Ribble Valley Libraries with thanks to Alan Duckworth
A Ribble Valley Idyll - Oh to be in the Ribble Valley now that spring is here!
Back in 1984 I got a job as branch librarian at Whalley. At the time it was the HQ for Ribble Valley District. It was a huge district, taking in parts of Preston Rural District, Blackburn Rural District and Burnley Rural District, as well as part of what had been Yorkshire. Everything north of the confluence of the Ribble and the Hodder was now Lancashire. Two mobiles operated out of Whalley and the branch librarian was responsible for them. An ideal job; an idyllic job! Here was a new world for me to conquer. Here were simple folk that I could easily dazzle with my years of experience of front-line ref work and my knowledge of local history resources. They would be overawed.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong in every way. I had a destiny with ‘Dynasty’. I was about to be embroiled in a soap opera. I was going to be batted back and forth like a sorry shuttlecock with wilting plumage.
I was prepared, or so I thought. I'd pored over maps of the Ribble Valley, marvelling at its extent and noting just what lay within its bounds and what without. I'd photocopied the Whalley section from the Victoria County History of Lancashire and taken it home to memorize, getting it clear in my head the correct succession of feudal lords who'd held sway over these land and the names and order of the abbots of Whalley.
I wasn't prepared at all.
A moment's thought would have told me that with Whalley Library being the headquarters of the Ribble Valley and with the District Librarian and Deputy District Librarian working in the same building, I was gong to be branch librarian in name only. Was it likely, I should have said to myself that the District Librarian and the Deputy District Librarian would have nothing to say while I rejigged the library to give more prominence to reference and community information services?
There is something American about Whalley Library. It could be the glamorous ranch style home of a mega bucks exec. As I trundled onto the car-park and parked my Robin Reliant van, I felt growing apprehension. I'd already done some preliminary work on setting up a community information service and had the plans in my hand as I went into the boss's office for a brief induction. There never seemed to be the right moment to draw it to her attention though, neither then nor later. She was in her mid forties but there was something girlish, something almost doll-like about her, but her cobalt eyes were unflinching as she outlined what was expected of me.
"The most important thing is that the books are bright and cheerful. We have very discerning borrowers and they don't want to see dog-eared and grubby books on the shelves. I expect you to be on top of that."
Then she said nothing and stared at me until I realised I was dismissed. Dismissed into her deputy's clutches. She had a no-nonsense manner and a piercing look.
"You've come just in time for the month end statements. There's one to do for each branch and one each for the mobiles, and you'll have to do an inventory of cleaning materials."
The two women hated each other. It really was like walking into an episode of ‘Dynasty’. One was Krystle and the other Alexis, or maybe it was the other way round. There was no need of a branch librarian. Either of them could and did do the management of the place. All they needed was an admin assistant, a dogsbody to do their bidding.
There was no early morning bustle when the doors opened. Things got off to a leisurely pace. Often there was nobody waiting at all. Later cars would park and people would amble in with armfuls' of books. There'd be cheery greetings with the library staff, most of whom had been in their jobs for years and knew the borrowers as neighbours and friends. They'd have put books to one side for them and would have suggestions for books to try. On Monday morning many of the borrowers would have details of books they wanted to request culled from the Sunday supplements.
It was all very pleasant. It all ran very well. The last thing anybody wanted, staff or borrowers, was some know-all from the big city coming and changing their cherished layouts and routines. All I was required to do was carry out admin duties and make sure the shelves were tidy and full of gleaming, pristine volumes.
If I ventured tentatively into the reference area to make a start, it wouldn't belong before I heard the click of the deputy's heels on the parquet floor.
"What are you doing in here? Don't you realise we're nearly out of floor polish?"
There were often opportunities to work away, taking things to branches, picking the drivers up from the depot, or long-stay stops, delivering books to old folks' homes. It was good to sneak out of the back door, climb into my van, pull the plastic door to with a satisfying thwack and nose out onto the highways and byways of the Ribble Valley. And in those days you got a car user's allowance and even with an 850 cc engine it came in handy at the end of the month.
When staff were off sick or on leave I'd work at a branch. I sometimes did Monday afternoons at Mellor, the hilltop village on the southern edge of the district, the branch that Blackburn would dearly have liked to appropriate. It shared the building with the mother and baby clinic. The staff there used to bring me a cup when they brewed up. It was only busy when the clinic closed and the mums came in.
I sometimes relieved at Read Library. In those days it was the front room of a terraced house up a side street. The cleaner lived in the rest of the house. I had to knock on the communicating door if I wanted the toilet. The borrowers were all called Ena or Doreen or Gladys and were not best pleased to see me instead of the regular staff. On Monday nights I manned the mobile on the car-park in Sabden.
I sometimes worked at Clitheroe Library, which must be the world's narrowest library. It was a Carnegie building and opened in 1905, It's a good central site at the junction of York St and Church Brow. There was something shipshape about it and you could have slung hammocks for the staff at the narrow end.
Kath Sutton was in charge. She was younger than me but was destined for great things. She was to become Chief at Blackburn library later on in her career. Even in a lowly role at Clitheroe she was demonstrating an aptitude for command.
I never worked at Longridge Library, but sometimes had to go out there. It was the same kind of building as Whalley Library, but Longridge was a more workmanlike place and the library reflected that. There was a more relaxed atmosphere. They would sit me down, give me a cup of tea and encourage me to tell them all the gory details of the latest clash between Krystle and Alexis.
There were a lot of old folks' homes and nursing homes in the Ribble Valley Theoretically the library only supplied books to the council run ones, on the grounds that the private ones should provide their own resources, but the distinction was not always made. Not that you always got any gratitude when you turned up.
"What have you brought us?"
"Same old rubbish."
"I've read that. I've read that. I've read that. Have you no new books?"
There was one old lady in a home in Wilpshire that the drivers warned me about.
"Don't let Sheila get you on your own in her room. You'll never get out alive."
And yet Sheila seemed such a demure, sweet old lady.
"You're a tall young man," she would say appraising my physique.
I was intrigued, not to say aroused, but I always heeded the warning and kept my distance.
The best opportunity of all to get away from Whalley Library came when I had to relieve on the mobiles when staff were sick or on holiday, but that's a story for another day.
There was nothing like climbing into the passenger seat of the mobile on a sunny morning with a day in the Ribble Valley ahead of you. The Ribble Valley's mobile library floated round the country lanes like a big yellow submarine - a real magical mystery tour.
There were two mobiles in fact. A big one that stopped in villages and hamlets and a small one that trundled down tracks to individual farms. The driver of the latter was always complaining that he'd negotiate a tricky track with great difficulty only to find no one was in. They knew he was due. A phone call would have saved him a lot of frustration.
Depopulation was a problem for the bigger mobile. People were just not there. They were working in Blackburn or Preston or Manchester, or they were not there because their home was a second one and rarely occupied. The Ribble Valley was becoming somewhere to sleep or to holiday, not to live in.
Villages like Tosside that had once had a school, a garage, a pub,a shop and post office, now had nothing. Rather than pay a few pence extra for a jar of coffee at the local shop, people would motor to the supermarket at Settle.
It had been very different when the first ever Lancashire County mobile took to the road in 1938. The countryside was well populated then. There were just two vans, three and a half tonners, painted blue with the red rose of Lancs on the side. They were based at Garstang and Ulverston and issued over 100,000 books a year. During the war women drove the vans. They were painted in camouflage colours and fitted with 25mm cannon and machine guns. This was in case the Germans ever came, but was handy if the van ever got stuck behind dawdling daytrippers in the country lanes. Twenty years later there were twelve vans on the road, issuing over a million books.
Early mobile library
Before 1974 a large part of the Ribble Valley was served by Yorkshire’s West Riding County Library Service. It was a service with a high reputation and only qualified staff went out on the mobiles. Pete Kelly who’d been a flat mate in Leeds went out on the vans. At local government reorganisation the West Riding service was scrapped and the inferior Lancs County took over. It caused Barbara Snell a few headaches dealing with complaints from people who’d been used to a better service.
Things had settled down a bit by the time I arrived on the scene, but I rarely got chance to go out on the mobile. The girls who did loved their job and took their holidays when the mobile was in for service or repair. My role was just to make sure they had enough calor gas on board for the heater and to make sure they were booked in for their MOTs. Occasionally though due to staff illness, I got to go out.
If it was heaven to take a trip on a summer’s day, it wasn’t bad in winter either. One fine December day, not long before Christmas I went out on the big mobile. Jim was driving. He would issue and discharge books if required but usually he just drove. We weren't busy. I guess a lot were doing their Christmas shopping, but wherever we rolled up, there'd be one or two waiting, often with Christmas gifts for the regular staff. They climbed aboard with chocolates, and tins of biscuits, hams and cheeses.
"Where's Gillian?" they would ask in dismay.
"She's not so good, got a bad cold."
Some let us use their toilets. Public toilets are rare in the Ribble Valley.
All day long we could see frosty Pendle against a sparkling blue sky. We came at last to Harrop Fold. I'd never been there before or even heard of it. Not sure even now that it really existed, that it wasn't a dream, or like Brigadoon, somewhere that can only be visited on certain magical days.
The windows of its cottages and farms twinkled with fairy lights. Smoke from the chimneys ascended in the still air. The pine woods of Grindleton Fell formed a backdrop. It was perfect. It was enchanted. I guess to the people there it was just where they lived. They no longer saw the magic, but to someone from a terraced house in Darwen it was wonderful.
One of the regulars invited us in for tea and cake. Jim was pleased I was getting this chance to see the place. There was a wood-burning stove all aglow, mullioned windows and window seats, low beams and cupboards and shelves set in the walls. There was even a marmalade cat dozing on the rug.
I thought the cake might be enchanted and that by eating it I might be forced to stay for ever. I ate quite a bit bit, but it didn't work. I was allowed to leave.
The 1974 Local Government Reorganisation Act had wide ranging consequences. Manchester and Liverpool dropped out of Lancashire; the highest peak in Lancashire was no longer Coniston Old Man; Todmorden was entirely annexed by Yorkshire and I had to go and work at Darwen library.
Darwen was absorbed by Blackburn and its library became in effect a Blackburn branch. Its librarian Arnold Holden became Deputy Librarian at Blackburn. There were various changes of personnel and I had to transfer from Blackburn reference library to Darwen. I didn't want to go. I was part of an elite reference library team. I didn't want to be a general dogsbody in a small town outfit.
Darwen library occupies a central position and overlooks the town, a difficult site to build on, being steep and having the River Darwen flowing across it. Since 1908 when it opened Darreners have known the library was there, that libraries were central to the scheme of things, unlike in Blackburn where the old library was tucked away out of sight. Darwen Library was at the heart of the community.
Darwen was the first non-borough to adopt the Library Act in 1871. There'd been libraries before in the town at the Mechanics' Institute and the Co-op. This was to be the first library accessible to all. It opened in the Peel Buildings in Church St, the same building that housed the public baths.
Children going to the baths would have seen the library and wondered about borrowing books. Not so easy to do then. Not many children could read anyway, but children under twelve were not allowed to borrow books. Older children would have to be sponsored by somebody on the electoral roll and not everybody had the vote.
The Peel Baths was not the best place for a library. The building was too small. Borrowers had to queue in the entrance with swimmers and bathers and the aquatic racket, splashing about and high spirits, was not conducive to borrowing books and studious activity. An attempt was made to find new premises to mark Victoria's golden jubilee, but it was 1894 before the library moved to more suitable premises in the new Technical School in Knott St.
Betsy Banister became Librarian in 1895, one of the first women in the top job. She'd been married to Joseph Banister, a paper manufacturer from Manchester. When he died she moved to Harwood St and later went to live with her brother in Rusholme. She died in 1911 and is buried in the Southern Cemetery in Chorlton. She oversaw a startling innovation, 'open access', in other words allowing the public to browse for books. Allowing the public to roam free in the magic labyrinth spelled the end of the profession for some, but it clearly made libraries more accessible and popular. It had required some confidence and a sense of entitlement to confront someone who might well be an officious jack-in-office, who hated letting books out of his care and who would take great pleasure in telling you the book you wanted was not available.
The public did not have it all their own way. Darwen's library committee chose the new books and in 1901 decided they would no longer buy light fiction. They felt it was the library's job to preserve the nation's culture and heritage, to educate, rather than provide light entertainment. It's an argument that raged for a long time, but was won in the end by the 'give them what they want brigade'. Go in any library and you'll find multiple copies of Dan Brown, Josephine Cox, James Pattison, Val McDiarmid. You might find the odd Dickens or a Bronte or two. There might be more worthwhile stuff in the basement, but not now at Darwen, the basement went long ago.
When Lancashire County took over education in the early years of the twentieth century, they wanted the rooms occupied by the library and the hunt was on again for new premises. The Library Committee applied to Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world, for help.
Carnegie was the son of a Dunfermline hand-loom weaver. He emigrated to America, did well and founded the Carnegie Steel Company. With the proliferation of railways he made his fortune. He was a hard business man, paid low wages and hired thugs to break strikes, but when he retired, he devoted much of his wealth to funding libraries in the US and the UK. He gave £8,000 towards the cost of a new library for Darwen. He must have had a special interest in the Darwen project because he agreed to officiate at the opening ceremony on May 27th 1908.
Joseph Pomfret was the first librarian in the new library, a former deputy at
Blackburn and father of poet Joan Pomfret. He was followed by Albert Singleton who died in the basement in 1945. It is said his ghost still walks. Arnold Holden from Bolton took over and stayed until Darwen surrendered its independence to Blackburn in 1974. Stella Barclay succeeded him and was to be there for the next 23 years.
Darwen Library was not integrated into the Blackburn system then. It was another library and they did things differently there. New faces, new procedures, new sets of resources, it was all very uncomfortable for a new boy like me. Furthermore I hadn't mastered the basics at Blackburn. Working in ref had been an escape from the everyday business of lending books. Add to that the fact that I didn't want to be there and it didn't look like a promising career move.
Fortunately Darwen had stalwart staff with many years experience, who could keep things running smoothly despite my input. There was Mary Grogan, secretary and admin assistant, who had worked with Mr Singleton, Marie Heys, Dorothy Cordall, Stephanie Roach, Barbara Dearden, Norma Bancroft. Non of them needed firm management to get the job done, but they got it anyway from Lorraine Rackley.
Lorraine was only in her twenties but had been a senior assistant for many years. She'd been very comfortable with Mr Holden, appreciative of his firm grip, his authority and control of detail. Stella Barclay was different, scornful of the hallowed ways of doing things, quick to see shortcuts and relaxed about discipline. While they may have appreciated each others' personal qualities, they didn't agree on how the job should be done. It was a situation that irritated Lorraine more than Stella.
And then I came along and made things worse. I was mooning about in the reference library, bringing all the book spines in line with the edges of the shelves, while Lorraine was supervising the staff, dealing with enquiries, helping on counter, finding lost tickets, sorting out awkward borrowers, keeping order in the children's library, answering the phone, running back and forth from counter to desk. Then I'd wander through, oblivious to everything, on my way to my tea break.
Lorraine wasn't the kind of person to let that go on for long without saying something. I never heard this conversation and it may never have taken place, but I bet something like it did.
"You'll have to have a word with him. I'm sick of it. The other day there was a queue on counter, a queue at the desk. The phone was ringing and he was faffing about in the back with old newspaper cuttings!"
Stella's main interest was horse racing. She had plans to breed and train race horses. She was probably more interested in what was going to win the 3.30 at Haydock.
"What do you think Mary?" she asked to buy time.
Mary was a little deaf and had to concentrate on people's faces to understand what they were saying.
"Well nobody's done anything with local history for years. You know what Mr Holden was like. Whenever Val Buchanan tried to do anything, he'd make her go and repair books."
"You do local history when all the other jobs are done," Lorraine said.
"Nothing will ever get done then," Stella said.
Lorraine just shrugged.
"So you want me to have a word?" Stella said.
"Well if he doesn't shape himself, one of us will have to go and it won't be me."
If that was her final word, she was wrong. It was she who went, but she did have the last laugh. The ref job at Blackburn had come up and she was slotted in. It was the job I wanted more than anything else at the time.
If you could have stood far enough back, the old Blackburn library would have been an impressive sight, but it was hemmed in by buildings in Richmond Terrace and Library St. It loomed over you, a forbidding facade. Under the first floor windows were a series of panels with sculpted reliefs featuring literary giants such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Scott, but you couldn't get a good look at them. They didn't have much of a view themselves, only of the admin building opposite. One thing was clear though: here was a doorway to the past.
It was in the admin building where I was interviewed for a job back in 1971, up the sweeping stairs in the librarian's office. It was accessed via Olive Charnley's office, the secretary. WW Yeates was more than a librarian. Museums, public halls, parks and cemeteries were under his control. Director of Everything, some called him. He was in his fifties, excess weight well hidden under the buttoned up jacket of his suit. He had thinning silver hair, horn-rimmed glasses, a high colour and an irritable expression. Sitting next to him was his deputy JB Darbyshire, in his thirties, slim, lantern-jawed and a bit thin on top. WW Yeates gave me an overview of the library service. He looked to the future. Great changes in local government were in the offing and he envisaged Blackburn growing even greater - Greater Blackburn! Neighbouring minnows like Darwen, Accrington and Clitheroe would be swallowed up. He would soon be appointing area librarians for the north, south, east and west. The sky was the limit. Anyone lucky enough to be on board when all this happened could reach for the stars.
All this time I was required to say nothing. JB said nothing either. He kept his head down and doodled on his notes. WW went on. He conceded the present building had been outgrown and couldn't contain his ambitious plans, but again great changes were coming. He envisaged a new, purpose-built library at the heart of Blackburn's town centre redevelopment, a state-of-the- art building that would be central to the town's retail and leisure activity.
He was clearly mightily impressed by everything he'd just heard and with characteristic decisiveness offered us both jobs.
"When can you start?"
I said I needed somewhere to live
"Did you hear that Darbyshire? He needs somewhere to live."
JB nodded and was about to say something. WW cut him short.
"See to it then!"
It would be wrong to think everything was wonderful back in the 1970s, but moving jobs round the country was easier, particularly in the public sector. Councils kept flats and houses available for new workers.
It was back in 1853 when Blackburn adopted the Public Library Act. The first collection was housed in the Town Hall and later the Exchange Rooms in Town Hall St. The Library St premises were erected in 1874. W A Abram was the first librarian followed by David Geddes in 1867 and Richard Ashton in 1889.
In those days libraries had a closed access system. You asked at the counter for the book you wanted and the assistant went to see if it was there. In 1895 Blackburn brought in some technology - the Cotgreave Indicator. This device had slips of paper representing books. Red slips meant the book was out. Blue meant it was in. The library was in effect a warehouse with shelves right up to the ceiling.
Eventually open access began in some libraries, allowing the public to browse the books. This posed a problem at Blackburn. You couldn't have the public swarming up ladders. Nobody was going to be too fussed if the odd library assistant lost their footing, but you couldn't have members of the public plummeting to the floor. The library was already overflowing, reducing the shelves to a reasonable height would only make things worse. It was 1925 before Blackburn managed to adopt open access, nearly 30 years after neighbouring Darwen. The problem of lack of space had just got worse since then. WW had been campaigning for a new library ever since he started work there in the 1950s. By the time I started things were critical, especially in the reference department. Fortunately a solution was in the offing.
The former Co-op Emporium in Town Hall St had stood empty for many years. It was proposed as the new home for Blackburn library. This wasn't what W W Yeates had wanted. He'd wanted his purpose-built premises in the new shopping centre. This along with the transfer of libraries to Lancashire County Council persuaded him to retire early and devote himself to fishing. JB Darbyshire became the new chief.
The new library opened on Sept 1st 1975. The lending library, bibliographic services and the workroom were on the ground floor. On the first floor were the children's library, the music library, a cafe, the Abram Room and the Hornby Lecture Theatre.
The reference library was on the second floor along with local studies, the Feilden Room and public toilets. There was a mezzanine with study carrels and microfilm readers. On the third floor was the staff room, the librarian's office, the strong room, the sick room, staff toilets and showers for the caretakers. There was further shelving up here with back runs of periodicals and Hansard.
Folk flocked to the library like it was the January sales. They stripped the shelves like locusts descending on a field of ripe corn. Extra books had to be brought in every day from HQ in Preston. Computerisation had arrived, at least for the issue and discharge of books and there was a computer catalogue. Not in ref though. There was still a card catalogue in handsome new drawers right in the middle of the department.
The new ref was popular with young people. They piled in from the Technical College. It was nearer for them, but that wasn't it. That wasn't what attracted them. It was the newness, the modern image. It became a place to meet.
The library went from strength to strength under J B Darbyshire's control and under Norma Monk's capable hands, when she succeeded him in 1990. And despite hard times, cutbacks, and austerity it continues to do so to this day.
Great Thanks to Alan Duckworth