With two jobs under my belt and no experience outside retail, I was still 18 and again looking for a new job. I really wanted to break out of retail, but I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to break into. The world was my confusing oyster; where the hell was I going to start?
The jobs pages of the local papers were a logical place, I decided; they were still the “go-to” bulletin boards for all jobs (this being 1999), and it was there I noticed an advert for a part-time library assistant. A job in a library? I loved libraries. I had been going to them since I was a child; I could remember Saturday morning story-time sessions very well. I could work somewhere I actually loved! How could I not? I scribbed furiously on the application form and – to my eternal delight and surprise – I got an interview.
The district manager interviewed me, and I liked her right from the off. Why she decided to hire me I will never know; I had no real-world work experience aside from retail and didn’t know anything about working in a library. I think I was fairly relaxed in the interview and my usual eccentric self; on reflection, I think that must have helped – as soon as I met the staff, I knew I was among my own kind.
So there I was, working for Kent County Council in Margate Library between 2pm and 6pm, five days a week. I had found a niche where I would settle for the next three and a half years.
Margate was the central library for the district, so all the senior librarians and other bosses worked out of there. The Reference Librarian and the Local Studies Librarian would bicker on a regular basis, with lots of door slamming and books banging on desks to boot; the children’s librarian was wonderfully cheerful and insightful; and the adult fiction librarian was a lady of indeterminate years who carried on as if the world around her wasn’t changing. Her driving was on the same principle; I once rashly accepted a lift from her, as we were going to the same meeting, and once she took the charabanc into third gear, nothing else was getting in her way. I spent the entire meeting anticipating the drive back with a terror hitherto undiscovered by me.
But I digress. When I started, I needed to be trained on the computer system, so one of the staff spent time with me – and an hour later, there wasn’t much else to learn. To the library’s credit, I was later put on a course to learn about computing in more detail; this was in the late nineties, when technology was starting to take a great leap forward (and libraries were following the charge from a great distance behind), so I got to learn about different applications – perhaps on the basis that I was 18 and willing to learn.
Those first few months at Margate Library set me up for the rest of my customer-facing career; I became fairly unshockable when I came across the regulars and newcomers alike. The kindness we received from people who appreciated the free service was wonderful; the grumpiness and rudeness from people who couldn’t get their own way was amusing.
There was a cadre of more junior staff in the library (me included), most of whom were male; we would try our best to entertain ourselves by finding opportunities to laugh as much as we could. We would tidy the shelves and create stories from five different books at once, we would dress up in the lost property (I know, I know …), and developed a code for irritating and annoying customers so that we could try to share the load.
And then, a few months after I started, I moved to Broadstairs Library. There was a full-time job going, and I was attracted by the principle of more money. It was slightly closer to home, as well, but I would still get to see some of the Margate staff when we helped to cover hours between the different libraries.
Working full-time was a new experience, but it wasn’t really much different to what I’d done before. After all, I’d spent years at school, and this was just a few more hours on top of that; even working every other Saturday wasn’t too bad, because I’d spent the previous two years working every single Saturday. This was a step in the right direction.
All the full-time library assistants were given some particular area to focus on; one worked in the reference library, another covered the DVDs and CDs, and so on. I was asked to help the children’s librarian; at first, I was rather nervous, as I hadn’t got any experience in working with children, but I soon settled in. The children’s librarian was the man who had read stories to five year old children at Ramsgate Library all those years before, and I was now to discover that he had a rather warped sense of humour – so he was fine by me.
The library manager at Broadstairs gave me my first full-time job, which was nice. What wasn’t nice was everything that followed; her management style taught me how to not deal with people, and guided me as to how I was going to manage staff in the future – or, to be precise, how I wouldn’t manage staff.
I shan’t outline it all here, because she doesn’t have the opportunity to defend herself. Relations between us deteriorated rapidly, to the point where I lodged a formal complaint against her behaviour – not that it did any good, sadly. My career in libraries came to an end because of the relationship we singularly failed to maintain – things had become so invariably toxic that I couldn’t carry on. She was not well-respected or well-liked by many at the library, sadly, and I wonder if she knew that; it would have been a horrible thing to be aware of, wouldn’t it?
There was no dress code per se in the libraries; we were encouraged to be smart, but friendly and approachable. Our district manager took a very liberal attitude to such things, but our local manager didn’t. One of our staff – a Chilean named Carla who I became great buddies with – wore a beret to work. Our manager took exception to this and ordered her to take it off. Carla refused. This standoff continued for some time and Carla, to her credit, didn’t back down. There was nothing wrong with what she was wearing, and she had no reason to be treated differently – except that some people were treated differently, and that day was her turn. The beret incident became legendary, and other libraries would send little pictures of berets in solidarity with Carla.
The atmosphere was very different when the manager wasn’t there – as is often the case when toxic managers are in place. There was laughter, some pranks, and Steven the seagull who regularly visited us (I was reminded by a friend who I am still in touch with even now) became part of the furniture
How we managed to get any work done, I do not know, but we did. I loved many of my colleagues, and there was a lot of silliness alongside the work of helping the public. For reasons I still can’t fully explain, I used to regularly wheel myself round the library on an office chair, mostly because it amused me – in fact, there were entire days where I barely walked anywhere. We had extensive elastic band fights in the communal office – sides were taken, defensive positions were built, and we were picking elastic bands off the floor for days afterwards. One day, we laughed so much and so hard that the group had to be split up for the rest of the day, as we couldn’t control ourselves. On another occasion, our children’s librarian – David – came into the group office and (in front of everyone) asked to speak to me privately in his office. His face was serious, and my stomach sank – what had I done wrong? We went into his office, and he shut the door. He then turned to me – I must have looked petrified – and said, “Thanks, Matthew. You can go now.” My language was somewhat colourful, to put it mildly, when I realised he had been winding me up.
There were dysfunctions in the team, like there are in any team; if I had been older and more experienced, I might have called them out from time to time, and challenged my own behaviour as well. But I was a callow youth and didn’t have the nerve to say anything – and they weren’t serious enough, in any case, for the team not to work. Other libraries worked differently; one library even had two Christmas parties, because the entire group couldn’t be – wouldn’t be – all together in the same room at the same time. My mind boggles.
Technology was going through a big change at the time; we were taking a big leap forward as a society, and libraries were introducing free, public-access computers into every branch. In these early days, we didn’t have much experience of how that would look, but there were precious few regulations in place; people could access anything on the PCs, because there weren’t any filters in place. When you consider that some of these computers were in the children’s library, it caused some concern, as you might imagine – and the system was certainly abused. I spoke up about my concerns, but my face was not fitting very well amongst senior management by this point; serial abusers of the PCs seemed to sense that there wasn’t much support of us by the bosses and spent a significant amount of their spare time looking at awful stuff on the internet and making our lives miserable. That wasn’t fun.
And so I found myself looking for another job. I wonder, in retrospect, how much longer I might have stayed if the management structure had been different; if the managers had been good eggs who were strategic and supportive (the wonderful district manager who had recruited me had sadly departed by this time), staff morale would undoubtedly have been higher. I wouldn’t have necessarly considered leaving that soon in a healthier work environment – and it made me expect more of my managers in the future.
I was sad to leave people I adored, and whenever I see them, I want to embrace them; they have earned my enduring friendship and respect, and I miss them even now.