National Libraries Week 2020: The Staff of the Central Library

The penultimate piece in our week of articles celebrating the history of the Leeds Library Service – this time, taking a light-hearted look at anecdotes from staff who have called the Central Library home…

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Library (noun) – ‘A place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (such as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale’ – Merriam Webster

March 1967. View shows the Reference department of Leeds Central Library situated in the Municipal Buildings. This is the main reading room area where the centre space is occupied by long tables filled with people studying, almost all male as far as can be seen. The view looks towards what was then the counter in the room through the archway at the back. The gallery is seen above. This space, which had been occupied by the Reference Library since the opening of the building in 1884, has since 2007 been the Local Studies Library (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

While that may be the dictionary definition I would argue that it misses one vital component to make it a good library: the people who work there.  In 2019 we invited ex-Library staff from Leeds Central Library to attend something of a reminiscence session with the aim of discovering more about our 1884 Grade II listed building and, while we did discover many things about the building itself, including underground tunnels, tall tales of ghosts and even a missing snake living in the heating system, what was really discovered was a treasure trove of staff memories of day-to-day workings in a large public Library.

March 1963. View shows the Reference department of Leeds Central Library in the Municipal Buildings. This room to the side of the main reference space appears to have been the counter/enquiry desk area at the time with a librarian working at the table behind. Catalogue drawers can be seen on the left and the main reading room of the library is through the archway in the centre. Stairs on the right lead to the gallery seen above. This area is now occupied by the Local Studies Library (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

We received a letter from Mr John Harrison who began his Leeds Library career in 1962 as a junior assistant in the Reference Library, he recalls being told by Librarian Harold Nichols not to ‘assume’ anything, something he never forgot his whole career and something all Librarians aim to hold true to today.  John recalls his duties including operating a photocopier the size of a snooker table and the day he accidentally shattered the glass while copying Burke’s Peerage. He also remembers being admonished by then Deputy Chief Librarian A. B. Craven for not wearing a tie as standards of dress were high, however this didn’t stop Chief Cataloguer Miss Fiddler from leading the way for women by wearing a trouser suit to work despite dresses and skirts being compulsory.

1955. In 1955 the Library of Commerce, Science and Technology move from the Art Gallery to a much larger space in the Tiled Hall of the Central Library, in which a new gallery had been erected to provide even more room. 20,000 books had to be transported from the basement to the gallery. Here, two female library workers are taking a trolley full of books from the basement stairhead through the new library to the crane which will lift them up to the gallery (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

John recalls (but did not witness) being told of the night that keen rambler and climber (and possibly the reason Leeds has a collection of rambling and climbing material) A.B. Craven, or Baffy as he was known, climbing the front of the building, knocking upon the 2nd floor reference library window and asking his astounded colleagues to be let in, this man would in 1968 become our City Librarian.

The Central Library, highlighting the window A.B. Craven used to enter the building

John was able to provide us with many stories of his fellow library co-workers including, Reference Cataloguer Brian Jones whose habit of working late saw him on one occasion have to climb over the metal portcullis at the Calverly Street entrance after being locked in when working late, and of Senior Library Assistant, Joan Newiss who introduced John to his wife Cynthia, he also told us of regular excursions onto the roof for lunches before being stopped by the foreman porter.

The view from the Central Library roof…no parties allowed in the modern era!

There was librarian Frank Pearson who when faced with a trouble making visitor was told, “Someday there will be a revolution and people like you will be hung on lampposts” responded with “Yes, but until then, Out!”. And not forgetting Chief Cataloguer David Thornton who during the incredibly hot summer of 1976 had all the glass skylights painted white to stop the 3rd floor based cataloguing team from overheating.

April 1984. Image shows a 1980s view of the cataloguing department located in the third floor office of Leeds Central Library. Staff are at work processing new stock for allocation to branches, Central and the Reference Library. The Municipal buildings were designed by George Corson and opened in 1884. A feature of the third floor office are these arches which span the huge room. In the nineteenth century the room would have been heated by a coal fire and the original fireplace is still in situ’. The ‘feature’ wallpaper on the end wall is of c.1975 vintage. It is rumoured that at the time the staff referred to it as ‘the intestines.’ The series of arched windows look down on to Alexander Street (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Julie remembers going almost straight from the school room for her first library interview and her dad sitting at the back, butting in to say how good she was with the customers at the family fish and chip shop.  Julie along with Sylvia and Susan remember everyone wearing the same clogs and overall even though there was no official library uniform.  If anyone has a photograph of this we would love to see it!

In 1966 the City Museum moved onto the first floor having lost their Park Row premises to WWII bomb damage on the night of the Leeds blitz in 1941, the main corridor on the first floor (now home to the Leeds Tapestry) was fitted out with glass cases containing water, gas and drainage making them suitable to preserve the artefacts and also to hold live exhibits including butterflies and reptiles.  Now, obviously reptiles eat crickets and, on one occasion, the crickets escaped, with Katrina recalling hearing them chirping away in the walls next to the Central Lending stock room.  So, what happened to the crickets? Well – remember that escaped snake I mentioned at the start?  Actually, we’ll save that story for another time….

Contact the Local and Family History department on 0113 37 86982 or via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk to learn more about our local history resources, or to contribute your memories about Leeds’ local and City libraries.

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