15 August 2018

A Lifetime in Libraries

By Rachel Sloane

How often does someone know, at the age of ten, what their destiny will be?

Alison Wheeler retires as the Chief Executive Officer of Suffolk Libraries this month, after 39 years as a librarian.
“I arrived in Suffolk in August 1979 as a newly qualified librarian, filled with excitement about being at Felixstowe library, and in my first professional job,” she remembered.

And it started at a young age…..

“When I was about ten years old, I was in my local library, (and I was a voracious reader), and there was a woman working there, and she asked me what would I like to read. She found me a book and I took it home and it kept me awake all night, as I was thrilled and enthralled by it. It was by Tolkien J R R,” explained Alison. “I love fantasy books even now, but I also knew that that was the job I wanted. Giving people stuff that was brilliant to read. From that moment, I genuinely only ever wanted to be a librarian.”

From those childhood dreams, Alison has become one of the most innovative leaders of public libraries in the country.

She qualified as a librarian in 1979 at the College of Librarianship Wales, and knew, after doing a course in children’s librarianship, that was the field for her,

“We spent a lot of time reading great children’s books and going into local primary schools to practice storytelling. The first book I ever read to children, which is on my list of favourite books, was Dogger by Shirley Hughes.”

Alison said that the training for librarians then, is still the basis of what they learn today: how to organise knowledge, how to get quality authentic information in response to needs, and how you set up systems so customers can access that: knowledge management.

After four months as the children’s librarian at Felixstowe, building a programme of activities in the library, Alison was moved to the main library in Ipswich and she remained, in different ways, a children’s librarian for sixteen years, so is used to meeting three generations of users who know her. Alison certainly never expected to be at the vanguard of saving Suffolk’s public libraries.

In 2011 the county council-run library service in Suffolk, was facing closure and was only saved by the establishment of a mutual society to run the 44 libraries across the county. How close to closure were they when the county council had to dramatically slash budgets?

“As close as other services are, and what tipped it in the direction of salvation, I think, was the way the public responded. There were 38,000 responses through petitions, and nine thousand people wrote in response to the consultation. That public outcry at that key moment helped the politicians to see this was not right for Suffolk. Sadly, in other parts of the country they either haven’t seen it or there hasn’t been enough of an outcry…..”

Suffolk Libraries was the first independent library mutual to be set up, although now there are four in England.

“It was totally virgin territory as no library service had ever done this before. Suffolk’s libraries are owned by the community and all 44 libraries are the 44 members of the mutual group. Suffolk Libraries have a contract with Suffolk County Council to provide the service, and the council remain the legal statuary body, but they farm it out for us to do, and have just signed another five-year contract,” Alison said, with satisfaction.

She added that library staff had a huge journey to make with the idea,

“When you have worked for a big organisation like a county council there can be a huge bureaucracy that stifles local entrepreneurial behaviours. We gave local managers much more freedom, more confidence, and decision-making skills. We invested in bottom-up leadership skills and encouraged staff to see what they do more broadly.”

The libraries in Suffolk all still have paid, professional staff but the tiers of management have been slashed, and in addition, volunteers give hundreds of hours to help make the libraries into local community hubs,
“It’s like the 2012 Olympics. The volunteers made the Olympics work but they didn’t run the races nor judge them!” explained Alison.

As Alison looks forward to retiring, she remembers with fondness her early days as a librarian.

“When I trained there was no internet but we did do on-line searches – to a data base in California! Suffolk’s library service has always been at the forefront of new things, and I remember when videos and then DVD’s arrived in libraries. I think we were the first library service to offer music streaming with our Freegal service. That all supports the principle of providing the best selection of content that we can, whether it’s on a printed page, on a piece of magnetic tape or a disc, using the resources as wisely as we can.
“If there is one thing that has changed libraries, in the last four decades, it will be the internet. It became obvious that it wasn’t cost effective to spend money on huge reference collections when they weren’t being used. But the internet can be a scary place, and there are older people who are frightened of it, and there are younger people who aren’t, but in both cases, they need supportive help to make the best of it, and that’s what I think our role is. Libraries have always been about self-improvement.”

Alison agreed that is still amazing that you can walk into a public library and be faced with thousands of books, all available to borrow for no charge,

“Yes, but there are still some people who don’t know that. Or don’t realise it’s important. It would be so easy for a busy parent not to find the time for that really precious reading with, for, and to children, yet it is as important as making sure they have a good diet, in my opinion. We need to give families more and more encouragement to be in the library, and if there is ever a target audience for us it is them.”

But do we really need public libraries in 2018? When 3,400 people responded to a survey earlier this year, 99% valued the work of Suffolk Libraries. With increasing publicity, and new Arts Council funding to work with young people, the aim is to bring more non-users into the libraries of Suffolk.

But what does a librarian of 39 years’ experience do when she retires?
“I want to still be useful to the Suffolk community but without a paid job, where I’ve got to get up early every morning, balancing a demanding role with my family caring commitments. I will always be an active supporter of libraries and literacy and I will continue to be an active Trustee of the Eastern Angles Theatre Company and of the National Library and Information Body.”

Alison also has an enormous pile of books waiting to be read and says she plans to read them, mainly as she relaxes in the bath, her favourite place to read!

Alison Wheelers Favourite Books:
For children:
Dogger by Shirley Hughes
Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

For adults:
Katherine by Anya Seton, and Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford : The Story of John Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess
Ross Poldark by Winston Graham
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson
A Daughter in Time by Josephine They

NB: This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in February 2018