Living Knowledge blog

06 October 2021

Library Lives: Hedley Sutton, British Library St Pancras

‘Favourite thing that you can do in a library? Stumbling across something that means a great deal to you, that you would never dream existed.’

Continuing our Libraries Week launch of our new series, Library Lives, we meet Hedley Sutton, qualified librarian and Reference Team Leader in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

Where was your local library growing up?

I grew up in a small town in Lancashire, and my local library was Bury Public Library.

What does your current job involve?

I manage and am part of the small team that provides the front of house enquiry desk service in the Reading Room, and fields enquiries that come in remotely, mostly via email, from all over the world.

Do you have a favourite item in the Library’s collection?

This is unsurprisingly a difficult question to answer! But I do have one – it’s a very strange item: it’s The Necronomicon. The American writer H P Lovecraft’s tales involve mention of an ancient manuscript, which can be used as a spell to summon spirits from other worlds to earth. Some fans of Lovecraft thought it would be a good wheeze to pretend that this book really existed, so they produced a facsimile edition of this ‘ancient manuscript’. Because the supposed original script came from Mesopotamia / Iraq, within the Library the copy we have was thought to properly ‘belong’ to Asian and African Studies, rather than in, say, the general humanities collection. If and when Readers ask for a translation – as has happened – that’s when we have to tell them it’s all just meaningless scribble. And, in fact, the same meaningless scribble gets repeated every 16 pages!

Do you have a favourite or unexpected enquiry that you’ve helped someone with?

Our collection in Asian and African Studies includes a certain amount of material useful to those researching family history – particularly relating to India before Independence in 1947. I remember, vividly, helping someone find out about their father who they had never known, and them – to their own huge embarrassment – bursting into tears. I thought: that’s something you don’t experience every day, in any walk of life.

What's your favourite thing that you can do in a library?

Stumbling across something that means a great deal to you, that you would never dream existed. It’s a great pleasure as a librarian to be able to put the collection item alongside the person who wants to see it.

Where's your favourite library, or one you would most like to visit?

The New York Public Library, as I’ve heard a great deal about it but have not yet visited it.

Can you sum up being a librarian in three words?

Friendly. Diligent. Curious.

What do you think makes a good librarian?

You need to have people skills, to put people at ease and extract from them the information you need to be able to help them. Together with a good working knowledge of your own collection, and some knowledge as to where else someone might be able to find what they’re looking for.

Tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with your job

I compose limericks! Both for and about colleagues, and about a wide range of other things.

There was a young lady called Janet
Who went to a library on Thanet
She saw (it was blatant),
The enquiry desk vacant,
So she thought to herself – should I man it?

Plenty more where that came from!

Can you give us a book recommendation?

Yes, one I was given recently: it’s a modern anthology of writings about libraries and librarians called Long Overdue: A Library Reader by Alan F Taylor.

Interview by Ellen Morgan

We spoke to people who have professional registration status as a librarian via the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals or who have an academic qualification such as a first degree, a postgraduate diploma or a Master’s degree in library and information studies or librarianship.

Is this you? If you’d like to feature in Library Lives, get in touch with ellen.morgan@bl.uk

Would you like this to be you? Find out more about becoming a librarian on the CILIP website.

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