Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part One: Up to Lane Top

In the first of three posts, Barbara Prater, who now lives in Scotland, recalls working for Sheffield Libraries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Here she talks about the beginnings of her career and her move to Sheffield, ‘City on the Move’. Her first post was at the new Lane Top branch.   

I was born Barbara Page in East Ham, London in 1948. I left grammar school on a Thursday in July 1965 and, as instructed by my father, began my library career with East Ham Library the following Monday. After detailed training – a group of us were shown the only acceptable way to shape letters and numbers in order to ensure consistency with spine labels and book cards, and correct positioning of date sheets and book pockets – I was launched onto the unsuspecting public (and library staff) at Boleyn Branch Library, next to West Ham football ground.

I enjoyed the Swinging Sixties to the max, my friend and I regularly going ‘up London’ to the clubs and dance halls and arriving home on the last tube of the night. Life was perfect. Then in 1967 my father’s employer transferred him to Stirling – Gateway To The Highlands. After a couple of years I couldn’t stand the excitement of knitting on a circular needle and not being allowed in pubs. No self-respecting lady was ever seen in a pub. As a matter of interest, local government rules refused married ladies a permanent contract lest they become pregnant – regardless of their age. It was not quite like swinging London.

In 1970 a friend took me to visit his home town, Sheffield – City On The Move. I fell in love with the buzz of the smart new shops, clubs and markets, compared to sleepy old Stirling. I phoned Sheffield Central Library and asked if there were any vacancies. Soon after that I was busy on the issue desk in Stirling when the Deputy Librarian came and announced that I was summoned to the Chief Librarian’s office immediately. I hurried to the imposing, oak-panelled room wondering which of my many misdemeanours he had discovered. Mr Robertson gestured wordlessly towards the telephone receiver resting on his desk. I held it to my ear to hear the offer of a post with Sheffield City Libraries, processing stock for the new library opening at Lane Top, over Hillards Supermarket. I accepted, and headed off for the bright lights of Sheffield Lane Top.

The new Lane Top Library, above Hilliards

Whilst we sat up there at the worktops in front of the window, processing books and chatting, I noticed some suspicious activity down below us at the back of the terraced houses. I public-spiritedly dialled 999. We all looked on as the boys in blue hurdled the back fences in a pincer movement, from either end of the long terrace, before tackling the young lads who were trying to break into the house. We all let out a huge cheer as they were successfully captured. Later on one of the policemen popped round to inform us that the lads actually lived there and had lost their door key, but he praised us for Doing The Right Thing.

When the library was ready to be opened, the photographers arrived to take photos for a promotional brochure. We all (Peter Bayliss, Barbara Sorby and others whose names have sunk in the porridge of my brain) had to don our coats and strike Member Of The Public attitudes, to lend authenticity.

Pretending to be members of the public – Barbara is sitting at the desk.

During the time I was there, I got more training. I went on Mary Walton’s* excellent book repair course, which has stood me in good stead ever since. I learned how to bleach out biro scribble with a fine paintbrush, invisibly mend torn off corners, repair ‘perfect binding’ and re-attach spines constructed in various mediums.

When we opened, we had to deal with the culture shock of ‘decimalisation’ which had occurred during the time we were out of circulation. Charging fines in decimal currency seemed very exotic, and we were equipped with special charts to help calculate ‘new money’.


The next part of Barbara’s story will be posted shortly.

* Mary Walton was the first Sheffield Archivist and author of various books about the city.