Sound and vision blog

30 March 2020

Recording of the week: Dusting books

This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Three men dusting books
Three men dusting books, one bent over © New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library

John Milne, born in 1929 in Aberdeen, worked for Bisset’s Bookshop in the 1950s. In his life story recording he reflected on changing approaches to bookselling and book handling. He talks about the importance of looking inside the books on the shelves, and argues that bookselling has now become about retail rather than about expertise. ‘Books are now sold like bars of soap, and that’s not my phrase, it came out years and years ago in one of the marketing ploys.’ In the following audio extract he takes us through his method of dusting the books in order to get to know the stock.

John Milne recalls the value of dusting books

People don’t handle books in the same way they used to. In the old days you would dust the books, and that’s the best way to get to know your stock. The discipline of dusting, every morning you would start on the shelf where you had stopped the day before, and you would pick up a book and you would have your duster or your brush, and you look at the title of the book and you look at the author and you look the publisher, and if you are standing still you would open it and read, a couple of pages, and to try to get some hold of the book and say, right, that’s it, back on the shelf. And work your way along the shelf, and you would maybe do two sections that morning. And after a week somebody comes in and says, a book, you say, ‘Oh I saw that yesterday,’ and you can stretch out your hand and have that book. It’s not done nowadays. There isn’t the discipline of learning about the inside of books. Maybe I’m denigrating present book staff but I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s the depth of knowledge that was there in the great old bookshops like Thin’s, Wallace, and still is, I don’t want to denigrate anybody, but Thin’s is a great bookshop, full of people who were wrapped up in books and did nothing else but books. Blackwell’s was the same, Heffers was the same, any of the big important shops of the Thirties are more or less still there.

John Milne was recorded by National Life Stories for Book Trade Lives in 1999. The interviewer was Sue Bradley. For more information about this recording see the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.