It’s May 1992 and I’m currently on placement at Dundee Central Library. My days consist of putting returned books back on the shelves, filing, re-organising, assisting with enquiries and serving customers at the counter. To an avid, young reader and fantasist like me, I feel like I’ve won the work experience lottery. My local library in Menzieshill is fascinating enough – I mean, I found The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the first shelf I looked - but it’s small. The Central Library is HUGE, with row upon row of pine shelving and white, wire carousels of knowledge. It even has a separate Children’s Library and audio/visual borrowing room!
The old man arrives seemingly out of nowhere. He is small and crumpled with a stoop. He stops to blow his nose with an old, tatty, brown and cream handkerchief before slowly, making his way towards the counter.
“Can I help you sir?”
“Jist returning these, lassie” he says, handing over a carrier bag full of books.
“Certainly” I say, beginning to scan the barcodes. All of a sudden, a message flashes up on the computer monitor. OVERDUE. Amount £6.00.
“Sir, it says that your books are overdue and that you have a fee to pay. £6.00.”
I look into his wearied face and I see the bottom of his world fall out. He tells me that he hasn’t been keeping particularly well since the passing of his wife some months before, that the days run into each other and that he forgets things a lot more. Momentarily, I’m caught off-guard. What should I do? Speak to the librarian? What would be the decent thing?
“Sir”, I say, checking that the coast is clear, “consider the fee waived.”
He argues with me a little - out of pride - but with the click of a button, his debt is no more. He thanks me and I feel good that he can put that £6.00 to some other use. That’s my good deed done for the day … or is it?
Another lady who arrives at the counter with a tremor, who can barely pass the books over the counter, never mind be expected to count out coins of change is met with a cheery, “Library fee amnesty today!” Then there’s the harassed, young mother who looks so relieved that I feel like she’s going to jump over the counter and hug me when I say with a grin, “Don’t worry about the fine.”
I decide that the more affluent customers (and there are plenty of them) can handle £1.50 here and there, but my fellow skint comrades are absolved of their fiscal hardship. From that moment onwards, I’m like the latter-day Robina Hood of lending, an intellectual freedom-fighter, a one-girl, literary hardship fund, writing off the debts of the elderly and disadvantaged with a wink and whisper of, “It’s ok. We’ve all been there.”
“Oh, hiya Mrs Wilson. How are you today? How is your wee dog doing? Ok, there’s a fine on that book, but I won’t say anything if you won’t.” Click. Mrs Wilson looks delighted and smiles through her spectacles at me as we proceed to have a wander around the library together, chatting (very quietly, we don’t forget where we are) about Vince, her West Highland Terrier who we wave to through the glass of the window.
After my week is done, I reckon I’ve cleared the reading debt of just about a tenth of Dundee’s population and am on first name terms with a great number of the elderly patrons. The head librarian calls me into the back office … to thank me for all of my hard work and I receive a glowing report to take back to school with me … “a pleasant attitude to both staff and customers … picked up library procedures easily … Gillian worked well without supervision.” Indeed.
Dundee Central Library, I’m writing to apologise for not following the rules of my placement and contributing to libraries funding problems. But you see, the thing is, I couldn’t find it in my 14-year-old self to charge the elderly and underprivileged natives of my city for still being curious about life, for wishing to remain well-read and for being so charming and friendly to my slightly naïve, younger self. To a penniless, working-class teenager, the contents of those shelves were my window into other worlds and escape route from this one and I guess that’s what made me do it. I don’t wish to sound like I didn’t value the experience you gave me. I worked with a wonderful bunch of friendly, warm, highly-knowledgeable and funny people at the library who I learned so much from and who were such a positive influence on me. Our libraries are great institutions with dedicated staff which deserve to be cherished … but so do the loyal people who patron them, as disorganised, as forgetful, as heartbroken and hard-up as they sometimes can be.