There is a strong sense of vocation in some professions, notably the law, medicine, teaching and the church. Others amount to a similar fundamental desire through a particular talent or propensity such as writers, chefs, musicians, sportsmen, designers or dancers. The decision to enter some professions does not usually demand a definitive aptitude or even, a calling. My own profession of librarianship, although not one normally associated with natural gifts or devotional origins, is yet filled with people who would never wish to do anything else.
There are many reasons for this as the library profession is a complex one. It is constructed of highly skilled experts in some fields, for instance bibliographics or rare books whilst also including very senior managerial staff with strategic or financial acumen on the very large scale. It is not a profession with many comparators but the one I always like to employ is that of the police. Librarians are similar to police officers principally in that everyone starts their career at the same point. During their professional lives each member of either profession will find a level at which they operate best. Interestingly this makes for obvious hierarchy at the same time as respect for talent at every level.
I used to think, until today that my strong vocational drive to enter the library profession originated at the age of 13, when I first became a school library assistant (and yes, it was just as cool as it sounds – we even had badges saying ‘Librarian’). Until that is, I talked with my mother this morning.
I had sent her a copy of the latest Senate House Libraries Strategy last week for a file she keeps on my two brothers and I – all three of us do this. I am particularly pleased with the document, as it is a compression of enormous complexity in terms of stakeholders, collections and future priorities. The detail is not important here but it did trigger a fascinating reminiscence from her on the nature of my life-long passion for libraries.
For the record, my continued belief in the power of collections available to share is primarily fueled by my equal conviction that education can alter the direction of people’s lives.
My mother told me that between the ages of one and two and a half she used to take me every fortnight to our local library, which at that time was Stowmarket Library in Suffolk. I can just remember this, especially after my brother was born because he always used to go in a great black pram and I would speed ahead by then on my red tractor with yellow wheels. Incidentally, I have a similar passion for sports cars so you can see where this is going – I rode the tractor so fast and so far that I actually wore the wheels right down to the spokes and it had to be thrown away.
In the local library I was set free, well comparatively anyway. To me at that age this was only a moderately scaled down version of the vast collections I am now Director of in London. There was a seemingly inexhaustive quantity of books. We did always take a good selection apparently but there was one that obsessed me. It was called ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea,’ a simple story of an innocent and vulnerable child and her mother sitting down for tea and cake and, as was clearly common in the south of England in the seventies, being disturbed by a hungry tiger. Fear not though, this couldn’t be further from the perhaps predictable scene of horror one might have expected given the situation. The tiger ate all the cake and then everything else in the kitchen. He then drank all the water in the taps and left, never to be seen again.
My mother estimates, as no request was ever put in at Stowmarket Library (not even a desperate one by her, meaning I could renew it every two weeks), that she must have read this book to me approximately one million times. Additionally, and not a record I am particularly proud of, when my Nana came to visit she was also forced to plough through the tiger’s greedy tale. The agreed estimate for Nana is about ten thousand readings. I apologise to both but I loved that tiger.
My ability to bore parents and grandparents to near madness is however, not the purpose of this story. The tiger stands for the unexpected. In those days, when we had very little money which prohibited visiting bookshops, it was in the library where the unexpected was to be discovered. That the tiger always came to tea in our house is neither here not there; he would not have visited at all had it not been for Stowmarket Library.
People who have grown up with enough money to buy books have no idea how important local libraries are. Many of these people, as is the way of the world choose professions that result in authority. Some of them become MP’s or local councillors. The reason that public libraries are now under attack by this government and its local councils is that they are used by unprofitable members of society; the elderly, the young and the poor. They are easy targets.
Public libraries are of course seen as irrelevant to wage earners, those of working age and, perhaps the childless. Those who can afford to buy books, computers and access to the web cannot understand the position of those that can do none of these things. Anyone proposing the closure of a public library is not only advocating cultural vandalism but is publicly displaying ignorance of how many people in Britain are forced to live.
Finally, the root cause of the current national debt and its related financial crisis needs to be reiterated. Public spending under Labour was high, but it was serviceable. Irresponsible public spending is not the driver for the cuts programme, but rather the use of vast public funds to bail out private sector banks. The people who use public libraries are not to blame for the UK economic downturn, but they are the ones paying for it: literally in terms of the banks and intellectually through library closures.
I needed a public library to find my tiger, to discover and to grow. I chose the library profession because I believe libraries in all their forms make a difference to people’s lives. I also do not believe that amateurs can run them, however well meaning. Cameron wants a ‘big society’ and at the same time orchestrates library closures, or services without professional librarians.
David Cameron and George Osborne come from the kind of families that have their own libraries. How can we expect them to give a tinker’s toss about those for whom without public libraries, the tiger would never come to tea?