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The Mystery Filling

Angus Wark shares what it’s like working as a librarian at the National Library of Scotland.

The Mystery Filling

For us librarians, a day at the Library is bookended by two distinct sounds. We know the day has begun with the ping of the lift and the trundling of the trolley to announce the first book delivery at 9.15am. The day concludes at 7pm with the soothing voice of a long-term Library employee, who upon retirement lent his dulcet tones to the Reading Rooms’ closing announcement. But these sounds are merely the bread that encases a ’mystery filling’ that is varied and never dull!

The National Library of Scotland is a research library, and we are the frontline team that help our readers with just about anything they need. The General Reading Room, based in our George IV Building, caters for most printed book and newspaper material from 1850 onwards. We also have a Special Collections reading room that deals with really old, rare or valuable items and a Maps Reading Room that does what it says on the tin. At our site at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow you can access the Library’s digital resources as well as our archival films and sound collections. The vast majority of material that can be viewed in the General Reading Room is stored in closed stacks and is ordered online using Library Search.

On a typical day, our team handles roughly a thousand tomes, and we witness an increasing number of people following less traditional areas of research (a lexicographer recently visited the Library to find the earliest usage of an expression in the classic ‘Viz’ comic strip ‘Finbarr Saunders and his Double-Entendres’). Through our Legal Deposit status, the Library is entitled to a copy of any item published in the UK and Ireland, whether in print or digital format, so if you’ve ever been confounded by some of the obscure, niche guest publications that they’ve used in “Have I Got News For You” over the years you will be interested to know that most, if not all, of these reside in our collection.

Anyone can register for a Library card to come in and use our reading room and our wonderful collection. But we know that not everyone can visit the Library, so we increasingly offer services to offsite readers too, including online enquiry and copy order forms. Our team responds directly to over a thousand enquiries a month (and funnel additional queries on to other areas of the Library) and these range from questions about how to access the Library, to questions about re-using images from the collections in academic publications to more leftfield ones about the reasoning behind the differing textures of body hair. We once received a question on our Chat service (which is devoted to answering quick questions) about the changing size of the biscuit Wagon Wheels. Several Wagon Wheels were consumed in the subsequent investigation (though not with any Library materials in close proximity).

People with a residential address in Scotland are able to register for free online membership of the Library without ever having to set foot in the building, and our staff provide daily support and advice on the online resources. With resources such as ’Scotsman Digital Archive 1817-1950’, ’U.K. Parliamentary Papers’ and ’COBRA’ it is possible to discover why Scotland chose not to go to the 1950 World Cup (a mind-blowing concept given the long barren period we are currently experiencing), read passionate debates about the ‘Video Nasties’ scandal and find out how to start up a business all without leaving the comfort of your home, office or place of study.

There are also numerous freely available resources on our website that can be accessed without any membership. The digital gallery features digitised items from our collection including the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, and there are also thousands of maps and films freely accessible with specialists across the organisation available to answer any enquiries. Also free of charge are the monthly ‘Getting Started’ workshops that we run for new readers, and we also host monthly family history workshops in Edinburgh and at the National Library at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

For a bit of light relief, we sometimes post on our Twitter account to advertise forthcoming developments, events or tours, and any interesting book titles or covers that we come across on our daily duties. Recently we have engaged with irreverent football radio show ‘Off The Ball’ after reference to the Library was made in a joke that they aired. We also get the chance to put our area of academic study or personal interest to some use by contributing to the Library blog or the 80s retrospective microsite.

Like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two days at the Library are ever the same.

Angus Wark, Reference Services Team Leader, National Library of Scotland - 7 Jan 2020