Lancaster Library - Alan D. Born
It was a fine day and quite warm. I got the train up to Lancaster. The city sparkled in the
sun. Even the brutal, old Gateway Tower of Lancaster Castle looked benign. I'd arrived
in the town on a spring day in 1991 to have an informal chat about the vacant post of
reference librarian. The library's tucked away in a corner of Market Square, next to the
Museum, which used to be the town hall. People with time on their hands often adorn the
I knew Lancaster boss Steve Eccles from his days as the County Library's personnel officer,
When it had Been his job to tell you you’d just failed the interview and to try and
put a constructive face on the fact. I sat at the other side of the desk from him and we just
had our chat; amiable, if a little aimless. I brought things to a point by asking when the
interviews were. He said there weren't going to be any. I was the only one who'd shown
interest in the job and could have it if I wanted. Simple as that. I walked back out into the sun the new Reference Librarian for Lancaster.
Sitting in the sun watching the trains roll by, it felt like a golden future beckoned. I'd arrived. Down below the River Lune glinted. Lancaster was a significant place, the only town of any size between Preston and Carlisle. It was the former County town. Sea-borne zephyrs blew from nearby Morecambe. I was now a reference librarian, a member of an elite, not only that but one of that band of brothers and sisters who presided over the Reference collections of one of the country's landmark towns and cities. Everybody’s heard of Lancaster.
Lancaster had been a Roman settlement and bustling port. The Normans recognised its importance and built
the castle there. Lancaster once rivalled Liverpool and Bristol as a major seaport. It had stood at the
crossroads of history when Prince Charlie was out with the '45. It had a university. It had an important hospital.
A river ran through it. A canal ran through it. The west coast railway ran through it. The M6 roared past.
And I was Reference Librarian of it all.
I'd recently had a novel published novelist and now had been appointed head of a major reference library.
Could it get any better? No was the answer to that one, but as I waited on that sunny platform anything
seemed possible. One of the great failings in life is to fail to savour the good times and to think they're the
precursors of much better things to come.
Ethel Geddes had been the previous ref librarian. Susan Wilson had been her able assistant and was
now to be mine. Susan was a dark-haired, attractive in her twenties. She had a way of not quite meeting
my eyes. Would there be a rapport between us, some sort of chemistry? Would we adventure through
bibliographic highways together like Dr Who and one of his comelier companions?
Lancaster's Mechanics' Institute was formed in 1824. It was amalgamated with the Storey Institute in 1887. The town spurned chances to adopt the Public Library Acts and it was 1893 before it did so. The first library was housed in the Storey Institute. Calls for a new library were not answered until 1932 when the library in the corner of Market Square was opened. It featured a lending library, children's library and reference library. There was a 52 foot lecture room upstairs, which later became the new reference library. Ethel had built the collection over many years. Just as had happened at Blackburn the collection had outgrown its accommodation. It had spread throughout the building, breaking out in mezzanines and attics. There was a strong room under the museum that was full of manuscripts from the days when Lancaster had been a record repository. The
keys to gain access were like the keys to a castle dungeon.
Because of its location and importance Lancaster had a Cumbria collection and a Yorkshire collection, both counties being only a few miles away. Ethel had acquired duplicate, in some cases triplicate, copies of some items. It seemed some rationalisation was required.
Unlike at Accrington I had a free hand. Steve Eccles was happy to leave things up to me, so long as he didn';t get any complaints. Sue Wilson had her own views I’m sure, but I never got to know what they were. I did make efforts to involve her and win her over, but she remained enigmatic and remote. She carried on doing her own thing, as though I wasn't there and I'm sure she wished I wasn't.
The first thing was to get rid of duplicate stuff. I made contact with the University Library, Kendal Library and Skipton Library and offered material to them. There was an enthusiastic reference librarian at Morecambe, Lyn Wilman. I asked her if she wanted the Yorkshire collection. Morecambe had always been a popular holiday destination for Yorkshire folk, especially people from Bradford, also she had more room. Lyn agreed to have it.
I worked at Morecambe a few times when Lyn was off. It was quite something to be able to walk out of the library at lunchtime, turn the corner and see the sea. That view towards the Lakes is one of the finest in the country. Morecambe has never quite made the most of it. The town was lumped in with Lancaster at the local government reorganisation of 1974 and maybe that’s one of the reasons. It was no more popular with Sand Grown’uns, than it was with Darreners when Blackburn took over.
Having made a bit more room I could eliminate some sequences and get the stuff from out of the strongroom under the museum. Whenever anybody had asked for anything from there, it had meant setting off with the keys, being away from the department for quite some time and descending into the Stygian gloom. There were stories of subterranean passages under Lancaster.
Working at Lancaster encouraged me to take a broad view of what constituted local history material. Lancaster had been active in the slave trade, so anything on that, or the American Civil War, was relevant. Books on Roman Britain, Norman Britain, and Scottish incursions were essential. There'd been early mental health institutions in the town so that was a relevant subject. I began to see local studies as the core of the library, with everything else spreading out from it. Not that I had a big budget, but I bought what I could. I got the three volume ‘Admiralty Manual of Seamanship’ on the basis of Lancaster's maritime past.
The reference library was a bit out of the way on the first floor and I'm sure there were some who didn't know it was there. One who did find it was Beryl Mann. She was a happy confection of Margaret Thatcher, Thora Hird and Barbara Cartland. She burst in one day demanding to be attended to, then giggled. "I'm supposed to be quiet in here, aren't I?"; Lancaster's readers were a pretty middle class lot, confident and comfortable with publicservices, none more so than Beryl. She was after books on the royal jewels. She was giving a talk to Inner Wheel, a ladiesgroup. I showed her what we had. "Is that it? Well they'll have to do. I'll take them." I pointed out they were reference books. "Nonsense. I can't sit in here all day." Something about her compelled submission. I agreed to let her take them. "I can't carry all those. You'll have to bring them round." And so utterly had I fallen under her spell that I did.
I worked at Lancaster for five years driving up from Darwen every day. I did contemplate moving, but in the mid nineties there was a housing slump and I couldn't sell my Darwen house. I was getting fed up with the commute. In summer I took my bike, parked the car in Garstang and cycled along the old railway track to St Georges Quay. Then word came that Blackburn were going for unitary status and coming out of the
Lancashire County set-up. Blackburn library jobs would no longer be advertised in Lancashire. And then a job came up – Local Studies Librarian at Darwen. Was this going to be my last chance to get a job in Blackburn?
Should I go, or should I stay?
Alan D. Born
Christmas Dos (and Don't s!)
By: Alan D. Born
In a certain library in the industrial north many years ago the old boss always made sure that new recruits each year put their names down for the Christmas do. Old hands smirked when they saw that some pretty young ingénue had put his or her name down. They didn't say anything. They didn't want to spoil the fun. They didn't add their own names however.
We're back in the late 60s when there was a fashion for young women to wear long dresses or skirts to
parties. Young men favoured flowery shirts and colourful loon pants.
Imagine the excitement as Christmas approached. The tree would go up in the Square. The crib would be installed outside the town hall. Lights would be strung back and forth all along the High St. The Parks Dept would supply a tree for the library foyer too. Senior Assistant Marjorie would see to the decorating of it,once Bob the caretaker had run the box of decorations to ground in the basement. It was Marjorie who every year bullied the staff into baking or buying mince pies for Charlie to distribute when he took books out to housebound readers.
Setting up a Christmas tree was considered enough. One year junior assistant Raymond sprayed Christmas greetings in fake snow on all the glass partitions. The old boss soon had him scrubbing all that off. That was going too far. A tasteful display of Christmas crafts and cooking would be mounted and that would be it.
And then the day of the Christmas do arrived. Imagine the excitement. It would be on a weekday night. The old boss favoured Monday because that was the quietest.
The select band of party goers would meet up in town all dolled up in their party best. They'd teeter along on their silver sandals clutching their glittery bags. There'd always be at least one boy in a crushed velvet jacket with a frilly fronted, purple shirt. They'd navigate the streets a little uncertainly in search of the venue.
The Colliers Arms was a street corner pub, a cobbled street corner pub with a gas lamp outside. The old librarian would be there to greet them still wearing his baggy work suit with the shiny bottom. He'd usher them into the snug.
It was a no music; no singing; no loud laughter; no women in the public bar sort of place. There were no fancy drinks. It was bitter or mild. The landlord might be persuaded to do a Benny ans hot, if he could be bothered to boil a kettle. Dismay turned to disbelief when Dismay turned to disbelief when the old boss got the dominoes from behind the bar. There'd be cribbage later and the evening would be crowned with a hot pot supper. Nobody put their name down for the Christmas do a second time.
I started work at the old library in Blackburn in 1971. The Christmas do was held in the small gallery of the museum upstairs. Sometimes it was a Jacob's join. Sometimes there was a kitty and Margaret Smith, the Children's Librarian, did the catering, helped by Bozena Hook. They always put on a good spread. The boss, Walter Yeates couldn't be persuaded to dress up as Santa, though with his ample girth, silver hair and florid complexion, he'd have been a good, albeit irascible, one. The only chief I knew who ever dressed up as Santa was Steve Eccles at Lancaster. He wasn't the most extrovert guy, but he made a good stab at it, appearing in the children's library to distribute presents. Having a do in the library provided opportunities for all kinds of 'goings on.' There was plenty of alcohol and you could slip downstairs with someone into the darkened library, a place so familiar and formal during the working day, but now mysterious and ready for mischief.
Walter used to invite staff up to his office on Christmas Eve for drinks. He had a special fund he could use for hospitality and there was a good selection of sherry, port and spirits. We'd go up in twos and threes as and when we could be spared from our duties. It was a bit awkward standing there trying to make conversation but we weren't detained for long. Afterwards Walter would have the drinks taken down to his car. My wife got a second go at it one year when I was hospitalised and Walter invited her up to his rural retreat in Mellor for drinks on Boxing Day.
Christmas dos continued to be held in the library. Brian Darbyshire succeeded Walter as Chief Librarian. One Christmas he was pestered by a young female assistant who thought it would be amusing to get him up to dance. She wouldn't take no for an answer and tried to haul him out of his chair. Brian had had enough. He made his excuses and left. The days of dos in the library were numbered. The library was a refuge for those on the margins at Christmas, those who lived alone, those who had nowhere to live. I arrived one Christmas morning to find a haggard scarecrow of a man huddled next to
the radiator in the foyer. He was blue with cold and shaking. There was an expression of dismay on his
face that things had come to this. He clutched a mug of tea.
The library wasn't open yet but foreman Bob Baron had spotted him outside and taken pity on him. He'd brought him in, put a chair next to the radiator and made him a pot of tea. Of course later in the day he'dbe threatening to throw him out for falling asleep in the reading room.
There were quite a few folk who'd nothing to look forward to when the library closed on Christmas Eve. We were open till 6.00 and some lingered to the very end with only an empty house to go to, or no house at all.
There was plenty of alcohol available in the library in the run up to Christmas. Grateful borrowers donated bottles and these were put out in the staff room available for quick tipples at break time. Every department had its own supply. If you had to go to admin, or cataloguing or the reference library you'd be offered a drink. Staff would go for a drink at lunchtime too and sometimes forget to come back. One Christmas Eve a gaggle of giggling juniors didn't reappear till 3 o clock. Walter would have had something to say about that, only he'd already gone home.
There was a more relaxed attitude to drink in those days. Christmas apart I'd think nothing of having three pints at lunchtime. That would be a disciplinary matter these days. Alcohol pervaded the daily routine then. Dad used to have a nip of rum before setting off to work on a cold morning. He'd walk there but he'd have 60 looms whirling away like Dervishes to deal with when he got there.
I was a bit shocked though when I was in hospital that Christmas at how freely the alcohol flowed there too. Not only that but you could smoke in hospital then. We'd all be sitting in our beds on ward five puffing away. On Christmas Day the bloke in the bed next to me who'd injured his back falling off his lorry, had half a dozen cans of Newcastle Brown on his locker and had a big cigar on the go. He nurses were at it too. They were always cadging fags and were up for fun and games. There'd be water fights with the livelier, likely looking lads. One was borne aloft down to the sluice and given a good soaking. I was left alone in peace with my book. On Christmas Day top surgeon Jim Brown came on the ward to carve the turkey.
Fun and games persisted for a while too at the library. It wasn't uncommon for a comely young library assistant to be pursued by an amorous senior. Often he'd flee in panic into the stack. Bif mistake – in the stack no one can hear you scream. Then it all changed. The first Christmas do away from the library was at the East Lancs Cricket Club. Margaret and Bozena still did the catering but they hired the function room at the club. This arrangement lasted for a few years. Eating out was not something we lower orders did much in the 1970s. No doubt senior officer types were having their soup in a basket and Black Forest gateaux at Berni inns up and down the land but we'd make do with a take-away at the end of the evening. Then it all changed.
One year some bright spark suggested we all troop out to some posh venue for our Christmas do. The meal suddenly became the thing. It never had been. It had always just been there to soak up the alcohol. We started going to Ribble Valley inns like the Ribchester Arms or the Moorcock or the Red Pump. Later I transferred to Darwen library but it was no different there. They favoured the Whitehall Country Club, or the Astley Bank, or the Rosins at Hoddlesden. Consuming alcohol in the library soon became a big no no too. Being in charge of a self-inking date stamp under the influence was a serious offence. No more drinks in the boss's office. No more boozy lunches. No more turning a blind eye if staff came back late.
Having the Christmas do at a posh venue became firmly established. Menus would be obtained and compared. There'd be haggling about whether partners should be permitted. Dressing up for the occasion was considered de rigueur. They were expensive affairs too. The meals were expensive. The drinks were at fancy prices. There would be taxis to pay for. Then there'd be a DJ running the disco determined to jolly folk along. I started to give them a miss. On the whole I'd have preferred an evening of dominoes with a couple of pints and a hot pot supper.