The upstairs of Upperthorpe Library was a junk room until 1972, and then they made it into a children’s library. It was wonderful. We got to choose the curtains, the colour scheme, and I went to this library suppliers and spent thousands of pounds on new books. The man who was in charge of libraries then didn’t like my colour scheme, but he let me have it. I went for sunshine yellow and soft orange, because it was a children’s library and we wanted it to look bright.
We had a lot of fun. I was 16 when I started. That was the east end, the pollution and the poverty was terrific. The library was a focal point. We had a pantomime each year, and we’d make costumes out of paper. And we had junior “library helpers”. How I got the job was just amazing; you wouldn’t believe it nowadays. I decided I wanted to work in civil service and the careers advice service got me an interview. They accepted me, but then I got a letter from the city librarian, Mr Bevington, saying he’d heard I was interested in a job in libraries and inviting me for an interview. It must have come from this careers advice lady, she must have spotted something. I had a lovely interview, was perfectly relaxed – because I didn’t want the job! – and got the O Levels. I loved it from the first day – I went home and said to my mother “I haven’t been bored once”.
They used to send us out knocking on houses to collect overdue books. Sixteen, trotting round Attercliffe – imagine! But really, it was fine. I was thrown in at the deep end, but the customers got a good service. After Attercliffe it was Greenhill for two years, then it was Manor for a year, and then all of a sudden I was put in charge of running the library at Upperthorpe. You normally had to be professionally trained to be in charge, but there was a shortage. I didn’t have the experience so I kept getting into trouble, sending in the wrong reports and so on. I didn’t apply for that job either – if someone in authority liked you, you got promoted. It was sink or swim. But I enjoyed it in the end, and got very involved in the neighbourhood. I was on the school board at Upperthorpe School, and then when they built the Kelvin Flats they started having a once-a-month meeting with professionals in the neighbourhood, so doctors, nurses, teachers, vicars and me – I got in on everything. Libraries were busy, because there wasn’t much else for people. And of course they were open much longer hours. There was a lot of money in libraries in Sheffield then, but then I moved to Rotherham and it was desperately poor in comparison – I had to be very imaginative there.
I know people use tablets and the internet but I do think libraries are very good centres of information. If you go to a library and someone in the profession helps you to get what you want, you’re reasonably sure to get what you want. But anyone can put anything on the internet… I think the purpose is still there. Computers are vital for people who can’t afford them, for getting jobs.
In a way libraries have adapted. There were film showings for the kids, there were things called listening groups, which meant that people would come to the library of an evening when it’s closed and listen to records. Each person in the group in turn would bring a record and talk about it. This was 1960s, into the early 70s. Gradually things have changed. When I started there was no music library, we didn't lend records or tapes, so then that suddenly became the music library. Then there was large print books and talking books, stuff like that, and house bound library services were started. I think libraries have always adapted and changed... I think we were meeting the needs at the time – with the free film shows and so on. Of course people now have TVs at home. But I do think libraries will always change and adapt and still exist in the future, in a different way.
Name: Irene (former library worker)
Story shared during conversation at a Library Stories reminiscence event held at Central Library during Multi-Story Festival, May 2015.