Interview with Val and Lesley, former librarians and members of the (unofficial) Red Hats, a social group for retired library workers in Sheffield.
- Which libraries did you work at?
Lesley: I started work at 16 at Firth Park Library, as I lived at that side of the city then. My parents first started taking me to the library when I was five years old, so I suppose I’ve had a love of books all my life. And then when I was old enough I helped out with the librarian at the children’s library there, as a “library helper”. Maybe about 10, 11. I carried on doing that and it was all I wanted to do when I left school; I just wanted to work in the library. I was lucky enough, because you had to have O Levels then to get in, I don’t know how many – five? And that was my first library that I worked at as well, but I’ve worked all over the city.
Val: Like Lesley, strangely enough, Firth Park was mine. There was about 3 years difference between us. When I walked in, the smell – I don’t know if it was the polish or what it was, especially in the office and the old wooden shelves – I did like a figure 8. So I did Firth Park and, as Lesley said, you moved around.
L: At that time they used to move us really regularly. You’d spend about 6 months in a library and then a list would come round on a Friday, a transfer list. Anybody who was moving, your name would be on it and it’d tell you where you’d be going on the Monday. It was that quick.
V: They might have given you a week’s notice, but not much more.
- What year did you start?
V: It was 1965 for me.
L: 1969 for me.
- And when did you retire?
V: Five years ago.
L: I took the voluntary early retirement that they were offering.
V: Going back to this smell… When I went back there ten years later, I walked in and it was still there! And then they actually closed the first Firth Park library down and they moved it onto the roundabout, and that’s where I finished up as manager then. So from starting as junior I finished up as manager. But it was used as a community place, for teaching colleges; I went into the old library and for a meeting and lo and behold that smell was still there! I thought: what is that smell?! It’s still around.
We were talking as well about the hours. Because obviously they’ve reduced them. It used to be 10 o’clock till 8 o’clock, and Thursday was the day off.
L: We used to start at 9 didn’t we. For an hour every morning we used to do the stock, which was putting all the books in strict order.
V: And it’s got now – the fact they open at half 9 – that they haven’t got time to do stock half the time. It was getting like that when I left.
L: To say how it was when we did stock… We spent an hour, we all had sections – or we moved on when we’d done a bit – but when we’d done it, someone used to come around and check that it was all in perfect order.
V: That’s right, they were very strict about it.
- Can you tell us more about being a “library helper”?
L: It’s to help in the children’s library. Things that we used to do: we used to put the books away when people brought them back, and I did have quite nice writing – at that time you had paper tickets, and she used to let me write the tickets out as well… It was a different issuing system altogether because people brought the books to take out and every book used to have a book card in it, that was handwritten as well, or sometimes typed if it came from the supplier typed, and if it got tatty we used to replace those. When someone took a book out we used to stamp the book with the date it was due back, put the card from the book in the person’s ticket and then we filed them all in little brown trays in alphabetical order, and flicked through them.
V: I remember at one of the libraries the children used to be fascinated by the speed at which you used to flick through these tickets. I remember one child used to say “do it again, do it again!”
L: One of the first things, when I first started, was we used to have to sit in the office and practice writing with a pen.
V: You had to do a “4” in a special way and a “9” in a special way. I still do mine like that.
L: I ended up having some library helpers when I worked at Handsworth Library and some of them are now on the staff.
V: They had their own little badge as well, library helper badges. It seemed to fizzle out, probably in the 90s. I know when I was at Hillsborough Library we had two girls come down on a Wednesday afternoon, they were taking A Levels and they had Wednesday afternoons off, and they came to help with my under-5s. That was a great help.
- Did you train on the job?
V: The ones who’d got A Levels – I’ve forgotten what the actual class was called, but I know they used to go to Park Library and do training to take their exams, and some of them went off to library school. That was later… But I did City and Guilds’ library course. We had what you called professional and non-professional, and the professional were the ones who went to get their library exams. I always remember one of the librarians – we went on an induction course at Central Library and I remember her saying “and it was a non-professional who thought this idea up”, as though we couldn’t have any thoughts at all!… It was quite a few years later when they said you could be a librarian in charge without any qualifications – from experience really.
L: We both did that… Do you remember when we used to have the film shows? They used to have them once a month. A film used to go round different libraries in a van with wooden benches, and I had to put the wooden benches up.
V: It was chaos!
They used to have stamped on the books at one time “Clean hands please”. I remember them going berserk. My husband talks about when he used to go to one of the libraries and his hands were dirty, he’d go outside and wash them in the horse trough! He also said “what about the brown cases?” I’d forgotten all about that! Every Friday we had to go to pay the fines into the bank, so we had little brown leather cases. We all were given a towel when we first joined, a hand towel with “Sheffield City Council” in red right across it. You had to take that down to the Central Library, you handed them in and you got clean ones. And we went to the Town Hall to get the cleaners’ wages. If you think about it, there were 30-odd libraries that were all converging in town on a Friday – in a way it was quite dangerous, I suppose, if anyone knew that we’d got this money in our cases.
- What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in libraries between when you started working and today?
V: I think the opening hours. Like I said it used to be to 8 o’clock…
Something else I remember – before computers were in, of course, it was a card catalogue. When you had a reserve and somebody wanted a book you’d fill a sheet and the van man used to come round about three times a week and you’d have to run round the shelves looking for the book for your library. When I first started, of course you were so slow weren’t you… I suppose that is one of the big differences, that we now have computers. It started in Central first. When Mr Atkins [Robert Atkins, Director of Sheffield Libraries 1974-83] was retiring I remember they said he wanted all libraries to be on the computer. But what annoyed me was, I was at Firth Park the second time and they got exactly the same computer system that had been in Central five years previously, which wasn’t online at all. So you’d ask it a question and you’d have to wait two days for answer to come back on a sheet of paper.
- Would you ever volunteer at a community-run library?
L: No. On principle.
V: At least, for the community around there, they’ve still got a library to go to. But from stories I’ve heard it’s often not a very good service they’re getting now. They don’t know how to put reserves on, or they don’t know how to do this – but I don’t know, these are just stories coming back to me…
We did a lot of outreach. You’d go out to festivals and get dressed up. I don’t know if you ever saw Chance in a Million? It was a TV series with Simon Callow. His girlfriend, Brenda Blethyn, was a librarian, and in one of the stories she came down dressed in a Roman toga and she said “oh it’s Roman week at the library”. I thought, whoever wrote this script knew librarians. Because it didn’t take anything for us to get dressed up.
I used to always be begging and borrowing things for displays. I remember being at a holiday show and the Welsh stand had a lovely dragon on their display, at the Cutlers Hall, and I said “that’d be great for the library, can I have it when you’ve finished?”… Anything to save money.
L: I still know the girls that work at the Children’s now and I think they’ve just got some of the stuff that they used at John Lewis – the penguin, icebergs.
V: I’ve also noted problems that we had: broken windows, vandalism, even fires… I remember once at Southey, that was when I was senior assistant, a member of staff came down and said “there’s a man in the library tearing books up”… He’d come from his parents’ house – something had gone wrong, he’d jumped on the bus, got off at the library, decided to tear his anger out on the books. So I managed to calm him down, talk things through, found out what the problem was, being a real agony aunt there. That’s working with the public isn’t it.
L: Some of the things that used to get left in the books as bookmarks –
V: A piece of bacon.
V: A load of money.
- How many people worked in each library in your day?
L: It depended which branch you were at, but you’d have a lot more.
V: When I left Firth Park, I think I’d got 12 staff – fair enough some were part time, but you used to have, more often than not, four people on the counter. But occasionally when I’ve gone in I’ve only seen two. That’s probably with RFID [radio-frequency identification, used in self-service systems] coming in. I remember when that was coming they said “no, it won’t make it so we’ll get rid of staff, you’ll be able to offer a better service to the customer”. But they have got rid of staff. Because of course the hours have reduced. I think that’s a bad thing. Especially at big libraries, I still can’t get used to it. Like Firth Park – they close for the afternoons, they don’t open till lunchtime on Wednesdays. It’s amazing how many times I’ve been down – you’d think I’d have learnt by now, a year on – and they’re shut.
When I first started children’s libraries didn’t open until 3:30, because they expected people after school. It was when I was at Firth Park the second time, in the 70s, that they decided to stay open all day. Of course you’ve got people with babies and toddlers, so that’s one good thing – because they had to be 7 to join, unless they could prove they could read, at one point. Then it went down to 5. And as an adult you could only take 3 fiction and so many non-fiction books, whereas now of course you take ten books of whatever you want.
- What do you see as the future of libraries?
V: There’s so little money around and when people want information they go to the internet – though you can’t always believe what the internet says. Libraries are busier on the computer side, for people who haven’t got computers. And I think it’s the social side of it. With RFID coming in, a lot of people lose the chance to have a chat. I can see it declining more. I’d like to see the purpose of a library stay as being somewhere for people to go to for information – whether it’s even signposting them in a direction.