Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Voices of Scottish Librarians by Ian MacDougall

From 1883 to 1907, the industrialist and philanthropist  Andrew Carnegie provided funds to build public libraries in fifty seven Scottish local authorities. Donating sums that ranged from £50,000 to £1,000 (the former coming to as much as £48,000,000 in 2014 values of wealth) he caused to be built public libraries from Banff to Motherwell, their impact measured not only in affording free access to books but also in the range of architectural styles that were used. By the 1920s the question had begun to be asked, what to do with this astounding investment in buildings and resources? The answer to this question can be found, I believe, in Voices of Scottish Librarians a project of The Scottish Working People’s History Trust.

In a series of interviews carried out from 1996 to 2002, Ian MacDougall spoke to fourteen Scottish librarians, the oldest born in 1911 and the youngest in 1949 (to my surprise, I saw that one of them was my late father.) In them they range far from their careers as librarians. This was a result, I am sure, of the questions chosen by Ian MacDougall. If so, he is to be congratulated as they talk at length about their childhoods, the districts in which they grew up, their grandparents, the schools they attended and, by extension, something of the society in which they lived and worked.  Their revelations are, in turn, heartwarming, inspiring, amusing and informative. From the pages emerges not just something of the essence of these individuals but also something of Scotland from the 1930s until the 1990s.

Voices of Scottish Librarians (low res)

© Birlinn

The life stories that emerge from the interviews are drawn from the warp and weft of Scottish life: Tom Gray born in Greenock, John Preston born in Dennistoun, Glasgow; Margaret Crawford – granddaughter of a bowling green keeper; John Hunter – grandson of a merchant seaman; Tom Gray – navigator in the Royal Air Force in World War Two, Andrew Fraser – captured in France in 1940 and a prisoner of war until 1945. Margaret Deas shared her Edinburgh home with actors taken in as boarders by her mother; Alan White jammed the wheels of his tricycle into the tram rails at the end of Merchiston Grove, stopping the No. 4 trams from Edinburgh to Slateford. My father lived in a flat in Shettleston in Glasgow in the 1930s that still had gas lighting. Fourteen lives lived, in most part, with no knowledge of the others; yes, held together by the common thread of librarianship but each a trajectory that followed, for the most part, its own dictates, its own needs.

Other common threads do emerge from the interviews. They were all readers, devouring everything from The Dandy and the Biggles stories of W.E.Johns to George Bernard Shaw and The National Geographic magazine. They did well at school, passing the Qualifying Exam (The Qually) that took them on to secondary school – but not to university. Even for those for whom money to pay fees was not a pressing problem, there was a feeling that university was not for them. This made them an odd bunch: academically gifted but adrift in their late teens. Bill Paton went from school into being a trainee accountant; John Preston did not know what he wanted to do. He only knew that he liked working with people. It was then that fate intervened for many of them: a chance conversation, an ad in a newspaper; an astute teacher – all these played their parts in ushering many of the interviewees into a career in librarianship.

How they flourished! Even for those who did not rise into managerial posts, they still managed to imprint their personalities onto the libraries in which they worked and the lives of the people whom they served. Margaret Crawford, mother of two young children, had no plans to return to work. Encouraged by the local minister, she applied for the part-time post of librarian in the East Ayrshire village of Hurlford. It was a big day when a phone was put into the library. But she managed to encourage children to become readers and boost membership of the library by starting up a story time session for the infants in the local primary school. Years later, she was still being reminded of this by children who were now pupils in the secondary school. John Hunter helped develop mobile libraries in Shetland, getting books out to remote communities, weather permitting. Margaret Deas of the National Library of Scotland, conscious of its role in conserving the nation’s literary heritage, was prepared to stand up to senior university lecturers and remind them that their students could not expect to read everything on their booklist if it was available from the public libraries. Whatever it was they undertook – persuading local councillors with one eye on elections and the other on the rates to increase book funds, for example – they all used their considerable social skills to enhance the service they offered and make the job more enjoyable for themselves. My father said that just as important as giving a reader what he or she wanted, was giving them something that they did not know that they wanted.

Every age has its heroes. It seeks them in myth or in life. Britain in the postwar period, the years the interviewees worked for much of their careers, often found them in films such as The Wooden Horse, Angels One Five, The Colditz Story and The Dam Busters. I would suggest that to this list we could add the names of these fourteen librarians. If nothing else, they answered that question posed in the 1920s of what to do with Carnegie’s bequest: provide a local service tailored to the needs of their communities but which drew on a set of values, based around public service and access to culture in its broadest sense, which went beyond the boundaries of the districts in which they worked. At its highest, they provided examples of lives well-lived that drew for their happiness, not from material wealth, but from the bonds that unite us as persons. This is an excellent book that, in the faithfully recorded Scottish intonations of its interviewees, brings to life those decades when a new Britain was being created.

Ian MacDougall: Voices of Scottish Librarians, The Evolution of a Profession and its Response to Changing Times (Birlinn, 2017). ISBN 9781910900093. RRP £16.99.

One comment on “Voices of Scottish Librarians by Ian MacDougall

  1. Hilary
    April 28, 2017

    This is brilliant, Colin – it reminds me so strongly of the cohort of mid-20th century librarians still around when I joined the profession, who trained me and whose values I tried to share. There was pioneering feel about them, as if it took the first 100 years of testing the boundaries after the 1850 Act to realise just how much and what quality of influence public libraries could wield. I now have the privilege of helping care for a library founded by a prototype Scottish librarian in 1701, and I can see that these librarians were drawing on a tradition with roots even farther back in time.

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This entry was posted on April 23, 2017 by in Entries by Colin, Non-fiction: biography.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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