Some Reference Library Regulars

"Hey Pal, have you Muhammed Ali's phone number?"

   Andy Cookson was in his twenties, but there was something ageless about him, rather like the Ghost of Christmas Past.  The spirit of a child twinkled in his eye, as well as the haggard look of an old man.  His hair was unkempt.  There was adolescent stubble on his flabby jowls.  He was big and lumbering but his voice was pitched high and loud.  'Hey Pal!'  Thus did he always announce himself and thus his nickname.

   When he appeared researchers would pause from their studies, knowing the entertainment had arrived.

   "What do you want Muhammed Ali's phone number for?"

   "I'm going to fight him."

   "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

   "I think I can beat him.  I think I can.  Don't you?"

   It reminded me of the old Tommy Cooper joke from his boxing days:

   "I was in the ring with that Muhammed Ali once.  I had him worried. He thought he'd killed me."

   Sometimes it was:

   "Hey Pal, have you got Elvis's phone number?  He's coming to King George's Hall."

   King Georges Hall was Blackburn's top venue, but unlikely to feature on any Elvis tour.  He did have something in common with Elvis though.  They were both obsessed with the FBI.

   "Hey Pal, have you got the FBI's phone number?  I've just seen that Osama Bin Laden."


   "In Greggs buying some sausage rolls."   


 Bouffant Boy and Messenger were two other regulars.  They showed signs of lives lived on the edge.  They were well established characters in the library pantheon and of many years standing.  Hard to estimate their ages, could have been anything between 40 and 70. Bouffant Boy was short, bald and bespectacled.  He had one or two brown teeth.  He was deaf.  He spoke with an educated accent.  He wore many coats.  He had a thin face and might have been quite slim without his coats.  He was in and out of the library all day long.  He rarely made an enquiry, but when he did it was for something quite esoteric.   

   Messenger was long and lean with a white beard and black hat.  He wore a long black coat.  He was quite self-possessed and was also in the library every day.  We kept a number of periodicals behind the desk.  He would come up and say:

   "May I have the three, please?"  By this he meant 'The Church Times', 'The Church of England Newspaper,' and 'The Catholic Herald.'

   There was Raymond who never wore socks and often had no laces in his shoes.  He shuffled about with an expression that suggested he was permanently struggling to remember something.  He would approach the desk:

   "I don't wish to take up your time.  I know you're very busy people, but . . ." and then he'd ask about some event in the town's history long ago.  When you got up to go and look, he'd become alarmed:

   "No, don't go to any trouble.  It's not important . . ."  Too late, once you've asked a reference librarian something, they hunt it down to the death.

   It was said he'd served on HMS Hood.

    There was Ciderman, a youngish chap, who stalked round the library flapping the lapel of his scruffy grey raincoat, which had a bottle of cider in the pocket.  He'd settle down at last with a telephone directory which he would read with great amusement, bursting into laughter from time to time. He once fell off his chair laughing.

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"Hey pal, have you got Elvis's Phone Number" 


The future looked good.  The future belonged to reference librarians.

   There was Mexican Pete, who dressed as a bandit with a huge sombrero and a bandeliro filled with felt tipped pens.  He had to be dissuaded from brewing up on his primus stove in the reference library.  There was the chap who dressed sometimes as a Victorian gentleman with top hat and silver topped cane and had an alter ego as a crusader, when he wore woolen chain mail painted silver and bore a hardboard shield with the cross of St George.

   There were a couple of old dears who carried carrier bags of rubbish round with them.  The smell was sometimes overpowering and they had to be asked to leave.  There were tramps who would appear for a few days and then move on. Some smelled and had to go.  Most fell asleep and had to be woken.  I never felt comfortable with this, but the library was busy and study places at a premium.  Some mastered the art of seeming to be reading while asleep.  They were mostly men but there was the odd woman.

  People loved it when they saw you had to sort a situation out, resting from their studies to enjoy the fun. 

   There were drunks, people with mental health issues, people with obsessions,  people who thought they were being followed, spied on, filmed, people who heard voices.  There were people with theories about religion, etymology, evolution, UFOs.  There were people who'd been writing about their obsessions, people who brought in reams and reams of the stuff for you to read or preserve in the archives.

   Keeping silence in the ref was a headache.  For younger people silence isn't a concept that's readily grasped, but others too could cause problems.  There was a plump,old lady who's hearing aid often emitted a high pitched whistle. Much hilarity all round when I tried to tackle her.

   "Excuse me your hearing aid's making a noise."


   "It's your hearing aid."

   "I can't hear a word you're saying."

   "There's something wrong with your hearing aid."

   "I'm sorry I can't hear you.  There's something wrong with my hearing aid."

   The thing about libraries is anybody's free to enter unchallenged.  You just don't know who's going to come through the door.  Librarians are popularly supposed to have a stress-free  occupation, but it's not the case.

   Blackburn's reading room was in the admin building and it wasn't unusual for fights to break out there and for blood to be found on the floor.  I've been on duty when skinheads have swarmed in, when Hells Angels have occupied the place.  I've known staff sworn at threatened and even assaulted. 

   We'd a settled team in ref now.  Stephen Child had been promoted to a senior admin role.  Andy Holliday was the new reference librarian.  There was Diana Kenyon, soon to be Rushton, Olwen Nelson and Bob Snape, all keen, all committed, all very knowledgeable. The future looked good.  The future belonged to reference librarians.

Alan Duckworth