … Oh, I can never remember his name.   It’s as equally as famous as Chandler.  Oh, I’ve read what they call … Oh God, what they call the … the one … Mia Farrow played the heroine in it.  Great Gatsby, that’s it.  Great Gatsby, I’ve read that one.

TC:  Scott Fitzgerald.

DELIA:  Yes, Yes, I’ve read that one.  But this other one, what did they call it?  It’s not Chandler, it’s the other one.

TC:  It’ll come to us.  What about people like Steinbeck, you know, The Grapes of Wrath and Hemingway, those authors?

DELIA:  I may have read a Hemingway one.

TC:  But they didn’t particularly attract you?

DELIA:  No, they didn’t, no.  I’m not really attracted to American authors, I have to say.

TC:  And what about European: French, Germans, the Italians?

DELIA:  Flaubert.  Madame Bovary.  Yes, Yes, I’ve read that.

TC:  Was that when you were young?

DELIA:  No, when I was first married, that.

TC:  Oh dear, that’s not a good one to read when you’re first … [Trails off laughing.]

DELIA:  It isn’t, but we’d got it in these books, you see, we got on the shelf.  They were an old set that my husband’s mother and father had bought as a set.  One of those brown leather bound ones, so I just started going through them.  So yes, I read Madame Bovary.  I’m just trying to think if there were any others.  I wish I could remember the name of that American detective.

TC:  We’ll think of him.

DELIA:  Yes.

TC:  The other sort of great authors are the Russians, of course.

DELIA:  Yes, I’ve not read anything like that.  I’m not sure if I’ve read parts of War and Peace, and not got through it.  Mm, I’m just trying to think of any others. There’s Ibsen, isn’t there, but he was Swedish.  To be honest, I’ve read so many things that I can’t always remember them, but the Russian ones … There was … Oh, what’s the one with the wheel tappers?

TC:  Dostoevsky?

DELIA:  No, no.  Anna Karenina.

TC:  Yes, Yes.

DELIA:  Where they’re tapping the wheels on the train.

TC:  On the train that finally killed her.

DELIA:  Yes, Yes, that’s right.  But some of these, I’ve started and not finished.  And you said the one book that really affected me.  It was a Thomas Hardy one, and I’m not sure if it’s Far from the Madding Crowd or Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I’m not quite sure which one it was because I’ve read them all.  And once I started reading Hardy, I can’t remember which one it was I read first.  I borrowed those from Rotherham Library and I just love Hardy.  He’s a bit gloomy sometimes, but so descriptive.

TC:  Yes, I adore him as well.  He’s a bit of a Marmite author, isn’t he?

DELIA:  Oh, and the Clayhanger trilogy, who I can’t remember the author of now. [Pause.]  Arnold Bennett.

TC:  Oh, yes!

DELIA:  I’ve got those in paperback.

TC:  When did you read those?

DELIA:  Uh, 1970s. And they’re very good.  What else?  I’ve gone through so many books.  I’ve thrown so many books away, given so many books away that you just wouldn’t believe it.  And as I say, often I just pick them up.  Sometimes I don’t like them and then don’t get through them.  And I get a lot bought for birthdays and Christmas and that’s how, you know, sometimes you get these, you just can’t get into them.  I couldn’t read … Atonement, I couldn’t get on with that at all.  Who was the author of that?

TC:  Ian McEwan.

DELIA:  And Enduring Love.  They’re just weird, those.  Have you read them?

TC:  You see, I love those Ian McEwans.  They’re a bit like … [Both talk at the same time] aren’t quite … just don’t quite understand them.

DELIA:  My daughter likes Ian McEwan.  She bought me that Enduring Love and someone bought me Atonement, but that Enduring Love is really weird where they see the person fall from the balloon.  And there’s another one of his that I’ve got.

TC:  Saturday?

DELIA:  No, I’m not sure if it’s by him or not.  Canal Dreams, have you read that one? Something to do with the Panama Canal, that.  And it’s quite weird.  It starts off to do with the Panama Canal, but it’s not.  Some people are just going across there and it’s … I don’t know, it’s just weird.  I never finished that one either.  But, I’m sure there are others that I can think of, but I’ll think of them when you’re gone.  [Laughs.]

TC:  So, very often … You know, I’ve got a list and maybe you have, of books that I want to read, you know.  They’re there, but I’ve not got around to them.  What is on your list?  Is there one book or, you know, a collection of books that you think, “I must get round to reading that particular book” or maybe one that you’ve started and haven’t finished, “I’m going to get back to that one day”?

DELIA:  Yes, as I say, those Ian McEwan ones.  I did get through Atonement and I did get through Enduring Love, but I’ve never got through the other one, Canal Dreams.  I don’t know if that’s by him or not.  But some of them … There’s another one called Snow Sifting Through Cedars [sic].  I don’t know who’s written that, but I never finished that one either.  I put them to one side, but, mm, I’ve read … I’m just trying to think … I’ve got a load here.

TC:  Is there a book from your early days, sort of going back to this 1965 date that we’re sort of focusing on.  Is there a book that you would pass on to your grandchildren?

DELIA:  Uh, if they were interested.  But I don’t find young people as interested in books these days, do you?  My grandchildren don’t seem to be very interested.  They can all read, I mean, obviously, but I would encourage them to read the Hardy novels and Dickens, but as for passing them on, I’m not quite sure.

TC:  I’m going to switch off now and thank you ever so much for your time.

DELIA:  Oh, it’s okay.

TC:  And your lovely memory of books.

 

 

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Sheffield Central Lending Library 1910, with books locked away behind the counter (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com.
Ref: s02145)

As well as keeping borrower and book apart, closed access often meant problems for library staff. Book stores generally seem to have been crammed with shelving from floor to ceiling and young assistants had to scurry up and down long ladders to find books. Here is Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian from 1927 to 1956, on his days as an assistant:

Birmingham Central Library in those days (1913-14) was a murderous place in which only those with sound bodies and hardened minds could survive. Most of its large stock was shelved in three tiers of iron galleries reaching to the ceiling. In a closed library with an average daily issue of 900, the amount of leg work demanded of the staff was enough to qualify them as Everest climbers. (J P Lamb, Librarian While Young, The Librarian and Book World, Vol XLV, No 3, March 1956)

Opening of the Birmingham Central Free Library. Illustrated London News. Sept 16, 1865, page 256 (public domain). The ‘cheerless cemeteries’ can be seen on the left, with ladders for the staff to climb up and down.

And Sheffield librarian Herbert Waterson, who started work in 1869, hinted at the particular problems the ladders meant for Victorian women seeking library work.

Closed access inspired a piece of Victorian technology, the ‘indicator’. This was a screen, often fixed to the wall and divided into tiny sections, each matched to a book listing in the catalogue and showing if the book was in or out. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph proudly described the locally-made model installed in the new Brightside Library in 1872:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

The Cotgreave model of indicator
(from A L Champneys, Public Libraries (London, Batsford, 1907))

Indicators were often very large and could be unwieldy. The ones made in 1876 for the Upperthorpe and Highfield branches had the capacity for 12,000 books each. One of the Highfield assistants claimed that the staff used to play football behind their screen when the librarian was not on duty.[i]

Open access in a public library was trialled as early as 1893 at Clerkenwell in London by James Duff Brown and seems to have aroused considerable opposition.[ii] It began slowly to be adopted, as the objections to it were proved baseless. But in conservative Sheffield closed access was the order of the day until after the First World War. In two places only could borrowers roam at will among the books. The branch library at Walkley, which opened in 1905 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was converted to open access in 1913-14 by its pioneering librarian, Albert Ibbotson. His superiors objected but he got away with it. ‘The [open access] Walkley Library’, said a letter from Mr A Ballard to the Sheffield Independent on Tuesday 16 August 1921, ‘has been for the past seven years a veritable university to the working people’.[iii] At the same time, two schoolteacher members of the Council’s library committee petitioned successfully for the opening up of the Reference Library.[iv]

These were among the few innovations in Sheffield Libraries in the early years of the 20th century. By 1921 the service was in decline, and there was much muttering in the press. The numbers of books borrowed were falling, book stocks inadequate, administrative practices old-fashioned, staff demotivated and buildings (especially the Central Library) in poor repair. New chief and deputy librarians – R J Gordon and J P Lamb – were recruited to put things right. Determined and modern, they wasted no time.

Converting all the libraries to open access and introducing the Dewey classification system, as funding allowed, was an early decision in July 1921. The task was huge but, by the following June, the necessary alterations had been made, the stocks of books refreshed and classified. The new open Central Lending Library was ready. Albert Ibbotson from Walkley had been appointed to run it in 1918 and was probably an ally for Gordon and Lamb. He had been described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 8 March 1918 as a ‘progressive librarian’. By 1919 he had already introduced a very limited form of access: ‘…two cases in which the latest books are always placed on view, and the rapid demand for these volumes shows how useful the system is’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 6 September 1919).

No doubt primed by Gordon and Lamb, who both knew the value of publicity, the Sheffield Telegraph was eager to explain the new system to the city:

At the Library entrance is the staff enclosure where the issue records are kept and from which the staff control the entrance and exit wickets. A borrower desiring to change a book hands it to the assistant at the entrance counter, which is to the left on entering, and receives his borrower’s ticket exchange. The assistant then releases the wicket gate and the borrower enters the stockroom to select his book. After selecting the book he wishes to borrow he returns to the assistant who completes the necessary records and releases the exit wicket for the borrower to go out. Apart from this arrangement which will be greatly appreciated by borrowers, who can wander at will among the volumes, there is a new system of classification which makes for rapid working and ease of selection. As most borrowers at Public Libraries ask for books on a particular subject rather than by the author, and because of the many advantages gained by having all the books on the same or related subjects on one shelf, the books have been classified according to the subjects they cover. The Dewey Decimal classification has been used for this purpose and seeing it in operation, one is impressed by the value of the system. The books in the Library are arranged in two parts: prose fiction and non-fiction. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

Sheffield’s Attercliffe Library after conversion, showing the staff enclosure, the wicket gates to control access and the open shelving (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u01383)

The degree of detail suggests how much of a change this was. The journalist goes on to say: ‘There is no doubt that the public will appreciate the new system, under which borrowers are allowed actual contact with the shelves containing the books.’ Over the next few years, Sheffield’s branch libraries were all converted, with counters and screens removed and new shelving installed.

Borrowers in later years clearly still appreciating open access (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u02265)

Open access libraries are so familiar to us that any other system seems impossible. But in 1956, as J P Lamb approached retirement, he saw some merit in the old ways:

It seems to have been my library lot in my younger days to be fully occupied in re-organising old type libraries. Those cheerless cemeteries of books are now thought to have no redeeming features; but reflecting on my work in them after a lifetime spent in creating ‘modern’ mass appeal libraries, I am not at all sure that the change has been wholly good. Open access has resulted in the loss of a personal contact with the reader, which no kind of readers’ advisory system can replace. … The librarian as guide, philosopher and friend was then a reality. … (J P Lamb, as above)


[i] From Kelly, James R, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sheffield, 1983). A copy is held in Sheffield Archives.

[ii] Kelly, Thomas, History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1965 (London, The Library Association, 1973), pp. 175-82.

[iii] Did Mr A Ballard become Alderman A Ballard CBE who chaired the Council’s Libraries Committee between 1944 and 1954? It seems very possible.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956). Along with the newspapers quoted, this is the main source for this article.

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