Thursday, 16 April 2015

A life in letters: Work - Education Services Librarian

(Click here to see details of my previous post as a Primary School Education Librarian with Strathclyde Regional Council.)

I took up my new, Inverness-based post with the Highland Council Library Service in October 1992. It was located in a libraries’ Central Services Unit (CSU) housed in an industrial unit on Harbour Road. Here a team of librarians and library assistants responsible for Reference, Lending and Children’s Services were based, under the leadership of the laconic Mike O’Brien, the Regional Librarian, who used to sit in his office – one of the few areas of the building which had the benefit of natural light - contentedly puffing on his pipe – it was many years after Mike’s retirement before the room was completely free of the lingering aroma of his pungent tobacco. Mike was to take early retirement some years later, as was my immediate boss, the mountaineering Reference Librarian Peter Reynolds  who left us at around the age of 50, in his case in order to commit himself more wholeheartedly to the hills.
There was a homely atmosphere about the Central Services Unit, a rather old-fashioned workplace. The only word-processor in the building was the Amstrad PCW 9512 used by Grace, one of the admin staff. She allowed me occasional access to it if I spoke to her nicely, and was prepared to sit at the side of her desk and twist the keyboard round so that I could reach it. I was left in no doubt that she was doing me a serious favour.  The library service’s stock holdings, and the location of each item was recorded on a database driven by software written by the Council’s IT Department – when relocating stock from one library to another, staff had to key book barcode numbers into a grid on a screen using clunky keyboards. But the acquisition and circulation of stock was still undertaken manually – the latter process managed by the old ‘Browne’ system issue cards which I had been so familiar with at Carluke Library. The catalogue was not searchable on-line – as a substitute the IT staff regularly produced lists of the stock on sets of microfiche which were distributed around the libraries where they could be accessed by the public using microfiche readers.
I remember the day sometime around 1995 – a year in which consciousness of the possibilities of the World Wide Web exploded -  when Peter and I got hold of a primitive 16kps modem, connected it to phone socket and computer, and dialled up on to the internet. For the very first time I was able to access a computer on the other side of the Atlantic, and with growing wonder search an American university library catalogue. I had however no conception of how internet-related technologies would change our working practices over the next decade.
CSU was a cheerful place to work, although the main office had just one window facing out on the street, and little daylight penetrated the interior. Once or twice every year, early in the morning rays of light from the rising sun would stream into the office and illuminate in a brilliant glow the screen of one of the PCs deep in the building, like sunlight fingering the heart of the Maeshowe cairn at the winter solstice.
Before the Council adopted flexitime was introduced, everyone worked from nine until five, with a break for lunch between one and two. Sometimes I’d go home and grab a sandwich with my wife Lorna, and catch the lunchtime transmission of the Australian soap Neighbours, afterwards racing down Harbour Road in the car to make it back to the office by the appropriate time.  At 3.30pm everything would stop for coffee. In fact, these coffee breaks were rather divisive – the library assistants headed to the staff room, while their professional colleagues congregated in a corner of the office with mugs of coffee, and (very often) stale biscuits kindly supplied by a colleague who when doing her weekly shop in Tesco’s had an eye for bargains but a breezy disregard for ‘best before’ dates. Mike would put his pipe to one side and come out of the office to join us, and we’d talk, sometimes about work, but more often about what we’d done on the weekend, or about last night’s Scottish National Orchestra concert at Eden Court Theatre.
As well as the specific commitments connected with my post, all the Library Support Service Librarians had input into the running of Highland Libraries. Again this seemed to me as a newcomer to be done in a very laid-back and informal way. Once every few months we’d sit with our diaries round the big table in Mike’s office, and decide which libraries each of us would grace with a visit in the weeks ahead. Over the years, I spend many hours on the road visiting most Highland public libraries – though I didn’t make it to Knoydart, the only library on the British mainland which you can’t get to by boat – and had my first experiences of appointing staff
The background to the creation of my post was a national project, which Mike and Peter had helped to pioneer in Highland, to make learning opportunities widely available to the public through library services.  The project involved putting ‘open learning packs’ containing books, workbooks and Audio-visual and computer software items as appropriate into libraries, publicising them, and offering some support in their use.  Some of these packs were designed for recreational use, while others were aimed at developing the knowledge and skills required to pass validated tests and exams in the subject in question. Peter had piloted this manifestation of Open Learning at a handful of libraries in the Highlands, acquiring most of the resources through George Grandison’s Invergordon-based Access Training.  But the demands of his regular work precluded his devoting more time to expanding the new project further.
At the same time, a review of the Library Service’s staffing and budgets by an external consultant, concluded that the service was significantly underfunded, and the Council had agreed to increase the budget in order to create three new posts. Of one of these, the post of Education Services Librarian I became the first (and as it turned out the only) incumbent. I came north with enthusiasm and a genuine commitment to taking ownership of the Open Learning service and developing it as far as I was able to. And I had the confidence to appreciate being given a largely free hand in getting on with the job.
One of the first tasks I set myself was to persuade Grace to let me use the Amstrad on which I composed a long, comprehensive report, detailing the cost of providing each the 40-odd libraries in the Highlands with a collection of Opening Learning resources appropriate to its size. I presented this to Mike with some sense of achievement, hoping that he would assign me a big enough budget over the next few years to fulfil this programme. When he had finished reading what I had written, however, he chuckled rather dismissively through the perpetual haze. Of course he was right to be dismissive, for what I had suggested was naïve. Multiplying additional copies of Open Learning packs (of which there was a limited range available) at sites across the Highlands would not have been good value for money even if the funds had been available – it was far better to promote  the resources we already had through all 40 libraries, and add to them as required. However, my report didn’t do any harm, for it demonstrated my enthusiasm to Mike and his reaction helped me think constructively through the task ahead to find the best way of addressing it.
I certainly wasn’t invariably full of confidence in my ability to do the job – there were times of anxious uncertainty, as, for example, when I was discussing our possible requirements for a mobile learning unit with the Council’s fleet manager. Specifying vehicle sizes and engines and electrics was a completely new experience for me: I was not at all sure that I could cope, and could have done with a little more direction. In general, however, I was well-supported by my line managers. But though Highland Regional Council had an induction process for new staff, somehow or other I was never sent on this, and by the time I realised that I’d missed out, I’d found out for myself most of what I needed to know.
Over the next few years my role developed as I became involved in various parallel projects.  Part of my work involved using the (modest) budget Mike entrusted to me to build up the stock. The existing Open Learning collections were comprised of items which, though purchased through a local training firm were produced by agencies such as the Open College, the Open University and the National Extension College. I arranged to go and discuss what was available with George Grandison at Access Training, expecting on my arrival to be taken to a show-room with a wide selection of stock available for browsing through. In fact, I was directed to the Board Room in the shared office suite where George was based, and he talked me through the contents of a pile of catalogues. It seemed to me that we already had in stock copies of most of the items which would be of use in public libraries. I listened politely to what George had to say, but I was disappointed. It was always a concern to me that there simply were not training packs available on some of the subjects which were of most interest to public library users.
I did, however, extend the stock coverage as far as I could by sourcing external funding to purchase training packs aimed at staff in the hotel and catering trades, by subscribing to the Executive Business Club which provided training videos on aspects of business and management which we recorded off-air, and then reproduced in multiple copies for lending to library users, and by assembling a collection of computer skills training packs to help people learn to use PC software – I thought these could just about qualify as Open Learning resources. The annual loans of all the material I was responsible for quickly climbed first to over one thousand, and then to over two.
I had had enough experience of PCs in Hamilton to make me confident in their use and so I decided to make computers available in as many libraries as possible for the public to use for word processing and computer-based learning. Some years later, the government-funded People’s Network project would enable us to install network-connected computers for public use in almost all the libraries, but in the meantime, putting PCs in selected locations as I did was a significant step forward. I obtained these pieces of kit through liaison with the Local Enterprise Companies, and through some European development money which we accessed to develop our Open Learning facilities. The very first computers I placed in libraries were obtained from Ross and Cromarty Enterprise – I remember collecting them from a warehouse in Invergordon. Compared with later PCs, their hard drive capacity was derisory – only 40Mb, and I had to install all the software myself, including Windows 3.1.
I also worked hard to promote the stock, holding public contact sessions in libraries where people could drop in and discuss with me how the training resources we held could help them in their personal development, and in acquiring skills which would increase their chances of finding work. As a Service, were committed to ‘life-long learning’ and I always interpreted this phrase in the broadest possible sense to embrace every kind of learning project which people engage in. I also organised exhibitions promoting the library’s learning services at Local Enterprise Company offices, careers fairs and other venues. It was always a concern to me, however, that I was never able to put in place a mechanism whereby people learning through using library resources were able to gain a recognised qualification.
Through the European Objective One funding, I was able to further enhance the range of stock in libraries, and place collections of resources in non-library sites – in the Training Centre  in the building beside the Harbour, at Kinlochbervie, for example and most intriguingly of all in a garage showroom in Broadford on the Isle of Skye, where alongside the new cars and shelves of accessories there was a collection of library stock – study packs which you could borrow free of charge by liaising with the showroom staff.
Putting all this in place involved me in travelling round the Highlands in the Library Service’s yellow Peugeot van, which had seen better days. Having just moved north from Lanarkshire, with its congested roads I had a great sense of space and freedom in driving around the Highlands. It was breath-taking to be driving down Loch Ness side at 8.45am with not another car in sight, or to be negotiating the corkscrew Berriedale Braes in Sutherland, the grey sea surging far below the Peugeot’s yellow bonnet.
The first meeting of the Highland Adult Learners’ Group (HALG) which I attended was held in Inverness College, just along the road from our office. I remember going into a small chair-lined room full of education experts, and feeling I didn’t belong. HALG was a support group attended by representatives from different organisations throughout the Highlands – both statutory and voluntary - which delivered adult learning opportunities. Initially I had a misplaced sense that I personally couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute, and that somehow the learning we were offering through the Library Service was not ‘real’ learning. But in fact I discovered that much of what we were doing as a Service dovetailed with other agencies’ provision, and I was given unwavering friendship and support from the HALG team. In contrast, many of my library colleagues seemed to feel at that point that what I was doing was not of critical importance from a libraries perspective because it wasn’t part of what they considered to be the Library Service’s ‘core business’ –  defined as supplying books rather than more broadly as ‘facilitating personal development.’
I became deeply involved with HALG, editing an annual list of educational opportunities in the Highlands, and eventually becoming Chair of the group (in which role I occasionally felt rather out of my depth when meetings were attended by high-powered educationists as well as the smallish group of professionals whom I had got to know well.) I ensured that the Library Service participated in events organised by HALG. I frequently led sessions at the confidence-raising courses for women which were organised by the Workers’ Educational Association. Annually I’d participate in Adult Learners’ Week which was held each spring, promoting learning opportunities generally and specifically highlighting the Library Service’s open learning collections on Moray Firth Radio, at exhibitions in tents and public venues, and also, one year, in an elderly exhibitions vehicle called the ‘Magnus Bus’ which toured round Highland communities.
Many of us on the HALG Team completed an Adult Guidance Course – a certificated post-graduate programme delivered by Strathclyde University. This was a very practical course, developing our skills in giving guidance and first-level counselling to members of the public enquiring about learning opportunities. Those of us taking the course got to know one another very well since we had to practise our counselling skills on each other. All the practical work which had to be completed during the course I did in the context of the Library Service, which meant I was able to spend even more time out of the office interacting with members of the public.
It occurred to me that Health Education was an important part of Lifelong Learning, and I worked to highlight and develop the Library Service’s contribution in that field. I devised the slogan ‘library therapy’ and used it to promote books and other resources on healthy living, on coping with various health issues and on the role of reading in bringing some kind of escape and healing in the middle of pain – something I knew so well from my personal experience.
I also developed links with the Chest, Heart and Stroke Association in the Highlands. They were keen to give members of the public the opportunity of having blood pressure checks, and so I set up a series of blood pressure reading sessions at various libraries, backed up by collections of health-related library resources. I remember attending one of the first of these sessions, held in Culloden Library. I thought I should have my own blood pressure checked to encourage other people to do the same thing, but as the rubber ring inflated round my arm I felt – for the first time in my life – really faint, and drove back to the Central Services Unit feeling decidedly queasy. I have subsequently had a similar reaction when having my blood pressure read or receiving an injection at the surgery – they tell me, not particularly sympathetically, that it is a ‘man thing’!
The Chest, Heart and Stroke Association wanted to do something similar in the swimming pool at Mallaig, and I agreed to place a collection of resources there on the days the nurses were doing blood-pressure checking. I recall driving across to Mallaig from Inverness taking the stock with me in the Peugeot van. Several stretches of the road between Fort William and Mallaig were still single-track, and were extremely difficult to traverse, especially in the dark as the road twisted and turned, so that you soon lost all sense of direction.
That day, I had decided to take our Yorkshire Terrier Rhanna with us. She sat beside me on the front seat, seemingly quite comfortable, all the way from Inverness to Fort William. As we were passing the old paper-mill at Corpach, however the van filled with a pungent and most unpleasant aroma. ‘What are they doing at the mill today that’s so smelly?’ I wondered. But then my eyes were drawn to the seat on my left, where I noticed that Rhanna had deposited a large quantity of brown sludge. Fortunately, there was a shovel in the boot, together with a roll of paper towels, and these made the situation bearable until my arrival at Mallaig, where the first thing I asked for was a bucket and cloth and some disinfectant! I spent the day speaking to swimming pool users about the library service as they came and went, and in between conversations I dipped into the health books I’d taken to display, thoroughly alarming myself with their warnings.
This kind of partnership working was to become standard a decade later, but at the time it was viewed as being rather radical, and it in fact raised questions from some senior managers who doubted whether I should be involving the library service in this way.
I enjoyed these years as Education Services Librarian, and I admired the energy and commitment both of my colleagues in the library service, and of the staff in the education agencies alongside whom I worked. Taking a higher degree of ownership of my work than I had done in my previous jobs, I grew in confidence, commitment and experience.
I was enthusiastic about my work both because I knew that commitment leads to higher levels of satisfaction, and also because I felt that doing my job as well as possible, in a spirit of dependence on God was central to my Christian faith. I might not be able to articulate that faith naturally or fluently, but I could express it through a commitment to putting God’s values into practice in my work.  Yet it seemed to me that many of my colleagues in education agencies and in the library service had a more selfless level of commitment to our clients than I had. As I examined myself it seemed as it had done earlier in my career that though I might use the language of Christian faith to describe the reasons for my conscientiousness, in fact I wondered if I was driven more by a quest for personal satisfaction and meaning than by a desire to help others or serve God. I was still, and am still learning the truth of the truisms that none of us is perfect, and that it’s OK to be ‘good enough.’

(Click here to see details of my next job, as 'Talisman.')

A life in letters: Work - Primary Librarian

(Click here to see details of my previous job, as school librarian at Airdrie Academy.)
It was to be several more years before I achieved, really for the first time, a sense of joy and confidence in my work. My first few years at the Education Resource Centre were grim.  I saw a report in the papers of the death by suicide of a librarian who claimed in a note that he had been ‘professionally dead’ for eleven years. This resonated with me: I was uncomfortably aware that day by day I was simply struggling to make it to 4.45pm, and that the words ‘professionally dead’ could very appositely be applied to my career.

Primary School Library Adviser

As Primary School Library Adviser, I now occupied the same office on the first floor of the Auchingramont Road building which had previously belonged to Willie Scobbie’s Deputy Mr Walker with whom I had fallen out with on the evening he asked me to work at Newarthill. Initially, I was the sole occupant of this pleasant room which looked out across the car park to the Episcopal Church next door, but later I shared it with a colleague who helped manage the service to secondary schools.

The ground floor of the building was now home to the Primary Department from where books and other resources were loaned out to the 200+ primary schools in the Lanark Division of Strathclyde Region. The floor above was packed with resources for secondary schools, while the top of the building, my calm haven when I had previously worked in Auchingramont Road had been subdivided to create a graphic artist’s studio, a technician’s room, where educational broadcasts were recorded off-air and copied, and space for a cataloguer and for office staff.

My role as Primary Schools Library Adviser involved duties both in and out of the building. I would visit schools by appointment, one each day I was on the road, with a display of appropriate materials on the mobile library van. The theory was that the head teacher at each school would arrange for the staff to come out to mobile individually or in small groups to inspect the range of stock available, and perhaps borrow a few items. While they were with me, I would discuss with them the role of the Education Resource Service, and how it could support their teaching. At some schools, I also spent some time with the head teacher giving advice on the organisation of resources within the school. Often primary school libraries, where they existed, had received little investment, and as a result were very poorly stocked.

In the Resource Centre, I shared responsibility for ordering stock for the Primary Department and in addition, supported the librarians and library assistants who worked there. My involvement was particularly necessary at the beginning of each term when many hours were spent attempting to fulfil  hundreds of requests for resources to support classroom project work, and at the end of term when we had to sort out the chaotic contents of the project boxes returned to us.

Initially, I found this job deeply unsatisfying for a number of reasons. I acknowledge that in all but my final months at the Education Resource Centre I was constantly battling stress and depression to some extent, and that at times it almost overwhelmed me. I also acknowledge that this state of mind made me more prone to cynicism than I otherwise would have been. However, it’s clear that my condition was exacerbated by work-related pressures.

As in previous public sector jobs I was offered little training or support, and I was uncertain what was expected of me. Left to get on with the job and to make it my own, I lacked both the vision to see how it could be done better and the courage to admit to Margaret Sked what wasn’t really working. The visits to schools to promote the service were of very limited usefulness. I’d phone the head teacher, and arrange to call at the school, but in most cases the staff had little desire to inspect the resources on my mobile library. Many of them came on sufferance, surly-faced, with little interest in the services I represented. They’d look round the stock I was carrying in a desultory way, and borrow a few items before heading back to the classroom. Then I’d have a long patient wait until the next teacher arrived.

The heating on the mobile was not powerful at the best of times, and in any case it couldn’t be left running for long when the engine was turned off without draining the batteries. I remember spending one freezing winter’s day in the playground of Cathedral Primary School in Motherwell, chilled to the bone. Sometimes the driver Harry Twaddle and I would be invited into the school at breaks for coffee; sometimes refreshments would be sent out to us on a tray.  Perhaps these visits, and my discussions about library organisation with head teachers accomplished more than I realised or have remembered, but my recollection is of grim, slow days with zero sense of achievement.

It didn’t help that I knew for a fact that some of the materials borrowed from the mobile, and a sizable proportion of the stock sent out from the Primary Department in project collection boxes would never again cross the threshold of 4 Auchingramont Road. All items of stock bore a date label with the Education Resource Service address on it, but such large quantities of material were sent out that there was no efficient way of chasing up material which was not returned by the due date. Some teachers seemed to have the attitude that if a resource had been purchased with funds from the Council’s budget then it didn’t particularly matter if it became permanently lost among the school’s own stock. And so we found ourselves investing huge effort in operating a system which didn’t work effectively, as resources which were intended to be available across the Division ended up in individual classroom cupboards. This was deeply dispiriting.

I guess the sheer volume of requests received by the Primary Department also discouraged me. It was simply impossible for us to provide everything we were asked for. Inevitably at the start of each term we ran out of material on particular topics, and the sight of piles of requests which we knew we could not meet undermined our determination to tackle those on subjects about which we might have been able to unearth at least a few suitable items. If the task set us had been achievable, we would have taken ownership of it, and carried it out. As it was, the job was impossible to complete satisfactorily, and so we distanced ourselves from it, growing lethargic and cynical.

My colleagues and I were also concerned at the emphasis which we felt was being placed on presenting an ‘image’ of the service we were offering which in our view did not match the reality. I realise that while there was some truth in this assessment, I was being too cynical, not valuing enough what my managers were trying to achieve and acknowledging their vision and dedication.

Professional Development Plans and annual reviews were unheard of in those days. It would have been helpful to have had the opportunity to spend time with Margaret Sked, talking through these issues, and discussing how we could do things better. With hindsight, of course, I realise that I should have made opportunities to discuss all these issues with Margaret, but in my lack of confidence I kept silent. I had a recurrent nightmare at that time in which the Education Resource Centre burned down. I would be standing on ground level where the Primary Department had been, among the ruins of the floors above which had collapsed inwards, looking up at the charred, black gable walls.

Librarian (Primary Schools)

My status if not my role changed in 1987. There had been a long-running dispute between educational librarians and the Council which led to a two-month strike in the early months of the year. I had no ethical problems with participating in this strike, since in my view we had a just case. Eventually, a deal was done, and school librarians and other librarians working in education were awarded an upgrade to the next salary point. This however, was the grade to which I had been promoted when I moved from Airdrie Academy., and there was no will to pursue what was called the ‘consequential regrading’ of staff on higher grades.

My job – Primary School Library Advisor – was something of an anomaly, since there were no corresponding posts in the other Divisions of Strathclyde Region. I was on my own, and my salary was not upgraded. I lost my job title (in any case, the subject specialists responsible for developing teachers’ skills were known as ‘Advisors’ and had felt some  resentment over a non-teacher having a job-title including that word as this, perish the thought, might suggest professional parity between our two professions.) I also lost my status – no longer being in a promoted post I had to quit Mr Walker’s old room, and join the rest of my colleagues on the floor of the Primary Department.

I accepted this change with a calm, fatalistic, resignation. I did appeal to our Union, NALGO, but though they were mildly sympathetic, they claimed there was nothing they could do. ‘Is this what I pay my union subscription for?’ I muttered to myself. If I’d had more courage and confidence, I might have been driven to find a new job as soon as possible, but at that particular juncture, courage and confidence were in short supply.

However, it was probably good for me to be down on the shop floor rather than secluded in my office, and it was around this time that both my workplace experience and my attitude began gradually to improve. The reasons for this were varied. In the first place, I was assigned a series of specific tasks which I found it easy to take ownership of, and which delivered a considerable sense of satisfaction. It may not seem particularly exciting to be asked to compile a bibliography of official publications relating to education in Scotland published since 1945, but digging out this information from a wide range of sources in those pre-digitisation days and producing the results of my work in an attractive publication was a satisfying challenge.

Then I was just beginning to realise some of the things computers could do. Knowing about the course in programming I had attended at Strathclyde University while I still working at Airdrie Academy, Margaret asked me to give a talk to the school librarians on the use of computers in libraries. After some research, I did this in a very basic, but I think satisfactory way. It was that ‘drive and confidence’ issue again. Had I been sufficiently motivated I could have worked with Margaret’s blessing on introducing IT to the Resource Centre, but I quite simply lacked the vision and self-belief to do this, and still in truth allowed the technology to intimidate me

My colleague Stephen Walker took the initiative, and began purchasing computers and Microvitec Cub monitors, and signed us up to information resources on CD-ROM which delivered seemingly near-miraculous levels of access and searchability. Stephen also began experimenting with networking the PCs, but he hadn’t had much success with this by the time I left. Stephen liked to maintain the mystique of the IT expert, amazing us with his on-screen magicianship. How did he manage to get that clock to display on the monitor, we marvelled? (Easy, of course, when you knew it came as part of the standard Microsoft package.) I’m very grateful to Stephen for introducing me to PCs and giving me a glimpse of what you can do with them. I remember the first time he demonstrated email to us. It seemed very slow, and, on the DOS-based screen, unattractive. ‘It’ll never catch on,’ I thought.

Learning exhibitions

It was Margaret Sked’s vision of learning exhibitions for children which did most over the years to transform my experience of work from nightmare to altogether sweeter dream. Margaret recognised the benefits to a child learning about another culture or period in history of not simply reading and examining pictures and maps, but also handling artefacts relating to the subject, listening to relevant music and speech, and working with original sources. Over a number of years, the Education Resource Centre became home to many collections of artefacts – so many in fact, that in my final years working there, the Primary and Secondary stocks were integrated on the first floor, so that the whole of the ground floor could be given over to the storage of artefacts.

There were Scottish household objects from the 18th and 19th centuries, and a large collection of Victorian tools, utensils and pieces of furniture. On a visit to Canada, Margaret bought, and arranged to have shipped across replica North American Indian artefacts – among them birch-bark canoes, decoy ducks, snow shoes, totem poles, face masks, leather clothing. The Continents of India and South America were represented in other collections; there was replica Roman armour and contemporary Scottish crafts (I loved the giant snail carved out of wood, finding it deeply therapeutic to lay both my palms around its smooth wooden shell.)  There was also, I think with the Secondary Art and Design curriculum in mind, an assortment of bricks and (of dubious value, I thought), a collection of many different kinds of brushes. Visitors to the Centre, amazed by its riches, were often heard to describe it as an Aladdin’s cave.

These resources were available for loan to schools, but Margaret also had the vision of setting up learning exhibitions fronted by Resource Centre staff. A couple of these exhibitions were held at the Resource Centre, but the majority went mobile, paying day-long visits to schools, initially on the old mobile library, and then on a new ‘mobile classroom’, a long, well-lit vehicle on a bus chassis, which was prone to make visitors dizzy because of the ease with which it swayed on its suspension as you walked around. This vehicle had internal wiring and power sockets, and when you connected it to the mains, you could run electrical equipment – PCs, TVs and sound systems - on board.

A couple of Resource Service staff would take responsibility for developing an exhibition on a topic relevant to the Primary school curriculum. We’d select suitable artefacts from the collection and plan the display, researching and writing notes for teachers, and organising a programme of visits to school classes.  While we were at a school most of the work was done in the mobile classroom: the children came on board in small groups, each of which spent about 40 minutes with us.

I did not immediately find this kind of work fulfilling - in my fragile condition at the time, working with children could be stressful, and it didn’t help my stress levels that the resources had all to be unpacked and set up each morning after we arrived at a school, and then at the end of the day packed away for safety while we were on the road.

I remember once sitting in my flat looking through a book about typical Highland communities as they were just before the Clearances. My colleague Barbara Waddell and I were working on notes for teachers, and we were clearly under some time pressures. But I remember feeling resistant to the idea of working on the project at home, and it was with bad grace that I opened the book and forced myself to read. – work was stressful enough, and, poorly-motivated, I resented it intruding into my own space. 

One exhibition particularly annoyed me. Planned by my colleague Emily, it included a geographical emphasis – the Silk Road across the Himalayas to China – but largely focussed on hangings, textiles and clothing representative of the countries along the way. I have to admit I was very much a Philistine with regard to these. The heavy drapery which festooned our mobile classroom may have looked reasonably attractive, but I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for talking about to children about stuff I wouldn’t have given house room to. I hope when I was on the road with this exhibition I did a professional job to the best of my ability, but I rather suspect most of the schools visits to schools were made by Emily and our other colleague Barbara.

One day, when the Silk Road exhibition was current, we had some visitors to the Resource Centre who were deemed to be important. As invariably happened on these occasions, the whole staff were put to work to tidy up the building and it fell to me to put the detested Silk Road artefacts on display on the old mobile library, which I did with rather bad grace. I remember standing on the first floor looking down through the big windows to the car park below and watching Emily, who had gone to inspect my handiwork, emerging with a look of steely determination. She came upstairs and, storming in to where I was standing, took me to task for putting up the textiles and hangings in a careless and haphazard and totally unprofessional way. It was just fortunate that she had gone out to correct my mistakes before the arrival of the VIPs. Emily was quite right of course – both my attitude and my approach to my work were wrong.

The first learning exhibition which I can remember giving rise to moments of joy was our Victorian display, which we ran several times over the years. I remember the old wooden fire surround which we painted dark red and lashed to the deep shelves at the rear of the old mobile in front of a curtain which served as a wall hanging. This, and the Aspidistra in a great metal pot was the focus of the small Victorian-style room which we sought to recreate. We had a dressmaker’s dummy: she wore a long velvet dress, and was prone to topple forwards if a child sitting on the floor leant against her. ‘She’s falling for me,’ I’d say, and it never failed to raise a laugh. We had oil lamps, coal scuttle and pokers, an early iron, a sampler sewn by a young girl in the 1820s, books, black-edged cards announcing a funeral.

Although I sometimes felt anxious as I contemplated the arrival of my next group of children, I discovered I had a real affinity for interacting with kids. I could use language creatively to stimulate their imaginations and help them through sensitive questioning to understand what the artefacts in the exhibition were used for, and the story they told us about life in the Victorian era. I remember one day visiting a school in south Lanarkshire while it was being inspected by an HMI. What I was doing was not subject to his inspection, but curious to see what was happening on the mobile he came out while I was working with a group of Primary 7s. At the end of the session, he pronounced me a ‘skilful educator’, an accolade which meant a great deal to me.

My anxiety lessened and my confidence grew as I became more deeply involved in these projects, and was prepared at last to take ownership of them. We did a series of three exhibitions relating to a project many schools were doing based on Kathleen Fidler’s novel Desperate Journey. This novel was set in the early 19th century, and told the story of David and Kirsty Murray fictitious children from Culmailie, a very real croft near Golspie in Sutherland who were evicted with their family during the Highland Clearances. The Murrays moved south to Glasgow where they found accommodation, and where the children worked in the mills; finally parents and children emigrated to the Red River Settlement in Canada.

Jordanhill College of Education had produced a widely-used computer-based study pack to support learning on the themes central to Desperate Journey, but we went much further. Our first exhibition included not only artefacts and contemporary illustrations bringing to life the reality of crofting in the 18th and 19th century Scottish Highlands, but also copies of documents relating to the Clearances. I visited the National Library of Scotland, investigated the Sutherland Estate Papers, and found some highly relevant material, including a letter written by the Duke of Sutherland to his factor Patrick Sellar who was in the novel responsible for evicting the Culmailie family, and a hand-drawn map illustrating the croft itself. I arranged to have copies of these made, and we left these with the pupils we worked with. Some of these kids shared my thrill in using contemporary documents as a means of bringing the past alive with breath-taking immediacy.  Barbara and I also prepared a resource book for teachers for each of the three parts of Desperate Journey. Our progressive graphic artist Elizabeth Miller had acquired an Apple Mackintosh computer and for the first time we explored the potential of this new way of creating and manipulating text which I found enthralling.

By the time we’d moved on to develop the second module of Desperate Journey, set in Glasgow during the Industrial Revolution, we had taken possession of the new, custom-built mobile classroom. In researching this module, Barbara and I visited the museums at the People’s Palace and Pollock House in Glasgow. Again we had artefacts – this time relating to tenement life - and copies of original documents, but we were able to add a BBC microcomputer, and a cassette player on which we played Scottish Industrial Revolution songs. The third module examined the Canadian aspects of the story. We used some of the North American Indian resources for this, and again obtained copies of original documents illustrating the actual allocation of land on the Red River Settlement.

One of the particularly enjoyable things we did as a team was an exhibition which we called – at Margaret Sked’s suggestion - My favourite things.  Margaret put together a selection of colourful objects – including ceramics and textiles, and a big, stuffed fabric elephant - from our multi-cultural collections.  We displayed all this material attractively on the mobile classroom, included story books and music tapes from different cultures, and hit the road, visiting nursery and Primary 1 classes. The kids were unfailingly amazed by the rich diversity of the van’s contents – we had great fun exploring colour, shape and texture, and one by one I would lift the children on to the elephant, to their great delight, before we concluded the session with a story.

There was some controversy as to whether the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America (which, I remembered from the old song I learned in Primary 3, had taken place in 1492) should be celebrated in the light of the fact that he may not actually have been the first to cross the Atlantic, and that even if he had been, his arrival was not worthy of celebration because of its grim consequences for the native peoples of North America. But we decided to go ahead with setting up a learning exhibition anyway, on the grounds that, whatever the politics of the situation, Columbus’ voyage was a massive human achievement.

On this occasion, rather than using the mobile classroom, we set up the resources we acquired in rooms in the Education Resource Centre, and schools arranged for classes to visit. We had maps, prints, books, models, and replicas of 15th century navigational instruments made for us by an industrial model-maker - for this I was given a £1000 budget. We managed to obtain from a Glasgow rope works some thick rope vaguely similar (we hoped) – and I made an introductory video which kids watched before viewing the exhibition.

A final task assigned to me, just before I moved north was the research and writing of a guide for teachers taking pupils to an outdoor centre belonging to Strathclyde Regional Council, situated close to Melrose. While there, the kids would explore the ruins of Melrose Abbey; trek up the Eildon Hills to learn about their geology and natural environment; climb an old Peel Tower to get a take on life in the years of tension between families on either side of the Scottish/English border; visit Queen Mary’s house in Jedburgh; follow in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott by exploring the house he built at Abbotsford; and inspect three bridges dating from different centuries to reach some conclusions about the development of engineering methods. I spent a couple of very fruitful days visiting these sites with camera, tape-recorder and notebook, purchasing a copy of every guide book in sight and ransacked the local library. I then came back to the office and drafted detailed notes for teachers and suggestions for activities. Regrettably, I think the Council decided to close the Centre before any school groups had had a chance to benefit from my work, which was disappointing.

The outdoor centre was located in a building which had previously been home to a monastic order – the White Friars – and it was a large, and somewhat eerie structure. When I knew I was to be going down, I arranged with the caretaker, whom I believe lived off-site, to spend the night in the building to save the Council the cost of accommodating me elsewhere. However, when Margaret heard of this, she was apprehensive about a member of her staff spending a night in the building alone, and insisted that I arrange to stay at a bed and breakfast instead!

Alongside all this innovative work, I was still involved in the day-to-day work of the Resource Centre, which had its continuing frustrations. However, my enjoyment of the learning exhibition work, and the sense of satisfaction it gave me contributed to my increasing sense of well-being in the months before I left for a new job in the Highlands.

One of the last travelling exhibitions I was involved in was not one of my favourites. We were asked to create an experience for pupils which would deepen their interest in Europe and in the European community, but though we wrote to various businesses and organisations we found it wasn’t easy to get artefacts illustrating contemporary European life. In the end, we decided to set up a replica French café on the mobile classroom hosted by a sprightly French gent we called Le pêre Avion (a completely irrelevant pun on ‘Per Avion’.) Children came on board the van, sat at plastic coffee tables, looked at menus and discussed prices, but all this was somewhat artificial, as we didn’t actually serve anything to eat or drink. One objective of our visit was to encourage the use of the French language, but the ‘Allo ‘Allo nature of my own French makes me doubt whether anyone every benefited linguistically from discussing with me how many sucres they took in their latté.

Margaret Sked moved to Glasgow, to a post which had central responsibility for resource provision to education services across the whole of Strathclyde Region. I was asked to speak at her presentation from Education Resource Centre staff, and it felt really good that secure in my relationship with Margaret, I had the confidence to tease her in the context of appreciation of her leadership  ‘You know Margaret,’ I said, grinning. ‘Sometimes you work us pretty hard, and some of us have been heard to mutter “Does that woman not realise we have a life outside work?” and occasionally even “Does that bloody woman not realise…..’ 

It was proposed that Margaret would create a central team of resource professionals including some staff who would roll out across the Region the kind of learning exhibition work we had been pioneering in Lanarkshire. I was hopeful of obtaining a job on this team, but when my wife Lorna and I were planning our wedding, the post of Education Services Librarian with Highland Regional Council was advertised, and I applied successfully for it. It was just as well. Soon Strathclyde Region would be dismembered, and the librarians in the team at the Education Resource Centre would be sent out into secondary schools as school librarians. It was a narrow escape……

(Click here to see details of my next post, as Education Services Librarian with Highland Regional Council.)