I'm aware that many of you reading this blog may not be terribly interested in the big change I have recently made in my life; that is, to take early retirement. Some may even resent the fact that I am in position to do so. Well, tough. The fact is that, despite showing early promise as a slacker, I have dedicated over thirty continuous years to public service in a back-room, technical-managerial capacity, and the prospect of a substantial, index-linked pension was always a major motivator in getting me out of bed in the morning. That, and the example of my parents, subsisting into old age on state benefits alone.
So, before I drop the subject, I thought I'd share with you my parting words for my ex-colleagues. In the bad old days, retirees would be required to undergo that dreaded rite of passage, the Leaving Ceremony. I think, like public executions, the intention was to discourage others from following suit until or unless absolutely unavoidable. Thankfully, we now live in more enlightened times, and I was able to leave the building quietly, unencumbered by the University's famously useless engraved crystal bowl. Instead, I sent everyone an email, with this attachment -- the speech I would have given on the retirement scaffold:
The problem with retirement is that, by the time it happens, there are few people left who can remember the retiree when he or she was actually quite good at their job, or why on earth we employed them in the first place. Their former bosses and most co-workers will have retired or moved on, and their sad fate is to become that curious grey-haired figure with an unknown past who seems unable to remember anybody’s name.
I am very conscious of belonging to a species passing into extinction. Born in 1954, the year food-rationing ended, I grew up in an all-too-brief post-War utopia where excellent state education was a national priority. For the first time, children from “ordinary” families at state schools could aspire to progress to the top of the educational ladder. In my case, I eventually found myself at Oxford University studying English, an achievement which required some effort from me in passing exams, but did not cost my parents a single penny. I had a full maintenance grant, and in the vacations was able to "sign on" to collect Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole). It gets worse. After graduating, I was awarded full grants for two further periods of postgraduate study. Unimaginable now, but perfectly normal in the 1970s.
In those days universities did not regard themselves as being in the business of equipping graduates for the world of work. Indeed, they did not see themselves as being in any business, as such, at all. Higher education was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, reserved for an “academic” minority. So, facing the grim reality of finding employment in the late 1970s, I chanced to see an advert for a trainee post at the University of Bristol library. They chose me simply because I was able to read the cyrillic alphabet: they had a massive cataloguing backlog of Russian books. All cataloguers were expected to be linguists, then, with two modern European languages as a minimum. Imagine: at my very ordinary state school, we had routinely studied Latin, French and either German or Spanish, and in the Sixth Form could choose Russian rather than endure "General Studies". Again, this was typical, then, but how things have changed: my own children, at their Southampton state schools, only had the opportunity to study one language, badly taught.
Having realised that I liked working in an academic library -- where else could you meet such strange and interesting people? -- I decided to qualify professionally, at University College, London. UCL, in those days, was obsessed by indexing and classification. We studied every classification scheme in depth, researching multiple essays on each, with the requirement that all students would choose two subjects of interest and criss-cross London visiting specialist libraries, to compare how cataloguing, classification and indexing were handled in each. It was a lot of work. I think there were seventeen assessed essays: a number that had recently gone down from twenty-one. The plus side was getting to know some grand libraries, like the British Museum Reading Room, and some obscure ones, like the Royal Geographical Society, which in the late 1970s was still an Edwardian gentleman’s club for explorers.
It is hard to imagine now, but in those days there were no personal computers, no internet, no mobile phones. Documents and memos were all typed by hand. To distribute a memo you either produced carbon copies, had it photocopied, or clipped a circulation list to it; it could take weeks for a widely-circulated item to land on your desk. Catalogue cards were originated as a hand-written draft of a "body" text, checked by a senior cataloguer, passed to the typing pool for typing up, checked again, and duplicated. Then, the individual headings were typed on the cards, checked yet again, and finally filed into the catalogue drawers by cataloguers. The accuracy of the filing would, of course, be checked. As in all offices at the time, a lot of the work going on involved inspecting the work of others, and manually producing and filing documents. It was a slower-paced, more deliberate world, where changes happened gradually after lengthy consideration, and where the human effort involved was a major factor.
Then came computers. I won't bore you with the detail, but my career has spanned the history of library automation. At Bristol we trained to use the new-fangled green-screen SWALCAP ("South Western Academic Libraries Automation Project") system. I was on the design team that produced the cataloguing module of SWALCAP's integrated system, Libertas. The first "microcomputer" in this Library landed on my desk: an Amstrad PC1640 with 640K of RAM and no hard drive. On it, I taught myself to program with GW-BASIC. We developed the first Southampton "online public access catalogue" in the late 1980s, and introduced the Urica library management system in 1991 and the Unicorn/Symphony system in 1997. I recall attending the first course for Library staff on using HTML, where we were instructed never to use images on our webpages, because of the resource implications. And so on. We are now in a much faster world, where change happens rapidly and unevenly, and where the human factor is easily overlooked. I suppose it’s the price of trying to squeeze the entire world into a hand-held device.
I was not supposed to be here for 30 years. On appointment, I was told that they expected that I would move on after 5 years, and so did I. I was young, and vaguely ambitious. But then my partner joined me in Southampton, we had two children, I decided to go part-time, and… Somehow another 25 years passed. But I have no regrets on that score; I have always seen myself as the Chief Engineer, wielding an oily rag down in the engine room, rather than standing up on the bridge wearing a smart officer’s hat.
My recent exercise in identifying the poor souls who have, over the years, been chained to a bench in my department was enlightening. So many names… I have to confess I needed prompting to remember some of them (“Ah, the goth girl with the boots…”). But, on the other hand, so many of you are still here, if working in different roles. Having started out as a very “hands on” manager, full of opinions about the best way to do things, I have learned to back off, and let people get on with their work. I now believe the best manager is a “light touch” manager (that’s my excuse, anyway – sorry about the appraisals…). But I am very proud of the outstanding staff I have recruited, trained and managed over the years, and perhaps my most notable achievement at Southampton has been getting them all regraded (upwards!), twice, wearing my union-activist hat.
However, my world is increasingly the old world. Some of you will have been born "digital-native"; few of you will have been born into a home without a telephone, a television, or a refrigerator. Many of you will have had your educational aspirations constrained by the changes in the nature and funding of education since the 1990s; few of you will have had the glorious free ride that I enjoyed. Some of you will also have a very different view of the purpose of the institution in which we are working, not just because so much has changed, but also perhaps as a result of the sustained challenge to the very idea of a university from government: higher education as an end in itself now seems a hopelessly old-fashioned, even elitist idea. As I say, I belong to a species passing into extinction, and have decided to go before I stop being a problem-solver and become the problem.
I wish you all well, and trust that you will do your best to make this library -- and any library you work in – a special place, worth the investment of 30 years of anybody’s life. Let me remind you of Ranganathan’s deceptively simple Five Laws of Library Science, established in 1931:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader their book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.
Change “book” to “resource”, and it seems that, perhaps, not that much has changed, after all. Though I will never concede that “readers” have become “customers”, I’m afraid… I’ll get my coat…
But, now, the real work begins. Finally... I only hope I still have time to do it.
My coat (and an idiotic hat)