Me and my library;Interview;Robert Morrell

27th August 1999 at 01:00
I've been using the local history department in my local library in Nottingham for 20 to 30 years and always found the staff extremely helpful. They have always managed to get me what I want - and sometimes I ask for the most obscure things. I remember once asking for a book published in 1946 on Sri Lankan stupors. That almost stumped them.

Nottingham Public Library is in the centre of the city in a building which was once a furniture shop called Hopewells. It still shows signs of having been a shop. It is very spacious and has big picture windows. I go there every week to do research. I make copious notes and take an enormous number of photocopies. That's a complaint I have: photocopying is very expensive in libraries (10p a sheet), presumably to make a profit. I think the only time I got a lot of photocopies for free was when I rescued some old photographs and documents our school was throwing out and presented them to the library.

I've spent the whole day in the library many times, looking through old newspapers on microfilm. There's a cafe where you can get a coffee or a meal. There is also an art gallery in the building which, oddly, I've never been into.

The library staff know me by name and I have met a number of people doing similar work to myself and formed several friendships. I have been studying Thomas Paine (the Norfolk-born American revolutionary philosopher and writer) and local radical history from the 18th century onwards for 30 years and had a number of papers published. At the moment I'm working on a study of the reception of Paine's The Rights of Man in the local area.

I use the library to find information from local publications, which often reveal odd and unusual little things. When I was researching the holy wells of Nottingham, for instance, I found a note written in the corner of a page which described a maidens' well where young ladies used to go in the hope that by drinking the water they would marry the boy they loved. When I went to find some of these wells for myself I had some odd adventures, including being chased by irate farmers.

Another library I've found useful is the Nottingham Archives Department, and about once a month I go up to London to the library at Burlington House in Piccadilly.

Now that I have retired I'll have a lot more time for research. I hope to get a reader's ticket at the British Library. I also want to use the library of the National Army Museum in south-west London. From time to time I have used Nottingham University's library.

I've always found the local library as good as any. Unfortunately, it closes on Saturday afternoons, which I have always thought wrong in principle because there must be many people like me for whom Saturday is the only time they have to go in.

You can get a lot of things on CD now, but I don't think there is any substitute for the printed word. Without the public library I'd be a great deal poorer from having to buy books. It is an essential tool.

Robert Morrell has recently retired as caretaker of Arkwright Primary in Nottingham after 32 years. He founded the Thomas Paine Society in 1963. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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