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