I whiled away a year as Head of Learning Resources at a new sixth form college, where we upgraded the provisional library the college had opened with (which I was around long enough to move into – I’d almost forgotten that one).
Meanwhile, a post came up at a London university that I had applied for two years earlier without being shortlisted. It was in a location I used to visit occasionally as a publishers’ rep (long before its current buildings were occupied by the university). On those days, the sun always shone.
I applied again.
On the day of my interview, rain fell copiously on my walk from train to campus. In spite of this doubtful omen, my interview and tour of the library were encouraging. I emerged into sunlight, which seemed to augur well. Later that afternoon, I was offered the post of Campus Learning Services Manager.
Like the library school I had (occasionally) attended, the university had been a technical college, pupated as a polytechnic and emerged – a butterfly from a chrysalis – as one of the 1990’s new universities. The Learning Services Manager I was replacing would be developing a new resource centre at the university’s third campus.
The campus where I worked was part of London’s tourist trail, and the library was housed in a listed building. I loved the location; I loved our building, and it was a mere thirteen miles from home.
Maybe a 20-30 minute drive?
. . .on a quiet night after an evening shift.
Anyone who knows what circumventing London in the rush hour involves will be aware that my morning and afternoon commutes were substantially longer, involving queues and stationary traffic – and speed cameras, which seemed like wishful thinking on someone’s part (until I drove home after a 9pm evening shift on a three-lane carriageway with a 30 mph limit and saw a light flash as I passed a speed camera).
I wasn’t initially working evening shifts though – that was a choice I made later. We had a mix of full and part time staff to cover the hours open and my hours were roughly 8.45 to 5pm. (Contracts of staff above a certain pay grade were vague about working hours. We worked the hours required to fulfill our job description.)
Since the library was a listed building (ie: listed by English Heritage – now Historic England – as worthy of preservation) all renovation for library purposes had to observe additional building regulations.
One doesn’t expect straight floors and ninety-degree angles in such buildings, but during a staff training event it became obvious that the floor was listing further than usual in the room we were using. Staff sitting on wheeled computer chairs at one side of the room were rolling towards the door. Surveyors were called in and the room was closed to students, as was the room below.
In the original revamp, rotting joists below the floorboards had been replaced by sound wood, but because they were on a mission to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible, the new wood had been bolted onto the original joist ends which were in better condition. Ten years later, these ends had rotted away from the metal connecting the new wood. The floorboard supports now rested on the ceiling of the room below.
In the spirit of not removing original building materials, a new floor was installed on all-new supports, leaving the old wood supporting nothing and free to rot safely under the floorboards.
Unlike the FE colleges, computing support to university students was administered by Learning Services. The computer wizards responsible for IT infrastructure and the student portal were tucked away in a heavily secured corner of the top floor, but IT liaised closely with our staff in the library’s computing labs. The computing expertise of subject librarians was also recognised, part of their remit being to teach students (and often their lecturers) how to use the University’s online databases and research archives. These were educational subscriptions to professional resources that students would use in the occupations they were training for.
This being the first decade of the century, earlier panic about a ‘millenium bug’ had passed and it was deemed safe to change library management software to a Windows-based system.
Although one might imagine now that this would be easier for staff to use than an MSDOS-based system, it wasn’t that straightforward. Many of the Library Assistants had been with the University since its days as a college. The library management system formed part of their expertise. They knew their way around its familiar screens and commands.
Windows’ visual prompts may have seemed, to developers, easier to understand (once staff were introduced to them) but having to reach for a mouse, point and click, actually slows you down when you’re used to doing everything using keystrokes, from moving up or down between lines to entering single letter commands.
Another change that led to mutterings in the staff room were the self-service machines we introduced a couple of years later. Certain staff saw these as a bid to replace them, rather than an opportunity to vary their workload with more rewarding activities, such as assisting in training sessions for students. Self-service wasn’t initially popular with all the users either, in particular mature students who liked a natter at the counter.
Then we remodelled the counter.
Three counter points were reduced to two and the counter was raised. This made it easier for staff to stand and dash out to assist students in finding resources or using photocopiers and self-service. High stools were supplied for those whose legs required respite on a two-hour counter shift. Older staff remained unconvinced that this was an improvement.
More change was on the way.