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Behind the scenes at the British Library

1 posts from June 2022

28 June 2022

Library Lives: Susan Taylor, Glasgow

‘I love this quote from Andrew Carnegie: “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.  It is a never failing spring in the desert.”’

In this month’s celebration of librarians we’re back in Glasgow, this time with Susan Taylor, librarian in the Special Collections department of The Mitchell Library.

Susan Taylor
Susan Taylor

Tell us about your role

I manage collections of rare books and manuscripts, and our local and family history services, including handling enquiries and organising events.

Mitchell - North Street entrance 3664-071
The Mitchell Library, Glasgow

Where was your local library growing up?

When I was very young, I lived in the highest village in Scotland, Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway, where I learned about ‘The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead’, also known as Wanlockhead Miners’ Library.  It was established in 1756 and was the second-oldest subscription library in the country, with the original aim of the mine companies and owners being to encourage self-improvement and temperance in the local population. 

I did most of my growing up in Tain, Ross-shire, where I visited the Carnegie Library with my mother, my main concern being to insist that we got the maximum allocation of books every time!  I loved its shadowy, soothing atmosphere, and was fascinated by the brown index card system.  I remember that my 11-year-old brother was in love with the librarian.

Do you have a favourite item in your library’s collection?

My favourite collection is our full set of the Kelmscott Press by William Morris. It’s the care that’s gone into the look and feel of the books that attracts me. I am also a great fan of William Morris fabric designs.

NOTE OF FOUNDING THE KELMSCOTT PRESS 690467A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press, William Morris (1898) Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press. Accession Number: 690467.
©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections.

My favourite individual item is any manuscript because of the (usually) personal nature of it, and the naughty/nosy feeling I get from looking at someone else’s correspondence or early draft of a work of literature. I enjoy the tactile experience of holding them (when allowed). It’s the closest thing to time-travel. And handwriting is so expressive of emotions.

Burns ms. detail-Ye Banks & BraesDetail from holograph draft of Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon. Robert Burns (c. 1792). Accession Number: 1000833
©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections.

What is your favourite, or the most unusual, query that you have helped someone with?

My favourite (both unusual and unexpected) queries relate to the many experiences of suffragettes and suffragists within the building – for example, Alice Paul, who spent the night on the roof of the building in August 1909; and Emmeline Pankhurst and her bodyguards practising ju-jitsu on the police in the so-called ‘Battle of Glasgow’ of March 1914.

The most niche item requested from the collection is probably the records of the Clydesdale Horse Society. (By the way, this was made up of humans.) Our oddest holding is perhaps the plaster cast model of the top of Robert Burns’ skull from our Robert Burns Collection. For those who might not be fond of his poetry, it conveys the humanity of the poet in a direct way. It is loved by children, particularly – far from being frightened, they are completely fascinated. 

Other than your own, where's your favourite library, or one you would most like to visit?  

The new Birmingham (England) Library, and the ‘other’ Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. 

The State Library of New South Wales. J Bar at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you weren’t a librarian, what would you be?

A genealogist, a detective or a forensic psychologist – someone who seeks and often finds connections between things and occasionally solves mysteries...

What one thing do you wish people knew about libraries which you suspect they don’t?

Being a librarian is not just about stamping – or even reading – books.  It’s about trying to connect a person to the right resources for them (whether within or without your own library) and introducing them to items of potential interest.

Favourite fictional librarian?

Mr Ambrose in Bob’s Burgers! Followed by Mr Hutchings in The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (in which the Queen becomes a voracious reader), which is about reading, writing and finding your voice. 

Book recommendation?

The novel I would recommend is The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, first published anonymously in 1824. I like the strangeness of it, with its double narrative and shifting time frames. It was also an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson.

I would also recommend Heaven Knows Who (1960) by Christianna Brand. This is somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. She tells the story of an infamous Glasgow murder case and skilfully manages to include all the relevant trial facts whilst making a very easy-to-read, flowing narrative.  She was usually a children’s author (Nurse Matilda, which became Nanny McPhee) and she was the cousin of my favourite illustrator, Edward Ardizzone.

Both of these books I want to read again and again. I find different things in them each time.

Interview by Ellen Morgan.

We’re interviewing 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 [email protected] 

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