As mentioned in a previous post, I joined the British Library in January 1986 and left in March 2015, retiring at the age of 60. So that’s more four and half years ago (I haven’t lost my razor sharp brain) and it won’t be long until I am 65. I have restrained myself from writing about the British Library until now, but as I spent nearly half my life there it has left its mark.
One of the things people ask you when you are about to retire – particularly, I suppose, if you’ve become part of the furniture – is “Will you miss it?” It is a good question.
The truth is, I didn’t know
I liked the people I worked with but I felt ready to retire; I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and there were other things I wanted to do. But how would I feel, one week, one month, or even one year later?
I wasn’t the only new recruit to turn up at 2 Sheraton Street in Soho on a freezing cold Monday 6 January 1986. There were about half a dozen of us, one being Adrian, a couple of years younger than me. Over the years we would often come into contact (back then there were nearly 2,500 people working at the Library, scattered across many buildings in and outside London, so it was not inevitable). Eventually we ended up in the same team, wrangling with the website.
I worked with and for Adrian for many years and he was an admirable colleague: intelligent, calm, honest and fair as a manager, as well as extremely hard-working. Another ex-colleague referred to him, quite simply, as “a nice man”. Whilst (like me) not an early morning starter, he hardly ever took a sick day or a lunch break and he was usually still in the office after 6.30pm. He was totally dedicated to his work; to a fault, one might dare to say. The Library certainly got its money’s worth. Six months ago Adrian retired, and I saw him this week.
“So, are you missing it?”, I parroted
It seems not. He had been back to the Library just the once, to donate over 30 books that had belonged to his father (which, oddly, were not in the national collection). His experience of retirement, so far at least, was similar to mine: he thought he would have lots of time to read books, but he had begun just one; he had stopped worrying about the British Library and its website; he was not really interested in getting another job, although neither did he rule it out; he was doing some creative writing at last, and intended to play more music. And he knew it was inevitable that someone would come in and demolish everything he had worked on for two decades.
There is a film starring Jack Nicholson called About Schmidt. The title character, who has recently retired at an insurance company, visits his successor to offer his assistance, but is politely rebuffed. As he leaves, Schmidt sees his files, the sum of his career, chucked out with the rubbish. It is a film I’ve never seen, but Adrian wryly referred to it when we met.
Another old friend has worked in the publishing business since he left university. Although now “retired” he still publishes the occasional book – he seems to be addicted. The result is shelf after shelf of books he has edited, commissioned or published. Some bear his name on the cover. He can point to them and say: “I did that”. There are many other jobs for which the same is true; the ultimate in terms of legacy would be an enormous iconic building, such as the British Library indeed.
Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice
But nothing is assured. I am acquainted with a distinguished architect, a so-called Brutalist, who has lived to see most of his buildings demolished, including entire civic centres!
I have worked in marketing, web editing, tourism, academia, bookselling, tutoring, events management and so on which – whether or not you think they have any lasting value – have produced almost no tangible output. There are a couple of slim volumes and a few low-circulation magazines to which I have made a contribution, my unpublished thesis and that is about it. But wait, there’s a recording or two in the BL’s sound archive on which I am interviewing people, such as the late, great Beryl Bainbridge.
What did I accomplish at the British Library? I wasn’t even a librarian so I never brought people the books they ordered. What did all those ephemeral tasks amount to?
I now understand that they had a major effect upon me, and the way in which I see the world. (I could go on at length, and probably will, in a future blog.) Yes, I did learn some skills which you could call “technical”, such as HTML editing, creating RSS feeds… I could build a basic website in a couple of hours. But there is a huge range of “soft” skills which are more difficult to recognise and describe: things that you may not realise are skills, that you may regard as just common sense. But they are not, and not everyone has them because they have to be learned.
How to formulate and manage a project; what might success look like and how are you going to get there; can you anticipate what might go wrong; how do you counter scope creep? Whom do you need to influence to make it happen, and how are you going to communicate your vision? What is it that makes any individual tick (because it certainly does take all sorts)? What is important and what can be dumped, like poor Schmidt’s files, without any real loss? What are you going to document now and for the future? Don’t forget to praise, reward, celebrate.
Make friends, not enemies
Establishing and sticking to a budget too, of course. But what I find interesting is how much can be achieved without spending any money at all. In fact, the necessity to spend money can be as much a problem as not having any. The British Library, with its massive construction and operating budgets, was a pain in… that respect. You went through periods of cheese-paring and bleak austerity, then it was spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow because the end of the fiscal year is nigh.
As the years passed at the Library I acquired more and more experience of projects and more and more skills and confidence; but at the some time I was more and more frustrated because there was, I came to realise, often a mismatch between expectation and reality. Sometimes you felt you were over-delivering and sometimes the opposite. You learned to spot a vanity project almost immediately but that did not mean you could kill it off. Despite efforts to garner feedback I was often unconvinced that what we were doing was worthwhile and/or appreciated.
I realised that I preferred working on a smaller scale, where your customers are much closer to you. And that is why I get more satisfaction from leading The Herne Hill Society – from which I have never earned a penny. But I make use of the skills I learned at the British Library all the time. At least I made a war memorial happen, and that should be with us for a while yet.