Saturday, 4 February 2012

Why I am a Librarian:
a tale of toads, magic and little old ladies

Swindon Public Library
Today is National Libraries Day (#NLD12), so I thought it a good day to reflect on why I am a Librarian even though I am employed as an academic in the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. People care enough about toads to want to save them - go figure.
From that moment on I was hooked on the power of information, the joy of libraries and the sheer majesty of helping people find stuff out. I got my library degree, I worked in libraries, got hooked on digital and eventually realised I could help more libraries and people doing what I do now than if I worked in a single library. 

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.


  1. Simon, you're completely barmy, but I like it! And toads are great too...A.Nonymous.

    1. Barmy as the day is long ;o) Thanks for the positive feedback, much appreciated.

  2. Simon, your post gave me a warm glow.
    Wonderful thought for a Monday morning :)


    Devonshire Library
    University of Derby

    1. Thank you Heidi for the positive feedback, it is very much appreciated and we could all do with a warm glow on such a cold morning.

  3. As a child I practicaly lived at my local library so can totally see where you are coming from, loved the reflection


  4. Ahhh, I recall my days working in a reference library, using the BDA and answering similar queries . . . We had our regular customers with their usual questions and other folk with some very odd queries - one bloke badgered us for years about getting him a very obscure American study on "skeletal age changes" from the 1950's!
    But looking back, it was a great time to work in a library and I do sometimes miss it . . .

  5. As a closet reference librarian, and a lover of toads (and all animals) your sentiments are mine too.

  6. Thanks Simon - I work in that lovely new library and your post summed up being a librarian for me.

  7. I would like to thank you all for reading and for the wonderful feedback. You're attention is appreciated.

  8. Hi Simon,

    As I sit here, reflecting on my status as a trained Library & Info Professional at yet another career crossroads, I am reminded that 'there is no way out'! I am linked indelibly with the thrust and pull of research ... Will take your blog as a warning and am off to find a good doctor!!!


  9. I also work in the lovely new library, & as Roger the (retired) genius librarian is regularly in our local studies dept researching a book I will let him know about this.

  10. Hi Simon,
    We met a couple of years ago, at a conference at Kings I believe. I'm now library-less, missing it, and your story about the reference desk rings absolutely true. I've always loved helping people find answers. I'm now independent and as well as writing my blog I take an active interest in developments in digital resources on Shakespeare.