Having recently given up work after a career divided between librarianship and secondary school teaching, I offered my services to the village primary school. I was thinking of something like listening to someone struggling with his reading, but what I was asked to do was straighten out the library.
Much of my time in librarianship had been spent in large comprehensives, but the library that confronted me now consisted of a few shelves of rather sad and dejected books suffering from no one to love them. It is inevitable that such small collections, where no single person has time to take responsibility for them, will degenerate. This one, housed as it was in two sides of the entrance hall, was doomed to be neglected.
By the end of that day I had managed to reduce the thing to some semblance of order and had surreptitiously thrown out a number of non-fiction books which were thoroughly battered or so out of date as to be useless. This was when I discovered that things had changed since my day. You could no longer ring up and ask for an instant injection of books, good clean interesting stuff to beef up your library.
Money was a real dimension in the equation now. I suppose it always was, but provided schools played the game and didn't ask for large collections or very expensive works of reference, they would probably get some at least of what they wanted.
Now here I must admit to being a compulsive reader. Cornflake packets, sauce bottles, pound notes, bus tickets, passports, anything with words on. Thus it was that I had discovered the previous year that many of the great metropolitan libraries, including one near us, sold their surplus books once a year at prices which were almost derisory. My Whitaker's Almanack, Writers and Artists Yearbook and Who's Who came to me like that, not to mention a nearly complete set of cased and laminated Ordnance Survey maps. And in the middle of the hall, spread out on a huge rectangle of tables, were the children's books, many of them in mint condition, and all the fiction at l0p a book. On the other side were the non-fiction books.
That was last year. This year we decided to rehouse some of these books in our small three-teacher school. The school auxiliary would bring her car, and on a Saturday afternoon both of us, with a pupil, would visit the sale and buy Pounds 20 of books for the library. Two other schools from adjacent villages also got in on the act. I hoped the car would stand it.
When we reached the building there was a little boy sitting cross-legged under the table beside his own pile of loot, utterly oblivious, and an elderly Asian lady, equally oblivious, at a table strewn with Urdu and Chinese books. We filled our boxes with children's books of every kind - dogs, horses, Roald Dahls, Enid Blytons, adventures, ghosties, computers, European countries for the current projects - and just when we reckoned it was time to call it a day, I stubbed my toe against a half-open carton on the floor. Out fell several instantly recognisable old favourites. I asked if I could have a good old rake.
"Well actually," the attendant said apologetically, "we're really only selling these by the boxload. They're meant for teachers with reluctant readers. The box costs a pound."
Christmas! Birthday! Lottery! "I'm a teacher. How many have you got?" "There's about six or seven here. How many would you like?" We took them all before they changed their minds. There were now about 600 or 700 books there, at a cost of Pounds 62.40, but about Pounds 7.40 of that was mine. That night I spread them all over the living-room floor and took out every one not meant for the primary school - all the James Bonds, Desmond Bagleys and simplified versions of adult novels. There were 108 of them. At first I thought I would advertise them in the local paper, but then it occurred to me to telephone a former colleague from the comprehensive and ask if she would like to buy some for the classroom library. She gave me Pounds 10.
So everyone was happy. Three schools had greatly augmented their libraries, we ourselves had acquired some 500 to 600 books for Pounds 10, plus Pounds 5 for wooden blocks to make shelf guides and the cost of the petrol. We have now moved into a much better location in the school, and, I like to think, have really begun to make the library work. Roll on, next year's sale.