I was pretty lucky, in that my first job was the job I’d always wanted. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I’d always loved books, so naturally I wanted to work in a library.
Cue work experience week towards the end of my school career. I was offered a placement at Fenham Library, in Newcastle. General stuff – filing the book returns away, processing new books, writing out index cards and so on.
Hey, this was back in the 80’s. We still had a physical card index system (probably where I got my love of 5×3 index cards from) and the libraries were moving from the old Brown ticket system (paper ticket in a book, pulled out and slotted into your little cardboard library tickets when the book was issued) over to a new computer-based system of barcodes and pen scanners.
I loved it. Everything. The books, the people, the satisfying ‘kachunk’ of the date stamp on the books, the books… You get the idea.
At the end of the placement I tentatively asked the librarian in charge if there was any possibility of a saturday job. Luckily she said yes, and my library career began.
I worked Saturdays to start, then school holidays. I’d work any shifts that needed working, and they soon realised that if they were stuck for staff, odds were that I’d be more than happy to come and work. Partially the money, but partially the place and mostly the people. And the books.
Have I mentioned that I love books?
Oh, and there were some wonderful characters – the Mills & Boon brigade who’d turn up regular as clockwork to sign up for the latest bodice-rippers. The Catherine Cookson gang (and boy, did we go through a *lot* of Catherine Cookson books). The teenagers who’d lurk in, not doing their homework. The old guys who’d rock up at 9am on a Saturday morning, only to promptly fall asleep and have to be woken so we could close for lunch. I was fairly unique in that I was one of the few men in a largely female library staff, so quickly became aware that everyone knew me!
And the tales I could tell. The interesting bookmarks we found, including on one memorable occasion, a perfectly cooked slice of streaky bacon.
I kid you not.
Bookmarks weren’t the only things we found. One book on fishing was found to contain, in very small, precise handwriting, a reader’s opinion on the author’s approach to the subject. It would seem that the reader (and that’s what we called the library patrons – not customers as I’m sure they do now) had taken umbrage with more or less the entire book, and had felt strongly enough to write a quite vitriolic diatribe putting forth his opinion.
Guess whose job it was to rub it all out?
I ended up working in various places across the public library system in Newcastle. One day I found myself in Byker Library, which was utterly surreal. It was *exactly* the same building as my home base at Fenham, but with half the number of books and shelves. I probably worked in a dozen libraries around the city and met a huge cross-section of the library-visiting public. Some libraries were very lovely modern buildings, some were in pretty deprived areas of the city.
All full of stories, in every sense of the word. The library cats in Jesmond, playing a feline version of chess, or snoozing on the shelves amongst the books. The bullet-hole in the library window at Cruddas Park (to go with the used nappy found tucked behind the books – seriously, just ask. We’d be quite happy to find a bin for you). The quite excellent chippies we’d find for lunch breaks. The gossip. Oh, so much gossip…
I got a real kick out of meeting and helping the people. They’d come in having just finished their allotment of books, and sometimes wanted our opinion on what they might read next.
“Ah, if you liked that, then you’ve *got* to try this one. I saved it for you.”
Happy days. You’d get the odd ones too – people who just wanted someone to talk to. One lady in particular would appear regular as clockwork on a saturday afternoon. Jennifer, her name was. Mad as a box of frogs. You could always tell when she was coming in as you’d turn around and wonder where all your colleagues had gone. She’d have some wonderful tall tales of being whisked off by an Arabian Sheik in his Rolls, or that the police helicopters were really spying on her.
Part of me wished that she’d turn up one day, this tiny little old lady with her milk-bottle specs, slightly worn perm and grubby overcoat with a tall, handsome sheik on one arm, irrepressible grin on her face and introduce us to her fiance.
Sadly it never happened. Maybe he whisked her off to his palace in the sands where she was fed peeled grapes by her true love…
I’d always intended to go to university to study librarianship, but one of the subject librarians at Fenham advised me study something else first, then consider a post-grad. Better pay, and a subject to fall back on should I change my mind.
I ended up at Leeds for 3 years doing various interesting things (another future blog post, no doubt), followed by a year working for the University Library, then a year doing a postgrad in information studies, which led in turn to a career as a law librarian.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
What was your first job, dear reader?