Working in the Library

By David McVey


Libraries. We all love them. You can read books, consult books, borrow books or simply breathe in the atmosphere of books. You can work, study, research, use the wifi and, these days, relax in the café. What would we do without them?

Much has been written, and rightly so, about the vital contribution our public libraries make to the communities they serve, and about what is lost when they are closed. But what of libraries for writers? These days, I find myself working in libraries more and more; perhaps one day I’ll be carried out of a library clinging to a desk when some philistine councillors try closing it.

I use libraries to do some primary literary historical research, for there’s nothing like getting your hands dirty with original manuscripts that scarcely anyone has accessed before. I also use them, as we all do, to access published resources. But most of all I like to work in them, in relative peace surrounded by books, readers, scholars and learning. Yes, there’s an appeal to working in cafes (and it worked for JK Rowling) or at home, but suppose you are working at home and from your window you see your neighbour clatter out onto the decking; he then turns on a dopey commercial radio channel at full blast and starts bawling into his phone, initiating a lengthy blokey chat with some like-minded soul. This would be time for you to flee to the library!

There’s a strange pleasure about visiting libraries that are new to you; Knightswood Library, a local authority resource in Glasgow’s northwest suburbs, is a recent feather in my cap along with the British Library. Not long before I had made my first visit to the Bodleian’s Weston Library and Radcliffe Camera. At football matches I sometimes notice those odd trainspottery fellows who ‘collect’ football grounds; they call themselves ‘groundhoppers’. Perhaps I’m a library-hopper?

Some libraries are under threat yet others have visitors flocking to them. I’ve scoffed branded chocolate from gift shops in both the National Library of Scotland and the Bodleian. With Society of Authors in Scotland groups I’ve had backstage tours of the National Library and Glasgow’s legendary Mitchell Library.

I’m not wealthy nor am I a shopaholic (except in bookshops) so I don’t have a huge collection of credit cards. However, I have amassed a surprising number of library reader cards as follows;

  • East Dunbartonshire Council (my local area)
  • Glasgow Council (enabling me to access the great Mitchell Library)
  • Highland Council
  • National Library of Scotland
  • National Records of Scotland
  • Scottish Poetry Library
  • University of Strathclyde (I’m an alumnus)
  • New College Lanarkshire (where I’m a part-time lecturer)
  • Bodleian Library
  • British Library
  • University of the West of Scotland (where I used to work – this card is, I suspect, long expired but one day I’ll try to bluff my way in with it)

Recently, for research purposes, I needed access to a Canadian literary journal from 1932. The only holding I could find in Scotland was at the University of Glasgow, so I applied to view it. I was directed to the library’s annexe – a unit on a trading estate in the north of Glasgow built on a former factory site. Adjoining the barely noticeable entrance to the annexe were a tool hire firm, an angling supplies retailer and a Chinese food wholesaler. Inside, though, the atmosphere was just like any library in any era, not a 1990s-built commercial unit. I was presented with my volume and for a couple of hours I sat making pencil notes, before staggering back into the daylight for a Number 75 bus back to the city centre. I’d been the only client during that time. It must be a lonely posting for a librarian, this Kafkaesque outpost of bookishness.

Librarians sometimes have a reputation for frostiness, for guarding access to their resources with an unsmiling zealousness. It’s a stereotype that simply doesn’t stand up. I’ve very rarely encountered any obstreperousness from library staff and most are very helpful indeed. Those in the National Library of Scotland have a particularly good reputation; it’s as if they know they are the custodians of great treasures and encourage people to access them. A special word for staff in the Bodleian, too; when I arrived in Oxford I wondered what they’d make of some Glaswegian further education lecturer seeking to get his proletarian paws on their books and manuscripts, yet they were welcoming and helpful beyond words. And if library staff are so helpful, libraries must have a future.

Academic libraries vary in their accessibility. Most will admit anyone if they obtain a reader’s card (for which there will usually be a fee). Until you have one, you can’t get in. Others, just about anyone can wander into, sit, work, consult books and so on. But to withdraw books or access the wifi, you’ll need a reader’s card. Find out where your local college and university libraries are and investigate their access policies. Don’t miss out.

Of course, writers get much of their income from libraries, from the books they lend to the other library rights harvested by ALCS and from participating in events that they host. How can we repay our debt? I once spoke at a library in Argyll and Bute and mentioned afterwards my collection of library cards. Perhaps, I suggested, I should hand in my Highland Libraries card as I didn’t live there anymore.

‘Don’t,’ a librarian replied firmly. ‘You’re an important statistic.’

Here’s my final advice for writers in engaging with libraries. Join often, use them often. And remember (as the song doesn’t quite say), you can leave any time you like, but never check out…


David McVey is one of Grattan Street Press’s international readers and a lecturer at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (ie hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (ie TV), and supporting his home-town football (ie soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

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