Doreen Gill

Doreen Gill

Doreen was born in Sheffield on 8th March 1934.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 18th May 2012.

Mary Grover: This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover.  It is, today, the 18th of May 2012 and I’m interviewing Doreen Gill.  Doreen was born, where were you born Doreen?

doreen-gill

Doreen Gill: Sheffield.

MG:  In Sheffield.  Which bit of Sheffield?

DG: Presumably at Jessops.  I don’t really know.

MG: And she was born, on, did you give me the date?  Oh here we are, the 8th of March 1934 and what area of Sheffield did you live in between …

DG: We lived in Darnall.

MG:  In Darnall.  When did you come to live in Nether Edge?

DG: Twelve and a half years ago.  2000.

MG: Did you move here from Darnall?

DG: No we moved here from, we used to live on Struan Road which is off Carter Knowle Road.  We lived there for 45 years.

MG: Did you?  But you grew up in Darnall.

DG: Yes.  Well.  I’ll say yes.  Until I was nine.  No that’s not true either.  Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out.   [Typist’s note: 12th & 15th December 1940]  ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.  But by the time I was nine, my mother died and all three of us were split up.  I went to Ripon and they went to Diss in Norfolk.  So we never saw each other for three, three and a half years.  So I spent three years in Ripon and then, me dad was in the Army, you see, he was in Africa.  They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.  So when, he came out of the Army he got us all out and got us all together.  In the meantime, just before the war ended, he’d married this lady in Belgium.  And she came, you know, we all lived together at Don Road.

MG:  So who did you live with in Ripon?

DG:  It was a Children’s Home.

MG:  So you had lots of different influences on you.

DG:  Yes.

MG: Yes.

DG:  Yes.

MG: Can you remember your mother reading to you?

DG:   No I can’t.  She had little twins, you know; she wouldn’t have much time to read to me.  There was almost five years difference between us.  By which time I was at school and presumably reading for meself ‘cos I don’t ever remember not reading.  I must’ve not read, but … .

MG: So did you help with the twins?

DG:  Mm, I had a great aunt who lived at Darnall and she was very good.  She used to come and help with them and, we didn’t actually lose touch when me mum died, but she went to live with some relative of hers in Mansfield Woodhouse and I didn’t see her again till, well I didn’t see her again.  I just went to her funeral.  It’s difficult to remember all these things isn’t it?

MG:  Mm. So you didn’t really have books in the house?

DG: Oh we had books in the house.  Me dad was a great reader, yeah.

MG:  Was he?

DG:  Yeah. But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

MG:  Can you remember any of the things you picked up before you were nine?

DG:  No.  I used to go to the library at Attercliffe.  I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  [Laughs] I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

MG: So when you were in that library, did the librarian suggest anything to you?

DG: No they just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

MG: Did you go on your own?

DG: Yeah.  Well in those days there weren’t cars on the roads like there are now, you know.  You didn’t have to worry about children getting run over or abducted either.

MG:  I wonder what first got you into that library?

DG:  I don’t know.  I couldn’t really tell you.  We used to go past the library going to Grandad’s every time.  Whether it was that or whether it was teachers at school that said, you know, get a book from the library and read it, I don’t know.

MG: Can you remember any of those first books you took out?

DG:  Oh I used to read Milly, Molly Mandy and, I don’t think they have those now ‘cos I tried to get some for me granddaughter and I can’t find them. Anne of Green Gables and all that sort of thing.  Edgar Allen Poe, I used to read!  And, not at five, though.  [Laughs]

MG:  But not history.

DG: Not history if I could avoid it, no.

MG: So when you got to school, did your teachers influence your reading at all?

DG:  Mm, I can’t specifically remember anyone saying to me, you know, read a lot. It was just something we did.  I mean, there was no television, there was no games. You’d got to occupy yourself somehow.  And Sundays we weren’t allowed out to play any rate, so we used to read then.  But I don’t specifically remember anybody saying, “Go to the library”.  It was just something I did.

MG:  Did you do it with friends?

DG: No.

MG:  No?

DG:  No because me friend didn’t live near me, friend from school.  And I was friendly with another girl who lived near us and I don’t think she was very bothered.  They were one of the first to have a television so she didn’t go and read really.

MG: What was your parents’ attitude to your reading?

DG:  Well me dad was fine.  He used to say I liked to read, you know, as long as I was doing homework me mum was all right.  But if I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

MG:  So did you find any private places to read?

DG:  I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!  [Laughs].

MG: And then when you went to Ripon, did that affect how you read or what you read at all?

DG:  Well I think perhaps we had a bit more chance to read there.  But I don’t actually remember reading there either.  Mm, I must’ve done, but …  So I went to Ripon Grammar School there and they were very keen on your reading and doing things.  Education.

MG: Did you like school?

DG: I loved school yes.  I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to become a teacher but, you know, there were five of us in our family and just me dad working and they needed the money.  So that was it.

MG: So what secondary school did you go to when you came back to Sheffield?

DG:  I went to the City Grammar.

MG:  Yes. What age did you leave?

DG: Fifteen I think, yeah.

MG: Would you have liked to have stayed on?

DG:  I would’ve loved to have stayed on yeah.  I took me O levels there.  Yeah.

MG:  And that’s when you went to work at Firth Browns was it?

DG:  Yeah.

MG: So when you were in the City Grammar in Sheffield, can you remember what you read there in school?

DG: A lot of Shakespeare! [Laughs]  Yeah.  Poetry.  Which you don’t normally, well, I don’t normally pick up a poetry book unless it’s something I want to know for a crossword.  But, you know, I used to enjoy it, yes.

MG:  Did you learn poetry off by heart?

DG: Yes.

MG: Does anything still stick in your mind?

DG:  Upon Westminster Bridge. ‘When I consider …’.  That’s about as much as I can remember!

MG: So when you left school and went to work, did you continue reading then?

DG: Yes, yes. I used to read during me lunch hour.

MG: Did you?

DG: Very unsociable but I used to do it.

MG: Did you stay at your desk and read then for an hour?

DG:  Er, yes, yes.

MG: So what kind of books were you reading then, do you think?

DG:  Anything and everything.   I used to read a lot of Nevil Shute books and Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays I’ve read.  You name it I’ve read most of them.

MG:  Did you go to the theatre much?

DG:  Mm, The Palace on Attercliffe.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

The Palace Attercliffe, Sheffield (courtesy of Picture Sheffield).

DG: I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.  Me dad used to take us there sometimes.  Once or twice I’ve been to The Empire, which is now gone as well. And seen various shows there.  And I once won some tickets to go to The Empire.  And The Gloops Club  that was in The Telegraph, Star, one or the other. They used to do competitions, you know, and I used to do that.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

The Empire, Sheffield (courtesy of Picture Sheffield).

MG: The Gloops Club?

DG: Yes, it was like a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

MG: Right.  So when you went to the theatre, did you then pick up the books of the plays you’d seen?

DG: Er, not necessarily, no.  Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.  It was a matter of what they’d got in the library.  By which time I’d gone to the City Library.

MG:  Ah yes. So the City Library must’ve given you a fantastic amount of choice.

DG:  Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

MG: So this’ll be 1946?

DG: Yeah.

MG: And when you got up to that adult section, can you remember the first book you took out, that you thought, oh this is an adult book, not a children’s book?

DG: Yeah, I think that Terence Rattigan play opened my eyes a bit. Mm, and I can’t even remember what it was called now, it was a play, and, yeah.  It certainly opens your eyes from children’s books.

MG: So with Nevil Shute, Terence Rattigan, did you like books that were about sort of problems and real life particularly?

DG: Yeah, about real life, yeah.  I used to love Anne of Green Gables, reading about that.

MG:  Did you re-read Anne of Green Gables?

DG:  Yeah, yeah.

MG:  Do you think you had a copy of your own?

DG:  No I didn’t have a copy, no.

MG: So you kept taking it out of the library?

DG: Yeah, yes.

MG: Did the librarians in the City Library ever recommend anything to you?

DG: No, no.

MG:  So you just worked your way along the shelves.

DG:  Yeah, more or less.  I had me favourite authors and I went to those and checked, you know, that there weren’t any new ones out.

MG: Can you remember which those favourite authors were?

DG: Well as I said, Nevil Shute, mm, what do they call that man’s mystery things?

MG: Dennis Wheatley?

DG: That’s it yes.  I used to love his books.

MG: Did you?

DG: Yes.  I wouldn’t bother picking them up now but I used to love them, yeah.

MG:  Cos he wrote two sorts, didn’t he, somebody told me?

DG:  I don’t know.  The ones I read were all [pause] not exactly black magic but that sort of thing.  Yeah, yeah.

MG:  Well in a way, that goes with Edgar Allen Poe, doesn’t it?

DG: Yeah.

MG: So did you read Edgar Allen Poe again and again?

DG:  No, I just read the ones I hadn’t read.

MG: So the Dennis Wheatley, you read them once and then put them aside?

DG:  Yes.

MG: Were there any books like Anne of Green Gables that you went back to, that you wanted to read and re-read?

DG: There always seem to be so many books that I need to read that I don’t tend to read books again.  At the moment, there’s a group of us that pass books around and they’re usually books that we’ve bought at St Luke’s or somewhere like that.  And I tend to work me way down the pile.  There’s two or three history ones in this one!  [Laughs[.  We just read anything and everything really.  Whatever we like, we buy, and then swap around them so you get various, there’s four of us do it, you get various books and things.

MG: Has anything struck you from those books?

DG: Oh, you’d like these. Rebecca Tope – Death in the Cotswolds.  They’re all about the Cotswolds and this is the third one I’ve read and there’s been a death in each one and she’s been involved in it. So, yeah, all sorts.  I couldn’t really say that I’ve got a favourite author.  I like Danielle Steel.  I know they’re trashy books but I like reading them.  They’re easy to pick up and easy to put down.  And, what’s that other one, Josephine Cox.  I like her books as well.  Maureen Lee.  They’re all books that are easy to read and easy to pick up and put down.

MG: Do you find that fits in with your life better if you have one that you can just pick up?

DG: Yes, yeah.   I tend to do most of my reading at night, or Sunday afternoons, but I do, if I sit down for a coffee, I pick me book up and read it.

MG: Do you tend to avoid books where you think you might get too gripped by it and it might distract you from your jobs?

DG: Oh no, no!  I just let me job wait! [Laughs].

MG: Has there ever been a book where you’ve started reading and haven’t really wanted to put the light out?

DG:  Oh, lots of times when that happens and I think yeah, I’ve GOT to put the light out.  Cos Frank just goes to sleep, you know, and then he’ll wake up an hour later and say, “Have you still got that light on?”  [Laughs]

MG: Going back to those years, 1940, when you were really galloping through these library books,  can you remember any one that really opened your eyes to something new, a new world, or a new way of looking at things?  A bit like the Terence Rattigan play.

DG:  I can’t even remember what that was about!   Mm, well, Anne of Green Gables is a, in one way, I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

MG:  Did you read Anne of Green Gables before your mother died or after?

DG: After, yeah.

MG: What about Jane Eyre, did you ever read that?

DG:  I don’t think I did.  Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, I used to read hers.  I probably thought they were too highbrow for me. [Chuckles].

MG: Did you get a sense that some books were highbrow?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Did you?

DG: Yes.

MG:  And that would put you off, would it?

DG:  Mm, it wouldn’t put me off now, but yes it did then, yes.

MG:  Why do you think it would’ve put you off if you thought it was highbrow?

DG: I should think it was probably too difficult to understand.  It’s like Shakespeare, you’ve got to have somebody telling you what it means really, isn’t it?

MG: Yeah.  Would you ever have been embarrassed to read a book because it was too lowbrow?

DG: No, I sometimes start reading it then think, “Why am I reading this rubbish”?  But once I’ve started a book, I finish it and that’s it.

MG:  So it’s about your own feelings about the book.  Not because you’ve ever been embarrassed?

DG: No.

MG:  No.

DG: I’m sometimes embarrassed to pass some of them on that I’ve had passed on to me, but,  I just put them in the bin then!

MG: So when you were at Firth Browns, was that where you worked when you first left school?

DG: Yes.

MG: Was there anybody that you talked to – yes?

DG:  Sorry, I worked in a shop first, ‘cos when, when I left school, me mum took me to Belgium for six weeks.  And when I came back, all the jobs that I thought I wanted were gone.  So I worked at Banners at Fir Vale for, it must’ve been about six months …  And then I got this job at Firth Brown Tools.

MG: Did you like working in the shop?

DG:  [Pause] I was Cashier, so I didn’t see much of the customers. They used to have these things that they pulled along, you know, put the change in.  But I worked in a shop afterwards and I loved working in a shop, yeah.

MG:  But in Firth Brown’s you were in the Wages,

DG: Yes,

MG: And what about your other office staff who worked with you?  Did you talk about books to them at all?

DG:  Not really, but, mm, there was only another lady in the office with me and there was about four or five men, and a couple of ladies in the next office. ‘Cos I was working on a Borough Sensormatic Machine.  I don’t know whether you’ve heard of one of those?   Well I suppose it must’ve been like an early computer.  You just used to put the hours in and the wages in and it used to come out printed on this wages sheet.

MG:  So it was demanding work?

DG:   Mm, I suppose so, yes.

MG:  And how long were you there?

DG:  I was there ‘til just before I had my eldest, ‘til I was 22.  So I must’ve been there about six years, six and a half years, yeah.

MG: And when you had your children, did you keep reading?

DG: Yes, Yes, I used to read to them.  I used to read all sorts. [Laughs]

MG:  And did you have books in the house or did you use the library mostly?

DG:  Oh we’ve always had books in the house but I’ve always gone to the library.  This is the first time I haven’t got to the library and it’s only because we pass these books round between us, you know.  I never have time to go to the library now.  And it’s, you know, a case of going up town really.

MG:  Yes. There’s not one that near, is there?

DG: There’s the one at Ecclesall but it’s not easy to get to from here. It means I have to get a bus down to Hunters Bar and then get another bus up there.  I may as well get on a bus to town and go there.

MG: Yes.  So this book, this group you’re in, has it been really helpful in getting you …

DG: Yes, yes.

MG: With your children, have they become readers?

DG:  Me daughter’s a reader.  Me oldest reads railway books and our Chris, I don’t know that he’s time to read at all.  He’s up to his eyes in church work and goodness knows what.  He’s, he’s an accountant.

MG: Well, what sort of accountant is he?

DG:  It’s not proper accountant, it’s some other accountant.  He does books for church, you know, their accountancy books and everything.

MG: We recruited you Doreen, through your church, you saw the leaflet there.

DG: Yes.

MG:  And was your father a church goer?

DG: Yes.

MG: Right.  Which church did he go to?

DG: He used to go to, latterly any rate, to the one at Shortbrook.  It’s an Ecumenical one.

MG: So you went to church from your very earliest days?

DG: Yes I did, yes.  We weren’t taken to church, we were sent to church.

MG: Oh were you?

DG:  My father was a Unitarian originally and me mother from Belgium was Catholic.  She never forced us to go with her, you know, so we used to go to Attercliffe Methodist Church.  We used to go twice, sometimes three times on a Sunday, depending what was going on. Yeah, so.

MG: So you must’ve read a lot of the Bible?

DG: Well yeah, I suppose in between, yeah.

MG:  And which book of the Bible do you think you loved the best?

DG: Ruth.

MG: Ruth?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Yes.  Why?

DG:  It’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

MG: Yes, yes.  And when you were sent to church, were you sent to Sunday School?

DG:  Yes, yes. And Girls Brigade.

MG:  Did you win any prizes?

DG:  I did win a book once at Sunday School but I don’t know, don’t think I’ve still got it actually.  Probably fallen to pieces.

MG:  Can you remember what it was?

DG: No.

MG:  So you must’ve heard so much poetry and so many stories just through going to church?

DG:  Yeah.

MG: So your step mother from Belgium, did she speak French?

DG: No Flemish.

MG: Flemish?  Right.  Did you learn any Flemish?

DG: Yeah.

MG: You did?

DG: Yeah.

MG: Can you still speak it?

DG:  I’ve a step brother in Belgium and we speak to each other most weeks on the phone and so it keeps it going, you know.

MG:  Did you read anything in Flemish?  Newspapers or books?

DG:  Only magazine stuff, you know.  I never read a Flemish book, no.

MG: And was your step mother a reader?

DG:  No she wasn’t, no.  A prayer book, that was about her limit, you know.

MG:  What was her attitude to your love of reading?

DG:  She didn’t like it.  She didn’t like me reading.  It was a waste of time.

MG:  So you went upstairs and read upstairs, yes?

DG:  I went to bed and that was it!

MG: Yes. Is there anything else you want to tell me about?  What you like reading and why?

DG:  There’s not much I don’t like reading apart from History, which I will read if it’s desperate.  And there’s a book on there that’s Frank’s, er Bill Bryson is it?  And I’ve been going to read that for the last year and I keep finding something else that I like better.  But I will read it.  I’ve made me mind up I will read it.

MG: But it’s fiction that you really love.

DG: Oh yes.

MG: Why do you think it matters to you?

DG:  Well to be honest, I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see to read.  That would just about finish me off altogether I think.  Erm, I don’t know.  I like reading about other people’s lives and what’s happened and things like that, you know.

MG:  Do you think it’s helped you to understand people?  Real people?

DG:  Well, yeah, some of it, yes.  Some of it if I read it for evermore, I’ll still not understand.

MG: Well thank you very much, Doreen.

doreen-gill-and-husband-

DG:  You’re very welcome.

MG:  Very interesting.  Is there, before I end, is there one book on your shelves there that you would pull out and say oh that’s my treasured book?  I wouldn’t ever want to part with that.

DG:  I’ve got, er, several books up there that I won’t part with.  Gervase Phinn, I’ve got four of his and I can pick those up and read them when I’ve nothing else to read and read them again.  I love his books, they’re so funny.  Have you read any?

MG:  Yes.

DG: Thank you very much.

MG:   You’re welcome.

Access Doreen’s reading journey here.

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‘Those Cheerless Cemeteries of Books’

The thrill of entering a public library. Thousands of books arranged in familiar patterns. Fiction and non-fiction. Classics and novels contemporary and historical, romances, crime stories and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. Books about art, science, music, history, travel, philosophy, politics. What will I find this time? Something entirely new? a much-anticipated sequel? an old friend? Each visit is a promise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, public libraries, including Sheffield’s, looked very different from our ‘open access’ model, where the books are there for us to wander through, to pick up, to choose or return. Then, while there might be a few out on display, many public libraries hid their books away behind counters, or kept them out of sight in rooms marked ‘No Entry’. Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased. Borrowers would seek the advice of library staff. Once a book was chosen, an assistant checked on its availability and, if it was not already on loan, retrieved it from its shelf and handed it over to the borrower.   

The Sheffield Corporation have given a good deal of attention lately to the development of the public libraries on modern lines, and evidence of the progress that has been made will be forth coming to-day when the Central Lending Library will be open for view to the public on the open access system. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

From an anonymous pamphlet, The Truth about giving Readers Free Access to the Books in a Public Lending Library (1895)

With the exception of research and specialist institutions, there must be few ‘closed access’ libraries now. Why was it the norm in the early days? Maybe librarians and library authorities had little faith that books would not be disordered, damaged or even stolen by borrowers. Controlling access was a way to safeguard books owned by local ratepayers, not all of whom were happy with their money supporting the, to them, wrongly named free libraries. Perhaps there was also some attempt to influence what people read. Librarians and councils habitually worried about borrowers preferring the light novel over the serious work. The public library was, after all, invented to help people improve themselves.

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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