'Sheffield libraries are moving with the times now, thank goodness'

Founder members of the 'Red Hats' l-r Kath Kay, Sue Sayles, Barbara Sorby, Christine Markham and Ann Staniland, pictured.
Founder members of the 'Red Hats' l-r Kath Kay, Sue Sayles, Barbara Sorby, Christine Markham and Ann Staniland, pictured.
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A career spent as a librarian isn't all silence, dusty books and decorum - just ask retired Barbara Sorby.

"I had my hair set on fire at Manor Library once," she tells her former colleagues Sue Sayles and Christine Markham.

Sorting thousands of books

Sorting thousands of books

"An irate child threw a firework at me."

Fights with rolled-up newspapers, the discovery between the pages of a novel of a slice of bacon used as a makeshift bookmark - Sheffield's libraries have been the arena for much amusement over the years.

"It makes you very cross when in films they show librarians with grey hair, and glasses on, and looking very mousy," says Sue, who spent 40 years in the city council's service.

"That's stereotypical."

Diane Kostka, Lesley Docherty and Isobel Stonecliffe, pictured taking a closer look some old photographs.

Diane Kostka, Lesley Docherty and Isobel Stonecliffe, pictured taking a closer look some old photographs.

Swapping stories such as these was the order of the day when dozens of former staff gathered at Sheffield's Central Library to mark the 10th anniversary of the Red Hats - a social group formed to keep old workmates in touch with one another.

The society's name needs some explanation. It's a quote from a poem by Jenny Joseph called 'Warning' which recommends growing old disgracefully - "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me", reads the line in question.

"We must have put in 1,000 years of service between us," says Barbara, aged 71, of Ranmoor. "All those years of public service. We've been like a gang."

The idea of a group came from another ex-worker, the late Jean Moulson, and was taken forward by the rest following her death.

Michael Hudson, pictured takes a look back at a picture of himself taken in 1963, when he worked at the Central Library.

Michael Hudson, pictured takes a look back at a picture of himself taken in 1963, when he worked at the Central Library.

"We often think of Jean and talk about her," says Sue, 72, of Richmond.

All three women joined the library service at 16, but Christine's career stretches back furthest. Now 76 and living in Millhouses, she worked her way up to being in charge of the local studies section in the city centre but, typically as it turns out, hit a stumbling block and lost her position while starting a family.

"I said I was pregnant and that was it, the whole lot just finished," she remarks.

The fact that she was properly qualified, ironically, held her back from returning to an entry-level job, then the standard path for new mothers, regardless of their previous rank. Eventually, after a spell at Abbeydale Grange School, she found herself leading the arts and social sciences library, directly opposite local studies, retiring in 2000.

Barbara Sorby, pictured with other members of the Red Hats group, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Barbara Sorby, pictured with other members of the Red Hats group, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"That was society, you gave birth at one end and they assumed you'd lost your brain at the other," says Barbara, who began at the Manor branch in 1961, spending much of her time in children's libraries until leaving 10 years ago.

"Of the 27 branches, I think I've probably done 26. Firth Park, Lane Top, Frecheville - I've never worked at Grenoside, though."

She watched with interest as computer systems were introduced - "They had to re-register every single person" - and fought hard for job-sharing to be brought in so working mothers could climb up the hierarchy again more quickly.

"The world of employment is just so different. Back then you got a job, stuck with it, loved it and developed - you never thought of moving on to somewhere else."

Sue says: "You started as a library assistant - the lowliest. Each branch library quite often had a male librarian and a senior assistant."

She also began at Manor, in 1961, and was later moved to the reference library's business, science and technology section, retiring in 2007 aged 62.

A picture from the User Education department, which was in the basement of the Central Library in the mid 1980s.

A picture from the User Education department, which was in the basement of the Central Library in the mid 1980s.

"I'm the least scientific and technical person you could imagine. But you learn how to find the information even if you're not fully understanding it."

After having her two children she returned on 'standby', covering shifts for absent staff.

"It was like a paid night out. You could escape the family, get out of your jeans and go to work. People welcomed you with open arms and you felt truly appreciated."

The pace of change in Sheffield's libraries has intensified in recent years. Many are now run by volunteers and some have moved, while some face more radical overhauls - Walkley Library, for instance, is to host a cafe bar, and the Central Library building may become a five-star hotel.

"A library is a different place now," says Barbara.

"It's very much a community facility. When we started it was a place you went to do your homework, to find out information - things now you automatically turn to the internet for. It has in some ways diminished the role of reference libraries, I don't think anyone would deny that. Except there are parts of society that still need that help."

She continues: "Personally I'm glad the libraries are run by volunteers, because otherwise they'd be closed. On a different level I think it's a crying shame that all that experience, knowledge and help has been lost.

"When I see plans for a café bar in a library I cheer. The Central Library building is going to need an awful lot spending on it structurally - that's very hard, and the council just doesn't have the money. What do you do? Things change."