Working Lives

Norfolk County Library Services (1962-2000)

Location: Norwich

John describes his life during and after university, including early difficulties, his time at university, misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, printing, and Norfolk County Library Services.

University and German exchange

I read German and French at Bristol University.  At the time, Bristol University had an exchange arrangement with Hannover, the place our Royal family came from at a time when Germany was a lot of individual states. They only got together as a country in the 1900s – Bismarck did that. But still, sometimes they harked back to a time when they were independent. They were proud of their past.

I did have a nice time in Germany. There was an opera house in Hannover and I love music, so I went there. You could get cheap seats as a student. And I borrowed a bike and went on a tour around the northern part of Germany and Lüneburg Heath where Montgomery and the Germans signed the treaty at the end of the Hitler war; the western part anyway.

Bristol and Hannover were twin cities, so the educational side came second really. Or rather, I think, the Germans benefitted more because the Bristol University was a bigger institution than Hannover.

Misdiagnoses at university

Ever since I can remember there’s been a kind of weakness or inadequacy in my nature which stopped me getting very far in life. I was actually a psychiatric patient for a time but I don’t think that was the issue really. I was misdiagnosed by a psychiatrist in Bristol while I was at university. He diagnosed me as schizophrenic and I received the very bizarre physical treatment they used to give schizophrenics then. Thinking about it now it seems as weird as what they used to do in the middle ages when they used to bleed people when there was something wrong with them. They called it deep insulin treatment and the idea was they gave you injections of insulin starting with very small amounts and gradually building it up so that in time you passed out completely. By the time you were at this stage they would let you pass out for about four minutes, and then brought you round again by injecting you with sugar solution. Quite bizarre! If you read psychiatric books at the time, fifties and sixties, they took it seriously. They even reckon it helped people. I had it but it didn’t do me any harm.

I had to give up university. It was half way through my second year reading German and French. The reason I was able to last so long was partly because the first year was so undemanding. There was an hour long exam at Christmas and another fairly demanding exam at the end of the year which I didn’t do well in but the rest of the year was spent in Germany.

But come the second year I was forced to start thinking about what I might do afterwards and I got in touch with the psychiatrists. It was a mistake but I think it was partly because I was a bit shy and found it hard to talk. The treatment did me no harm luckily. I’ve heard of people who got off less well than I did.


I started to go to the Samaritans from my early twenties onwards when the Norwich branch started up. It’s in the same place where it is now near St. Stephens Roundabout. I started going and after some time I met a very nice chap whom I got on well with. He wasn’t a doctor but he was a very clever man and full of all kinds of insights. And it was he who suggested what was really wrong with me. He said I didn’t have what he called ‘life force’. Most normal people have a kind of urge to go on and do something; well, I didn’t have that.

There came a time when I think his superiors said, “Look, you’ve spent hours and hours with this chap and helped him but do you really think you can do any more for him? It would be better to stop.” I think he was unhappy about it, but I think he did all that he could really.

Family and Norwich ties

Mother was born in West Parade off Earlham Road. My grandparents lived there. It’s a cul-de-sac and there are lovely houses along it. My mother’s dad was a headmaster at several Norwich Junior schools and there were teachers in the family. A lot of my mother’s relatives were teachers.

Early working life

I was a proof-reader for a time. I got the job through the social worker who helped me get the job as a proof reader at a jobbing printer in the trade. It was interesting and I wish I had stayed and tried to get into Jarrold’s. But the printing trade unions were rather exclusive and they only liked someone who had served an apprenticeship. And being a union member from the start I might have found it difficult. Modern press didn’t want me to leave and said, “We’d like you to stay; you’re doing alright here.”

I suppose I felt it was beneath me. I wanted to work somewhere else and working in a library seemed one of the few things I could do. I liked reading to an extent and I managed to get into the County Council.

The library service

There was a reorganisation of local government in 1974, and some cities like Norwich lost quite a lot of running their own affairs. Some departments including the library service were lumped together with the Norfolk ones. The Norwich library people didn’t like it at all; they were proud that Norwich had been one of the first cities in the country to start running its own library service. An act of parliament in the1850s – maybe by raising a special rate or getting a grant – made it possible for any town or city to start running a library service. The Germans had already started a public library service and some Victorians were feeling that we were letting the Europeans do better than we were. I think it was just towns and cities in England at first but then, soon after, county councils were able to have libraries as well. So in Norfolk for years and years there was a county library service and a Norwich city library service.

The reorganisation of local government in 1979/80 increased what county councils could do and it enabled the Norfolk county Council to take over all the Norwich libraries which meant the city librarian in Norwich, from having been his own boss, became just one of a group of sub-librarians. No-one thinks about it now and everybody is happy but it was difficult then. A lot of branches that Norwich had run for themselves were taken over and the city librarians didn’t like it at all.

My work was very simple – I backed books. They still do it although they buy many more new books now. We also rebound more books. There were big firms that specialised in rebinding library books – they possibly don’t exist anymore as books are more expendable now. The firms had lorries took away boxes of books for rebinding, kept them a few weeks and then send them back with shiny new covers. I don’t think they do that so much now. Well, with all the computer books; it’s so different now.

The first few years I moved about a bit and then worked County Hall, in the headquarters there. By that time every library was run by County Hall. I retired in 2000.

Mobile library services

You had to be a qualified librarian, so I used to do the backroom work and simpler things. To be on a mobile library you didn’t need to be too qualified, but they still preferred to send the qualified librarians.

Lazar House

It was originally a leper hospital but had been a branch library for fifty years or so. I think it became one in the 1920s or 1930s. Attached to it there was living accommodation where sometimes the branch librarian was allowed to live if they wanted to – most wanted to buy their own houses. However it was useful for accommodating new staff starting their jobs. They would stay there for a few weeks while they looked for somewhere permanent. My Mother’s house needed underpinning and as Lasar House was vacant at the time, they let my mother and me move in. My mum loved it in there – she was much younger then. We lived there for a few months before we had to move out but luckily there was a little cottage attached to Lazar House which was vacant at the time.


I love music and I used to go to the opera house in Hannover when I was there. What I’d like to have been, really, was a musician of some kind. I used to play violin and viola quite a lot but not so much now. I’ve lost touch with a lot of the people I played chamber music with as a pianist because I’m eighty now, and many are no longer around or, if they are, too old to play.

John Lobel (b. 1935) was interviewed at Corton House, Norwich for WISEArchive on 20th July 2015.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.