The March of Progress

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Through the twentieth century, the Net Book Agreement in the UK had fixed book prices. Only books that were ‘remaindered’ by publishers (having failed to sell) were sold at reduced prices. This agreement between the Publishers Association and booksellers fell by the wayside in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, book prices could be discounted at any point after publication.

Back in the 1970s, our public library book orders were distributed between two nominated library suppliers. The companies that supplied libraries competed by offering better services rather than discounted prices. By the time I joined the university library in 2004, such services included the suppply of catalogue records as well as basic processing (spine numbers, accession numbers, date labels…). Once a supplier was agreed with the bursar’s office, the learning resources department was obliged to buy bookstock from the nominated supplier(s).

But by 2004, the university’s students were buying their course books from Amazon.

Library borrowers were charged for the replacement of lost or damaged library books, but students now objected to paying for contract-supplied replacements while Amazon charged less for the same books.

I don’t recall ever getting the bursar’s department involved with our decision to accept replacement books (of the correct edition) directly from students. We stocked up on the stationery needed to process the items for loan and by the time the bursar queried the practice, it had been standard procedure too long to outlaw without student revolt.

Dreadnought seaman's Hospital

Our library and its computers were distributed around a fascinating old building, but as the universitiy expanded and new courses were added, we were running out of shelf space, study space and computer space. Other computer labs on campus now opened up to students outside lessons, but the library stayed open longer.

University libraries were moving towards twenty-four hour opening, and our students were pressing for similar facilities.

Late night opening was first trialled for exam revision. In the following year, hours were extended through term-time with the help of self-service machines and student employees. We had previously employed student library assistants to work with the Saturday Librarian, but these evening assistants would work until the small hours, unsupervised except for CCTV and roaming security staff. Their remit was to shelve books and supervise students working in the study rooms, although they were often called to assist with self-service machines and photocopiers. Security staff at the exits also became adept at helping with the nearby self-service machines and seemed to enjoy this addition to their skillset.

However, our rambling old building was not easily supervised by two students and a handful of cameras.

Plans were afoot to move an entire curriculum area to us from another campus. A new building would be needed, and it was decided that this would also house a new learning resource centre . Once again, I organised stocktakes, calculated shelf space, met with architects, and visited other other new libraries.

Photo by Guilherme Rossi on

Our new learning resource centre would open in my 66th year. I had planned to work until 65, but I would still not be around for staff to ask, ‘Why ever did you plan it that way?’ Continuity would be better served if I left sooner rather than later.

That was my excuse, anyway.

Other factors were in play. At home, my soon-to-be second husband had been staying with me while house-hunting. When he bought a house in the Cambridgeshire Fens, surrounded by fields, we fell into a new routine.

On Friday mornings I would go to work by train instead of by car. At 5pm I would join the flow of railway commuters to Kings Cross and thence to Peterborough where my other half would pick me up – the only train from there to our nearest station didn’t leave for another two hours. (Likewise, the only bus.)

On Monday morning, we and our four dogs would travel down to my suburban London home in time for me to drive in to work for 1pm (having manoeuvered myself onto the 1-9pm late shift for Mondays.)

Most weeks, he would drive back to the Fens with the dogs on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I would join him on Friday evening for the weekend. I began to have second thoughts about working another four years.

On my sixty-first birthday I retired, fully intending to find a part-time job. Somehow, things didn’t work out that way.

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Life happens while we’re making other plans – as someone once said.

8 thoughts on “The March of Progress

  1. It’s funny how our plans don’t always work, but I think there is still value in having them. Your university library sounds like ours on terms of becoming. 24 hour destination, starting of by trialing it during exam time.. and now our library has a coffee and snack shop…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just read this morning that Amazon is not allowing libraries to loan out audio versions of many books they have recorded. Another sign of creeping domination over books I am afraid. I am glad you retired after reading about your commute at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amazon is getting a lot of bad press all round about their audiobook dealings. I don’t like audiobooks – I tried them when I was commuting by car. In those days the only ones available from the library were classics but the raconteurs never read the story the way I would have. If/when my eyes finally give up on me I would like to have that option, so it’s a shame Amazon are being so proprietorial. I hope it will lead to authors who want to produce audio books going elsewhere to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. My other peeve is that they take so long compared to reading. Useful when I’m editing my stories though – I have one of those automated online robots reading it out to me to make me slow down and read it properly.

          Liked by 1 person

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