Penfriends through the Public Library? (Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 16 August, 1939)

In August 1939, two young American women, Meredith Hall and Dorothy Pawlicki, of Holland, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, sent a letter to Sheffield Libraries. They wanted to find English penfriends:

To whom it may concern

We are two young ladies, married, and interested in England, and would like to correspond with someone likewise interested in our US.

Would it be asking too much to have you give the addresses below to two other persons, preferably ladies ranging in ages 25 to 40.

The City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, passed the letter on to the Sheffield Star and, never one to miss an opportunity for publicity for the library service, got an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.

Sadly, we have not been able to find out why Dorothy and Meredith chose Sheffield or if they ever made friends locally. There don’t seem to be any further newspaper articles. Perhaps the outbreak of World War II in Europe, just three weeks later, put paid to any correspondence. But perhaps not. It would be good to think that transatlantic friendships were made, particularly in wartime.

Following Dorothy’s and Meredith’s enterprising example, we contacted the Holland-Springfield Journal. Thanks to the Journal and the local historical society, we have been able to find out a little about the two women.

Buildings Dorothy and Meredith would have known.: the Hotel Secor (top) and the Ohio Bank Building (above), Toledo, Ohio (both public domain).

Dorothy was born Dorothy Stirn on 24 November 1910 in Paulding, Ohio and died 27 March 1979 in Toledo. She married Alfred F Pawlicki in 1930 and they had two children, Janet (b. 1931) and Jerry (b. 1939). In later life she worked as a secretary at a law firm. Meredith was born on 27 March 1907 in Swanton, Ohio and died in Florida on 30 November 1993. She was married three times, including to Canadian Myrven Hall and had one son, Charles Wyant (b. 1924). She worked most of her life as a telephone operator for the Riverside Hospital in Toledo.

Columbus Drive, Holland, Ohio today (public domain)

Not perhaps a very successful piece of research, but it does illustrate the unusual requests sometimes made of public libraries.

‘The most important tool of industry’ (J P Lamb, Yorkshire Post – Monday 26 September 1932)

Libraries are under threat today. Councils say there is not enough money. People claim that, with Google, Kindle and the like, there is simply no longer a need for buildings filled with paper or the librarians who look after it. Sometimes the lack of funds and the redundancy of print are combined, justifying cutbacks or closure in an unconvincingly circular argument. Meanwhile, defenders[i] (they are many and we at Reading Sheffield are of their number) point out that libraries are safe, social spaces. They secure and organise knowledge efficiently, impartially and to accepted standards. The information they hold is available to all, in support of democracy and free speech. Librarians are expert guides who help us find what we need. (This is not to dismiss the internet, which is powerful but altogether less discriminating.)

Librarians have always had to promote their services to potential users. At its annual conference in September 1932, the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux[ii] discussed how to encourage businesses to use libraries. According to a report in the Yorkshire Post on 26 September, Bertie Headicar, the librarian of the London School of Economics, commented on the need to win business trust. There was the ‘difficulty of the library user who dare not tell the librarian what books he wants’ for fear of appearing ignorant or giving away secrets. ‘No true librarian,’ asserted Headicar, ‘was capable of [such betrayal].’ (You can hear the ‘harrumph’.)

The City Librarian of Sheffield, Joseph Lamb, said:

The ordinary man completely fails to grasp the fact that in these days, when national economic survival is largely a question of applied and organised intelligence, the book has become the most important tool of industry. … The public library can provide material and an organisation which will help industry in the unceasing fight to maintain its position, and further developments are possible. But we are faced with the problem of convincing commerce and industry of the library’s ability to do these things.

Lamb lamented that only rarely did industrialists use scientific and merchants, commercial libraries.

In the year 1932, a great firm in my city was not aware that British patents specifications were stocked at the library, though they had been there for fifty years.

Headicar and Lamb agreed about the contribution made by the thoughtful, professional librarian. ‘Nothing mechanical could take the place of the human element…and the personal contact with the librarian,’ said Headicar. (Today’s librarians, mindful of the search engine, might substitute ‘technological’ for ‘mechanical’.) Lamb thought that public librarians could be better at selecting reference library stock. Many, he said, still thought ‘in terms of pure literature.’ He went on, in typically trenchant tones:

They brought to their task of keeping up to date a modern scientific library the outlook of the cloister and shrank from the ruthless modernity of weeding. The staggering pace of research, the extraordinary development of the application of chemical processes to industry, left them a little bewildered.

The Yorkshire Post article notes that there had been meetings with businessmen in Yorkshire, to tell them what libraries could do for them, but these had been poorly attended. ‘Our Yorkshire business men must be assured of value for money.’ (It was ever thus.)

Back home in Sheffield, Lamb did not give up the fight to convince businesses of the value for money of the library service. He must in fact have been planning his next move as he spoke at the conference. Sheffield’s ‘economic survival’ depended almost exclusively on steel and other metals. Lamb’s innovative Scheme for the Interchange of Technical Publications, introduced in 1933, was a partnership between his library and local industry for collecting and exchanging technical and commercial information. SINTO (the Sheffield Interchange Organisation), as it later became known, lasted into the 21st century. Lamb also oversaw the establishment of the World Metals Index (WMI), a comprehensive listing of grade names, trade names, series numbers and abbreviations of metals, which survives to this day. Finally, in 1955, he wrote Commercial and Technical Libraries, a handbook published by the Library Association.

Here is an example, from librarian Alysoun Bagguley’s memories, of SINTO helping local industry.

In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge.

What lessons are we to take from this story? Libraries have knowledge in depth, curated by experts. They gather their holdings over time (weeding as they go, as Lamb advised) and without bias. They change and develop, according to the needs of their borrowers. They are, not stuffy mausoleums, but living institutions. They lived in the days of Lamb and Headicar, and they do now.

 

[i] Ironically, of course, many of us use the internet to promote our views.

[ii] Founded in 1924 and now known as ASLIB, the Association for Information Management.

Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library

Books for Balloon Barrage Men (Telegraph and Independent, Thursday 14 September 1939)

Sir. – At various points in and around the city the men who man the balloon barrage are working in small groups.  Their hours of duty are long, and their means of recreation limited.  The YMCA are providing games and other amenities, and I have been asked to help to arrange a supply of suitable books for them.

There must be many readers in Sheffield who would be willing to give books from their private libraries, and I should be very glad to receive them at the Central Library, the Libraries Committee having kindly given permission for books to be received, selected and issued there.  Light reading is most likely to be welcomed, and there should be a ready use for fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types.

May I appeal to all who have suitable books to spare to send them to the Central Library for this purpose?

Yours etc

J P LAMB

City Librarian

This letter from City Librarian Joseph Lamb, dated just a few days after the start of World War II and repeated in the Star, was probably the first of Sheffield’s wartime book drives.  That such an appeal should be issued so soon after the declaration of war suggests preparedness and foresight.

256px-barrage_balloons_over_london_during_world_war_ii

barrage_balloons_near_biggin_hill_in_kent_part_of_the_defences_on_the_south-eastern_approaches_to_london_to_combat_v-1_flying_bombs_1944-_tr2161

Air-raid defences, including barrage balloons, were being put in place around the UK during the late 1930s.  Sheffield had around 70 of the huge balloons.  They aimed to interfere with an aeroplane’s flight path and efforts to drop bombs.  They might even bring it down by catching it in the cables which secured them to winches on lorries.  The balloons were managed by crews who, day and night, manoeuvred them into place and raised and lowered them to protect suspected targets.  Wind and rain made the job more difficult.  The crews were often housed in schools and other public buildings, and their lives must have been a mixture of hard work, boredom and tension.

Hence the need for books and games for relaxation and diversion.  J P Lamb asked for ‘light reading … fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types’.  This was a change from the usual calls of librarians of the period for their borrowers to read serious books.  (In fact, Joseph Lamb did not scorn light reading, stocking popular books ‘in the belief that having attracted novel readers … [libraries] are given the opportunity of leading them to better reading, or at least to informative books’.  He was criticised for this by other librarians.  Furthermore, in the lead-up to war, books which explained the international situation had been in demand from the library.)

Unfortunately, there are no records of how people responded to the appeal.  How many books were donated?  What were they?  The success of two book drives in 1943 and 1944, when over a million books were collected, suggests that this early appeal was probably successful.  And we do know that when crews moved on, they often left behind games and books for their successors; and that by October 1939 there was a library service for troops stationed in Sheffield.

In September 1939, the war was for newspapers the only story in town, and they were unsurprisingly patriotic and positive.  J P Lamb’s letter shared space with:

  • ‘Why Germany Has Invaded Poland’, a long article by Count Sforza, former Italian Foreign Minister
  • a leader, ‘Nazis’ Rage’, doubting the German war effort and mentioning the plight of Jews ‘treated … with such devilish inhumanity’
  • reviews of a book about British naval history and essays by historian Lewis Namier who was a Polish Jew by birth
  • discussion of blackout regulations and lighting restrictions as the long nights drew in.

But it was not all serious.  There was a column by the Rambling Naturalist and, by popular demand, a crossword (puzzles had been dropped to make way for war news).

Sheffield’s other main paper, the Star, was much the same: a leader entitled ‘Hitler’s War on Women’, an article by Beverley Baxter MP asking ‘Have German Plans Miscarried?’; and – lighter in tone – a snippet that research by Sheffield metallurgist Robert Hadfield had helped produce the newly essential tin hat.

Lamb’s letter was also an early indicator of his library’s important role in the wartime life of the city, for example, in public information and assistance services.  But this story is for another post.

Here are the pages from the Telegraph and Star.

14091939-barrage-balloons-daily-tel

14091939-barrage-balloons-star

 

Librarians: ‘minds like detectives’

In this article from the Sheffield Telegraph and Daily Independent of 12 April 1939, an anonymous reporter challenges Sheffield’s professional librarians to answer some obscure questions – and loses comprehensively.  There is no proof but experience suggests that the idea came from the City Librarian, J P Lamb, who had an eye for publicity for his library service.

Of course, today Google will yield answers in a minute, although there seems to be uncertainty about Rock Day and its information on matildite is hard for the non-specialist to understand.  But consider what information professional Ned Potter suggests here – that Google and librarians don’t do the same things and there’s a place for both.

NOTHING TOO MUCH FOR SHEFFIELD’S LIBRARY SLEUTHS

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours trying to catch out a body of Sheffield people with minds like detectives – people who can trace anything, writes a “Telegraph and Independent” reporter.

You may find them in the reference departments of Sheffield Central Library.

Go and ask them anything, and they’ll tell you the answer.  I think they’d even find out the numbers of the proverbial sands of the seashore, if anyone really wanted to know.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

I had heard all about the efficiency of Sheffield librarians in answering the most out-of-the-way queries, and I decided – rather heartlessly, you may think – to give them an unofficial test.

Cunning Questions

So I armed myself with a list of varied and abstruse questions, cunningly designed to foil each one of the 75,000 reference books at the disposal of the detectives.

“If they answer two they’ll be lucky,” I thought, “and they won’t answer two so very quickly.”

So I went into the Reference Library with a sly smile and approached the desk set aside for enquiries.

“Can you tell me,” I said, the sly smile broadening, “who swayed about upon a horse and thought it was Pegasus?”

The gentleman to whom the question was addressed did not look at me as if I were a madman.  He was interested.  Here was an opportunity for a spot of really good Sherlock Holmes stuff.

This is how he tracked the quotation down.

Pegasus was mentioned in a Greek legend.  Right.  Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary.  He gets the dictionary, turns up Pegasus.  No luck.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Hot on the Scent

It might refer to some incident in a book.  So Brewer’s “Reader’s Handbook,” Baker’s “Guide to the Best Fiction” and other books of reference are consulted.  Still no clue.

Then various concordances are tried.  In Keats’s concordance are found the words: “And thought it was Pegasus.” Hot on the scent now.

Keats’ “Sleep and Poetry” is turned up.   In it is the passage:

with a puling infant’s force

They swayed about upon a horse

And thought it was Pegasus.

From the context the reference was obviously to eighteenth century poets, and one of my most deadly questions had gone down the drain – all in a quarter of an hour.

“Rock Day” and Why

Badly shaken, I returned to the attack with “When is Rock Day, and how did it get its name?”

My hopes rose.  I began to think I had won this time.  An examination of encyclopaedias, dictionaries, indexes to names, calendars, and even Chambers’s “Book of Days” revealed nothing.

Then they tried a dictionary of archaic words.  A long shot, but it came off.  It was found that “rock,” besides its usual meaning, was formerly a synonym for spinning wheel.

Spinning wheel?  Distaff.  Distaff Day?

And under Distaff Day in Smith’s Encyclopaedia of names was the following entry:-

Distaff Day.  7th of January, so called because on that day the women who have the Christmas festival till Twelfth Day (the 6th) return to their distaffs or ordinary work.  As a distaff is also called a rock it is likewise called “Rock Day.”

“Very good,” I admitted.  “But I haven’t nearly finished with you yet.  What is the correct word to describe a government of old men?”

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Gerontocracy

My heart secretly rejoiced when Roget’s Thesaurus afforded no help, but I was foiled again by the best bit of detective work of the whole day.

Democracy, aristocracy, theocracy are all derived from Greek roots, the officials argued.  Therefore it was likely that the word required, being of kindred meaning, would be formed in the same way.

So a Greek dictionary was consulted for the word “old man.”  This was “geron.”  Then a reference to the Oxford Dictionary brought to light the word “gerontocracy,” which had the required meaning.

I went into the Science and Technology Library to recover….

It was just the same in appearance – neat rows of books, spaciously designed, a counter for inquiries, assistants ready to go to any trouble to help you.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Trump Card

Here I wanted to know what matildite was.

Reference to chemical dictionaries, technical encyclopaedias and general chemical texts supplied no information, but the construction of the word – ending in “ite” – suggested the possibility of its being a mineral, and reference to Dana’s “System of Mineralogy” substantiated this, giving analysis, occurrence and other details.

So I returned to the Reference Library (where they must hate the sight of me, by the way) to play my trump card.

“What place in Wales has the longest name?” I asked leering hideously.

But it was no use.  True, guide books of Wales failed to give any information on that point, but Walsh’s “Handy Book of Curious Information” did.

The answer is Llanfairpwllgynggyllgogerpwllllandypilwgogo. (All right, there’s no need to laugh.)

“And how do you pronounce it?” I said.

They told me.

I went away a beaten man.

Experience Counts

But in all seriousness, Sheffield reference libraries are as efficient as it is possible for reference libraries to be.  The fact that the officials found answers to questions as unusual as I set them proves that.

A wealth of record books is there, but it is only through the skill of an expert staff that they are able to give up their information; in the same way as the most magnificent of motor-cars cannot give the best results unless it is driven by a man who knows it inside out.

The libraries’ staff do not rely on catalogues to any great extent.  Their experience has equipped them to go to the right reference books without any trouble.

“The best catalogue is an intelligent staff and a gradual building up of a unique knowledge of books,” Mr. J. P. Lamb, Sheffield’s Chief Librarian, told me.

It is to his credit that he has gathered around him such a staff, and sources of information which could supply the greatest scholar in the land with the answer to any question he cared to put.

 

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven” (28 December 1939)

In the 1930s, Sheffield’s libraries were being reformed and developed, and the numbers of borrowers and books issued were both rising.  One strategy to promote the library service seems to have been to seek coverage in local newspapers.  Here is an example of this – an odd little anecdote in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 28 December 1939.  Odd because it seems incomplete without the name of the teacher or details of the books she wanted and why these were unobtainable locally (there were established library services in Manitoba at the time).  Today, when the story might at most have merited a tweet, we would have had a photo and a quote from her, but no doubt transatlantic communications three months into the Second World War were restricted.  At this remove, we will likely never know who she was or whether she ever returned to Sheffield.  At all events, the fact of this slight story appearing in the paper suggests the good links between the library and local media.

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven”

City Library Praised

Sheffield has just had a remarkable tribute to the efficiency of its library service.

A Sheffield girl who is teaching in a small town in Manitoba, Canada, required books of reference for a lecture she was preparing.

Being unable to get the books in the district and not knowing of any place near at hand where she could get them, she wrote to the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) asking him to send books and offered to pay postage both ways.

In her letter she described the Sheffield Library as “the fifth floor to heaven”.

As it is scarcely possible to send books from Sheffield to Canada in this way, Mr Lamb has referred the request to the Chief Librarian of Toronto, suggesting that some regional library organisation in Canada might be able to supply the demand.