15 August 2011

The long and winding road : my post for the Library routes project

From a Gloucestershire Library / Flickr
I was awestruck at her ingenuity.  Every time I passed my book across the wooden desk the smiley old lady behind it was able to take one look at the cover and then, with the deftness of a conjuror, whip out a cardboard ticket with my name written on it from a wooden tray and hand it to me.  Not once, but again, and again.  How did she do it?

It must be down to a secret code, written in an arcane language, or maybe they all had fantastically good memories like elephants? In which case, what else did this eccentric creature in a woolly blouse and spectacles know about me? 

Purley Public Library
I was hooked.  I yearned to know how the trick was done;  but at the same time I feared that if I worked it out I might set off a terrible sequence of events, like Mickey Mouse did in Fantasia.  For Purley Public Library contained adult books so powerful that they had to kept behind a locked door.  You had to be really grown-up and courageous to be able to cope with those ones.  I knew this for sure because at the age of 9, my request to borrow The 39 Steps was refused.  

Fast forward to the 1990s, when I applied to Cambridgeshire Libraries for a small part-time post at the local branch, partly to get back to work after having had two children but also because I spotted the opportunity to find out how that trick was accomplished.  My early ambition to be a librarian had been jettisoned in my teens as the job seemed hopelessly uncool. Instead I had gone into broadcasting and publishing, via an eclectic mix of secretarial posts in London.  Imagine the thrill of becoming a Queen of the Trays myself!  For several years I enjoyed working with the best ever library supervisor, Jill Saggers, who taught me everything I needed to know and more about customer care, chatted with children and old ladies, and re-arranged the display shelves so that Reginald Hill and Catherine Cookson looked even more enticing.  Meanwhile I was studying for an O.U. degree, and once I acquired that I began to think about what else I might do now the great mystery had been revealed.   

Well, this library stuff seemed pretty good fun, meeting people, organising books and so on, so I signed up to do the postgrad course at SLAIS UCL part-time; while at the same time expanding my work places to include another branch library and then moving in academia.  The switch to academic libraries was purely pragmatic – while public libraries were being threatened with closure there seemed to be plenty of room at Cambridge University, so I decided to get a foot in the door there by moving to Homerton College as a library assistant.

Homerton College
After 3 years at Homerton I applied for and to my astonishment got, the post of Assistant Librarian at the School of Education, helping to cover during the Librarian’s maternity leave.  The move wasn’t too drastic, in that Homerton was a teacher-training College at that time so the material was familiar; but I wasn’t qualified yet and required a day off in term-time to go to London.  I will always be very grateful to Angela Cutts for taking me on, and keeping me on there when a permanent vacancy came up.  I enjoyed my 3 years at Education.  I received a lot of support, and learned from one of the most efficient and proactive of Faculty Librarians, someone who was always willing to listen to new ideas.  As well as the usual library duties I had responsibility first for a collection of videos at Shaftesbury Road, and then for Brookside Library, and was involved in the early stages of planning the merger between the two site libraries.

Whilst there, I decided that if I wanted to progress to running a Library myself it would have to be a College Library.  Despite my interest in social sciences, history and music, I didn’t want to be restricted to a particular subject area.  So when the post of Librarian at Selwyn came up I applied for it, albeit more out of interest than expectation.  I was, again, surprised to be offered the job and accepted it with delight laced with trepidation. After all, the College has a tower.

I needn’t have worried.  Although it was quite a big step up for me, I was able to fall back on the  experience gained from previous posts both in the library world and elsewhere.  In fact I would say that having worked outside libraries for some years was very helpful in developing  management skills and putting library issues into a context.  Bringing up children, working for a degree and doing a part-time job at the same time teaches you a lot about time management, if nothing else.  Becoming a student again in my 40s gave me a view of what academic study entails but through mature eyes.  Working in publishing was enormously useful to me in dealing with publishers and suppliers when I started up ebooks@cambridge.  And I have never regretted all those boring hours I spent learning to touch type at 50 wpm.

I appreciate that working in a Cambridge college is an opportunity only available to a lucky few.  I am enormously grateful to those who had faith in me and gave me opportunities along the way.  And I believe librarianship of whatever sort is the best job ever, even if we don't have the ability anymore to create magic out of cardboard tickets and wooden trays.

Written for the Library routes/roots initiative.


  1. My first experience of manual issue systems was at Barry Public Library in charge of the issue desk fresh out of library school and a graduate traineeship in a SWALCAP library. A lot to be said for smiley librarians. Glad you had a stint in public libraries

  2. Your library route is really interesting, thank you for sharing it!

  3. I remember those days at the little local library. You had a profound influence on my youngest man!