Working Lives

Urban public libraries before the Wee Willie Winkie (1954-2010)

Location: Nottingham; Basford; Sneinton

Ralph introduces his description of his work in libraries by saying: ‘This is no history of the public library movement, but only of my part in shifting it along a bit. Even then, what follows is but a small slice of all that I remember doing.’

Librarianship – Trappist tranquillity?

Between leaving school and National Service, I joined Nottingham Public Libraries [henceforth NPL] in 1954 as a step’n’fetchit junior assistant in its Central Lending department in the old University College buildings in South Sherwood Street – since returned to Trent University, via the Polytechnic. There was no interview. I merely wrote in to be offered the first vacancy – but presumably put on monitored probation. Had I lost the job, the evening paper had columns of others. From my first day I found librarianship not to be the clean life of pleasantly Trappist intellectual tranquillity so archetypical in the media; but as hectic and mucky as running a railway. My first touch of apprenticeship was at a table in the back office, practising hitting date-labels accurately with a self-inking date-stamp while remaining attentive to my surroundings. I was to watch what I was doing – but keep my eyes on every member of the distrusted public. Our labels were a grid of five columns of 14 slots, each slot just the size of the type platen of the stamp – and into which we centred the date precisely. Failure meant another fresh label – until we’d satisfied the stern Lending Librarian (Mrs Rodgers) with our marksmanship. A book borrowed 90 times and yet to reach the stage of qualifying for soup, had a new label pasted, onto the back of which we noted that number; creating an intrinsic record of a book’s popularity, suggesting a new copy or not at the appropriate time. The neat date-label also signalled proper devotion to tidiness by the City Librarian, Frank Tighe – as did the morning routine in the hour before opening, of shelving books returned the previous day and pulling all books flush to the front of shelves. Thus when we opened, as the same policy was applied in every one of the City’s dozen or so branches and sub-branches, all his libraries were always so neat that their Carnegie-type architecture was put to shame. Should you wonder why libraries are not open first thing – but you know all the staff are within – that’s what they’re up to; plus a range of activities essential to serving the needs of the borrowers, as we called them. I still shudder when in any library I see the children have not put away the toys – and the library is not prepared for the new day; a horrible vision that would have induced apoplexy in Mrs Rodgers. However, it was also done throughout the day, according to busyness at the time. At no time, outside the staff room, should an assistant be caught reading; and naturally, all men wore collars and ties. Meanwhile we were not beyond sending girls on the staff up and down in the tiny lift intended for moving books between Lending and the Reference stacks – and from that it’s clear that staff relationships were excellent. After all, I married one of them. In fact, ours was just one of many such secured attachments, although I’ve no idea how many lasted.

Tasks for juniors, rostered at Central but repeated at all branches, included working within the “enclosure”(counter) to retrieve tickets for returned books and hand back the readers’ tickets, pockets to hold the book card – thus discharging the transaction. This was the Browne Charging System. Here fines were charged for overdues; reservations taken; receipts issued and change given – generally through a humble wooden drawer and a ticket issuer much like that in the local fleapit. It was also the first point of open conflict with the public. With no room for stools within the enclosure, and a large slab of issue records and standing essential, the arduous routine was broken by transferring to the issue desk and the date stamp – and at the sparse gaps when no reader was passing through, to file current issues in the Accession Order of numbers identifying the individual copy of each book. Other gaps in time would be taken up by writing out tickets for new and renewing readers that day. The third part of the regular routines for juniors was taking returned books from the enclosure and putting them on shelves or trolleys for returned books – categorised roughly into alphabetical author clumps for fiction and Dewey Decimal ranges for non-fiction. As we carried them to the Returns presses, public hands snatched them from us. One skill I developed was carrying an armful of fiction along each arm, from wrist to shoulder and slamming them onto the shelf. I could then warn the impatient that removal of one book from me would drop the lot to the floor – not that it stopped them. After a few months in Central Lending I developed peculiar muscles – and a sceptical view of “light reading”. Should there be time and staff available, shelving to the proper places may have been done to ease the burden of the next morning – impossible on Saturday. You can guess how we hated Monday morning, after a very tiring Saturday with over 3,000 books lent out with similar returns – and why no timetable allowed Monday as a day off. I’ve forgotten the figures, but guess Central Lending’s issues as in the range of 500,000 a year – and that of the entire system of the city of Nottingham, including children’s use, at well over a million. Our libraries were then the railway stations of knowledge, to which nothing compares today.

An unpaid job for those with the appropriate skills was creating thematic displays – often to draw attention to books doomed to disposal (as wastepaper) unless they could glean a few well-directed date stamps. Less enjoyable, mainly during half-day closures (see below), was washing and repairing books – including genuine repairs half-way to the skills of a bookbinder – the principle restorative being an unctuous paste with the tradename “Polywog” – kept in a plastic bag inside an enormous cardboard drum, from which one filled a jam-jar with a slimy spatula. An afternoon’s playtime with that required washing down in facilities we were without. Just a mere scrub in the basement staff-room and hope it didn’t smell too badly in the restful Gaumont. Mostly the work was replacing date-labels; strengthening front and back hinges with a special tape, and tipping-in loose plates; but I learned how to restore a completely torn page using just “Polywog” and tissue paper, then removing the tissue paper and holding the book up by its repaired page alone. Give me those tools and I could still do that. Washing books was exactly that. We took them to a sink, wiped them with a soapy cloth and hung them out to dry. Before their wrappers were slotted into plastic jackets, most new fiction was sent to the NPL home bindery and recased in Rexine cloth. Always extremely well-done and often very attractive individually, the library cloths would soon not only attract dirt, but positively cling to it, so book-washing was a grubby task – and if overdone curled the boards beyond recovery. The plastic jacket was a boon, as it could be easily washed and if too bad a state, replaced; but it meant that every new title of hundreds added monthly to stock passed through the hands of juniors fitting them. Eventually such humdrumery was left to external book suppliers – but costing far more than doing it ourselves, and thus eating into the book funds. One task unacceptable to outside sources was putting the Nottingham Property stamp on specified pages throughout the book. I’ve forgotten where, but it was always an odd page number ending in “1” and to a known sequence. This was to prove in court that it was indeed our book should it have been stolen and the thief try to hide its provenance. We did a similar thing to art books with an embossing stamp, ruining the Reference Library’s Phaidon collection – but intended to deter the lifting out of plates . Faced with doing that to the volume of the late King’s stamp collection, the Deputy Librarian, a devoted philatelist, decided to keep it away from institutional harm – at home. I’m unsure whether we got it back – but I suspect it was sold off in the 1980s when public libraries ceased to be run by librarians and reference reserves were practically given away to make way for the leisure and jollies promulgated to brighten up the libraries by councillors never using them; and clueless officers promoted from Leisure Services. So began the real damage. If you hear a noise, that’s Andrew Carnegie revolving in his grave.

Working schedules and sociability

All Nottingham’s lending libraries were open from 10 am to 8pm, five-and-a-half days a week (half-day closing then applied) – a total of 70 hours, worked by staff on the NALGO basic 38 hours a week. There was thus a need for irregular scheduling for which the NPL solution was a four-week roster in which the main feature was a rotating Saturday timetable: all day on – half-day – 5pm – all day-off. This affected the working week, so that the all-day Saturday duty was countered by a half-day; most often Wednesday (when many of us courted our gender opposites on the staff); and there were other fully documented manipulations changing time-tables and moving meal-times around. It also prevented me playing football regularly since no team could rely on my presence. We also worked two days a week from 9am to 8pm, taking 17 hours in all from our 38 – so the remaining four days would be broken up into all manner of working segments to capture the 21 hours left – but there were no split shifts as there once had been. For dinners we had 90 minutes and an hour for tea, and on the long days the mid-day break was from 11-45 to 13-15, with the shorter day staff having 13-15 to 14-45 – and within this there would be those taking their half-days. It was still very usual for staff to go home for dinner. It can be seen that working in the public areas of public libraries implied anti-social hours worse than those of the police, and included relieving at other branches for which transport was provided through Corporation plastic bus tokens. I pay some attention to this to remind younger generations of how serving the public face-to-face requires severe timetable discipline that cannot stand flexible working hours without causing problems created by those who insist on their “rights” to come in at 11 am and leave whenever they want. We were most certainly not Town Hall wallahs, with bums on the same seats from nine-to-five – a fact ignored by many readers; and flexible working in these circumstances is most certainly undemocratic – particularly in London. It takes a lot to keep a library open as long as it should be – and 10.00 to 20.00 is as good as most rate-payers got anywhere in the country. Today, surviving libraries are open every other day, on either side of a mid-day break – but it seems that’s all that too many wish to pay for. Even in my day there was often ill-informed pressure to have libraries open on Sundays as well as the generous hours we provided while underpaid – but in the light of schedules above, you may care to devise a feasible system without employing more staff (and paying more pensions) or generating overtime – let alone deciding how staff get to and from work with Sunday bus timetables. Overtime, even at the basic hourly rate, was not allowed in local government. All time overworked was rewarded only by the same time in lieu, and then only if department heads agreed and timetables could manage. Otherwise it was “banked” – a euphemism for permanent loss, and unpaid. I suspect it is still the same in local government – and all those whittling against town halls should realise that very much was (is?) done within for nothing – not even for promotion.

I cannot overlook a substantial change in the workplace over the last 30 or so years, since conditioned by the wider employment of contracted indifferent senior staff and casual juniors; with segregation amongst the rest. In common with other places of work, with flexible hours this has led to the collapse of in-house sociability, once far more genuine than the Christmas “party”. It should be no surprise that our strict team discipline and unselfish timekeeping was relieved by an amenable social calendar directed by a well-supported Staff Association, forbidden to pursue trades union ideals. Our winter in-house seasonal parties included Hallowe’en; post-holiday slide shows and our own “Red Noses” bash for Congo famine – while the traditional Bank Holiday Mondays had us rambling from Rowsley station through Miller’s Dale to a Buxton pub for a sing-song before the train back to Nottingham. I remember coach trips to Stratford-on-Avon, for Shakespeare; York, and a visiting firemen’s reconnaissance to two new central libraries at Swiss Cottage and Kensington in a brave new world. One keenly anticipated annual jolly was the mustered trip through the mud of Nottingham Goose Fair, generating temporary “courting” diplomatically forgotten within a week; while another cosy opportunity for staff to consider interbreeding were the Play Reading evenings using the comprehensive collection of play-sets – once a very popular communal activity for which Central Lending had a registered membership. Our cricket team included the Chief Librarian and janitors, with a regular fixture list against other local government departments; including the far more athletic fire brigade and a local firm of furniture removers who could bat through the team with a wardrobe in each hand – although there was an easier fixture on an idyllic ground built by Sir Julius Kahn at Stanford Hall, against Loughborough library school students (providing they didn’t recruit from the College of Physical Education!). The most important annual match was against Notts County Libraries – for a trophy fashioned from a highly polished miners’ lamp. I wonder who was its final holder? And, the team had weekly net practice – on the very piece of ground from which Nottingham Forest FC took its name in 1865 – relaxing after in the Waverley Arms. Sporting contests were not constrained to the men. There was a game of hockey with mixed and uneven sides with the County Library – with one of our “ladies” a county cap with England potential – who alone knew all the rules well enough to declare opposition goals equivalently offside. Another fixture, not repeated, was the men of the City and County libraries against the respective women – after which I took to my bed for a day or two, glad to have reached it. I see little today of such intensive staff activities anywhere; and wonder how we found the time and enthusiasm to make our work a social exercise with so much fun. It certainly was a very different world.

Senior Assistant at Sneinton

Before the arrival of my call-up papers and having passed the Library Association’s First Professional exam, I was promoted to Senior Assistant at Sneinton, birthplace of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army; and to whom many of our “readers” still owed tribute; and where I learned the diplomacy required to stop someone staining the radiator by drying his socks; and the morning routine of blacking out the horse racing results in the Daily Herald. Shelving one morning, I found a book too thick for itself, with cold cooked fried egg and bacon marking the place. The working hours were as at Central, but without the mob pressure, and I pursued the more intellectual tasks of a Senior Assistant and the Branch Librarian I’d inevitably become. One was converting readers’ demands and curiosities into satisfaction and solutions, firstly by searching the issue trays to stop reserved titles; but the more bibliographic levels of identifying appropriate titles for tracing and borrowing from other libraries. The National Lending Library at Boston Spa was yet to be, and Amazon undreamed of, so tracing out-of-print titles throughout the country and even overseas was a specialist skill – supported by devoted departments within reference libraries. The charge for all this was very slightly more than that of the postage stamp on the postcard informing the reader that what was wanted was now available. That was then 3d.(1p) per title, and I suspect this service no longer exists – at any price. It was always our duty to be aware of new publications, through the text and indexes of the weekly Bookseller – particularly the fat biennial issues. That journal then employed the science fiction author Brian Aldiss as a columnist. Working in Blackwell’s Oxford bookshop, he wrote “The Brightfount Diaries”, a skit on bookselling – and acceptable to be seen reading it in the enclosure. In one issue he had a customer requesting the bestselling The password is courage as The curseword is porridge, leaving me howling with mirth before a very unamused Branch Librarian who, before borrowers, seriously questioned my ability to remain at the job. Well, he was wrong… While I gloried in my promotion, the janitor lived next door who with his wife, our cleaner, used our kitchen to cook family breakfast for themselves and two children – leaving us smelling like a greasy spoon for the rest of the day. Could they have been the source of that bookmark? But good janitors and cleaners were scarce – particularly living on the doorstep. There was another uncomfortable task, normally on a winter Saturday, when I had to dig him out of the “Lord Nelson” to get the heating right. Yet another diplomatic problem for a lad of 18. Was I then aware that somewhere down the line was the highly coveted Fellowship of the Library Association? {I got there in the end, but that’s another story]. So roll on, the Royal Navy…

Commercial and Technical Department – and the Salvation Army

After National Service I returned to the job that legislation required be kept open, and went into the Commercial and Technical department at Sherwood Street, that also catered for the daily and weekly papers and trade journals – a haven for those ejected from the nearby Salvation Army hostel after their breakfasts. We had no borrowers, but piles of newspapers and journals to record as received and chase up if due; exchange with previous copies to be filed in our reserve stacks. We also had shelves of commercial, technical and scientific reference books; a complete set of patents; detailed reports of German technology compiled by the British army (including one Captain Robert Maxwell), and a very good collection of business directories and train and bus timetables covering the country. It was the intended function of the department to be capable of acting as a library [in loco bibliotecis?] for any city company without one – which also meant dealing with complex enquiries potentially answerable from our shelves or through any other specialist library. It was a centre of bibliographic intelligence – now undoubtedly completely superseded by the Wee Willie Winkie; although we managed what was known as reprographics – before the wonders of Rank Xerox – with an evil chemistry set taking 20 minutes to reproduce one page for 1/- (5p.) while smelling worse than socks on radiators. In combination the two were worth the rest of the day off. I’m unsure whether to cringe or smile at one remembered enquiry. A woman phoned in, with local accent with flat “a”, for the address of the Master Bakers’ Association – and I registered surprise that they had the effrontery to admit to one. I leave the interpretation to the worldly. However, life did not always reflect intellectual sophistry. Being close to a hostel or two, the janitors had a hectic time keeping some of the clients moving – if only to change the smells. Mr Tighe, the City Librarian, had us stick a notice on each table: “If you are offensive, you will be asked to leave” – signed by him. One day there was very much space around one singly-occupied table, and I was told by a senior colleague to “investigate”. It took very little to identify the reason, so we asked the duty janitor to remove the offender – who loudly asked why. In an even louder voice the janitor said “Because you are obnoxious – so Mr. Tighe is asking you to leave”. However, after being “led” through the front revolving door, he nipped back in through an open window – raising a chorus from amused library users of “You are obnoxious” – and return of the janitor with a broom, charged for action.

Running the Basford Branch

From there I graduated to Senior Assistant at a brand new and large branch in a large council estate (Clifton) passed the Associateship exams of the Library Association and promoted on to run my own branch (Basford); at which I enjoyed the massive annual project of stock-taking, a process totally unknown in libraries today. On arriving at Nottingham, Frank Tighe devised a completely fresh accessioning system by which the numbering of books (not the Dewey Decimal subject codes) was identically structured at every branch, with each having its own date-label. I won’t explain how it worked, but the process involved teams moving from branch to branch, crossing off prepared lists the accession numbers of each book shelved, loaned or under repair; until those left represented lost stock. Unbelievably each stock-take took less than a day at each branch – although the Branch Librarian was faced with several weeks whittling down his missing list until the Branch Superintendent smiled. I remember mine standing at 90 missing (from 20,000!), which I assiduously, and honestly, reduced to 30 – half of which were railway books – so we knew we had a specialist thief; confirmed at the weekly (and only) meeting of branch librarians when we compared notes. I’ve never heard of a similar process conducted in any other system – but within a few years authorities were encouraged to sell off whole collections – so why bother taking stock? One book I withdrew without it going missing was after its last reader presented it with great apologies. Chewed practically beyond recognition as a book, it was in the Teach Yourself library – How to train your dog. I hadn’t the heart to charge for its replacement. We never caught the railway thief, but from the cumulated stock-taking records we knew he’d been to every branch! Contrary to the public view, librarians then cared deeply when books were stolen – but were relatively unmoved by damage. I tried setting a trap by buying more railway titles – but it was time to move on.

The magic FLA and beyond

From Basford I was awarded a local authority grant to go to the library school at Manchester College of Commerce; took and passed the complete Fellowship and moved away into college libraries in Hertfordshire – and after marriage into two different company research libraries devoted respectively to computing and printing technology; followed by Reference Librarian in a new polytechnic, where I taught; then into a big blue-chip City of London solicitors’ practice; database manager for an online law library eventually sold to the US Lexis company – finally taking early retirement as Chief Librarian at the newspaper of my home town, throughout writing many published articles and books – finally including a regular column in the Nottingham Evening Post. Perhaps I should feel guilty by having taken the grant for Manchester and abandoning its donors as soon as my exam results arrived – but in those days that’s how we progressed our careers – and now I was that magic FLA. We were all playing the same game, and NPL would have gained another librarian qualified by another authority – yet another factor impossible today. Twenty years later I took a City University Business School MSc degree in computing and was accepted as a member of the Institute of Information Scientists – a very long way from asking tramps to remove their socks from the radiator; although the confidence required for tackling the one in time contributed to me being a better other. And it all proved how good a training ground was the library system under Frank Tighe. Most posts after Nottingham were specialist fields of librarianship and information work that no longer exist, because the artless now in charge of everything see Wikipedia as the finger of God; but the core of information work is the ability to analyse enquirers’ needs as they try to express them. It’s not what you know – but how you know it. I had an absorbing working life, of which I’m very proud – demonstrating the fantastic range of positions and practices within what most people wrongly assumed to be a very narrow profession – but now never to be shared by another calling themselves ‘Librarian’. And proud of it.


Submitted to WISEArchive by Ralph (b. 1930) in 2011

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