My Personal Reading History

By Natalie Haigh

Natalie is a student at Sheffield Hallam University and has been taking part in our joint project through the university’s Ideas into Action initiative. Here is Natalie’s account of how she became a reader.

My name is Natalie Haigh, I’m 22 years young and I was born in Rotherham in 1998. I grew up in Rotherham. My parents moved there before I was born and still live there to this day. My grandparents also live in Rotherham and have lived there for the majority of their lives, as my grandad worked as a solicitor nearby in Sheffield. When I was five years old, I attended a very small primary school in my local village which was a largely working class area. I then moved on to a comprehensive school close by where I completed my GCSEs. After leaving comprehensive school, I moved on to study at a college in Rotherham where I completed my A Levels. That brings me on to the present day. I am currently a second year student at Sheffield Hallam University where I am studying for a BA Honours degree in English Literature. An English Literature degree was a natural choice for me because I have always had a passion for reading and writing ever since I can remember.

My very first memory of reading was in primary school. I can vividly remember learning to read. I read the Biff, Chip and Kipper books by Oxford Reading Tree. Reading was the activity that I always looked forward to the most at primary school. I can remember the extremely cosy reading corner where my teachers read all sorts of different books to my class. My favourite was Sheila Lavelle’s novel, My Best Friend because it was filled with mischief and adventure. I loved it so much that whenever my teacher would come to the end of a chapter and tell us it was time to move on to maths class, I begged her to start the next chapter and carry on reading to us. The same teacher created a reward scheme for my class. Every time a member of our class excelled at something or made a kind gesture towards someone, she would reward them by putting a marble in a jar. We kept a record of how many marbles were in the jar and collected them, because when the jar was filled with one hundred marbles, my teacher granted us a full Friday afternoon to do anything that we wanted. This was called ‘Golden Time’. I would always go to the cosy reading corner during Golden Time, and I would sit and read books there for hours. Meanwhile, most of the other children were off painting or watching films together. I have such fond memories of Golden Time because it was a rare occasion when I could read at school all afternoon without any distractions, in a comfortable and cosy environment.

My parents and grandparents always read to me too. My grandparents had a house full of books and I would often stay over at their house. I remember being fascinated by their bookcase. As a small child, their bookcase seemed huge in comparison to me. I have always been very inspired by my grandad and what he achieved in his career. He always told me that he learnt everything he knew from books and reading. Therefore, he was always very encouraging when it came to reading and was keen for me to read as much as possible. One thing he taught me to always do when reading, which stands out in my memory the most, is that when I come across a word I do not know the meaning of, I should look up its definition in the dictionary and make a mental note of it. This is something that has stuck with me and that I continue to do today. My grandad always had either a book or newspaper in his hands, and my grandma has a love for glossy fashion magazines. My grandma has an extremely vivid imagination and she would tell me fascinating stories about her childhood and the adventures she got up to. Reading the Biff, Chip and Kipper books and hearing the stories of what my grandma got up to when she was younger sparked my interest in adventure stories. I went on to read Enid Blyton’s The Magic of the Faraway Tree and Joyce Lankester Brisley’s series, Milly-Molly-Mandy. I noticed that the Milly-Molly-Mandy book series was also loved and treasured by one of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees, Margaret C. When I was around ten years old, I was given Beaver Towers by Nigel Hinton to read by my favourite teacher, another children’s fantasy novel that I absolutely adored and could not put down.

Moving on to comprehensive school, I was given the novels Animal Farm by George Orwell and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck to read. As much as I enjoyed reading and studying these novels, my personal reading tastes evolved and I became far more interested in reading thought-provoking self-help books, books about business and enterprise, and autobiographies of people who inspired me. In fact, I actually went through a phase of feeling guilty about reading non-fiction. I battled with personal insecurities that stemmed from me thinking those books were not academic enough for me to tell people I was enjoying reading, or even to include in this blog. However, I eventually came to my senses and realised that those were the sorts of books I enjoyed, and that ultimately, were a huge part of my personal reading journey. I was reading so much fiction in school such as Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men, that I had a yearning to read something new and refreshing. I noticed that Reading Sheffield’s interviewee, Jocelyn Wilson, also spoke about reading the right sort of books. She says

I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read… I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, “I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better” (Hewson, 2015, Jocelyn’s Reading Journey).

I strongly resonated with this part of Jocelyn’s reading journey as I personally felt a lot of pressure to read fiction, especially in school. Therefore, I did not want to discuss the sort of books I was actually reading and enjoying with my school teachers, purely out of shame and fear that they would be unimpressed and disappointed that a lot of the books were non-fiction.

One contrasting factor of my own personal reading journey to those of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees, is that I am from a different generation. The rise of social media and advances in technology changed the way I was reading. Rather than going to my local library and taking out books to read, I found myself reading most books on my Kindle. I also read a lot of different people’s online blogs. Blogs were a new and exciting medium to experience. Moreover, I could easily interact with the authors of the blogs and engage in conversation with them about their works by commenting and receiving instant responses. I quickly discovered that an entire online community for authors and readers existed in the world of blogging, sort of like lots of online book clubs. Therefore, reading started to feel more like a social activity than an independent one. Moreover, so much of the reading that I do is online now, which is one of the main ways that my reading history contrasts to many of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees. Now, the vast majority of my time is taken up by reading books, plays and academic works for my degree. For me personally, whenever I go on holiday is the time that I really indulge in reading books that I genuinely want to read. I take a few books away with me every holiday and I usually get through them all. On holiday, I don’t have to worry about anything else. I can get completely immersed in a book whilst soaking up the sun. And it is during times like those when I remember why I fell in love with reading.

Bibliography

Grover, M. (2019). Margaret C’s Reading Journey. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from: https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/margaret-cs-reading-journey/

Hewson, V. (2017). Jocelyn’s Reading Journey. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from: https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/jocelyns-reading-journey/

‘A completely new novel to me’

By Archie Harris

Here is another of our Sheffield Hallam student guest posts – the first in which a student of today reviews a book or author popular with our original 20th c readers. Archie chose to write about L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables was a completely new novel to me at the beginning of this process, with me having neither heard of the novel or Lucy Maud Montgomery herself. However, I am incredibly grateful to be involved in this course as I feel lucky to be exposed to such a plethora of new and intriguing tales I may have never discovered throughout my regular day to day life. The first in a series of seven novels chronicling the adventures of titular character Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables is generally considered a classic of their youths for many people born in the 20th century. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the quality of the novel is through its sheer longevity. Originally released in 1908, Anne of Green Gables has withstood the test of time and still remains a classic read for younger generations starting their journeys into a love of fiction. This permanence is not only due to the high quality of the writing and storytelling but also the nostalgic warmth it brews in many parents, compelling them to read it to their children and have them fall in love with it too.

With the high volume and high intensity of university work, I usually do some research and preparation before reading a book, frequently spoiling the plot for myself to make the process of analysing and discussing the novel more streamlined. However, for this I decided to take myself back to my childhood and simply dive headfirst into the pages with no prior knowledge or expectations whatsoever. And what a joyous experience it was, watching young Anne subvert the prejudices of those around her and win their hearts made me feel like a child again, a sensation I have been chasing since I flipped the last page.

From the moment we are first introduced to Anne until the very end of the novel we cannot help but to support her in everything she does and wish her the best. This feeling is paralleled by Matthew Cuthbert who, despite mistakenly adopting Anne when in search of a young man to help with the farm work in his old age, falls in love with her rampant imagination and spirited soul before the pair can even make it back to his home from the train station. Anne even manages, eventually, to win the affections of Marilla Cuthbert despite her stern and traditionalist approach. Watching their relationship develop over the course of the novel was humorous, touching and come the end of the novel, utterly heart-shattering.

The epitome of Anne’s character and the reason she is so endearing and means so much to so many is her complete selflessness and unwillingness to take anything lying down. Her back and forth rivalry-come-friendship with Gilbert Blythe, whom I notice is much revered by those of Reading Sheffield, particularly Val seems to have had a soft spot for this young gentleman, is one of the most satisfying relationships we see blossom over the novel. We see an immensely strong friendship and mutual respect develop over years from the childish teasing of Gilbert calling Anne ‘Carrots’ in reference to her red hair, which led to him getting a slate smashed over his head, to the pure altruistic act of him giving up his job so she can work closer to Marilla and care for her as she is going blind and has lost her brother Matthew. This coupled with Anne giving up her life’s dream and everything she has worked for since moving to Avonlea to make sure her adoptive mother receives proper care demonstrates exactly why both of these characters, and the novel as a whole, are so effortlessly charming and endearing.

It was therefore no surprise to me, upon closing the novel, that when I researched reviews and opinions of others on Anne of Green Gables I was greeted with nothing but a wave of glowing commendations for this book and smiling tales of people’s childhoods spent buried in the pages of this wonderful novel that has touched so many. It was these recommendations accompanied with my own overwhelmingly positive experience that persuaded me to purchase more books in the series to get lost in over the course of, hopefully, a long hot summer of 2021.

L. M. Montgomery’s bright outlook on the world is a welcome contrast to the bleak views of many, especially through recent struggles, Anne’s smile and burning red hair shines through the dark clouds for so many. Montgomery’s writing is spectacular in this novel, incredibly accessible to a modern audience for the time it was written and fluently funny throughout. She tickles your funny bone with one hand and tears your heart out with the other as every emotional beat hits harder than the last. We smile every smile and cry every tear along with Anne as we become totally and completely captivated by her story, willing her to succeed at every venture despite her tendency, particularly early in her adopted life, to accidentally do something she most certainly is not supposed to. My personal favourite being when she accidentally gave her friend Diana wine instead of raspberry cordial, causing her to return home drunk and triggering her mother to be less than pleased, yet Anne of course still wins her over as she most certainly will win you over if you are yet to read this novel. Anne of Green Gables is a defining work of fiction for many childhoods past, present and future as its sheer charisma is undeniable. It is clear to see why, 113 years after its release, it is still being printed across the globe.

My Reading Journey

By Archie Harris

Students at Sheffield Hallam University have been exploring our interviews with Sheffield readers and our research. They have each written their own reading journey and a reflection on a book or author mentioned by our original interviewees (click here for more information on these tasks). We hope this has given the students an understanding of the world their grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in. For us, reading the thoughts of people born 70 or so years after our interviewees, in a very different world, have made us look afresh at our material. We’re pleased to publish the work of the students over the next few weeks.

In preparation for writing this blog I took what I saw as the most logical step and phoned my mum up to try and pick her brains as to what she remembers about reading to me as a young child. What followed was five minutes of me scrambling around my room trying to find a pen as she rattled off countless books and series that, at least according to her, I had spent half my childhood with my head buried in. The most prominent of which was a collection of Dr Seuss short stories I used to have read to me over and over every night when I was a toddler. To this day my mother and I can quote those stories and often do to cheer each other up on down days around the house, particularly the classic that is Too Many Daves, a personal favourite of mine as a child that my mother and I still quote around the house to this day. It was Dr Seuss that I believe kickstarted my lifelong adoration of poetry and poetic form as most of his writing has an almost musical rhythmic quality. Another of my great loves as a child was the Mr Men series, owning the whole collection and reading each one over and over until the binding was worn out. I even went as far as to paint myself blue, bandage up and go to World Book Day at school as Mr Bump. Mr Sneeze also stands out in particular as one book that got especially battered as I read it almost constantly as a toddler, turning over from the last page and going straight back to the beginning. My mother passed down her love of reading to me and I grew up with my nose in a book. As I had no siblings to play with the next best thing was to immerse myself in a whole new universe to transport myself away from rainy Derbyshire.

To be honest, as much as I enjoyed personal reading, I was far less infatuated with the assigned reading in primary school, often reading a book as fast as possible to simply get it out of the way so I could get back to the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid I was probably reading at the time. My grandparents also had a profound effect on me and my reading journey, two or three times a week they would take me to the library whenever they picked me up from school to grab a new book to read. Thirteen years later I now suspect this was to shut seven-year-old me up for an hour or two, which was successful for them and also got me even further interested in reading.

Like most people my age, one of the major literary influences in my early life was the Harry Potter series. I had seen the first couple of films and was instantly engrossed in the fantastical universe J K Rowling had created. This inspired me to pick up all seven books and speed read them before the next film came out to make sure I was up to date, an unfortunate side effect of this was that I had little to no filter between my brain and my mouth as a child and would not hesitate to mention something that happens later in the series to one of my friends that had not yet got around to reading some of the later books. For this I could only apologise. This started a domino effect leading me to binge read many series of books, although somehow missing out on Lord of The Rings until I was much older. The Percy Jackson series hugely impacted me early in secondary school, cultivating a fascination with Greek mythology in tandem with my ever-growing love of literature. This led to an intense yet brief obsession with all things mythological which was reignited for me at university as we began to study The Odyssey and the heavily explored mythos surrounding it.

In secondary school I was indeed that one kid that genuinely enjoyed Shakespeare and poetry. My enjoyment of Shakespeare was more of an appreciation of his immeasurable impact on the English language and culture, with his stories being told and adapted in many forms of media to this day. However, my love for poetry was, and is, very palpable and real. Almost daily you will find me writing some nonsensical poetry on my laptop to be shoved into my folder and never read again. The release of emotion from writing and reading poetry, for me, is unmatched and I will continue to produce poetry for the rest of my life. I have my year 10 English teacher to thank for this, as she pushed me to continue to pursue poetry beyond what we had been studying in class.

Most of my reading outside of university is news articles nowadays as I try and keep up to date on the world and on things I am interested in. This led to me writing a few articles for football magazines over the past few years as when I feel so passionately about something the words come easily. Because of how much I enjoyed the process of writing and editing these articles, I am looking into perhaps pursuing journalism or something similar as a vocation or as a postgraduate degree.

Regrettably, I have neglected to use a library in years now, favouring reading online or picking up books from the charity shop. This has also coincided with me having to read more for school and university work, so I feel I have less time and motivation to read for pleasure. Hopefully after my degree is finished I can relax and spend more time browsing the library and reading for pleasure in the sun like I had done so much as a child.

Chris Hopkins’ Reading Journey, part 1 (1965)

Chris Hopkins is an Emeritus Professor of Sheffield Hallam University. An expert on the British novel in the first half of the twentieth century, he is the author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, 2018) and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite. He wrote about Love on the Dole in Sheffield for us here.

The first thing I remember reading to myself was a comic, of sorts, called Treasure. Every Saturday morning it dropped through the letterbox of the second house I remember living in, presumably along with the newspapers. My no doubt unreliable memory is that for some reason I was, aged I think five, always the first to wake on a Saturday in a household of two parents and three other children (then aged fifteen, twelve, and three). I immediately seized hold of Treasure and wishing to waste no precious reading-time lay down on my stomach in my pyjamas on the front door mat with my Treasure laid out before me, where I remained until Treasure was read or I was disturbed by other wakers. I remember it as having lots of colourful illustrations and being utterly fascinating.

I have already said that it was a comic ‘of sorts’, and I think I was aware even then that it was ‘educational’, but I was quite happy to go along with that. I think I indeed liked it because it was full of information, and maybe particularly information historical, natural historical, and geographical, though there were also stories. My memories seem confirmed by the Wikipedia entry on Treasure, which labels it a magazine rather than a comic:

Treasure was a British educational magazine for young children published by Fleetway Publications which ran for 418 issues published between 19 January 1963 and 16 January 1971 (Treasure (magazine) – Wikipedia).

I would like to be able to say that I have treasured a copy ever since, but the truth is that I have just bought a copy of about the right date from e-bay so I can see what it was like with more than memorial evidence in front of me. It does look very much as I remember it, and I can see why it appealed.

This issue (No.116, 3rd April, 1965) is probably typical in having a mix of factual articles, stories, and puzzles, and in having a balance of highly pictorial and more textual items (perhaps to appeal to and accommodate a reasonable range of reading skills?). This particular cover with its very sparse text and simple image rather under-sells the actual detail and level of interest inside its pages.

The first item inside was a non-fiction double-page where ‘Mr Answers’ responded to enquiries from readers:

In pre-Google days, ‘Mr Answers’ of course has his book-case full of reference works to help him answer accurately. These all still seem interesting questions and answers to me – perhaps partly because Treasure trained me to be gripped by a wide range of general knowledge from early on. Most questions have their sender’s name and address, attesting to the authenticity of the question (NOT just written by Treasure staff) and presumably encouraging letter-writing as a (then) important form of literacy.

A few pages further in is a full-colour double-page about varieties of fish and their habitats. I find this well-worth-reading and like the illustrations – and indeed I am generally very keen still on natural history TV programmes.

There are further equally attractive factual articles including ‘The Coming of Guns’ (part of a series called ‘The Wonderful Story of Britain’!) and ‘How Do Birds Learn to Fly’. There are also stories, including a double-page spread featuring two non-European stories, one Native American (though in the terminology of the time it is called ‘A Red Indian Story’) and one from Papua New Guinea. The Native American story is called ‘How the Redskins were Made’ and is a retelling of a creation story, of how the Great Spirit, Manitou, made humans from clay and then baked them, liking best those who turned out red in his last batch, rather than earlier ones who were pale-skinned and under-done. Here is the beginning of the story from Papua New Guinea:

Though there are things in these two stories which do not quite accord with current sensitivities (the terminology for Native Americans, the exoticising drawing style for the youngest sister from Papua), I think they on the whole score surprisingly well for their interest in other cultures, given their date, and since they are a regular feature suggest Treasure’s commitment to introducing its readers to a wider and more diverse world.

My final example of Treasure’s content is the start of the serial story in colour on the back page:

This seems entertaining enough, with the wizard’s partly comic, but perhaps also rather sinister pantomimic rhyming couplets, and the significant extent to which the lively pictures deliver the narrative, along with the concise captions beneath.

As the cover says, Treasure had a very clear ethos of learning through looking, hence the high and varied pictorial content – though there was also a good amount of chunky text to read too. This approach to pleasurable learning stemmed, as I now know, from the thinking of the juvenile editorial director, Leonard Matthews, at Fleetway Magazines, who in 1962 published, against initial opposition within the company, the first issue of a magazine for older young people called Look and Learn which worked exactly in the way the title announced (it continued in print until 1982 – see Look and Learn). At the same period as I was reading Treasure, my older brother was indeed reading Look and Learn, to which I in turn and in due course graduated. It was also a great read. I think Treasure was a very good choice on my parents’ part, and the copy I have bought has lived up to my memories of it. I recall my father saying he would never have learnt to read at all if it hasn’t been for The Magnet which he would have been reading in the early nineteen-thirties, so there was an inherent awareness of the value of comics (or ‘magazines’). I am very glad they paid for such Treasure to be delivered to our front door.

(Note: All images are scanned from the copy of Treasure in the author’s collection.)

The Reading Journey of David Price, a Sheffield historian

By Mary Grover

David has contributed two key aids to our understanding of the history of Sheffield: Sheffield Troublemakers: Rebels and Radicals in Sheffield History (2011) and Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018). Members of the Reading Sheffield team have used both books to inform our own research and have been hugely grateful to David’s personal help at various stages of our own projects.

The Price family. David is on the right.

A ‘left-leaning’ family

David was born in 1936. He spent the war years in Wales and the rest of his childhood in the south of England. It is not surprising that he became an historian; he was born into a culture of debate. His mother was a Methodist and more ‘left-leaning’ than the family of his father who once called her ‘the Muscovite’. She had a science degree and taught throughout her sons’ childhood. David describes her as ‘remarkably capable’. Though he had to leave school early, David’s father became an architect by working his way up in the architectural office of Edwin Lutyens and then found employment in the Ministry of Works. His parents first met in a boarding house on the east coast where they spent the first five hours of their acquaintance discussing ‘all sorts of things’. Clearly David’s mother was persuasive because his father moved steadily leftwards and they came to share their political convictions. David’s father ‘revered’ Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman.

At first the influence of David’s mother was strong, sometimes as censor. Though David’s enjoyment of Winnie the Pooh was encouraged, his mother disapproved of Beatrix Potter because as a biologist and botanist she disliked the anthropomorphising of animals: ‘animals speaking seemed ridiculous’. She did not approve of Enid Blyton whom she described as ‘a bit below par’.

As David grew older it was his father’s reading tastes that he began to share.

Though W W Jacobs is less read today than Wells, Stevenson and Conan Doyle, his sinister tale The Monkey’s Paw still appears in anthologies of supernatural or horror stories and has been often filmed.

I went on walks with him during which he would tell me about his latest reading (often biographies). Also he had a large book collection himself.  So I read a lot of novels that belonged to his generation by authors like R L Stevenson, W W Jacobs, H G Wells, Conan Doyle.

The book that made the strongest impression on David as a child was one that I had never heard of, the Swiftian satire by André Maurois which mocks the folly of war: in French, Patapoufs et Filifers (1930), in English Fattypuffs and Thinifers. It is about a boy who arrives in a strange land where there are two countries at war with each other. One country is easy going and the other not. Both are fighting over a little island between them. In the end they make peace. David associates the presence of this book in the house with his parents’ membership of the Peace Pledge Union, the pacifist campaign which they joined in 1938.

The radio was a source of stimulation to both David and his parents. David remembers Children’s Hour, in particular Uncle Mac. He enjoyed the adventures broadcast, for example those of Malcolm Saville. Many of his stories were broadcast in 1946 and Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet in 1945. If the dangers seemed too thrilling there was always the sofa to hide behind. Though David ‘quite liked’ Arthur Ransome, it sounds as though they were a little short on thrills.

As David and his brother grew older, the whole family would often go to Guildford Repertory Theatre. The productions were of a high standard. He remembers Henry V, Murder on the Nile and the Broadway comedy Affairs of State by Louis Verneuil. But on Saturday afternoons David’s father usually took himself off, on his own, to the cinema.

School: more scope for debate

When David passed his 11 plus and went to Woking Grammar School, he developed a circle of friends every bit as intellectually curious as his parents. One of his circle became an Anglo-Catholic and David was a Methodist so religion became a subject for debate. The two boys and their friends would wander round the town’s parks in their lunch hour discussing religion, politics, evolution and the latest edition of the Brain’s Trust, in particular the contributions of the celebrity philosopher, Cyril Joad. ‘I remember the gossip when Joad was fined for not paying for a railway ticket.’ One teacher, ‘though rather pompous’ encouraged the boys’ general reading.

When he was 16, in 1952, David compiled a diary of his reading. It includes Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, The Cambridge History of English Literature, British Historical and Political Orations, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, The History of the USA by Cecil Chesterton (‘a dubious brother of G.K. Chesterton who was regarded as anti-Semite’), Pickwick Papers, Goethe’s Faust in English, Doctrines of the Christian Church, the Penguin Book of Comic Verse, The ABC of International Affairs, The Life of Albert Schweitzer and Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. David describes reading Graham Greene in his teens and ‘probably’ Orwell. David’s diary includes a long discussion about the implications of Stalin’s death and notes for David’s talk about Chopin to the musical society.

David remembers reading Scott’s Kenilworth and Conrad’s The Rover. He returned to André Maurois, to his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, having recently read Disraeli’s novel, Sybil. The teenager ‘haunted’ second-hand bookshops, in particular Finnerens, where there was a mysterious inner sanctum containing books that Mr Finneren said ‘would not interest you boys.’ David also used the municipal library in Woking. His English teacher was a Freeman of the City of London and took the group to the City. It was a busy day – they visited The Guildhall Museum, Southwark Cathedral and then the teacher left them and the boys attended Question Time at the Houses of Parliament: all superb preparation for his successful application to study History at Cambridge in 1955.

David’s journey to Sheffield

After university David did his National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps. He found himself helping poorly educated infantrymen with their English, maths and current affairs, a task for which he was well equipped. He then joined the Civil Service.

Moving for work, David has made Sheffield his home during the last forty years. He has written the histories of so many Sheffielders that it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to write a little of his own history: his history as a reader.

‘Those Cheerless Cemeteries of Books’

The thrill of entering a public library. Thousands of books arranged in familiar patterns. Fiction and non-fiction. Classics and novels contemporary and historical, romances, crime stories and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. Books about art, science, music, history, travel, philosophy, politics. What will I find this time? Something entirely new? a much-anticipated sequel? an old friend? Each visit is a promise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, public libraries, including Sheffield’s, looked very different from our ‘open access’ model, where the books are there for us to wander through, to pick up, to choose or return. Then, while there might be a few out on display, many public libraries hid their books away behind counters, or kept them out of sight in rooms marked ‘No Entry’. Catalogues, often out-of-date, were set out in the public area, and sometimes copies could be purchased. Borrowers would seek the advice of library staff. Once a book was chosen, an assistant checked on its availability and, if it was not already on loan, retrieved it from its shelf and handed it over to the borrower.   

The Sheffield Corporation have given a good deal of attention lately to the development of the public libraries on modern lines, and evidence of the progress that has been made will be forth coming to-day when the Central Lending Library will be open for view to the public on the open access system. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

From an anonymous pamphlet, The Truth about giving Readers Free Access to the Books in a Public Lending Library (1895)

With the exception of research and specialist institutions, there must be few ‘closed access’ libraries now. Why was it the norm in the early days? Maybe librarians and library authorities had little faith that books would not be disordered, damaged or even stolen by borrowers. Controlling access was a way to safeguard books owned by local ratepayers, not all of whom were happy with their money supporting the, to them, wrongly named free libraries. Perhaps there was also some attempt to influence what people read. Librarians and councils habitually worried about borrowers preferring the light novel over the serious work. The public library was, after all, invented to help people improve themselves.

Sheffield Central Lending Library 1910, with books locked away behind the counter (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com.
Ref: s02145)

As well as keeping borrower and book apart, closed access often meant problems for library staff. Book stores generally seem to have been crammed with shelving from floor to ceiling and young assistants had to scurry up and down long ladders to find books. Here is Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian from 1927 to 1956, on his days as an assistant:

Birmingham Central Library in those days (1913-14) was a murderous place in which only those with sound bodies and hardened minds could survive. Most of its large stock was shelved in three tiers of iron galleries reaching to the ceiling. In a closed library with an average daily issue of 900, the amount of leg work demanded of the staff was enough to qualify them as Everest climbers. (J P Lamb, Librarian While Young, The Librarian and Book World, Vol XLV, No 3, March 1956)

Opening of the Birmingham Central Free Library. Illustrated London News. Sept 16, 1865, page 256 (public domain). The ‘cheerless cemeteries’ can be seen on the left, with ladders for the staff to climb up and down.

And Sheffield librarian Herbert Waterson, who started work in 1869, hinted at the particular problems the ladders meant for Victorian women seeking library work.

Closed access inspired a piece of Victorian technology, the ‘indicator’. This was a screen, often fixed to the wall and divided into tiny sections, each matched to a book listing in the catalogue and showing if the book was in or out. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph proudly described the locally-made model installed in the new Brightside Library in 1872:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. … (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

The Cotgreave model of indicator
(from A L Champneys, Public Libraries (London, Batsford, 1907))

Indicators were often very large and could be unwieldy. The ones made in 1876 for the Upperthorpe and Highfield branches had the capacity for 12,000 books each. One of the Highfield assistants claimed that the staff used to play football behind their screen when the librarian was not on duty.[i]

Open access in a public library was trialled as early as 1893 at Clerkenwell in London by James Duff Brown and seems to have aroused considerable opposition.[ii] It began slowly to be adopted, as the objections to it were proved baseless. But in conservative Sheffield closed access was the order of the day until after the First World War. In two places only could borrowers roam at will among the books. The branch library at Walkley, which opened in 1905 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was converted to open access in 1913-14 by its pioneering librarian, Albert Ibbotson. His superiors objected but he got away with it. ‘The [open access] Walkley Library’, said a letter from Mr A Ballard to the Sheffield Independent on Tuesday 16 August 1921, ‘has been for the past seven years a veritable university to the working people’.[iii] At the same time, two schoolteacher members of the Council’s library committee petitioned successfully for the opening up of the Reference Library.[iv]

These were among the few innovations in Sheffield Libraries in the early years of the 20th century. By 1921 the service was in decline, and there was much muttering in the press. The numbers of books borrowed were falling, book stocks inadequate, administrative practices old-fashioned, staff demotivated and buildings (especially the Central Library) in poor repair. New chief and deputy librarians – R J Gordon and J P Lamb – were recruited to put things right. Determined and modern, they wasted no time.

Converting all the libraries to open access and introducing the Dewey classification system, as funding allowed, was an early decision in July 1921. The task was huge but, by the following June, the necessary alterations had been made, the stocks of books refreshed and classified. The new open Central Lending Library was ready. Albert Ibbotson from Walkley had been appointed to run it in 1918 and was probably an ally for Gordon and Lamb. He had been described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 8 March 1918 as a ‘progressive librarian’. By 1919 he had already introduced a very limited form of access: ‘…two cases in which the latest books are always placed on view, and the rapid demand for these volumes shows how useful the system is’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 6 September 1919).

No doubt primed by Gordon and Lamb, who both knew the value of publicity, the Sheffield Telegraph was eager to explain the new system to the city:

At the Library entrance is the staff enclosure where the issue records are kept and from which the staff control the entrance and exit wickets. A borrower desiring to change a book hands it to the assistant at the entrance counter, which is to the left on entering, and receives his borrower’s ticket exchange. The assistant then releases the wicket gate and the borrower enters the stockroom to select his book. After selecting the book he wishes to borrow he returns to the assistant who completes the necessary records and releases the exit wicket for the borrower to go out. Apart from this arrangement which will be greatly appreciated by borrowers, who can wander at will among the volumes, there is a new system of classification which makes for rapid working and ease of selection. As most borrowers at Public Libraries ask for books on a particular subject rather than by the author, and because of the many advantages gained by having all the books on the same or related subjects on one shelf, the books have been classified according to the subjects they cover. The Dewey Decimal classification has been used for this purpose and seeing it in operation, one is impressed by the value of the system. The books in the Library are arranged in two parts: prose fiction and non-fiction. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 1 June 1922)

Sheffield’s Attercliffe Library after conversion, showing the staff enclosure, the wicket gates to control access and the open shelving (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u01383)

The degree of detail suggests how much of a change this was. The journalist goes on to say: ‘There is no doubt that the public will appreciate the new system, under which borrowers are allowed actual contact with the shelves containing the books.’ Over the next few years, Sheffield’s branch libraries were all converted, with counters and screens removed and new shelving installed.

Borrowers in later years clearly still appreciating open access (Courtesy of Sheffield Libraries and Archives – www.picturesheffield.com. Ref: u02265)

Open access libraries are so familiar to us that any other system seems impossible. But in 1956, as J P Lamb approached retirement, he saw some merit in the old ways:

It seems to have been my library lot in my younger days to be fully occupied in re-organising old type libraries. Those cheerless cemeteries of books are now thought to have no redeeming features; but reflecting on my work in them after a lifetime spent in creating ‘modern’ mass appeal libraries, I am not at all sure that the change has been wholly good. Open access has resulted in the loss of a personal contact with the reader, which no kind of readers’ advisory system can replace. … The librarian as guide, philosopher and friend was then a reality. … (J P Lamb, as above)


[i] From Kelly, James R, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sheffield, 1983). A copy is held in Sheffield Archives.

[ii] Kelly, Thomas, History of Public Libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1965 (London, The Library Association, 1973), pp. 175-82.

[iii] Did Mr A Ballard become Alderman A Ballard CBE who chaired the Council’s Libraries Committee between 1944 and 1954? It seems very possible.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council, 1956). Along with the newspapers quoted, this is the main source for this article.

A Light To Read By

On those rare occasions when there is a power cut, we blunder around, doing silly things like trying to switch on lights so we can look for candles and matches. It’s automatic. We are so used to electricity lighting our homes, shops, public buildings and streets. But there was a time, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when electric light was new technology, even a thing of wonder.

They made an occasion of it, and Sheffield’s principal newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, carried short reports the next day. On a September evening in 1901, the members of the Council’s Libraries Committee made their way to Brightside Library, on the north of the city, to switch on the lights.[i]

In 1901 there were four branch libraries in the city: Attercliffe, Upperthorpe, Highfield and Brightside. The newspapers didn’t say why Brightside, the first purpose-built library in town, opened in 1872, had been chosen for the high-tech transformation from gas to electric. Perhaps its relatively small size made it suitable for an experiment. From about 1880, thanks to inventors like Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, electric lights were slowly becoming more common in both private homes and public buildings. In Sheffield, an electricity supply business was set up in 1892, and taken over by the Council in 1898. Maybe there was an expectation that, as time passed, Council buildings would all enjoy modern lighting.

Brightside Library. The name was eventually changed to Burngreave but the building remained a library until 1990. It is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.

On the night of 11 September, the switch was thrown in Brightside by Councillor George Taylor, of the Libraries Committee. He was the Liberal councillor for nearby Attercliffe. The Independent said of him in 1902 that he was ‘a round, comfortable councillor’ and a ‘very advanced Radical’ who ‘raps out his opinions “in straight-flung words and few”. If you don’t like them you can lump them.’ ‘He has served Attercliffe well,’ was the newspaper’s conclusion.[ii]

At Brightside, Councillor Taylor ‘made a few remarks in which he set forth the advantages…’, the Independent reported.

For some time there [had] been a desire to provide a better light at the branch libraries…The committee [hoped] to effect considerable saving in the way of bookbinding, as well as benefit to the health of the readers by the purer and cooler atmosphere gained by the exchange from gas. [iii]

Councillor Taylor was right about the advantages.  

  • Only a week before the Brightside ceremony, the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph had included a report by the Society of Arts’ committee on bookbinding. ‘There is a general agreement’, it noted, ’that the use of gas in libraries has most deteriorating effect on the bindings – the electric light being preferable.’[iv]
  • Six years later, in his book, Public Libraries, the architect Amian L Champneys listed the disadvantages of the various types of gaslight: overpowering smells, soot, unsteady and/or poor illumination, easily broken mantles [the part which lights up when heated] and, worst of all, ‘noxious products, viz., carbonic, sulphuric and sulphurous acids, and the dry heat’ which could be ‘extremely injurious’ to readers, staff and books alike. (pp. 14-15)

Champneys was clear that electricity was by far the better method.

The advantages of the electric light are that it heats the air only to a very slight degree, and vitiates it not at all; while the danger of fire, if a proper sub-fuseboard system [is used], is less than with any other method. The extra cost is to a great extent balanced by the resultant economy in depreciation of leather and cloth bindings, in cleaning, sick-leave, insurance, and redecoration. (p.17)

Example of lighting from Champneys’ Public Libraries (p. 19)

The Telegraph noted that the Brightside ‘experiment apparently met with general approval’ and expected that the bigger library at Upperthorpe would be next, with Highfield and Attercliffe to follow. The Telegraph’s reporter must have spoken to someone else, for he thought there were no plans yet to tackle all the branches.

It’s interesting that there is no mention anywhere of converting the Central Library. Was it too big and expensive a prospect? Or was the building, dating from 1832, just unsuitable?

This story seems to end here. I can find no other press records of installing electric lighting in libraries in the early years of the 20th century. Were Upperthorpe and the other libraries converted shortly after Brightside? There may be more sources to be checked when COVID-19 restrictions relax but for now, that’s it.

What does seem certain is how innovative the Council was being in fitting electric lighting in Brightside in 1901.

A sign in Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon, USA. Image by Frank Schulenburg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

[i] Sheffield Independent and Daily Telegraph on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[ii] Sheffield Independent on Wednesday 13 August 1902.

[iii] Sheffield Independent on Thursday 12 September 1901.

[iv] Sheffield Weekly Telegraph on Saturday 7 September 1901.

Charles Dickens in Thirties Sheffield

By Mary Grover

In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here

Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens. 

My father, David Yorweth Morgan, in Rangoon in 1954

In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.

A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald.  My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.

For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’. 

In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.

My father’s set of Dickens, still in their presentation bookcase

For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

The Day The Library Closed

I’ve heard some queer stories of earlier days. The then librarian, Smith, when they held a Library Association meeting in Sheffield, I don’t know when, probably just after the war, he closed all the libraries so the Library Association people couldn’t see what they were like.

What’s the story here? What could the chief librarian, Samuel Smith, have been hiding from his professional colleagues? The anecdote comes from a former librarian looking back to the early 20th century, before he even started work in Sheffield.[i] You have to wonder if he was remembering accurately, whether the story gained in the telling and if there is any truth in it at all.    

In fact, as a little detective work reveals, it really happened, and it marked an unhappy time for Sheffield’s public library. It was in 1909, before rather than ‘just after the war’, that is, World War One. On Monday 7 June that year, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted in a report of ‘interesting items’ discussed at a meeting of the Council:

It is recommended that all branch libraries and reading-rooms close for cleaning, stock-taking, and staff holidays between July 1st and 16th, both dates inclusive. The Central and Reference Library will close from September 20th to 25th.

This seems straightforward. Who would object to a clean and orderly library? But when you realise that the dates for the Central and Reference Libraries did indeed coincide with a visit by the Library Association, for their 32nd national conference no less, you begin to wonder. After all, Sheffield had one of the oldest public libraries in England.[ii] The city was, moreover, responsible for the invitation to the librarians, and it greeted them with delight that September, going to no little trouble and expense on their behalf. You can read here about the glittering, white tie reception hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall, and there were other festivities. All this suggests considerable municipal pride in the ‘steel city’, reflected in extensive newspaper coverage. Take, for example, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Friday 24 September 1909:

Sheffield’s Metropolitan Air. A Librarian’s Impressions

‘Are you satisfied with Sheffield’s welcome?’ Mr H R Tedder, the genial treasurer of the Library Association, was asked yesterday. ‘Satisfied?’ he reiterated, ‘No. that is not the word, but I should have to search the English language very extensively to find the right one. We have visited a good many towns, and one must not be invidious, but I can assure you that nowhere have we had a better reception than in Sheffield.’

He spoke in particularly high appreciation of the handsome scale on which the Lord Mayor’s reception was organised.

‘We have been extremely interested with our visits to manufactories,’ he said. ‘It is extremely educative for persons who have to deal with books to see our great national works, and discover that thought, poetry, philosophy, and everything that is elevating are not confined to books, but that there is plenty of thought, of poetry, of philosophy in business, and that just as noble and lofty qualifications are demanded in great commercial enterprises as in writers of books.’

Mr Tedder was particularly impressed by the character of the municipal life of Sheffield. ‘Londoners who live in a wilderness of bricks and mortar do not realise the great qualities of real municipal enterprise. It is true that London has now a number of boroughs, but it is in places like Sheffield that we really come face to face with municipal life.’

His opinions of the city’s public buildings do not accord with those of some local detractors. He was especially delighted with the Cutlers’ Hall. ‘It is as fine or finer place than any of the halls of the City companies in London. In Sheffield, too, you have quite a Metropolitan air.’  

It makes that week-long closure of the Central Library all the more incomprehensible.  

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

Incomprehensible until you know its condition at the time.[iii] Sheffield evidently felt that its pride, on national display, was at risk. The Central Library had been housed since 1856 in the former Mechanics’ Institute on Surrey Street (on the same site as today’s Central Library). The building, dating from 1832, was not designed as a library. Until 1896, when the new Town Hall was opened, the library service had been forced to share its premises with various council offices. At one time the council chamber had been located there, and the Mayor and the chief librarian had even shared an office, with the librarian presumably making himself scarce for important mayoral meetings.

By 1909, the Institute was too small even for its sole tenant, with the lending library particularly cramped. There was talk of rats. The building was in poor repair and dirty. What it housed was no better. The following summary of the review by Leeds’ chief librarian, Thomas Hands, undertaken for the Council some ten years later, gives a good idea of the problems becoming evident in 1909.[iv]

… book stocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind those which had proved to be necessary in other towns, that the only practical way of reforming the service was to start an entirely new system on modern lines. The recording of issues was archaic and cumbrous; a curious system of fine receipts, called forfeits, involving a considerable waste of staff time, was in operation, and what little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding. Thousands of books needed re-binding and many of those which had been bound had been chosen without reference to their condition or their suitability for further service. The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally. Outside lamps had not been cleaned for years, and the upper shelves in all the libraries were not merely dusty but in some cases were nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years.

The story was not all bad. Sheffield’s branch libraries – Burngreave, Highfield, Upperthorpe, Attercliffe, Park, Walkley and Hillsborough – were in relatively good order. With the exception of Hillsborough, a converted 18th century house, they were purpose-built, and Walkley, Park and Attercliffe were all less than 15 years old. In the Central Library, the reference and local history sections were thought to have good collections.     

Walkley’s Carnegie Library, opened in 1905

The evidence stacks up then. The Libraries Committee – led by Alderman W H Brittain, the President of the Library Association for 1909, assisted by the chief librarian, Samuel Smith – were laying plans as early as June to prevent the nation’s librarians inspecting what lay inside the Surrey Street buildings in September.

Alderman Brittain (seated) and (directly behind him) Samuel Smith, Sheffield’s chief librarian

We don’t know what the visitors thought about all this. There was a busy programme, with debates about cataloguing and the like held in the University of Sheffield’s Firth Hall and local visits, including to the great house at Wentworth Woodhouse. Mr Tedder, quoted above, didn’t mention libraries.

Perhaps he was being tactful. It was rather an open secret. On Tuesday 6 July, writing about the upcoming conference, the Sheffield Telegraph commented: ‘The city may have nothing to be proud of in the way of municipal libraries….’ By Saturday 28 August, with the conference less than a month away, the Independent noted a rather feeble excuse: ‘It may be mentioned that the Sheffield Central Library will be closed during the conference week, as the staff is to be in attendance at the University.’

A few days later, on 31 August, the Evening Telegraph reported the Council’s application to the Local Government Board to borrow almost £7,000 to buy the Music Hall next to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The plan was to use the hall as a temporary extension to the library and, in time, to build a new central library on the site. This smacks of desperation: the hall, built in 1823, was not remotely suitable, nor was it even very safe. It was just, well, next door. Under the sub-head ‘What Sheffielders Are Not Proud Of’, the Town Clerk, Mr R M Prescott was reported at length:

… the citizens of Sheffield were proud of their many public institutions. There was a strong municipal spirit in the Corporation and in the city, one evidence of which was the magnificent building in which they were then assembled [presumably the Town Hall]. They were proud of their University as a seat of learning. They were proud of their industries which had made the name of the city known all over the world. But when he came to the Central Library, their pride considerably abated, and he thought that Alderman Brittain … would not be particularly anxious to take the [Library Association] over Sheffield’s principal library building, nor would he be particularly proud in making any reference to it. The Central Library was absolutely deficient for library purposes for a great city such as this, and the building was altogether inadequate and inconvenient.

The Music Hall, used as part of the Central Library 1910-1934

The Library Association then never saw the Central Library in 1909, and Sheffield’s embarrassment was covered, more or less. Over the next few years, the situation worsened. While nationally more books were being borrowed, in Sheffield numbers fell. Criticism in the local press continued. By 1920, the pressure was intolerable. Samuel Smith gave notice and Thomas Hands was invited in, with the conclusions noted above. The Council hired a new chief librarian, Richard Gordon, and in turn he recruited a deputy, Joseph Lamb. Formidable, energetic and filled with the latest ideas, Gordon and Lamb turned Sheffield into one of the best public libraries in the country. One of their greatest achievements, begun by Gordon and finished by Lamb, was the city’s first, to date its only, purpose-built Central Library, opened in 1934. 

Sheffield Central Library today

This is the second of a short series of blogs about the Library Association conference held in Sheffield in 1909. Here is the first. With one exception, the invaluable British Newspaper Archive, the main sources are given in the endnotes below.


[i] The quotation is from James R Kelly’s unpublished MA thesis, Oral History of Sheffield Public Libraries, 1926-1974 (University of Sheffield, April 1983), a copy of which is held in Sheffield Archives. If the copyright holder comes forward, we will happily acknowledge the source.

[ii] The legislation allowing councils to fund libraries was passed in 1850. Sheffield tried almost at once to open a library but there was opposition. Undaunted, campaigners tried again and Sheffield Libraries opened in February 1856, the first public library in Yorkshire and the eleventh in England.

[iii] How the library deteriorated, and why nothing was done for so many years, is a story for another time, although of course money is at the heart of it.

[iv] The quotation is from the official history, The City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956 (Sheffield City Council) (p.29). Thomas Hands, the chief librarian of Leeds, undertook a review into Sheffield’s libraries in 1920 at the request of the Council. The decline he chronicled is generally understood to have set in around the turn of the century. A copy of the Hands report is held by Sheffield Archives.