Irene H

Irene H

Irene was born in July 1921.

She is being interviewed by Sue Roe on the 28th February 2012.

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Susan Roe: And you were born Irene?

Irene H: 1921

SR: And whereabouts were you born?

IH: At Grimesthorpe, Sheffield.

SR: Grimesthorpe, so it’s Grimesthorpe.

IH: Grimesthorpe.

SR: So you lived in Grimesthorpe between 1945 and 1965.

IH: No.

SR: Yeah OK, so where did you live?

IH: I lived just over the hill there, Birley Edge.

SH: Birley Edge OK. That’s on the edge of Sheffield.

SR:  I’ll just ask you a few qustions about your reading. Did anyone read to you when you were young?

IH:  Occasionally my mother would read a comic to me of a Saturday morning but she was the daughter of a farmer who couldn’t read or write so well and he didn’t agree with her reading so I don’t think she ever read a book in her life.  So I grew up in an atmosphere where there was not that much reading.

SR:  What were the first books that you read?

IH:  Well, it would have been in the late 1920s, about ’27, ’28.  An old lady used to send me a Pip, Squeak annual.  I think the earliest one I got was 1926 which I still have.  I read that.  I was quite bright at school.  I could read quite early.  I was never stopped from reading but my mother didn’t read and my father read a paper and that was it.

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HailstonePipSqueakAnimalseditSR:  Can you remember a book that first made you think that you were reading grown-up books rather than children’s?

IH:  I started reading some books by Charles Dickens and I read Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield and those books.  A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald.  The man must have been good, because my father signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

SR:  So they came free?

IH:  I don’t know whether they came free or whether they came cheaper.  But you had to agree to take the newspaper for a particular time.  Then you got a book at a time and eventually you got the whole works.

SR:  So how old were you when you were reading these novels?

IH:  I must have been ten or eleven.

SR:  And did you read the whole lot?

IH:  [Laughs.] No, I didn’t read the whole lot.

SR:  Did you get books from friends, family, libraries or schools?

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IH:  Sometimes from my aunts or my grandmother on my father’s side.  When I had an idea for birthday or Christmas and was a bit older, I would ask for it for a Christmas or a birthday present.

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SR:  Did you use the library?

IH:  Yes, when I was at home, before 1943, because I was married in ’43, I used to go to Firth Park Library.  I didn’t go to the City Library until I was older.

SR:  Do you remember any books you read for school?

IH:  In the Junior School I can’t remember any books but when we went to selective secondary schools, I can.

SR:  Which school did you go to?

IH:  I went to Southey Green … But it was only an intermediate school for a few years and then it stopped and reverted to a secondary school.  I remember reading Robert Louis Stevenson when I was there. There was Kidnapped and Black Arrow.  I remember those two and we were studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Robert Burns’ poems for the School Certificate exam.

SR:  Can you remember any books that made a particular impression on you when you were a young adult?

IH:  I used to like historical ones.  They have got to have a ring of truth in them. And I did have a book that I particularly wanted and that I asked for, just a little book, a potted book of great lives.  I liked that book.

SR:  And why do you think you liked the historical ones?

IH:  I don’t know but I still do. I like history.

SR:  Did the Dickens make any impression on you?

IH:  Well, The Tale of Two Cities did.  I don’t think they made any BIG impression on me.  No.

SR:  What sort of books do you really like, certainly the historical ones?  Any particular ones?

IH:  I reckon the ones around 1300, 1400 – medieval ones.

SR:  But you don’t really know why you like them?

IH:  No, I don’t.  I just enjoy reading them.  I prefer them to have a bibliography that gives them credibility to it.

SR:  So not just any old popular one; it’s got to have a background, research to it.

IH:  Yes, yes.

SR: [summarises what has been said] Did you get [books] anywhere else? Bookshops, newsagents?

IH:  Well yes, I got them from bookshops but also the Red Circle Library, Snig Hill.  I went quite a few times there.

SR:  What sort of books did they have there?

IH:  I can’t remember.

SR:  And you picked them yourself?  You didn’t have anyone pick them for you?

IH:  Oh no, no.

SR:  Did you ever get any second-hand books?

IH:  Oh yes, you could get those from the market stalls.  My husband used to get Westerns and, if I had nothing else to read, I used to read those and he got them from a bookstall in the market and, if he took them back, you got so much knocked off the next one.

SR:  Did you go to the market in Sheffield?

IH:  No.  After we were married and after the war we traded in Barnsley, and we’d get them from a stall in Barnsley Market.

SR:  Did anyone encourage you to read?  You say your mother did.

IH:  No real encouragement to read, I just enjoyed it.

SR:  You were a reader.

IH:  Yes.

SR:  Did anyone make you feel it was a waste of time?

IH:  No, not really.  I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

SR:  So they didn’t encourage you but then didn’t discourage you?

IH:  No.

SR:  So where and when did you find time to read when you were a child, a teenager?

IH:  Well, it was a bit difficult then.  I started working and then there was the war.  I was in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade so it was a bit difficult.  So I didn’t do a right lot of reading then.

SR:  Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about reading, that it was a guilty pleasure?

IH:  No.

SR:  Did you ever read anything because you thought it would improve you, that you ought to read it?

IH:  Not really.

SR:  Are there any books that you read when you were younger that you wouldn’t read again, you wouldn’t dream of reading?

IH:  No, I can’t say there are.

SR:  You wouldn’t read Dickens again?

IH:  I could do, but I haven’t done.

SR:  I’ll just show you a list of books.  Would you like to just have a look?  Are there any in that first section, realist fiction?

IH:  Yes, I’ve read some of H E Bates and I think that I have read that Sorrell and Son, Warwick Deeping.  I have read some of those Naomi Jacobs and I like Nevil Shute and I have read one or two of Howard Spring but they came when I joined a book club. Sometimes I forgot to cancel a book and it came even though I didn’t want it.

SR:  When were you in a book club?

IH:  I think it would be in the ‘40s.

SR:  Was it local or national?

IH:  National.

SR:  Like Reader’s Digest?

IH:  It wasn’t Reader’s Digest but it was a national one.

SR:  Did you enjoy reading these books, like H E Bates?  And Warwick Deeping?

IH:  I didn’t like H E Bates particularly.  There has been Darling Buds of May, which is fairly light, isn’t it?  I must have got hold of rather dark ones and I didn’t take to them.

SR:  Any others in this column?

IH:  Well, no more in there as I can think of.

SR:  What about Tarka the Otter?

IH:  Yes, I liked that one.

SR:  What did you like about it?  Was it the rural side?  The animals?

IH:  Well, up to a point, but not terribly.  In the historical ones, I liked Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy, Jean Plaidy.  She wrote under another name but I can’t remember what it was.

SR:  What sorts of periods did you like?  Middle Ages, yes, but Baroness Orczy was The Scarlet Pimpernel, wasn’t it?

IH:  Yes, that was in the 1700s, wasn’t it?  I read that.

SR:  Anya Seton?

IH:  I’m not sure she wasn’t the other name for Jean Plaidy.

SR:  Anya Seton wrote quite a few books about John of Gaunt.  Katherine.

IH:  Yes, I read that one.  In fact I’ve still got it.  That came from the book club.

SR:  And Georgette Heyer.  She writes …

IH:  … about the Regency.  Rather remote, I think!

SR:  Did you enjoy those?

IH:  Yes, you go for so long and then you get a bit fed up.

SR:  That genre, you want a change.

IH:  That’s it.

SR:  And any adventure books?

IH:  John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps.  And I read one or two of Hammond Innes, but I couldn’t tell you the names.  And I read one or two of Dennis Wheatley, but I wasn’t terribly thrilled with it.

SR:  But the John Buchan.  Did you like The Thirty-Nine Steps? Did you see the film?

IH:  Yes, the film.

SR:  Because it has been made into a film quite a few times.

IH:  Yes, it has.  I bought the DVD of that.  And the others.  Rider Haggard?

IH:  Yes, I read two of his novels, and Leslie Charteris.  Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea.  And Raymond Chandler.  The last time I went to see my grandson, he had some of them.

SR:  And what did you think to that: American fiction a bit different to British fiction?

IH:  I’m not terribly keen on American.

SR:  What is it you don’t like?

IH:  Some of the language doesn’t gel somehow.

SR:  The slang?

IH:  Not so much. The word ‘gotten’.

SR:  Sort of Americanisms?

IH:  Yes, yes.

SR:  And more violent? But they’re not necessarily these days!

IH:  No. I hadn’t noticed that particularly.

SR:  And you read some British crime fiction.

IH:  Yes, I like the crime ones. When I don’t get the medieval ones, I usually look for the crime ones.  Well, I’m not terribly keen on Agatha Christie, although I’ve read one or two.

SR:  Why don’t you like them?

IH:  I don’t know.  They seem a bit obvious.  I used to read Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.

SR:  Why do you think you like crime fiction?

IH:  I just enjoy it. I mean, I’ve got past the romance.

SR:  Any comedy?

IH:  No, I don’t think so.

SR:  And romances.  Mazo de la Roche?

IH:  No, I haven’t read those.  I think I read one or two of Hugh Walpole but I can’t remember what they were.

SR:  And did you read romance novels in this period?

IH:   Well in the earlier period, yes I did.

SR:  Like Ruby Ayres, is it?

IH:  Yes, I read Ruby M Ayres and Gone with the Wind.  And Ethel M Dell.  She was one of them.

SR:  Were they popular at the time?

IH:  Yes, they were.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any Mills and Boon.

SR:  Romantic!

IH:  Too much – sort of thing!

SR:  But you have read Westerns.

IH:  Yes.

SR:  Because you say your husband did?

IH:  Yes. He used to read Westerns.

SR:  And were they enjoyable?

IH:  Well, it was just something to read.  If there was nothing to read, I would read anything.

SR:  And shocking books?  Books that were shocking at the time?

IH:  Well, I did read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because everyone was going on about it.

SR:  And what did you think about it?

IH:  Well …

SR:  Because there was a big trial.  Did you follow that?

IH:  Well, up to a point, but not over much.

SR:  Well, you read it, but did it encourage you to read any more D H Lawrence?

IH:  I have read Sons and Lovers, and something else, Daughters-in-law?

SR:  Did you take to that?

IH:  Not a lot, no.

SR:  And any classics?  You say you read Dickens.

IH:  I read one or two of Thomas Hardy.

SR:  Did you like them?

IH:  Yes.  The Mayor of Casterbridge.  I remember that one and Far from the Madding Crowd.

SR:  Did you read them because they were classics?

IH:  Just see what they were about.

SR:  Sometimes people think, these are the sort of books they ought to read because they are classics.

IH:  No, I didn’t read them because of that.

SR:  And there are others.  Kingsley Amis?  [Silence]

IH:  Pearl Buck, I read one of hers.  I read quite a lot of Catherine Cookson at one time ..?

SR:  Did you like those?

IH:  Yes, at the time.

SR:  A bit sugary?

IH:  Yes.  Somebody always has to be illegitimate.  She seemed to have that …

SR:  Theme, isn’t it?  Nevil Shute.

IH:  I read quite a few of his.  Couldn’t tell you the names.  I read A Town Like Alice and there was one about building an aeroplane and working out the stress of the steel and knowing it was all going to collapse and trying to tell the pilot.  I read that.  But they didn’t stick in my mind, apart from Town Like Alice they are not …

SR:  They are not memorable? And Pearl Buck.

IH:  I read A Many-Splendoured Thing, yes.  It was a Japanese theme, a soldier, a European, and a Japanese woman, ‘never the twain shall meet’ sort of thing.

I don’t like those [science fiction].  I just can’t believe in it.

SR:  So, it’s what you said about the history books, it’s got to have some realism.  These are too far-fetched?

IH:  [I used] local bookshop, market stalls and Book of the Month Club.

SR:  Was there any particular local bookshop that you went to?

IH:  There was one called Weston’s on Change Alley.  My parents were in business so she’d get things wholesale from there.  So we used to get so much off.

SR:  A discount?

IH:  Yes.  And we used to go into the Norfolk Market Hall and there were used bookshops and new bookshops in there.

SR:  Did they have a good range, in Weston’s?

IH:  We more or less went there when I was younger and I can’t really remember until I was a bit older.

SR:  And then Norfolk Market stall.

IH:  I’ve been to Applebaum’s but that was a bit later.

SR:  Yes, the one on Division Street.

IH:  And of course there was Smith’s as well.

SR:  Did you go to Smiths?

IH:  Yes.

SR:  Did anyone ever suggest books to you to read?

IH:  Not as I can remember offhand.

IH:  The newsagent at the bottom of the street where I lived used to have (this was when I was younger), little novelettes.  They used to be 6d and I used occasionally to get one of these novelettes, if my father handed out 6d.

SR:  This was when you lived at home?  Were they good?

IH:  Well, so so!

SR:  Can you think of any way in which reading has changed your life?

IH:  Not really, I can’t think of anything offhand.

SR:  And how did your family come to be in Grimesthorpe?

IH:  Well, that’s another hobby of mine, family history.  My grandfather was a farm labourer in Cambridgeshire and in the 1870s he came up to Sheffield to work in the steelworks.  Well, they weren’t steelworks; they were called ironworks.  He kept a pig somewhere.  And he lodged at the time with another … who had come from the same village that he had come from, and so he lived in the area that they lived in, Grimesthorpe, and eventually he and the other chap became cow-keepers and he moved into the house that I lived in from about 1880 and it was a house with a big yard and there was a slaughter house at the top of the yard and then there was a sort of a shed with a midden, on the side was the cow house.  So they kept cows there, and he stopped working in the ironworks and, to say that he could barely read or write, he finished up owning most of the street, a couple of farms and my mother was born in that house.  Well, I wasn’t born in it but I was brought up in it until 1943 then the council compulsory-purchased it in about 1970 and it is all pulled down now.

SR:  What ironworks was it?

IH:  Well, at the bottom of the street, there was Cammell Laird’s.  I think it was all Cammell Laird’s and of course just down the road there was Carlisle St and there was Firth Brown’s.

[Section omitted.  IH talking about the Second World War.]

IH:  [Grimesthorpe] wasn’t a very good school.  They didn’t bother with getting people through exams or anything like that so the year that we took the 11+, there was only two of us got through, me and a boy, and I went to Southey but I don’t know where the boy went.  I was going to stay on to take the School Certificate but I became ill, I think in the March, so it was October before they let me go back again, but the headmaster said I must do the whole year again, but I thought I could have managed it.

[Section omitted.  IH talking about leaving school and working at Firth Brown’s.]

IH:  Before the war, a friend was courting a student who was studying German She asked me to go with her to learn German.  [IH did a year’s German but can’t remember much about it.]

[IH was married in 1943 to a draughtsman in her office.]

SR:  Did the war and getting married affect your reading?

IH:  Well, it would do a bit because of I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.

SR:  Sneaked some in!   Did you have any children?

IH:  We just had the one daughter, Margaret.

SR:  Was Margaret a reader?

IH:  Well, yes, but she remembers one day when we were having visitors, when she wasn’t very old and going round and handing them each a book while they were sat at the table.  It stuck in her mind and it also showed me up that we sat and read while we were eating. [Laughs.]

SR:  So you kept on reading.

IH:  Yes.

SR:  So it was important to you?

IH:  Yes.

SR:  When you got married, did you have to leave your job?

IH:  No.  Before the war you’d have had to but when the war came everything changed. Schoolteachers couldn’t teach before the war when they got married but they could in the West Riding.  My mother-in-law was a school teacher. She taught in Carbrook School in the early days but when she was married, she got a job in Whiston, in the West Riding, and they took married people so she still worked at Whiston School but she couldn’t have worked in Sheffield.

[SR asks whether IH read at all during the war.]

IH:  When I had time.

SR:  Do you still read now?

IH:  Oh yes, I think I read more now than I have ever done.

SR:  No children to look after.

IH:  Just the one daughter and she’s got one son.  Mary Grover knows the daughter and the son-in-law.  She knows Sam, the grandson.  Sam translated something from German for something that she did.

SR:  Do you still go to the library?

IH:  Yes, I go to the Hillsborough Library.

SR:  It’s nice in the park.

IH:  It’s a lovely library.  Self-service.  You put your book in a machine and you’ve got tables and you’ve got coffee machines.  And on a Friday morning there is a coffee morning.  I’ve never been to that but I’ve seen quite a lot of women there all having a natter.  I don’t know whether they read any books.

SR:  Do you buy any books still?

IH:  Yes, from Waterstones.

SR:  Do you use from Amazon?

IH:  Yes, I’ve bought from Amazon because I like Elizabeth Chadwick, historical novels, and Waterstones never seem to have any.  There’s perhaps an odd one in the library.  But Amazon always have them so I’ve bought them from Amazon.

SR:  What period are they set in?

IH:  They’re the medieval ones.

SR:  Set in England?

IH:  Yes, in England and now she’s gone on to the period before that, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

SR:  Married to Henry II.  Did you get them for Christmas?

SR:  Yes, yes.

IH:  But if Margaret or Sam are buying me a book, they are usually educating me a bit more.  [Laughs.]

SR:  Do you ever read any non-fiction?  Biographies or history books?

IH:  Margaret bought me Francis Drake, not this Christmas but the Christmas before, but I was a bit – you’ve always thought of him as a hero but he seems to have been nothing but a murderous pirate!

SR:  The eye of the beholder!  I suppose to the Spanish he was always a murderous pirate.  Did you read that kind of non-fiction when you were younger?

IH:  Yes, I liked biographies of famous people. I did read those.  I can’t stand these biographies of film stars and celebrities. My neighbour, this side, offers me some of them.  ‘This is so-in-so, this is so-in-so’.  I’d perhaps read some of them but …

SR:  You not interested in those sort of people.

IH:  No, well, they’ve not done anything really, have they?

SR:  So did you read biographies of historical people?

IH:  Yes, Thomas Cromwell, such as Florence Nightingale and Cecil Rhodes, those sorts of characters.

[When SR asks if there is anything that IH would like to add]

IH:  One that is not down there, an author I enjoyed, is Delderfield.  There was The Horseman Riding By and then there was one about starting a haulage firm and then there was ‘something All My Days’, about a public school.  Yes I read all those.  I liked those.

SR:  Was there any particular reason why you liked those?

IH:  No, I don’t think so.  I think perhaps – and Graham Winston [sic], The Poldark Saga.

SR:  The one set in Cornwall.

IH:  Yes, I read those.

SR:  Have you read anything because you have seen the film, or seen it on television, like Poldark?  Or had you read them before they were filmed?

IH:  More or less.  And the Delderfield, the school ones, they were made into a film.

SR:  Did you read any Winifred Holtby? South Riding?

IH:  I read that but that was before the film.

SR:  Do you like ones set in Cornwall or Yorkshire?  Does the area in which it is set matter to you?

IH:  Not particularly, no.

SR:  It’s just the quality of the story?

IH:  I didn’t like one that they said was amazing, by Bronte …

SR:  Wuthering Heights?

IH:  That one.  I thought that was rubbish.

SR:  Do you read any of Charlotte’s – Jane Eyre?

IH:  I read Jane Eyre, yes.  Well, I preferred that to Wuthering Heights but it was just that I couldn’t get my head round Wuthering Heights.  I said that to my daughter, Margaret, that I thought it was rubbish.  She jumped down my throat!

SR:  What didn’t you like about it?

IH:  I don’t know.  It was just I thought it was so ridiculous in a way.

SR:  The plot, the story-line?

IH:  Yes.

SR:  Have you written them down, here, as well? Typed up?

IH:  I just thought I would put them down when I was trying to work out what I read.  I used to take, first of all, going from school to adulthood I took the magazine, Woman.  I think I took it more or less from the first edition.

SR:  Really?

IH:  And then, eventually, I stopped taking it.

SR:  Did you enjoy reading that?

IH:  Yes, I used to like that.

SR:  It had a mixture of things: recipes, stories. And did you read any of the schoolgirl magazines?

IH:  I read Schoolgirls’ Own.  We used to get the Schoolgirls’ Own and I used to get the Schoolgirls’ Own Annual and before that we used to have The Comical Playbox – I’m not really sure.  I think they called it Playbox.  And my brother had – was it the Dandy?

SR:  That’s likely.

IH:  Yes, the Dandy.

SR:  Did you say your mother had a business in Barnsley?

IH:  No, we did.  My husband left the engineering and he went into garden work and that’s what he wanted in the first place.

SR:  Being outside?

IH:  Yes.

SR:  Did you work when you were married and had your daughter?

IH:  No, I left when I was pregnant.

SR:  And you didn’t go back after your daughter was born?

IH:  No, well, I had enough to do – I worked in the business.

SR:  Well, I think we have explored most of what I’ve got down here unless you have got anything else you would like to add?

IH:  No, no.

 

After the interview, IH provided a note:

I started school on the day I was 5 years old. My mother took me after lunch as she did a milk round in the mornings. The teacher was reading one of the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling  (How the Elephant got his Trunk).  That is the first memory I have of anyone reading to me.  I have no memory of anything before the age of 5 years.  My mother had an elderly lady friend who had moved to live in Oxford and each Xmas mother would send her a box of cakes and mince pies etc which she had baked.  Each year this lady would send me a Pip Squeak Annual, I think the first one would be in about 1926.  They stopped in the early thirties when she died.  Each Saturday morning we had a comic which I think was called Playbox and my brother and I would join my mother in bed and she would read some of it to us.  By the 1930s I had moved on to schoolgirl stories.  I had Schoolgirl’s Own each week and I had the Schoolgirl’s Own Annual as part of my Xmas present.  At Southey Green School we read Kidnapped and Black Arrow by R L Stevenson and I also had a small book of short biographies of famous people.  Later in the 1930s I moved on to more ‘grown-up’ magazines.  I think I took one called Woman from the very first issue.  My father was persuaded by a door to door salesman to take the Daily Herald newspaper for a number of weeks as they were offering a full set of the works of Charles Dickens, whether free or discounted, I do not know.  I have read some of them but not all.  Margaret my daughter still has them.  I also got books from Firth Park Library and the Central Library in Surrey Street and occasionally from one called Red Circle in Snig Hill which charged a fee. My parents being in business had an account at Weston’s, a wholesale stationers on Change Alley, where we could get a discount and I was often able to get books from there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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