Sheila Edwards

Sheila Edwards

Sheila  was born in 1937 in Sheffield.

She is being interviewed by Alice Seed.

 Alice Seed: This is Alice Seed and I’m interviewing Sheila Edwards who was born in 1937 and was at the –  was 8 in 1945 and 28 in 1965. Okay, I’m just going to start the interview off and, say between the years, probably let’s starting in 1945 – was reading important to you?

Sheila Edwards: Yes very important, yes, I was only young then and I joined two libraries because I enjoyed reading so much.  I had a subscription to Boots library and I went to the Central Library in town, and I just read masses of books; I can’t remember what they all were now but, there were one or two I remember: Noel Streatfeild- I think she wrote books about ballet, mm, Kathleen Fidler, another one called Malcolm but I can’t just remember what his surname was now, those were the main ones I remember, can’t really remember any other ones at the moment.

brydons-canoeing-

AS: Did y- oh, sorry.

SE:  I mean obviously my reading changed as it got older – it was a Christmas present, the Boots one, and obviously I only read young books there and then I went onto the adult library … I’m trying to remember what I read then … I mean really round 1965, I had three very young children at home so I wouldn’t read an awful lot then, but I used to read Georgette Heyer…  that sort of book, I can’t remember any more, sorry.

AS: Did you have any like particular favourite genres that you’d read, like romance or fantasy?

SE: Mm, I didn’t like murder things. Yes it was probably romance and just interesting stories about people. Norman Bennett, I’ve got that at home now, I’ve not read it yet but I’ve got it at home waiting to be read … and I love cookery books. I’ve got loads and loads of cookery books and I just read them for enjoyment. I do read them properly, and for years I’ve had a subscription for Good Food Magazine which I read cover to cover. I’m not bothered about Woman and Home and Good Housekeeping –  that doesn’t interest me at all.

AS: Mm, when you were younger- probably around 1945 around that age, did you have any book you’d read over and over again or did you always read different books?

SE: Mainly different books you know. I had these certain authors and I used to wade through everything that they’d written and if I could – if I couldn’t find it on the library shelves then I would order it, mm, and of course as a child I used to – oh and Enid Blyton was a favourite wasn’t it, in those days? And I had her. She did like a magazine called Sunny Stories, … and of course Enid Blyton is still read now isn’t it, although when I read some of these books now and I look back they’re so old fashioned. I mean Georgette Heyer, I tried to read them recently and I just found them boring. They’re not my taste anymore. And you obviously change over the years and the sort of thing that you do, you do enjoy.

sheila-book-shelf-2

AS: Yeah

SE: At the moment I’m reading, well, Lesley Pearse and, mm, Santa Montefiore, quite a mixture really, and  I can’t remember who else, there’s a little bit of, lot of stories about Burracombe [by Lilian Harry] which is a village, and I’ve read all those but I can’t remember the author of them. Because I worked in the libraries, I worked at Firth Park, started off that was in the first job when I left work, when I would be 18, which of course comes within these years doesn’t it?

AS: Yeah around 1955.

SE: And when I went on to Park Library, which is of course where Mary was showing us and I went and ran the children’s library there and of course some of the children there were very poor and very rough and [we] used to have a story time for them and they used to come and sort of, play games and then we’d have a story at the end and d’you know those children absolutely loved that, they would sit as quiet as a mouse and listen – they’d obviously never had parents read to them at home which to me is very important I think, I’ve always loved reading books to children and uh, I was there for quite a few years until I had my family.

AS: Yeah.

SE: And of course I didn’t, I didn’t work for several years then. It was, it was quite a place, because as Mary said there were the baths in that building and, lots of other things – there was a reading room where we used to have … oh no that was Firth Park library, used to have a reading room where the old boys used to come, I think mainly for a warm, but we had all the papers in there and they used to sit and read the papers. They’d spend all day there just because it was warm and they’d obviously nowhere else to go.

AS: Yeah … and did you, ‘cause you like you said you enjoyed reading to children, did you ever read to your children?

sheila-book-shelf-4

SE: Ooh yes, all the time, yeah I did, and there were three of them and [we] all had to have separate stories read every night so we started with the youngest and worked up, and then of course since then I’ve had grandchildren and that and I get a lot of pleasure out of reading to them. There’s something very special I think about reading to children, and I think you know, they all love books now probably because, you know, we started off like that and I got rather disappointed when they began to get older and they used to say they would read the stories. [laughs] I lost my job.

AS: Yeah.

SE: And, well, now my little granddaughter who is now 7, she’s starting to read now and she likes to read the books but sometimes she doesn’t quite get the words but she tries very hard  and she’s very interested in books and I think it’s terribly important for children to you know, read and it carries on through life, doesn’t it?

AS: So, did you always use like, the Central Lending libraries or did you ever like, did you have any particular favourite places you liked to get your books from?

SE: No, I mean I do go to Broomhill Library now because it’s nearer but I still use them both and – I’ve got a card for the Central Library now because  they’ve got a few more on the shelves, but there will always always get them for me so if there’s a particular book I want, you know, they get it for me.

AS: Hm, you mentioned the, Boots Library earlier, did you use that a lot?

SE: Yes, I used to go there every Saturday that was my – you know, when I was allowed to go to town because it was easier in those days. You used to go down on the bus and spend all Saturday there I don’t remember Boots Library having tables where you could sit down but the children’s library did, … , so you know, it was somewhere to go and, thoroughly enjoyable but I would imagine that I don’t remember going and buying and getting adult books there so I obviously probably must have had a subscription that finished when I got to, perhaps about 15 or something like that.

sheila-book-shelf-3

AS: Mm,  a lot of people say that when they’re younger and they read a book it was very important to them or it spoke to them; did you have any books like that, that you – were really important to you as a child or anything at all?

SE: I can’t remember what, but I mean it was company for me because my sister was quite a lot younger than me so I, she wasn’t really a companion. She was still only, you know spending time with my mother and father so it was something for me to do on my own, and I perhaps I was a little bit of a loner anyway you know, so I just used to wrap myself up in books – and I mean now I don’t know what people do if they don’t read books I absolutely love reading. I’ve always got something and in fact I’ve got one at the moment which I tend to pick up first thing in the morning when I’m still in bed and I read a bit more and a bit more and more and a bit more and it gets late, but, no I get a lot of pleasure out o f- I’d rather read a book than watch television, quite honestly.

AS: Was reading a large part of you, so obviously it was a large part, but I mean like, would you talk about books with your friends and discuss like where you could get books from if you were looking for them?

SE: Yes, yes I did and I don’t remember my parents ever reading to me or you know, having any interest in books but I don’t remember.

AS: I guess there’s just something about reading once you start it’s really hard to  stop.

SE: Well that’s right, the slightest, you know I just don’t understand people that don’t read.

blessed-

AS: Yeah, it’s like all those –

SE:… hours of pleasure, puts me to sleep sometimes [laughs]. I’m reading and I’ll suddenly find the book starts going down and I’ve nodded off, but yeah it’s good.

AS: Erm, so… erm… trying to think of something else to ask.

SE: I’m trying to think of something Mary said that sort of sparked memories …

AS: Mm … well did you ever use bookshops like, I think it was called the Red Circle Library?

SE: No, no I don’t remember that at all, no … but, mm, some of the older ladies they remember that so perhaps it was a little bit perhaps before my time. I don’t know. Is it still going now?

AS: Well I’ve never seen any, so …

SE: No, they talked about the Boots down on the Moor and I don’t remember that. The one I remember was on Fargate. And there was a lot to choose from, and she mentioned that too, I read Nevil Shute and Mary brought a book out and it was a book club and I didn’t belong to that but I still got a lot of their books on the shelf. I can’t remember – we must have paid a subscription and got one every month I should think.

sheila-companion-bookclub

tom-browns-schooldays-book-

AS: … I don’t know what else to say.

SE: [laughing] I think I’ve dried up now.

AS: I had a prompt sheet of questions but I think I’ve gone through most of them.

SE: I shall probably get home and remember lots of things that I should have said to you. [laughs].

AS:  Well, I was going to ask, do you prefer when, well, between the years I guess when we’re looking at, were you more of a fiction or non-fiction …?

SE: A fiction, yeah. I did read, there was a sort of Romany books I used to read but I can’t remember who wrote that, mm about the countryside. I enjoyed that, I really can’t remember who – it’ll probably come back to me when I’m at home. I should have made notes shouldn’t I? But you don’t.

AS: Ah you never do. You think, ‘ah I’ll remember it’.

SE: I do write down what I read now ‘cause, you know I’ve read so many sometimes I forget how much I’ve read so I have a quick look through to see if I’ve read it before, so I’ve got a little book which I take out  when I go to the library, just to prompt me.

AS: Mm … I think, I had a question but then I forgot it [laughs] mm, oh lord I’ve totally forgotten how to talk.

SE: It’s gone a lot easier than I thought you know, because when Mary first asked me I thought, oh I just cannot think, but as soon as I got in here and I knew the years and how old I was, it got easier for me.

AS: Yeah, is there anything else you want to say regarding books about, you know, the impact they had or, …?

SE: No, I don’t think so no.

AS: You think so? Okay … well for a first interview that wasn’t so bad, and thank you for letting me ask you questions.

SE: It’s a pleasure.

Access Sheila’s reading journey here.

Recent Posts

‘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.

  1. Val’s Reading Journey: Word Games Leave a reply
  2. A Light To Read By Leave a reply
  3. Charles Dickens in Thirties Sheffield Leave a reply
  4. A Reading Journey Expanded 1 Reply
  5. In the year 1873 Leave a reply
  6. The Day The Library Closed Leave a reply
  7. A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall Leave a reply
  8. Dickens Comes to Sheffield Leave a reply
  9. Lockdown reading Leave a reply