Daniel Macklin illustration, Ursula Buchan, SF 69

Shelving My Assumptions

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Last year, in response to a public consultation on the viability of my local public library, I offered to volunteer my unskilled services every Friday afternoon. This was my small way of signalling to the county council how precious a resource I believed the library to be, even if I hadn’t visited it that often since my children left school. (I would need three lifetimes to read the books already residing on my own shelves.) The library is situated in a reasonably, but not excessively, prosperous small town, with a mixed-age population; like a thousand others across the country, I guess. I was gratefully welcomed by the professional librarians and set to work putting returned books back in their proper place on the shelves.

In my working life, I have met professional archivists, since I sometimes carry out research in correspondence and newspaper collections. They are courteous but firm, and sticklers for the rules, since they are in charge of irreplaceable, and often very valuable, historical documents. Librarians in public libraries are altogether more relaxed. If my experience is anything to go by, they are endlessly patient with stupid questions, surprisingly tolerant of noise, and extremely good with children. My shelving activities free them to do what they do best, which is to think up imaginative craft-based schemes to catch the interest of readers, especially youthful ones.

The most challenging stacking task, I soon discovered, concerns children’s books. The minute differences between the various publishers’ reading schemes make me frantic, and the lurid covers of young fiction give me a headache. (It must be worse for children, who have so much sharper eyesight than me.) I easily tire of shelving books featuring charmless dinosaurs or winsome aliens. I was also initially surprised to discover that many children’s books are written by people who have mad

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About the contributor

Despite the obvious rewards, Ursula Buchan has decided not to take up crime writing, but to remain working in the less dangerous sphere of non-fiction. Her biography of John Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, was published in 2019.

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