Behind the Scenes at the Library: Shetland

The Gruffalo at the library
Category: Reading

In the wake of library funding cuts and closures we are continuing to explore the importance of Scotland’s library services with a spotlight on individual libraries and the amazing work they do.

Shetland Library is Scotland’s most northerly service. It has existed as an integrated public and school service since the 1970s and faces huge challenges serving a very remote and scattered community. The small team operate from three buildings in Lerwick - including a converted Victorian church – and two mobile library vans that roam the rural areas.

We spoke to Douglas Garden, a librarian at Shetland Library, to give us the lowdown on operations and find out what life is like in the island library service.


What do you love most about your library?

The continual evolution to adapt and absorb new technology and ideas while retaining the essential traditional support for reading and books. Keeping up is hard work, interesting and very worthwhile. My original philosophy was that libraries link people and information (factual or in novel) and it’s still valid. Trouble is, too many non-users have outdated perceptions of library activities, facilities and purposes.


Tell us something we don’t know about your library.

We recently published a large print version of the local phone book, free of charge, in active partnership with local organisations/businesses. It also promotes our Large Print, Audio Books, eBooks, eMagazines and e-audio plus other sight-related local information. Distribution is via all our libraries, mobiles and home delivery service as well as Health Centres.


The Day of the Triffids
What’s your favourite book and why?

Just one? Unfair! I have lots. I joke about being the non-literary one and more knowledgeable on the shelves the books/gadgets sit upon. My school library had glass cabinets of inspiring original handwritten literary work by former pupils (Walter Scott, RL Stevenson et al). I even read some of it - but I’ll choose The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. It’s the first full size book I read in one day as an increasingly sleepless fourteen year old. Dated yet current, it relies on the story not the gimmicks. It fulfils the traditional science fiction idea that just one or two changes from the normal world moves everything in a new direction.


Excluding your library, what’s the best library you’ve ever been to?

For a “wow“ factor, Newcastle City Library in 2010. Everything happening is close to hand – shopping, nightlife, buses, car parking. The astonishing exterior invites attention. A breathtaking atrium which encourage you to explore its complexeties and facilities. Traditional and modern aspects side-by-side. Helpful, friendly staff. Quiet reading areas here, numerous computers there. Multiple entrances and a coffee shop. Meeting rooms for events or hire. Even a card catalogue for part of the impressive local collection.  Above all, lots of customers; all ages; all doing their own thing at different times.


What is the strangest enquiry your library has had?

Railway history enquiries are inherently unusual as we’re a long way from a railway – most conveniently Aberdeen (200 miles). I once worked with information on large display sheets holding wagon labels. Before 1970 every railway wagon used these rough cards as a consignment note under a spring clip on the side. Millions were used every year south, never here, yet these had turned up in Shetland as a key element in a customer’s research. Fascinating things. A varied staff team will have enormous reserves of arcane knowledge!


Christmas duties
Describe a typical day in Shetland library.  

My day includes predictables like meetings and staff training, surrounded by unpredictables. I still enjoy complex local enquiries, whether coming from colleagues at an issue desk, school library, email or even letter. Mobile staff may need to disuss schedule changes due to storm or ferry breakdowns. I need to buy a new local book but I cannot order it till I’ve spent a few minutes creating a decent catalogue record as it isn’t on Talisbase. A building problem can range from something we can fix in ten minutes to managing long term issues. Sometimes I should be planning well ahead – we need to turn our talking newspaper to digital. A favourite would be planning the shelving changes to make a service improvement or a school library renovation possible! Speaking with Shetland Museum & Archives staff about our partnership project on WW1, currently about to see two books published. Next up – 40 minutes cover at an issue desk. A chance to meet face to face customers, push my ageing brain cells to remember how to do the core jobs, keep aware of current trends and appreciate why I wanted to work in libraries in the first place.  

Have a look at our image gallery below to explore more of life at Shetland Library and read about the beautiful artwork created for the library for Book Week Scotland 2014!


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