a tale of toads, magic and little old ladies
|Swindon Public Library|
As I stated in the introduction to my book Digital Futures I am a "lapsed librarian" - I have no library or collection to curate and look after. But you can take the boy out of the library, but you can't take the love of libraries out of the boy.
The picture above is of the new public library in Swindon, Wiltshire. This is the place where I decided to become a librarian. I grew up in Wootton Bassett and as a child visited the public library several times a week. They were good enough to give me an adult ticket when I was 9 so I could read the thrillers, westerns and science fiction books as I'd read all their children's books. The ladies of that library were lovely professionals who helped me become a voracious reader. But I hadn't considered being a librarian until I was 16 and my Mum got me a 3-day work placement at Swindon Public Library. That was when the magic happened for me.
On my very first day I was led to the reference desk and sat by the reference librarian, Roger Trayhurn. Now Roger is a genius librarian who has recently retired - I literally wouldn't be here without him. Here's how my first 15 minutes went (remember it's 1983 and I am a very, very shy 16):
Roger: OK Simon, one part of being a Librarian is answering questions. So sit at this desk, answer the phone and whatever question the person on the other end asks, you need to try to find an answer. I'm here to help you with anything tricky.
Me (doubtful, scared): Um, OK.
Phone rings, I pick up: Hello, Swindon Public Library can I help you?
Little old lady: Hello, young man, I need the phone number or address for the Save the Toad Foundation.
Me: Um, please hold.
I turn to Roger: There's this crazy woman on the phone who wants to know the phone number or address of the Save the Toad Foundation. What do I tell her? (Thinking: how on earth can there be such a thing and why on earth would she think we would know).
Roger calmly reaches behind him without even looking and pulls down the Directory of British Associations, leafs through it and points to the entry for the Save the Toads.
I answer the ladies query, she thanks me and rings off.
I spent the next 3 days answering questions - it was magical and joyful and just amazing.
Now several things occurred to me in that moment:
- Roger could not have surprised me more if he had levitated on the spot. I seriously thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
- The lady at the other end of the phone had total confidence that the library would know the answer to this question. I thought it was crazy, she thought it was normal.
- I looked behind me at all the reference books and felt an enormous sense of power. We librarians can know stuff other people don't AND we can help them know that stuff too - wow!
- People care enough about toads to want to save them - go figure.
I solve puzzles, I answer questions and I have worked with the greatest libraries in the world - that's why I am still a Librarian at heart. As my DDH colleague, Andrew Prescott, said in his recent inaugural lecture "libraries, museums, galleries should be at the heart of the academy" and so I am proud to represent, in small part, the spirit of libraries within that academy.