In May 2015 Library Stories held a public reminiscence event at Sheffield Central Library. The following snippet is from a conversation between three former library workers on the day.
A: I started in 1964, July the 4th, Independence Day – which I thought was very appropriate day to start earning. I started as a junior at Manor. It was a new library then, people came from all over… I was 19 when I came in, and then I got qualifications and degrees… We used to do relief. I remember going down to Park from Manor and it was run by a lady who had the finest collection of communist material. It was reckoned to be the finest in Sheffield, if not Yorkshire. When she retired she took herself off to Siberia on the trains, at a time when you had to get special visas to get in.
B: If a dust cover came in with a lady in a swimming costume she used to paint them… Librarians, in those days, it was very much you branded your own library.
(Who made the decisions about books?)
C: In those days the librarian of the individual library. You had a budget and you had book selection meetings every week.
B: I was a youngster of about 20, and I’d worked just my way through the library and I got control of what I bought.
(How did you decide what books to buy?)
A: You get to know what people like.
C: It’s very different now because it’s all centrally bought.
A: One of the things that struck me – when you talk about becoming in charge of a library. It was very male oriented. They used to have the men’s table in the coffee room where they used to sit and smoke pipes.
C: When John Bevington [city librarian] left, the head of every single department except one in the Central Library was a woman. And that was most unusual…
A: If you were a man you got to the top of the profession quite quickly.
B: I was asked when I was going to start a family. And I did have to leave when I was pregnant. I did actually nearly lose the baby and I had to hand my notice in – so I could’ve ended up with nothing… There was a lady, a very very competent librarian at Manor, who was never going to get married and she was on an equal level as someone else [who got promoted over her] and she used to get so frustrated that eventually she left and went to work in a college... When Pat Coleman became city librarian she was the first woman and she was completely different.
A: She turned things upside down.
C: I think she was the first woman to do the job in the country.
B: I left after I’d worked my way up, got my library exams away, and came back and you’d got to have a degree. I got a degree, and then all of a sudden you didn’t need one.
A: I didn’t do my library studies. We worked our way up.
C: As long as you proved in another way that you could do the job. It didn’t mean that qualifications didn’t matter.
A: There used to be a cupboard [in the stack] for Lolita. There’d be a block on the shelf and you’d have to apply for the book.
(Did that happen often?)
A: Oh yes. And sometimes people would take the blocks on purpose.
B: We had Forever Amber and Lady Chatterley in the stack but we were forbidden to hand them out.
C: After 64 it would’ve been okay.
A: I remember when Lady Chat was off the shelf I read it under the bed clothes at night and thought “it’s very feeble this!”
C: There were issues with censorship, the staff actually disapproved in the 70s of some books –
B: And photo books – depictions of women. That would’ve been the 80s and we’d got quite a strong feminist group and this poor male librarian. By that time you allowed everybody access to anything, and the librarian had to balance that with the staff who were furious. I think he tried to put a piece of paper over this photo of a lady or something!
A: I can remember being asked to supply on inter-library loan a book on how to make bombs!