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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Rey: Violet 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⭐⭐
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.