I’ve been looking at previous attempts to document libraries (public libraries in special) through narratives from librarians and users, oral or text, with the aim of trying to identify gaps and fruitful themes, have a perspective of how these narratives have been/are being published, and use them as a basis for how the interviews I’m planning to run myself with public librarians and library users should be followed, what to ask with what objectives, and how to best publish them.
Here is an account of the main reference works of this kind (‘documenting the library through narratives’) I’m taking in consideration for my research; they are five in total, and I’ll split them in three different blog posts. This one is the second.
2. Other oral history collections in the British Library
The ‘Interviews with librarians’ I’ve talked about in the previous post is not the only oral history collection related to libraries that the British Library holds; there are also two other collections which are actually focused in the history of the BL more specifically:
• The British Library Staff Oral History Project, described as ‘a growing collection of interviews with former staff of the British Library, begun in 1985’, is valuable but also unreliable; even though it comprises more than 60 interviews up to this moment, only a few are available to be listened to (‘at the British Library only’) , mainly the ones recorded around 2013. The others (the great majority) have their access restricted for various, often strange reasons: one of the interviews is ‘closed for 20 years until 22 July 2035’, no further explanation provided; others are simply ‘temporarily closed’, including some that date back to the 1980s, so not really sure what they mean by ‘temporary’ here; some others ask you to ‘refer to curator’, but no contact details provided; and more recent ones state ‘interview in progress; refer to curator’—’in progress’, really?
And then there are the interviews which are available electronically for listening at the British Library computers; these offer a funny stark contrast to the closed ones, with their extremely detailed summaries that practically substitute a transcription and are not exactly summarised (see below!).
From the interviews available, I draw similar conclusions to those from the ‘Interviews with librarians’ collection: serious problems of accessibility and discoverability—and this time there’s no excuse that the interviews are too old and have ‘no papers accompanying it’, and the more recent ones should be more openly accessible; there’s a great focus in biographical aspects, which is fine and place the British Library in the life of the interviewee, rather than the other way around; uses a more ‘traditional’ approach to oral history.
• The British Library Slavonic and East European Oral History Interviews, in comparison, is a more well-structured and organised collection; this is probably due to its more narrow focus and clearer purpose:
The British Library Slavonic and East European Oral History Interviews is a project aimed at capturing the experiences and memories of former members of the British Library Slavonic and East European department staff. The purpose of the recordings is to provide an oral history of a British Library department and as such may be useful for the study of British librarianship. British and international (Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian) accounts, voices and accents are represented in the project. The recording and usage of oral and written histories are in accordance with the interviewees’ wishes and the British Library Guidelines. They may be used for information and research purposes.
This kind of brief description and state of aims is really helpful as it provides context (‘what they were up to) but also something to which we can measure the interviews against. It also gives information about the interviews’ rights and how they can be used.
From the 16 audio recorded interviews, only one is closed and not available for listening at the moment, but still holds a detailed summary of its content; all the other interviews can be played at the British Library, and overall have more consistent and useful metadata standards than the ‘British Library Staff’ collection. Interviewees describe early life memories as well as their work in the British Library. Discoverability and accessibility remain an issue in this oral history collection as well, but with its structure and consistency it’s definitely a valuable resource for library history studies.
3. Reading Allowed, by Chris Paling
Different from the previous collections of narratives I was looking into, which were oral interviews and therefore more similar to what I am trying to do for my dissertation, this 2017 book consists precisely of narratives of everyday work/life in an English public library by a librarian, the author Chris Paling. From the book flap we learn:
When novelist Chris Paling went from a job at his local library, he anticipated a quiet life. It took two hours between the stacks to discover that the reality was somewhat different. Chris found that at times the library is an extension of A&E; at other times it’s a hostel for the homeless; a psychiatric ward; a crime scene; a study hall; a place of safety; a boxing ring; a confessional booth; a theatre space; a venue for knitting and book groups; an information hub for people trying to find a long lost relative or a job. On most days, the library is all of these.
At the core of this wonderful and heartwarming book is the extraordinary cast of characters who visit the library almost every day; the street sleepers like Brewer who use the ‘fiction’ stacks as their living room; Trish and her friends from the care home who every Wednesday cry, laugh, and shout with anger and joy, and fill the place with surreal conversations. Then there are those who steal anything not screwed down, the drug users who shoot up in the Gents’ and the lonely who drift in for their only conversation of the day.
Libraries are full of stories.
Not all of them in books.
Must be noted: even though this is a work of non-fiction and all the stories the author tells actually happened, it is still a literary piece of work, meaning we can expect that emphasis will be given to ‘curious incidents’ and characters rather than more usual, common situations and people. That said, it is still positively surprising how the author is really able to capture and express the everyday environment of the ‘provincial’ public library. I like the bits when he describes his perceptions of the ‘ambiance’, mixed with his own thoughts about the idea of the public library, such as these:
The library, being the modern equivalent of the village pump, is now pretty much the only place in the city that anyone can wander into and find something to do or somebody to talk to. Being so, it’s a barometer of the mood of the city and sometimes when you arrive you sense the mood is an unsettling one. Today is one of those days.
; and a bit further:
There’s an air of intense concentration. I wander through, picking up litter, empty coffee cups and a few discarded books, and count the number of students in the room: sixty-eight and not a spare chair. I wonder where they’d be if they didn’t have the library in which to study.
The book is smartly divided in very short chapters, reinforcing the anecdotal aspect of the narratives; however, the ‘characters’, that is, the library users, reappear, come and go in the chapters, just as they usually come and go in the library itself. Some important observations on the book, considering my dissertation project:
• the narratives reminded me of other significant characters of the public library who are neither the librarians or the users, but the other staff: in Paling’s library its the ‘Facilities’ guys, which are multi-purpose problem-solvers who help doing everything that is not really under the librarians’ responsibilities. I believe these staff members should also be interviewees in my project, if I want to provide a more comprehensive account of the library as a place;
• the whole book turns out to be really helpful for coming up with questions to the interviews I’m planning, specially for the questions to library users. I’ve never worked in a library before, but I’m studying library science so it’s not too difficult to anticipate experiences and issues of the public librarian’s everyday work; when it comes to the users’s experiences of the library, though, things get much more obscure, as there is virtually no narratives from the perspective of the library user out there. By describing many interactions with patrons of his library, Paling’s stories do shed light on the user experience, even if from the librarian perspective;
• a major issue that appears in many ways throughout the book is the public librarian’s doubts and anxieties about what in the end are his main duties and purposes. For example, in a story about an elderly library user being very repetitive, Paling writes: ‘“Well, thank you,” he says and walks away towards the automatic issues/returns machines. I feel a pang of guilt, but I don’t have time to listen to the man’s story for a fourth time. Or perhaps I do. Perhaps that’s why I’m here.‘ With the World Wide Web is has become much easier to get some kinds of information; the public librarian does have a role bigger than just providing information, but what exactly this role consists of is tricky to say, and perhaps it does vary from librarian to librarian’s experiences and perceptions; perhaps it is something very personal. Perhaps that’s the ultimate characteristic of the public library, and which attracts people to come inside: it’s personal.