Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 1)

A library cannot contain every book upon every subject…

‘What do you mean, you don’t have …?’ Library staff often hear grumbling like this, and presumably always have. Here is a complaint, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 3 September 1930, about the books available, or rather not available, in Firth Park Library, on the north side of the city.

Sir, —The Libraries Committee may justifiably take a pride in the new Firth Park Library, so far as furnishings and equipment go. In that respect it is excellently fitted up, and is probably one of the best for a great distance round. But reading desks and card indexes, do not make a library, and one cannot but feel that the Committee did not take as good advice in the choice of the books as in the matter of equipment. One realises, of course, that there are limitations, and that a library cannot contain every book upon every subject, but surely, however small the number of books, they should be widely representative and as up to date as possible.

A few days ago I visited the Firth Park branch in search of information on English literature. To my surprise I found that there was not a single recent book on the history of English drama. The modern period was represented by two books, and the Elizabethan by two; on other periods of drama there was nothing whatever. The selection of modern plays, one must admit, is on the whole good, though there is no complete set of Ibsen, and not a single work of so important a dramatist as Granville Barker.

The state of literature on the novel is about as bad as that on drama. There are two books only on the general history of the novel, and neither can be called modern. Several good books have been written on the subject of late years, yet we are denied the privilege of consulting them in an up-to-date library. One book only deals with the present-day novel, and there is one on the theory and technique of novel writing, and as for the novels themselves, surely there is something wrong with a library system which admits shelves full of third-rate thrillers, and yet excludes the best works of George Moore.

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all is in the literature upon poetry. Of the eight books on the subject only two go beyond the Victorian age. Modern day poetry, apparently, is not worth reading about. On subjects other than literature I am not qualified to speak, but I should not be at all surprised to learn that they are catered for as efficiently. Surely our Libraries Committee can do better than this. It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.— Yours, etc., LIBER

The old Firth Park Library building today

Firth Park Library was, as the writer says, new. It had opened six weeks earlier, on Thursday 24 July, with a stock of 15,000 books. It was the first new library in the city for 24 years and the first-ever in the area. It was purpose-built, incorporating the latest ideas about design, operation and service. There were separate junior and adult libraries, which was then an innovation. Firth Park was an important step in the plan to reform and develop the city’s public library service. The Sheffield Telegraph was unequivocal:

There is no institution which has such a marked influence on the culture of the general community as the public library, and it is a healthy sign when a Corporation finds itself obliged to build more. Sheffield is in that happy position… (Friday 25 July, 1930)

Liber’s complaint about the availability of books must therefore have been disappointing for the Council and the library staff, particularly since the writer chose the local press as medium, rather than a quiet word over the counter. It’s impossible to say at this distance if Liber was a serial complainer, well-known to the librarians. Nor can we be sure of the writer’s gender or profession.

What is clear, even after 90 years, is Liber’s determination to establish impressive intellectual credentials. There’s also a more than a suggestion of pomposity. The choice of pseudonym – Liber, meaning ‘book’ in Latin – is a hint, and the style of the letter is, well, superior:

To my surprise I found…

…yet we are denied the privilege…

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all…

It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.

Liber condemns the ‘third-rate thrillers’ to be found on the library shelves, and demands the controversial and avant-garde: Ibsen (1828-1906), Granville Barker (1877-1946), George Moore (1852-1933) and ‘modern poetry’. The poetry probably meant the work of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, T S Eliot, Samuel Beckett and others. Ibsen, Granville Barker and Moore were hardly the latest thing (Ibsen was long dead, and the other two were elderly), but their work had often challenged the status quo. None of these writers could have been described as popular in the Sheffield of the 1930s.

Leaving aside literary considerations, there may just have been something political behind the letter. Local elections were due in November 1930, with the opposition keen to unseat the ruling Labour Party and accusing it of wasting money, including on libraries. But Liber doesn’t mention money, and likes the library’s appearance. His or her concern seems solely to be about the apparently inadequate selection of books.

The Council’s response was swift and decided. You can read it in Part 2 of this post, to be published shortly.

We’ll also be looking soon at the controversy surrounding the ‘socialist clique’ invited to the opening ceremony for Firth Park.

Librarians’ Voices – When We Were Very Young

I turned a page and found an article by Herbert Waterson, published in the Sheffield Libraries staff magazine.[1] He was writing in 1934, perhaps to mark the opening of the new Central Library. What was exciting was that he started work in 1869. Here were the reminiscences of a Victorian librarian.  

Herbert Waterson on holiday in Llandudno (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

Herbert Waterson started as a junior assistant on 27 December 1869, when he would have been about 11 years old. He followed his two older brothers into the job, he says, and already knew the library well from sitting in the reading room, devouring books like R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857) and The Dog Crusoe (1860). Perhaps his brothers let him in, as no-one under the age of 14 could join the library, although there were some children’s books in the catalogue. Or perhaps children were allowed in the reading rooms.

 

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

Sheffield’s public library had opened in 1856, in the Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street, on the site of today’s Central Library. According to Waterson, the library occupied the ground floor and basement and shared premises with the Institute itself and the Council. The Council Chamber and various offices were located in the Institute. The chief librarian’s office ‘doubled as the Mayor’s Parlour’, and the caretaker and his family shared the basement with the library.

The library had few staff, we learn. There was the first chief librarian, Mr Parsonson, with Mr Hurst and Mr French and three boys. (According to the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield (1956), Walter Parsonson, a former silverplater’s apprentice, was in charge from 1856 to his death in 1873, when Thomas Hurst took over.) At Upperthorpe, a couple of miles away, there was Mr Bramhall and ‘one boy assistant, J Bunn’, looking after the only branch library. This had opened in October 1869, in the schoolroom of the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Albert Terrace Road. The building is no longer there, but here is a photograph.

The City Libraries of Sheffield says that the staff worked hard.

They were at first on duty every day during the whole twelve and a half hours that the library was open. … every effort was made by the Committee to see that each [person] in turn got a chance to go off duty at 8.00 pm instead of 9.30; and in 1859 they were each allowed half-day off a week – a good custom which continued for ten years before the Council knew about it, and, apparently, promptly stopped it. (pp.14-5)

Waterson describes the lending library, with its two counters, for lending and reference. The ‘closed access’ system was used, with the public choosing from catalogues and staff retrieving the books. There were separate reading rooms for men and women and, in time, a reference library room. The basement staff room was also the store for bound newspapers and Patents, which sounds uncomfortable.

One of Herbert Waterson’s duties was to locate books requested by borrowers. They were stacked up to the ceilings, in rooms behind the counters, and it was, it appears, hazardous work.

Owing to the system of storing the books on shelves to the ceilings of each room, we Juniors became adept at ladder-climbing…This system of ladder-climbing was somewhat dangerous as was proved by a severe accident to one of the staff, Mr French, who fell by over-reaching and was seriously injured; afterwards a grill was fixed to the shelves and hooks were attached to the end of the ladders.

The closed access system continued until the 1920s, but presumably the measures adopted after the accident made it a little safer for the intrepid boy assistants.

In August 1875, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Sheffield, to open Firth Park, given to the town by the then Mayor, Mark Firth. Waterson remembers that the library was closed for the visit, and that a formal lunch was served in the men’s reading room.

Opening of Firth Park in 1875 (public domain)

In the mid-1870s, Waterson says, a new librarian came to Upperthorpe. Thomas Greenwood (1851-1908) was a library enthusiast. In 1886, he published the first manual of library management, Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses and Management. ‘He did not ‘leave any identifiable mark,’ says the official history, but Upperthorpe was the only library he ever worked in so ‘it seems certain that Sheffield left some mark on him.’

Meanwhile the network of libraries was slowly developing. In 1872 a branch opened on Brunswick Road in Brightside.[2] In 1876 Upperthorpe got a whole building in place of two rented rooms in a church, and Highfield on the other side of town got a branch too. These two were known as the ‘twin libraries’, designed by E M Gibbs,in the Florentine Renaissance style, and each had a librarian’s house attached. Waterson says:

Those branches were considered to be the best equipped branch libraries in the country at that time.

Upperthorpe Branch Library

Highfield Branch Library

He also reveals that Sheffield’s first female library worker started at Highfield:

The first lady assistant was a Miss Barker. She was engaged at Highfield Library in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and was very satisfactory, although the old system of ladders was in use at the time; afterwards other lady assistants were not so satisfactory.

In 1876, when he was 19, Herbert Waterson became head assistant to the chief librarian, Thomas Hurst, and his memoir stops. But we know more. The Sheffield Independent tells us that he became branch librarian of Upperthorpe in 1882 and stayed there until 1928. He would have lived comfortably in the librarian’s house attached to the library. He was 70 years old by the time he retired and had worked in Sheffield Libraries for almost 59 years. Has anyone ever broken his record? (We suspect not.)

Herbert in Sheffield High Street (courtesy of Rosemary Charles)

The librarian’s house at Upperthorpe

[1] When We Were Very Young (Waterson, H), The Wicket, 4 (2), 9-11 (1934). Appended to An Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (Kelly, James R. MA thesis for the University of Sheffield (April 1983). Held by Sheffield City Archives (LD2390/1).

[2]  The name was later changed to Burngreave Library. The building is now the Al-Rahman Mosque)

Kath’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political interests.   

Kath was born on 3 February 1928 and married Ken in 1945 when they began a life of shared reading pleasures and shared political commitment. As we have learned from Ken’s reading journey, it was Kath who introduced Ken to the Russian and Chinese classics authors who shaped his understanding of the world. Kath described them both as ‘revolutionaries’ and they relied on each other for introductions to new books and to new ideas.

Not only did Kath introduce her older boyfriend to new books but, long after they married, she became the hub of a great family book swap.

Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family. My niece is an avid reader. She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops. And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one. What was that one, Chocolat, was it called? I thought it was a lovely story. And then of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those. We read one after the other of those.

Kath and Ken’s son too has books stacked up in his room and recommends titles to his parents. Kath finds the books she seeks from all sorts of sources: friends, family, libraries, charity shops and eBay, encouraging and drawing inspiration from all around her. She gathered new words from a woman at work:

…a wonderful person. She read everything. And everyday I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that‘d fit a certain subject. I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know. But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [Laughs.] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

But Kath’s parents, like Ken’s, had prepared her to learn from everything that came her way.

They both read all the time. My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on. But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

Kath developed the skill of creating a space in the living room to read, blotting out the world around her. She cannot remember reading in bed but does recall her older sister telling her Just William stories. These Kath retold at school with her own variations. She knew the stories off by heart:

… so I could juggle all the – you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and … just stand there … and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

She was also very determined, making the long trek to the then new Firth Park Library to find the week’s reading.

The old Firth Park Library building today

We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently. (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then. I was only a young kid). But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.

Reading has been, for Kath, a private escape, a family adventure and a shared passion with her husband, Ken. Sometimes, listening to Kath and Ken share their memories of books, it is difficult to make out whose tastes they are describing, Kath’s or Ken’s, so closely have they shared the books that came their way. ‘What was that book we both liked, Kath? Fame is the Spur?’ says Ken, and Kath explains why it is a favourite. Kath appreciates Ken’s speed reading, which he developed in order to get through all the technical books he needed to master for his work; and Ken appreciates Kath’s thorough reading of the Guardian, ‘cover to cover’. She laughs and admits:

I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in. I read it all day, you know. If I were sitting here not talking to you, I should be reading through the paper.

When asked what their lives would be without reading, they are, together, clear where they stand.

Ken:  Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it? I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know. Or opinions you wouldn’t have read. Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them. Or even imagine going to places.

Kath:  Oh, it would have been dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

Ken:  I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath:  I can’t. Not at all.

 

You can access Kath’s and Ken’s interview here.

 

Library memories from the Sheffield Forum (Part Two)

Here are more memories of local libraries from the online Sheffield Forum.

L recalls:

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When I worked at Brown Bayley’s on Leeds road, Attercliffe in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I used Attercliffe library all the time. I remember on one occasion I wanted to reserve a book called “Sir you *******”. Feeling a little awkward at asking for the book, I whispered the title and author to the librarian. Unknown to me the librarian was a little bit hard of hearing and asked me to repeat the title again. I raised my voice a little and repeated the request, again she asked me to repeat the title of the book. I did so in a slightly higher voice ( but still quite low). She suddenly realised what I had said and almost shouted back at me ” Sir you *******” yes we do have it but it is out at the moment so do you want to reserve it?. The library was quite busy at the time and everyone turned round to see who was ordering a book with such a title.

If you still haven’t read the book, replies someone else, it’s available via Abebooks.

B remembers the library’s own reading clubs:

I remember Hillsborough Junior Library in the late 40s.  They had a reading club.Which I seem to remember was run outside normal opening hours. The perk of this was that you could get first chance of reading any new books that had arrived. Which was a rare event at that time. The downside was you could only read them in the library, not allowed to take them home.

Yes, in the 1950s it was on Wednesday evenings – I think it was called the “Reader’s Circle”. (says H)

Hillsborough Library

Hillsborough Library, with the children’s library extension

TW went to Walkley Library:

Walkley Library

Walkley Library

Whilst at St Mary’s School, Walkley, in the mid 1960s, we used to gather in pairs just after lunch with the oldest at the front (add the year group of each child in the pair), and then be walked along South Road, past all the shops, until we reached Walkley Library on the end. We then had to replace our library books from the children’s section. Sometimes it was difficult to choose a new one in the time. I remember liking: the Cherrys (by William Matthew Scott), the Adventure Series (by Enid Blyton); Secret Seven (by Enid Blyton); Famous Five (by Enid Blyton); Jennings (by Anthony Buckeridge); Just William (by Richmal Crompton), Biggles (by W. E. Johns) and probably many more. At least one time we spent longer in the library (I think it was also over several weeks) and researched a topic. I chose (or was given) “History of Railways” as I thought at that time that my great great great grandfather (who was called Rockett) drove Stephenson’s Rocket when it won the Rainhill Trials. I remember taking great care to colour in a picture that I had drawn of the Rocket.

KK remembers fun at Firth Park Library:

Oh dear! I might be lowering the tone, but…I lived on Firth Park Avenue from 1960 age 5 to 10, don’t recall what age I was but, I loved to go in Firth Park library and play hide and seek around the great big bookcases, spent what seemed like hours in there and had lots of shushing and tutting from the librarians and stiffling the giggles made it even funnier. At age 60, I still immediately see the hide and seek potential in most big or ornate buildings I go into, before I see the architectural beauty of the place!!

More serious response to your question…I do remember paying the fine for late return and it going into the triangle shaped collection box on the high counter. I used to feel like a mini criminal. Also the sound of the date stamping in the book and the flicking through of the cards to put your library ticket into the index system. Hide and seek anyone? Lol

What are your memories of libraries in Sheffield? Use the Comments box to let us know.

Library memories from the Sheffield Forum (Part One)

In February 2016 Reading Sheffield put out a call for memories of local libraries on the online Sheffield Forum.  Here are some of the stories and comments we got.

R said:

I used to go to Firth Park Library late 30s early 40s. I would read anything I could get my hands on. I went one morning to borrow a book, read it and took it back the same afternoon to exchange for another, but the librarian wouldn’t let me as she said I hadn’t read the one I was taking back.

The old Firth Park Library building today

The old Firth Park Library building today

A recalls a private library on Abbeydale Road:

I grew up as a child on Gatefield Road, off Abbeydale Road in the fifties/early sixties. In the row of shops between the bottom of Gatefield Road and Marden Road, there was a newsagents – I believe it was called Yeadon’s. On one side of the shop, they had a small private lending library which my parents used to use regularly. I usually had the task of running errands to fetch my dad his 10 Park Drive (none of this underage stuff in those days) and my mum her quarter of liquorice torpedoes.. Sometimes, I’d take their books back, The shop always seemed very dark and miserable to me. If I’m remembering correctly, they called it the Abbeydale Lending Library. The reason I know this is because, many years later, while clearing out one of my older brother’s belongings, I found a borrowed book with that name stamped inside. The shop owners had been long gone by then, so the family guilt feeling was significantly less! After they shut, I graduated to the much grander Highfields library – “Just William” books being my staple reading for several years after.

AE thinks of the temporary library at Low Edges:

My first experience of a library was as a child and using the one on the Lowedges estate. It was in the centre of a shopping parade. It was used as a temporary facility until a new one was built at Greenhill shops. I used this for many years. I remember always wanting to take out books produced by either Antelope or Reindeer publishers although I cannot recall what the stories were about. Later I became interested in football autobiographies.

SA used three libraries for study:

Manor Library today

Manor Library today

I used three libraries as study areas when I was a student at Sheffield university. The reading room at the main library on Surrey Street was a great venue as it provided desk space and peace and quiet, which were not always available at home. I also used the Manor Top library for the same purpose, as well as the Woodhouse library. The Surrey St library was also a spot where street folk and those in low income boarding houses used to hang out during the colder months. It was warm in there and they were no problem.

J recalls Firth Park Library:

I have fond memories of Firth Park library. I was at Firth Park Grammar school in 47/48, after school I would go to the library & spend hours looking at reference books on ancient Egypt.

What do you remember?  Please let us know.

Irene H’s Reading Journey

Irene was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield in 1921; she grew up there and later lived in Birley Edge. After school she worked in an office at Firth Brown’s steelworks and in 1943 married a draughtsman who also worked there. She and her husband left the company and set up a nursery business in Barnsley.

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene grew up in a home where reading wasn’t regarded as important,

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……I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

Occasionally her mother would read a Playbox comic to her on a Saturday morning but otherwise her earliest memory of being read to dates from when she first went to school at the age of five and the teacher read ‘How the Elephant got his Trunk’ from Kipling’s Just So Stories to the class.

Irene read widely; early reading matter included Pip and Squeak annuals sent to her by an old friend of her mother’s and Schoolgirls’ Own annuals. hailstone-flyleaf-signed-

She got books from quite a range of sources. At about ten or eleven she benefited from this special offer,

A man came to the door getting you to buy the Daily Herald…..my father signed up and so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

She occasionally bought sixpenny novelettes from the newsagent at the bottom of their street. She was given books by aunts and by her paternal grandmother; when older she would sometimes ask for a specific book as a birthday or Christmas present.irene-hailstone-fondest-love-

She used Firth Park Library and later on the Central Library. As well as the municipal libraries, she sometimes used the Red Circle Library on Snig Hill.

From secondary school (Southey Green) she remembers reading Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson and also potted biographies of famous people.

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene’s parents had an account with Weston’s, a wholesale stationers in Change Alley; this meant that sometimes she could get books at a discount. She also read magazines and bought Woman almost from the start.

During the 40s she belonged to a national book club and recalls getting novels by Howard Spring and Anya Seton from there.She also bought books from bookshops such as Smith’s and bookstalls, both new and secondhand. She used the bookstalls in the Norfolk Market Hall on Haymarket and, later on when working in Barnsley, in Barnsley market. Her husband used to buy westerns from a market stall: if you took them back, you got money off the next one. Irene didn’t like westerns particularly but would sometimes read one,

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

The mark of a true reader. The war and marriage reduced her time for reading, ‘I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.’

Irene doesn’t remember other people recommending books nor did she tend to read novels because people were talking about them or because they might be improving in some way. She has a special fondness for historical fiction and biographies of historical characters; she likes them to have proper research behind them. She mentions Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Baroness Orczy. She sometimes read crime fiction and liked Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, though found Agatha Christie ‘a bit obvious’. She read romantic fiction too, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among later writers, she read Catherine Cookson: ‘Somebody always has to be illegitimate’.

Irene couldn’t identify any way in which reading had changed her life but she was always a reader: ‘No real encouragement, I just enjoyed it’. She still reads, getting her books now from Hillsborough Library, Waterstones and sometimes Amazon.