Olden Days in UK Public Libraries – #3

A Personal History

The Workroom

Everyone would hope to spend some time in the workroom during the day. The first workroom task of the morning was to write out reader tickets for the previous day’s new borrowers and those whose tickets had expired.

The book-card-in-ticket arrangement then in use is known as the ‘Brown’ issuing system; public libraries had no computers or security barriers in 1968. Borrowers living or working within the borough filled in a registration form and showed proof of address (non-residents’ cards were countersigned by an employer).

Members were issued with four library tickets, which were cardboard pockets bearing the borrower’s name, address and expiry date (of the card, not the borrower). Students could apply for an additional three student tickets.

New members could borrow books immediately on registration. Once tickets had been written, any book cards paper-clipped to the registration form were slipped into the tickets and these ‘charges’ were filed into the previous day’s issue (‘issue’ being the sorted records of the day’s loans). Each day’s issue was preceded by a marker indicating the loans’ due date. There was plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

The 5 x 3 registration cards were then filed into wooden drawers in the ‘borrower file’ and any surplus tickets were filed into a separate wooden issue tray at the counter for collection.

For subsequent workroom shifts there were damaged books to be repaired once any new books had been processed for loan. All were hardback.

Clear plastic sleeves protected the paper dust covers. Book pockets of thin card bearing the book’s unique ‘accession number’ were glued onto the inside cover. Inside each was tucked the ‘charge card’ which also bore the book’s accession number as well as its author and title. Branch stamps were applied to page 39 (for identification in case of theft) and to the back of the title page; the accession number was also written here in case the book pocket became detached.

A date label bearing the name of the branch went opposite the book pocket. This was where due dates of loans would be stamped (a useful guide to popularity when books were later considered for withdrawal).

The last two workroom hours of the day were spent sorting the issue. Charges were sorted into order of the books’ accession numbers. (A charge was a book card inside a borrower ticket, remember? Keep up at the back, there.)

This was a sought-after, sit-down workroom task at the end of the day. The timetable was written to ensure that the most experienced and/or accurate sorters were free for sorting the issue. Despite this, double-sequences and other mis-filing occurred.

There was a certain kudos in being adept at finding TLIs (Tickets Lost in Issue). Saturday Assistants would seek me out first when they couldn’t find the charge for a borrower’s returned book – me being a humble Library Assistant and closer to their own age. Skimming through the issue for these at speed impressed the juniors, but it had the unfortunate effect of wearing away the varnish at the ends of my fingernails.

The library was a sociable place and I soon got to know our regular borrowers. The workroom too had a friendly atmosphere. Counter staff might pop in to search the repair shelves for reserved titles that hadn’t been found in the library or issue trays. Banter was exchanged with the journey-van drivers who collected our boxes destined for Central library and brought us boxes heavy with reader’s reservations or new books. Occasionally the Branch Librarian might hear a conversation that he had views on and saunter from his office to join in.

In those days, if the workroom was empty it was probably a tea break.

I’d be fascinated to hear how this compares with today’s public libraries behind the scenes.

My local ‘Learning Centre’ never seems to be open when I’m in town 😦

Next time: library departments.

Copyright © Cathy Cade 2021

21 thoughts on “Olden Days in UK Public Libraries – #3

  1. I must say I miss the old-style libraries, Cathy. Many is the happy hour (or several) that I spent poring over books, discovering new writers and different taks on the subjects… or delving nto the delights of the Reference Library and its card indexes…
    My home town was Leeds and wewere well supplied there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In our local library, during normal times, I would see regulars sitting at the tables reading. For some I am sure the library was not only a place to borrow books but a social place.
    Our school library was an oasis of quiet, away from a place I didn’t really didn’t like. After school before I had paper rounds I would often spend some time in our local library, often just dipping into books that interested me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ours was never open that early. I must confess, I didn’t use our local library that often when we moved to Woodford, but I was older then and – like you – had the school library. We were at Stoke Newington’s library more often when I was younger and living there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Cathy,
    Everything was so controlled before computerisation of systems and methods were laborious but in an odd way more comforting.
    I was a stay at home Mum for 12 years until 1987 when I returned to work in the Library at the Nature Conservation Council now Natural England. I was worried that I may have been left behind by the rise of the computer but was so pleased when I saw their system, which mostly relied on box files and a card system for returns, which is where I worked.
    It was a lovely atmosphere with super people. We used to send book requests out to local offices and the end of each day was spent wrapping books. Duty of the day was not to lose the end of the Sellotape which I frequently did. They were happy times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a less harried time, wasn’t it. Even compared to the college and university libraries I worked in later (I also spent some years out of full-time work – thirteen in all)
      And I still lose patience with that sellotape!


  4. I’ve got to assume that it is so much more efficient and accurate today because of technology. My wife has worked part-time at our local library for over 20 years, and she enjoys chatting with the customers about books…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a much wider-ranging service today because of technology, and some older people’s only access to computers. The sad truth is, we were already getting less borrowers in the public library when I left. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: did people stop using libraries less because services were cut? or was funding cut because people were using libraries less?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Our local library has even automated book returns with books rolling away on a belt and being dropped unceremoniously into a particular bin. And no social life there anymore.(Before covid, I mean) They seem to have forgotten that libraries were a great place to connect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had a ‘halfway house’ close to the last public library I worked in and the guy in charge of it would often come in to use our photocopier. A grubby-looking individual with a greasy ponytail, face-fuzz and tatty clothes, he looked more intimidating than some of his residents

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We had to ban one chap from coming in at all. He had one of those little hand mirrors and one of the assistants caught him in the fiction section trying to look up her skirt. She shouted at him, everybody stared, and he couldn’t get out of there quick enough!

        Liked by 1 person

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