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)

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Three: Park Library and beyond

Former Sheffield library worker Barbara has told us about her days at Lane Top Library and her work on School Instruction, helping groups of children learn how to use a library. Here she describes her move to Park Library and brings us up-to-date.  

Eventually the regular 9am smell of Hubba Bubba bubble gum and pickled onion Monster Munch rising from thirty excited 14 year-olds herded into the entrance hall for their School Instruction session got too much for me to bear. I joined Astrid Gillespie, Irene Collumbine and Pauline – what was her name?- at Park Branch, upstairs in the children’s library. As the other half of the building housed a swimming pool (Park is an Edwardian municipal complex, housing a library, swimming pool and public baths), we enjoyed tropical temperatures throughout the year.

Park Library

The worst thing about that job was ‘film night’. A projectionist equipped with folding benches and film equipment arrived regularly at selected children’s libraries. Admission was by ticket only, but with only me to hold back the crowds it quickly became a free-for-all. There existed a local gang of ‘children’ who were notorious and, whilst I never issued tickets to them, they always managed to obtain one. The projectionist and I would set up the rows of folding benches – which often did just that during the general rammy [brawl] – and I guarded the doorway with my heavy rubber torch held menacingly across the gap. But they always managed to smuggle their way in. I shall not name the ring leader for fear of legal action, but I heard some years later that he went down for murder, having been disturbed during a break-in.

In 1974 my then husband’s job relocated to Teesside and we moved to Guisborough near Middlesbrough. I worked in their Central Library and then Guisborough Branch Library, until my children were born.

But Sheffield City Libraries had not seen the last of me.

In 1984 my husband’s job moved again, this time to Rotherham and the family decamped to Eckington on the outskirts of Sheffield. My motherhood experience did not match up to that of Children’s Librarian, as I presented my hapless 5 year-old to the school doctor with his unreasonable (to me) behaviour. She observed me over the top of her specs:

‘Do you have a job, Mother?’

‘How could I have a job when I have two children who are as mad as a box of frogs and driving me demented?’

‘I suggest you work on Saturdays and let your husband look after them.’

So began my weekly holiday in Sheffield Central Children’s Library. I would have paid THEM to let me work there. I went upstairs for my break that first blissful, child-free Saturday – and to my amazement there were the same tables, covered in the same wipe-able cloths, with the same departmental faces gathered around them as I had last seen ten years previously. I had travelled all over the place (it seemed to me) and experienced so many things, and yet time seemed to have stood still here in this little room.

Sheffield Central Library

As my children got older, they became more human and my life settled. I no longer sought refuge down the magic staircase to Central Junior. I spent many very happy years working in the classroom with children who had behaviour problems, whilst teaching library skills in the school library.

I now live in the Scottish Borders with yet another surname – but I’ll go no more a-roaming. I have found the perfect husband, live in the perfect town with a sandy beach surrounded by rock pools at the bottom of my road and I live in the perfect house with a sea view from my lounge window.

I will never forget Sheffield City Libraries, but I still can’t stand the smell of bubble gum or pickled onion Monster Munch.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Two: School Instruction

Barbara Prater told us here about how she moved to Sheffield, to work in the public library, in the 1970s. In the second part of her story, she moves from Lane Top Branch Library to work with schools.  

Carving of Knowledge high up on the corner of the Central Library (by Frank Tory and Sons)

I applied for the post of School Instruction Assistant in Sheffield Central Library, working for the lovely Edwin Fleming, who sadly passed away last year. School Instruction, which Sheffield Libraries had been running since before WWII, involved delivering every 14 year-old student in the Sheffield area for a morning or afternoon class visit to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The idea was that they learned how to use a library. Every morning and every afternoon I had to plant 40 non-fiction books in their correct shelf order around the shelves. They had to be ready for the students to locate using their question papers, after they were taught how to use the catalogue. They had to fill in the answers to questions like ‘what is the name of the village pictured on page 26?’ to prove that they had located the right book. They then discarded the book anywhere they fancied, which I had to track down again before the next session. We also taught everyone the use of reference books, using sets of encyclopaedias, Who’s Who etc, which were shelved in the ornate Library Committee room upstairs.

Traditional card catalogues

Councillor Enid Hattersley[1] was chair of the Libraries Committee at that time and would often arrive early for her meeting in order to enjoy watching the scrum. There were always shouts of ‘Miss…tin tin!’ (that is, ‘t in’t in.’ Translation: ‘Excuse me but I don’t seem to be able to find the capital town of County Fermanagh within this particular volume of encyclopaedia, despite its being named on my quiz sheet.’)

If we finished our sheets in time, we took the students down to ‘the stacks’. Here we proudly informed them that there were six and a half miles of book shelves. I don’t know where that fact came from … can it have been correct?[2] I recall a member of staff who worked down there in the darkness all the time and allegedly only spoke Esperanto. Perhaps one lead to the other. We used to catch glimpses of his scampering, mole-like form, as he searched for the books requested on slips of paper which arrived in the squeaky wooden dumb waiter, down in the bowels of the building.

The School Instruction department also produced a magazine for all junior libraries, discussing and recommending children’s books. I used to take delivery of beautifully engraved shiny copper plates of book illustrations for the printers. There was a huge cupboard full. I wonder what became of them?

My boss Edwin Fleming was always very busy and not often in our tiny office, which overlooked the night clubs across Arundel Gate. I sometimes took calls for him and would hurtle round the building trying to locate him. He would then gallop down the stone stairs behind me back to our office, tremendously fast in his black shiny leather brogues like a suited cart horse. One day I took a call from the police telling me to ‘stay away from the window. The IRA say they have a gunman on the roof of the Fiesta Club.’

During the school holidays, I used to enjoy doing supply work in Central Junior, the branch libraries and even on the mobiles. I also became a NALGO[3] rep whilst at Sheffield Central, with Martin Olive from the Local History Library. I imagined exotic weekend conferences by the sea – I only ever got to go on one and it was in Huddersfield.

At this time I remember the computer room being constructed across Surrey Street from the library. We all stood on tiptoe to peer in the windows. We saw an enormous edifice covered with dials and knobs which seemed to fill the vast hall – it looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I used to love going across Surrey Street to the Town Hall canteen for dinner – their suet pudding and custard was awesome. I got married in the register office, which was also across Surrey Street but further along, on 15 October 1971. Everyone came out of the library to watch the happy event and throw confetti as I became Barbara Rodgers.

The third part of Barbara’s story will be posted soon.

 

[1] Cllr Enid Hattersley (1904-2001) chaired Sheffield’s Libraries and Arts Committee for many years and served as Lord Mayor in 1981. She was the mother of Labour politician Roy Hattersley.

[2] A debatable question. Some say 12 miles of shelving. The staff in the Central Library today still mention all this if they show you around.

[3] NALGO, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association.

Biggles – but for girls!

“We have come here to make a landing ground for British aeroplanes,” replied Worrals. …

Louis stared. He clicked his tongue. “Nom de Dieu. This is a mission dangereux. Why do the English send women on such work?”[i]

In the middle of the 20th century, there were schools for boys and schools for girls and, where schools were mixed, there were often boys’ entrances and girls’ entrances. There were toys for boys (guns, Meccano sets, model railways) and toys for girls (dolls and all their impedimenta). There were games for boys (Cowboys and Indians) and games for girls (‘let’s play house’). And there were books for boys and books for girls and even sometimes, to avoid confusion, separate shelving in libraries, with girls and boys admitted on alternate days.  .

A small survey of children’s reading, carried out by the public library in Sheffield in 1937-38, reported that girls read more than boys. They liked school, fairy and ‘domestic’ tales, while boys chose air travel, adventure, school and the sea. In non-fiction, boys read about machinery and engineering, science and ‘things to do’, while girls were ‘naturally less interested’ in these and enjoyed poetry and plays.[ii]

But there were exceptions to the gendered norms of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, just as now, when books are less obviously for boys or girls, but there is an awful lot of girly pink everywhere.

Worrals knew it would be a hazardous business to try to get out of the cave without a guide. (Picture by Stead)

One such exception in the world of books was Worrals, Flight Officer Joan Worralson or Worrals of the WAAF. Worrals was the creation of Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), author of the popular books about air ace and adventurer James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles. Johns was a pilot in World War One and was shot down and imprisoned in 1918. By the 1930s, he was an aviation correspondent for newspapers and writing books too, including the first Biggles story in 1932[iii]. It is hard now, when air travel is routine, to appreciate just how aviation held public attention then, with technological advances, international air races and pioneers like Charles Lindbergh. The Sheffield Library survey cited above reports that books about flying were easily the most popular with boys.

Peter:  Oh, I could read those again.  I could enjoy them again because in it a person can sort of lose himself and you can become Biggles for say half an hour and it’s great to read these stories.  But at the same time I used to like to read about the air aces of the First World War, the real ones, and I was always sorry when I came to when they were killed because invariably they were, but I used to think they’ve had a damn good life, they’ve enjoyed it, what they were doing, and that’s it and I do find that’s, shall we say? an example to the rest of us and, y’know, I don’t know, I suppose reading is my way of escape.

What about girls then?

‘…I remember I read all the Biggles books,’ said Erica.

In the early days of World War Two, to aid recruitment, the Air Ministry asked Captain Johns to write about women in the services (even if service life would never be as exciting as he would make it seem). Worrals duly appeared in 1940, wearing a flying suit and aged about 18, in a serial in the Girl’s Own Paper. As the Daily Mail said, there was ”Worrals” – a woman of wit, courage and resource – a worthy ‘sister’ to “Biggles”.

The first fifty yards was so bad that in her heart Worrals became convinced that it would take hours to get to the bottom. (Picture by Stead)

Worrals appeared in 11 books and three short stories between 1941 and 1950. In wartime, she effortlessly shot down enemy aircraft, routed and unmasked German spies, outwitted the Gestapo, escaped from countless traps and near-death incidents, carried out daring missions in France, Syria, Australia and various Pacific islands and rescued French Resistance fighters and British soldiers. After the war, her adventures continued. She rescued people from certain death, thwarted opal thieves in Australia and tracked down war criminals and gun runners.

‘… the older ones loved Biggles and Worrals …’ said Margaret, who worked in Sheffield’s school library service.

Like Biggles, Worrals had allies. There was her friend, Frecks, who was brave but not quite as resourceful as Worrals; Spitfire pilot Bill Ashton, who was sweet on Worrals but was firmly rejected as there was after all a war to be won;[iv] and superiors like Squadron Leader McNavish, who deplored her actions but respected her abilities. But there was never any doubt who was in charge. In Worrals of the WAAF it was her decision to chase and shoot down an enemy fighter.[v] Worrals on the War-Path showed her typically taking the initiative – she had the idea for a secret landing-strip in France and she argued successfully for the opportunity to establish it. In Worrals Goes Afoot (1949) she set up a fake drug deal to make contact with gun-runners.

How unusual was Worrals? From the mid-19th century onwards, unconventional girls like Jo March started to appear in fiction, although they were outnumbered by their obedient sisters. Later there were all those plucky schoolgirls rescuing each other, foiling jewel thieves and so on in books and comics. Books like the Sue Barton series, which started in 1936, described girls training for careers, albeit ones associated with women, like nursing and teaching. When they grew up, of course, many of these unconventional girls settled for matrimony and motherhood. Worrals, who never did settle, was not unique but she was extraordinary.

‘Mademoiselle is aware that the bulls are dangerous – ?’ (Picture by Stead)

This was a time when women’s lives were changing rapidly. They had taken on men’s roles in war (and been encouraged to return home in peacetime). Movements like the Guides gave girls new opportunities, although not the same ones afforded to Scouts. More women were going to university. More were getting the right to vote. All these developments might have had some unconscious influence on Captain Johns.

More important in the writing of Worrals were two pioneering women fliers. Amy Johnson (1903-41), the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, was an icon in 1930s Britain. Pauline Gower (1910-47) established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary, where Johnson was serving when she crashed to her death in 1941. Johns knew both of them. Worrals’ adventures are more ripping yarn than realistic but her skill, courage and determination were grounded in reality.

Amy Johnson (public domain)

Pauline Gower (Women’s Engineering Society Archives. Creative Commons licence)

The greatest influence, however, was fictional: Biggles. Worrals was Biggles. Both were daring pilots, good shots, natural leaders. Both were uninterested in romance or family. Both were patriotic, clear-headed, decisive, even ruthless. Both were responsible for deaths, but felt little remorse. Captain Johns seemed to see no reason for changing his winning formula just because he was now dealing with the female sex (although it is interesting that he kept writing about Biggles until his death but gave up on Worrals 20 years before).

‘… I’ve not said Biggles, and Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, because I was reading those books as well. Those ‘Captain Johns’ and you know, the others, I would’ve sought out them in the central library,’ said Shirley.

Captain Johns’ prose can be purple (‘Deep night lay across the fair land of France, night as black as the soul of its Nazi conqueror.’[vi]), his plots formulaic and his characterisation superficial. There is little subtlety or depth in his writing. To the 21st century reader (both Biggles and Worrals are still in print), his attitudes can seem dated and occasionally offensive. Sheffield reader James Green reflects now:

… Well, Biggles, I think. … It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … ‘Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it. … through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very Gung Ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’

But Johns was successful because of his thrilling plots, vivid characters and ability to spin a yarn. Boys and girls in wartime, seeking excitement or reassurance or distraction, were caught up by the adventures of Biggles and Worrals. For boys, this was the norm but it must have been a relatively new experience for the girls. ‘The boys had the best of it with their air ace “Biggles” until “Worrals of the WAAF” came along,’ says the slogan on Worrals Flies Again (1942).

[i] Worrals on the Warpath (1943).

[ii] A J Jenkinson’s survey, What Do Boys and Girls Read? (Methuen, 1940), involving almost 3,000 children, reported similar results.

[iii] The first Biggles novel is The Camels are Coming. There are about 100 books in total.

[iv] In a 2007 graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, it is implied that Worrals and Frecks are more than friends.

[v] There were no women fighter pilots in the British or American armed forces until the 1990s. Russian women flew fighter planes in World War Two.

[vi] Worrals on the War-Path (1943).

Sheffield’s eighteenth century library

By Loveday Herridge

As a teenager, the oldest of the Reading Sheffield interviewees, Ted L, borrowed books from the newly built ‘beautiful and spacious’ Central Library in Sheffield in the 1930s.  The books there were housed very differently from their shelving in the filthy, cramped conditions of the Central Library’s predecessor, but the public book collection itself retained strong links with the past.  For this collection had absorbed the local books of Sheffield’s Literary and Philosophical Society in 1932, when that important cultural organisation was wound up.  And in turn, the Lit and Phil’s collection had been augmented in 1908 by a merger with the Sheffield Library.

This institution had been founded way back in 1771 when some of the members of the most influential families of Sheffield set it up.  Its catalogues suggest that, while books were certainly lost, the collection simply grew ever larger over time, with books first purchased in the 1770s remaining available for borrowing.  In my imagination, then, in 1934 Ted L borrows a book from the pristine Central Library which was actually purchased in 1771!

The Sheffield Library was a library financed through the subscriptions and annual fees of its members (who needed to be quite affluent to afford them), and open only to them.  Sheffield’s subscription library was one of England’s earliest such institutions.  It was conceived ‘on the plan of one formed a short time before at Leeds’.  This Leeds library had been founded in 1768 by the rational dissenter and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley.  Priestley had visited Sheffield where he had been an unsuccessful candidate in 1758 for a post as minister at Sheffield’s important dissenting Upper Chapel, and was a friend of the man appointed at the Chapel in his place – John Dickinson.  Dickinson, apparently following his friend’s lead in promoting libraries as a way of improving minds, was a founder member and Sheffield’s Library President in its first year (1771), and in three subsequent years.

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

Upper Chapel, Sheffield (shared under GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rules for the Sheffield Library are to be found in the 1791 catalogue.  They indicate  that the Library was run very democratically:

  • annual meetings of members chose the committee of five members and a President
  • this committee, which organised the buying and selling of books, met monthly, and any other member could attend and vote, with two thirds of the members determining the choice of books
  • a librarian, who kept the catalogue and issued books, was chosen at the annual meeting.

Therefore the route by which books entered the Library suggests that the catalogue reflects quite closely the reading tastes and aspirations of its membership – just as the catalogue of the city libraries does now.

Did our Reading Sheffield interviewees pick books from the Central Library shelves that had first been purchased in the late eighteenth century by the members of the Sheffield Library, who were from influential merchant, manufacturing and professional families?

Imagining this scenario, I asked a twenty-first century Sheffield librarian whether she thought it was possible.  The answer was that twentieth-century standards of cleanliness would of course have consigned those ancient books to the dustbin.  But while the books themselves could not provide a physical link between those cultured men and women who set up the 1771 library and Reading Sheffield’s bookworm twentieth-century readers, what does connect them is surely the thread of curiosity and personal pleasure in books.

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.

 

Anne’s Reading Journey

Anne was born in the north of Sheffield on 5 August 1944. Her parents owned a bakery in Hillsborough. Anne has been a keen reader from an early age and has remained so.  She trained as a Religious Education (RE) teacher at college in Leeds and was also involved in the Girl Guide movement for many years, as both a Guide and a Guider.  She has two daughters and grandchildren.

Here Anne remembers how she encountered that most notorious book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Anne read well from an early age: ‘I was away ahead,’ she says. At first it was fairy stories and nursery rhymes, and then books familiar to most people growing up in the mid-20th century.

I was well into Enid Blyton at a fairly young age and then as I got older I sort of went more on to the classics. I remember reading The Children of the New Forest when I was about 13 and that became one of my top favourites. … The Chalet books in my early teens were my passion and I owned practically every single one at some point. I’ve still got a lot of them up in the loft.

Of the classics, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were the ones Anne liked best, but although she tried, Jane Austen wasn’t for her. ‘I just couldn’t stick it,’ she says.

Membership of the public library and her school and college studies kept Anne reading, although she doesn’t sound as if she needed much persuasion (‘I just read anything I could get my hands on’). She belonged to Sheffield Libraries from an early age, walking there alone and choosing her books without any help from the librarians.  When, at the age of 15, she transferred to the City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield, she joined the Central Library, encouraged by a friend, Kath.  Kath ‘was doing literature and so was very much more into proper books, adult books’.  Anne dates her transition to ‘grown-up novels’ from her friendship with Kath.  In those days Anne usually looked for books which had some relevance to her history and RE courses, such as Jean Plaidy’s books on the Tudors and novels like Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe.

No-one ever made Anne feel that reading was a waste of time. Both parents were busy with their business, but were happy for their daughter to read:

…Oh no, I mean [my mother] was an intelligent person, she knew the value of reading, she just didn’t do it.

Then our interviewer asked if Anne was ever made to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading.  Only when she came across D H Lawrence, Anne replied.  And the story came out.

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Perhaps your father didn’t think he ought to be doing it either, suggests our interviewer. Probably not, Anne agrees, saying ‘he probably kept it out of sight from me’.

This happened around 1960, when Anne was a teenager. This was the time of the famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin Books re-published Lawrence’s novel (for the first time since its initial publication in 1928) and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute.  The book was a huge success, with copies selling out as soon as they arrived in bookshops.

The trial, that was why everybody read it! Everybody knew about it. I did some more D H Lawrence as well.

Anne, however, did not particularly like the Lawrence novels she read. ‘ I read them but I wouldn’t say I’d want to read them again.’ She was shocked by Lady Chatterley, she says, because she was ‘totally innocent in those days’.  But she

didn’t know what the fuss was about for most of it.

Here is Anne’s full interview.

Reading Sheffield research: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

Just posted in our Research section, a slightly edited version of a paper given by Reading Sheffield team member Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016

‘Even Edgar Wallace may be discovered’: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

 

Ted L’s Reading Journey

Ted L, born in 1919, was one of our oldest interviewees.  He lived in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield most of his life, apart from his war service as a fitter and machinist in the Ordnance Corps.  He took part in the retreat from Dunkirk (he and three others were stranded for six days, with only a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot to eat) and then was stationed in East Africa for two and a half years.  In peacetime, he worked in engineering, and the ‘only one romance [he] was ever interested in’ was with his wife, Nellie, whom he met at work and married in 1948.

All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary … We went to look at Leonardo … it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.

This was Ted, talking about a visit to the National Gallery.  For him, books meant art rather than anything else.  His flat was full of books, and they were mostly about art, noted the interviewer, although he also enjoyed history, architecture and music.  His neighbour Gillian, who sat in on the interview, described how Ted ‘devour[ed]’ all the book she lent him, and Ted himself said:

Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books.  I don’t read fiction books.  Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.

There were books in his childhood, with Ted’s mother going to the library every week to borrow, among other, P G Wodehouse, and his father (‘He wasn’t educated.  He was a working class man, he was a plumber’) enjoying detective stories.  And Ted himself did read fiction as a boy – ‘ripping yarns’ from authors like John Buchan and Rider Haggard, who were so popular in his youth.  He remembers studying Buchan’s Prester John at Duchess Road School and also reading Blanket of the Dark, She, The Thirty-Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines:

… that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them … I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book.

At school, Ted was a clever boy, particularly interested in history and once coming ‘top in English’:

Always in the top of form.  I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross.  He was a Londoner with a broad accent.  I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days.  He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round [and brought in books].  He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross.  He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.

As with many boys of his background, Ted’s formal education ended at the age of 14 when he became an engineering apprentice.  But by then it had opened that important door to art, as for two days a week he used to go to the art school in the centre of the city.

This art school was close to the site of the new Central Library and Graves Art Gallery which opened in 1934.  Ted had a ringside seat at the building:

Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school.  And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was.  I was with that library right from the beginning.

 

Ted, who liked architecture as well as art, was interested in the new library, which he describes as a ‘fine building’.

Well, I think, [the old library] was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. … The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it.

Now, when he went to the public library, ‘I didn’t get reading [fiction] books. I used to get out books about art. ‘ He also enjoyed visiting the Graves:

I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built.  I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, ‘What’s all this for?‘ She said, ‘It’s Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children’. ‘Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now.  That’s Lowry up there [on the wall of his flat].

You can read and listen to Ted’s interview in full here.