The Blog

Last of the Rare Book Cataloguers

Only a few books to go and then so will I. It's been a long journey to a virtual chapel complete with stained glass windows, weeding and shelving rare books in a reading room not twenty miles from the special collection where I first learnt the library trade nearly twenty-five years ago.

Only a few books to go and then so will I. It's been a long journey to a virtual chapel complete with stained glass windows, weeding and shelving rare books in a reading room not twenty miles from the special collection where I first learnt the library trade nearly twenty-five years ago.

Aspergers can be natural cataloguers but there are few left today, and while I've come to a dignified end, I leave a failing trade in disarray. Between 2010-2016 the number of UK libraries declined from 4,290 to 3,765, and 7,933 paid staff were slaughtered while volunteers doubled from 15,861 to 31,403. A 2014 library report confirmed that "the public library service in England is at a crossroads."

And given my long experience of a library "profession" brimful of jargon, bereft of leadership and bare of jobs, I do not believe the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) is able, "to encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates."

I really dislike CILIP, whose only response to being at a crossroads was to consider changing their name.

Talk about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, and then they didn't even do it!

Not that my library life began badly. My library course was mumbo jumbo, but my first job the extraordinary experience of manually cataloguing antiquarian monographs worth millions of pounds in a stately home.

Aspergers have a firewall between their everyday personalities and the manic nutter subroutine needed effectively to catalogue. If I joke that "cataloguers make accountants look like hippies," I'm not actually joking.

I spent three years living, breathing and stacking books in a library like a time capsule from Victorian days...

Time and Again, by Jack Finney, defined the delicious possibility that:

" may be possible this summer ... for a man to walk out of that unchanged apartment and into that other summer."

Unlike physical time travel via TARDIS, psychological time travel might be possible, that if you spent enough time in a room from the past, you might find:

"...doors which let the lucky traveller, still young, walk out into a different summer and another day."

I came close to seeing that other summer and, fascinated by rare books, looked forward to telling my incredible story, hoping to be encouraged and developed.

And then I tried to get another job.

It was a torrid tale of frustration and fading hopes, my skills withering on the vine, my interest in rare books dying for lack of development and my patience shortening like a lit and burning fuse.

Some men endure Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation." I wasn't one of them, and in 2006 calmly and career-suicidally wrote out how I felt; reasoning that I was doomed anyway and at least I'd avoid ulcers of sheer frustration.

I called it The Gordian Knot:

"It's not often I start to write an article intending to crucify myself, commit professional suicide and probably get myself beaten up by a rampaging mob of respectable librarians into the bargain, but I'm now so disillusioned with the profession that I would rather fall on my sword than stagger through interviews mumbling tripe I don't believe about metadata, revalidation, ICT, twelve-digit Dewey numbers and all the other pseudo-professional jargon we have invented."

It sounds funny now. It didn't then. Vampires, Hollywood and authorship were parts of a future I could not know; and I truly believed I'd destroyed any chance of work by cheerfully insulting my colleagues.

However, library campaigner Tim Coates (former managing director of Waterstones) published my death wish on his Good Library Blog and I went on to slag off librarianship in Tim's blog for the next five years.

God, it was fun.

My favourite quote was:

"Senior library managers should be shot out of the USS Enterprise's shuttlebay doors in their underpants."

It was easy to satirize twits who talked tripe about "social cohesion issues, automated tagging based on behavioral pathways, user-endorsed ratings systems and the negotiation of a reference question as opposed to the communication theory of reference interviews," and I did. An email of mine laughing at their daft drivel won letter of the month in the library journal Update in 2008.

Nor was I the only rebel.

In a 2012 issue of Post-Lib, Francis Hendrix wrote:

"In 2003, ... we commissioned Charlie Leadbeater to undertake a review entitled 'Overdue.' It is still the best in-depth look at the sector. He finished by stating that 'Unless decisive action is taken now, the decline of our public libraries could become terminal by the end of the decade. If that happened Britain could be writing off vital social and cultural assets. Public libraries used to be central to the life of many communities but they are increasingly marginalised.' The report recommended a 10 year strategy for transforming libraries. Well the 10 years is now almost up, opportunities have been lost, all-encompassing government support has gone out of the window and with it one of the mainstays of a democratic and civilised society."

Now it's 2016 and British libraries are f****d. But my satirical blogs were read by Chaplin Books' founder, which led to the achievement of my life's ambition: published authorship.

I also thought my "career" had ended in 2011 when the NHS failed, laughably and amateurishly, to give me the library assistant's post they'd offered me in writing. But in 2015 I got involved with Culter Library in South Lanarkshire - a roomful of rare books near Leadhills Miners Library, where it all began.

It's been a fine and satisfying time showing how my dying art's done. It's a pity my trade will pass away with me, but I can't respect a "profession" so unsupportive, indecisive and inefficient it opens a £189 million library in Birmingham in 2013 and virtually shuts it the following year.

I place the last book on the shelf.

Time to go.

I look to the sky through the stained glass window, and step out into the light.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau and The Legend of John Macnab. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.