Loving Libraries, from Surbiton to Ripon

Books and reading

How times have changed. Back in 1966, I’d just left school, and was planning to work as an au pair in Italy before going off to university. For a bookish teenager, becoming a library assistant at Surbiton Library seemed just the job to allow me to save up for my trip. And it was – £10 a week was a fortune, allowing me to give my mother board money, save, and still have enough left over to have fun. It was of course a very different experience from the just-a-few-hours-a-week job I have now, as a volunteer assistant at Ripon Library.

Surbiton Library now. Then, the counters were left and right beyond the pillars, and there was not a pink or blue seat in sight. Image courtesy of the Surrey Comet.

Then, we stood behind a somewhat forbidding counter, rifling through neatly organised columns of book identity cards to release the library ticket(s) to the reader so they could go off and choose more books. When they’d made their choices, we’d open their books and date-stamp, with a satisfying ‘thunk‘, the page pasted in the flyleaf.

Image courtesy of Wales Online

Now, readers (Oops, sorry, ‘customers’) have it all to do, checking books in and out themselves courtesy of a space age bar-code reader, which accepts fines and reservation payments too.

Still, then as now, we build relationships with regular readers, like the ones who lean over confidentially and ask you if there are any new nice romances in, by which they mean Mills & Boon. Or the ones who need their personal details changing because they’ve moved. Then? Write out new cardboard tickets. Now? Change their details on the database. Or the ones who need help using the catalogue. Then? A large chest filled with drawers and drawers of card-indexes. Now? Yes, the computer database. Then? Books. Now – books of course, but also DVDs, audio books, large-print editions, jigsaws and a range of services on line such as e-books and magazines.

Card-index courtesy of University of Toronto Library.

Then, the library was largely a silent place, with necessary conversations carried out in a low murmur. A couple of hard chairs I seem to think, maybe a table or so, but otherwise, little furniture apart from the bookcases. Now, when you come into the library, there may be a children’s story time in progress, with a circle of children sitting on the carpet at the feet of a cheerful soul leading a spirited rendition of ‘Old MacDonald’. Or adults and teenagers occupying one of the many computers as they do their admin. or homework. Or a coding club. Or a book group. Lots of squashy chairs. A coffee machine.

Ripon Library

Some things never change. All those returned books need to be replaced in the right place on the shelves. Then, we prided ourselves on ranging a neat line of 12 or more books along the length of our left arm, and plucking the one on top to shelve as we reached the right spot. Now (Health and Safety) we have trolleys to trundle the books round on.

One thing we never have to do in Ripon is prepare new books for issue. In Surbiton in 1966, the library closed every Thursday afternoon. Not so we could have time off, but so that we could all go to the work room, and encase the covers of new books in those paper-and plastic sleeves, enter their reference numbers, and paste date-stamp sheets and identity pockets on. Tatty books would be mended with the right kind of sticky tape, and any stains removed. We loved it. It was a chance to sit down and talk as we worked.

I don’t remember ever looking for books for inter-library loans, or returning books to other branches, but surely we must have done. I don’t remember ever being entrusted to do a display: marketing our stock to the reading public didn’t seem necessary. I don’t remember a book-delivery service for the housebound, or handing out community information such as a bus timetable or the phone number for Citizens’ Advice, all of which come as standard now.

And of course – staff. Then there was a qualified librarian, and a team of paid library assistants like me. Now the paid qualified staff have been most severely pruned, and the assistants are all volunteers prepared to offer a few hours a week. It’s a congenial voluntary occupation, and we’re well trained and supported. But how has local government come to this, that core services cannot continue without bands of volunteers? That other services, such as Home Care, have been squeezed and squeezed … I shan’t go on. This is neither the time nor the place.

What have I been reading this month?

Lana del ReyViolet Bent Backwards over the Grass.⭐⭐

Lucy Newlyn: The Craft of Poetry.⭐⭐⭐⭐

Janice Hallett: The Appeal⭐⭐⭐

Frances Brody: A Murder Inside⭐⭐

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mercè Rodoreda: In Diamond Square⭐⭐⭐

Javier Cercas: Lord of all the Dead⭐⭐⭐⭐

Ralf Rothman: To Die in Spring⭐⭐⭐⭐

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine⭐⭐

Currently Reading

Robin Ince: The Importance of Being Interested

Sophie Divry: Madam Bovary of the Suburbs

Mini-review service will be resumed next month, but at least four of these books will find themselves in my Six Degrees of Separation this month.

Posted for Bookish Beck’s Love your Library.

61 thoughts on “Loving Libraries, from Surbiton to Ripon

  1. I certainly remember when libraries were like that, but although they had their good points, I think they are better today (at least where I now live in NE Scotland).

    I love the fact that I can borrow and return a book from/to any library within my local authority area. I like getting email reminders re when books are due back. And I recall once accidentally dropping one of those long drawers that held the card index and having to face the wrath of the terrifying librarian.

    (In my childhood books always had to be returned to the same branch as that was where your cards were.)

    We don’t have volunteers in libraries in this area – in fact they have just recently been advertising for (paid) library assistants. I have offered to volunteer in the past (as our little branch library’s hours have been reduced until they can recruit more staff) but this is not yet a thing here.

    The thing I don’t like in many modern libraries (thankfully not ours – yet) is the arranging of books by ‘themes’, that seem to be made up by whoever is in charge of shelving. The Dewey system worked fine for me! Now someone decides if a book is romance or thriller, when it could be a combination of both. But I’m probably just showing my age!

    But in whatever form, I still love libraries and can’t imagine life without them.

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  2. Fascinating Margaret, all those memories of libraries. I used to go with my Dad who always had a book to read on his train journey to work. And strangely in my work I became a strong advocate for staffing school libraries and modernising them with the ‘squeals’ reading groups and all the tech. Loved it and it is wonderful to know our local libraries are still functioning because of volunteers and in spite of government cuts. Our local Spanish town Aracena never closed theirs and have mobile ones for the surrounding villages. Love this post as really highlights the community of book and knowledge lovers!

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    1. There are some fantastic public libraries in Spain. There’s one in Valencia that was outstanding, with a range of English books and newspapers that could have kept me busy for weeks!

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  3. Libraries now and then, swings and roundabouts except for the cutting of professional librarians. More and more aspects of accessing culture now relies on the goodwill and energy of volunteers not least the museum sector. To save you the pain, I am carrying on my rant now in my head . . .

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  4. How this takes me back! I started work in libraries as a Saturday job in the early 1970s, when things were just as you describe in 1966 – the card catalogues, the boxes of pockets and tickets at the counter, the thud of the date stamp on the date label (and frustration when it was full up and someone had moved the new blank ones from their usual spot behind the counter!) I trained as a professional librarian, worked in libraries as computerisation was introduced (our service in Hillingdon, west London, was one of the first to go down that route and we had visitors from other library services all over the country for a while), became a children’s librarian and led those lively story-time sessions, moved into management … Working at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council I helped to steer local authorities through the challenges of modernisation, upskilling staff, dealing with cuts. Then as a consultant I did more of the same and, I confess, helped some move from paid assistants to volunteers in some roles (needs must when the money just isn’t there!) Now retired I still follow library news through friends and colleagues and on Twitter. It’s great to know people like you are still working hard, albeit unpaid, to keep libraries at the heart of their communities, where they belong 💗💗

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    1. You’ve obviously had an interesting – and worthwhile – career. And been through probably one of the biggest cycles of change the public library system has seen since the days of Andrew Carnegie!

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    1. Just go! Borrow books, even if you don’t end up reading them! You know how it is – use it or lose it. And you might even be pleasantly surprised.

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  5. Something else I miss! But to be fair the one I really miss no longer exists. It became offices in the most beautiful old building. The modern replacement was soulless but did the job, and I always enjoyed going, even when I struggled with scanning my books. Progress, hey? I loved that thunk too! Sadly I no longer use the library here. It became more than complicated by covid and I haven’t developed the habit to go back. I use the charity shops to get my hands on English books and leave a few coins in the right place. Perhaps I’ll make the effort again. Your titles always sound intriguing, Margaret. And I would love to volunteer, but I’d almost certainly cause havoc in the system. Maybe I’ll just go and sit in a corner. Such an enjoyable read, this!

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    1. Charity shops for books were my mainstay in France – English ones that is – it was rarely that I found English books and my reading stamina in French wasn’t as good as it should have been. I definitely cause havoc, me and the computer-till…

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  6. Well, I got interrupted, while commenting, so the point of my comment was going to be I LOVE LIBRARIES! Have happy memories of them as a kid, and a teen and as an adult, age 50 went back to school to get a degree so I could work as a librarian. Actualy got to do that for almost a year before the economy tanked. Was my most fun job ever.

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    1. I remember your telling the story of your career change and being so impressed. So sorry you had to abandon it. What a waste of your new-found talents!

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  7. I still miss the satisfying “thunk”. Mum was a librarian at one time and she told me about the pride in being able to carry a lot of books at once, so that bit made me smile.

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  8. I love libraries! From being a little girl able to read from the age of two. They have been a source of free enjoyment all my life. Thanks for such a great post Margaret 😊

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      1. It was actually a bit of a curse as I was bored silly at infants school, reading a book 3 times, not being asked to read more than a line to the teacher! My mother went in to ask the headteacher to get me books from the junior school!

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      2. My husband had the same experience. Luckily, my mother was head of my first school, so I didn’t have that problem. And grandson William, when he was in Reception, just got sent along to Year 2’s classroom to choose his own reading matter.

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  9. I enjoyed your post Margaret, reminded that local libraries are gems in supplying all age groups a relatively free entertainment and to go home with a book or two. I loved taking Mum down to the library though now she has a mobile library visiting the Resthome. For me, I have in the past enjoyed talks given by librarians who’ve brought books out from the archive, most have been about our local history,

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  10. Oh, Margaret, this post is a feast for my eyes. Libraries are the most amazing places and librarians are my heroes. When our libraries closed during lockdown, librarians found ways in which to engage and connect within a very uncertain time. Libraries are full of books that are lifelines that offer companionship, adventures, knowledge, hope, encouragement, and support. As Neil Gaiman wrote: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

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  11. I can remember it both ways: when I was a child in America we still had card catalogues and date stamps on index cards in the back of the book. By the time I was a teen and volunteer shelver there, online resources were becoming more and more the thing. My first job in the UK was in a university library, where even in my mere 5.5 years, it became less and less about books and much more about IT and customer service, neither of which were my forte. I much preferred quiet spaces and hands-on work with books (processing the new ones, repairing them, reshelving them), so the peak of my experience there was when I spent a summer on a placement in Special Collections. Nowadays, my volunteering (two hours on a Tuesday morning, two hours on a Thursday afternoon) involves shelving and picking books off the shelves to fill reservations — a treasure hunt! As volunteers we have no access to the computer system, and that’s fine with me; I can still manage to direct people to the sections and books they want. (And our furniture is green and orange!)

    Thanks so much for contributing this then and now post, and sharing the library love!

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    1. And have you noticed how many of the comments observe how much libraries are loved and appreciated? Meanwhile, I think you should come and volunteer with us. We get to do all the admin connected with satisfying reservations and returning books to source, making displays, even withdrawing books past their best. Computerish types are welcome, but tech refusers are on side too. But it’s a sad day when shelving is the main occupation.

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      1. I have set up a couple of simple seasonal displays before, and I always fill in any gaps I see in endcaps. The paid staff leave the shelving to us so they can get on with everything else, and that’s fine. I’m a quick and efficient shelver and it’s different enough from what I do the rest of the week to be fun.

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      2. Oh goodness, the children’s picture books used to be hopeless. Even now, after the staff have started dividing them into A-C, D-G, H-L, etc. bins by author surname, I still only have about a 50/50 chance of finding one for a reservation. Luckily, they tend to be browsed in person rather than requested.

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