Wilfred L. Saunders
A Selective Retrospect of My Career in Library and Information Work
Your Chairman's letter of invitation to speak to you this evening suggested a number of possible topics, but left the final choice to me. One of these topics was the evolution and future of professional education in our field; another, the role of the international library consultant; a third was a retrospect of my career. My final choice is something of an amalgam of all three. My library and information career has been a long one - it began in March 1936 - 54 years ago next month, and during that time I have had experience of a perhaps unusually wide range of library and information posts. It is also the case that for a good part of the 1970s and 1980s I was involved at national level with policy-making - with what in this country passes for national library and information policy; and I have also been pretty active in the international scene. For the last couple of years or so I have been gradually withdrawing from professional activity, and I now find myself doing rather less writing of papers and attending meetings; rather more looking back and reflecting on it all; and not a little pondering on where the library and information world is going. What I am planning to do for the next 45 minutes or so is share some of these thoughts with you.
When I began as a junior assistant - what would nowadays probably be called a 'trainee' - in 1936, it was in Birmingham Reference Library. My motivation for becoming a librarian would seem pretty old-fashioned nowadays, and would probably have been regarded with some suspicion nearly 30 years later in the library school in Sheffield, of which I was the founding Director. It was that I liked books and reading, and I was very interested in literature. A further important attraction, in 1936, was that it was a safe, secure job with a pension to follow! It soon became apparent to me that I couldn't have gone to a better place than Birmingham Ref - often known as the British Museum of the Midlands. It had magnificent collections - far better than the majority of the civic universities that I came to know in later years.
The strength of the collections owed a lot to the simple fact that the library had been in existence since soon after the passing of the 1850 Act, and during that time had been served by some fine bookmen. Even more important though, was the influence of H.M. Cashmore, the City Librarian - he believed the Birmingham Ref. collections were the finest of their kind in the country, and was passionately devoted to ensuring that this continued to be the case. He was an absolute martinet - a bachelor who was prone to say he was wedded to his library. He ruled it with a rod of iron, and we juniors - and most of the rest of his staff - were scared stiff of him. It used to be said that he had a united staff - united against him; and likewise, that his library produced more of the country's senior library staff than any other library system in Britain. This, it was said, was not only because of the fine experience which BPL offered: it was because everyone was so anxious to get away from HMC as soon as possible.
Looking back, then, I believe one of the great debts I owe to Birmingham Ref - and, I suppose, to Cashmore, is an early appreciation of the enormous importance for some libraries of great collections and of collection building - and this was a concern which has stayed with me all through my career.
But there is a second debt, at least as important, that I owe to BPL - and that is a belief in what in the jargon of today would be called the primacy of the user. Again, this is something which stemmed from Cashmore himself. The form in which we juniors experienced it was that we were never allowed to say 'No' to an enquirer - if we couldn't find the answer to an enquiry ourselves, it had to be passed on to a more senior staff member; and so on, right up the hierarchy. Similarly, Cashmere himself vetted all replies to written enquiries - this was achieved very simply because he allowed no-one else but himself to sign any letter emanating from the library. Delegation and participative management were words that were not to be found in the Cashmere vocabulary!
I would mention only one other significant recollection from those far off days of the late 30s. I spent a year or two on the staff of the Reference Library's Commercial and Patents Library, and came to realise how very important that library was to Birmingham's business community. This was my first taste of special librarianship.
The post-War period and Education libraries
Came the war and a seven year absence with the forces, followed by a belated spell at university. There I read Economics, and this, combined with the ALA which I had gained pre-war at BPL, enabled me to become Deputy Librarian at the Institute of Bankers, in London. I had already had some special library experience in Birmingham's Commercial and Patents library, but there was an extra dimension to this one, because one was expected not only to produce information but to analyse, evaluate and interpret it.
I didn't stay very long at the Institute of Bankers, but long enough to give me a definite taste for the sort of special librarianship that called for a combination of subject knowledge and information know-how -in fact the sort of work that in later years was to be designated, increasingly, as Information Science - a rather misleading designation, incidentally, though I can certainly understand why it came to be adopted.
Well, from that particular special library I went to another, where I was to spend a very happy seven years. This was the Institute of Education library in Birmingham, which in fact I had to start from scratch. It was a research library intended to serve the needs of lecturers in teacher training colleges, higher degree students, and teachers engaged in advanced study. As with the Institute of Bankers, one was often expected to interpret and evaluate information as well as simply provide it, and as it was a research library, collection development was very important too. But there were also a couple of somewhat less usual features to that job.
One of these arose from the Director's intention to make Birmingham pre-eminent amongst the newly created network of Institutes of Education that covered virtually the whole country, and he saw the new library as potentially an important contributor to this objective. He wanted us to assume a position of leadership amongst all the Institute libraries, and he gave me a free hand to take whatever steps seemed necessary to achieve this.
Well, it seemed to me that with, I think it was a dozen, new libraries being created, all specialising in the same group of subjects - education and educational aspects of psychology and sociology - we could all benefit from organised cooperation in inter-lending, and the key to this would be a union catalogue of all our holdings. Remember, this was around 40 years ago, there was no British Library Lending Division, and the National Central Library (NCL) and Regional Library Bureaux were painfully slow. All the other Institute librarians agreed that to produce a union catalogue would certainly be a good idea, and that this was the time to do it. The problem was, it would call for staff, and all of these new libraries were at full stretch already. Well, my Director in Birmingham found the cash for a half-time member of staff, and that was the beginning of the Birmingham-based union catalogue of Institute libraries - and incidentally the then director of the NCL was sufficiently taken with the idea of a subject-based union catalogue to build it into the total NCL system - and it went on in that way for many years. Linked with this and perhaps even more useful was a union catalogue of the journal holdings of all the Institute libraries, which we also tried to use -not too successfully - as a means of rationalising our total journal coverage. But in many ways the most important and enduring of all the cooperative efforts was one which was jointly administered by Birmingham, by Leeds, under Dick Fifoot; and by Hull under Clifford Freeman. This was a cooperative indexing project to which all the Institute libraries contributed, and which covered all the significant British journals not taken care of by the Wilson Education Index. I seem to remember that we issued it either monthly or bi-monthly, in the form of a duplicated list. In due course it was to become the British Education Index, and I can still marvel at the transmogrification of those masses of scruffy hand-written slips of the early 1950s into the machine-readable computer output that was the basis of the British Education Index.
In general terms, one of the most important things that I took out of this seven years of special library experience in the field of education was a conviction of the value and potential of cooperation between libraries, and particularly, perhaps, between libraries operating in the same special subject fields.
But Birmingham's Institute of Education also introduced me to a completely new and very fascinating area of library work - school librarianship. At that time there was very little awareness of the importance of school libraries, and no systematic training facilities whatsoever for those teachers who found themselves - often to their surprise, and somewhat against their will - running school libraries as teacher-librarians. There was clearly a need here to be filled, and the Director of our Birmingham Institute gave full backing and support to the idea of the library mounting a two-year, part-time course for teacher librarians, leading to a certificate in school librarianship - for many years the only one of its kind in the country. I am still inclined to the belief that school libraries are in some ways the most important library sector of all; and I still have the very strong impression that by and large they are very much the Cinderella of all library sectors; but many years later, as I shall mention, I did have the satisfaction of helping their cause along during my time as Chairman of LISC.
To Sheffield... and Uganda
After all those years in special library work - a Commercial and Patents library, a Banking library and an Education library - it was in many ways something of a shock when I moved into university librarianship as Deputy at Sheffield. To start with, it was a much calmer, a much quieter, life than being a special librarian, and the staff's information and reference role was more or less literally nonexistent - though in later years that situation did change very considerably. The library staff, though small by present-day standards, was much larger than I had been accustomed to in my special library days; there was considerable division of labour, and one was no longer expected to be a jack-of-all-library-trades. As was quite common in those days, the Deputy was also in charge of Acquisitions, and I learned a good deal about collection building as a sort of cooperative activity between library and teaching staff. Above all, though, I learned something of the gentle art of library management in an academic community, where the University librarian's number 1 responsibility was to get the funding the library needed, and to see that the teaching staff, and above all the Heads of Department, were on his side. This my boss, James Tolson, achieved with a kindly and effortless ease that was an example and an inspiration for any budding University librarian - just as he achieved the devotion and loyalty of his own library staff. A greater contrast with what we should now call the 'management style' of H.M. Cashmore, in my Birmingham Reference days, it would be very difficult to imagine!
My seventh and last year as a Deputy University librarian was in fact spent on secondment to Unesco in Uganda. A first requirement of this secondment was to learn a new language - Unesco-ese. I learned for example that the job I was to do was a mission, and that I was to be not a 1ibrarian, but an expert - in Educational Documentation. It was my first real taste of the international circuit, and the first of many subsequent contacts with Unesco. At that time, 1962, they were given to rather grandiose ideas and projects and my mission was to create an Educational Documentation Centre for Uganda and to explore the feasibility of enlarging it to cover all of East Africa. When I got out to Kampala it very quickly became apparent to me that there was a great gap between the aspirations of Unesco administrators in Paris and the reality of the situation in Uganda, and my first task was to modify the project to a form which might successfully be implemented from the very modest resources available. In some respects the most important thing that I did during that year was to recruit two African counterparts, to take over when Unesco support ceased. After some in-service training with me, on the project, they were sent off overseas - one to Britain and one to Canada - to study for professional qualifications. In fact neither of them returned to the project - the shortage of professionally qualified librarians was such that one of them, as soon as he was qualified, was appointed Kenya's National Librarian, and the other became National Librarian of Uganda. Not perhaps what Unesco had in mind when they set up the project and financed the training of the two men in question, but what really mattered in the long run was that East Africa gained two badly needed additions to their library and information manpower.
When I returned from East Africa at the end of 1962 I found myself in the happy position of being on two short lists. One was for Librarian of one of the new Post-Robbins universities, and I think its not too immodest to say I had every chance of being successful. The second short-list was for the rather exciting post of Director of a new postgraduate library school in Sheffield. It was to be the second university based school in the country, the other being of course UCL. This was the job I really wanted, and I was fortunate enough to get it. In fact I stayed in it until my retirement, nearly 20 years later.
The Postgraduate School at Sheffield
In retrospect those seem to have been relatively spacious days, because I had a year and a half in which to prepare for our first intake of students, in October 1964. In many ways my most important activity during that period was a six weeks visit to the U.S.A., at that time the only country in the world with a well established tradition of post-graduate education for librarianship. I visited not only library schools but a good number of the major American libraries, as well, and this American trip, which was financed by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, undoubtedly made a valuable contribution to the preparations for our Sheffield School. Not the least of these was a belief in the role and potential of the computer in library and information work, and from the very beginning 'Computer Basics' was a required course for all our students.
The goals we set ourselves for this new school were quite well defined. One of the reasons for setting up a second university-based school, was to improve the flow of high calibre graduates into library and information work, so we saw ourselves as a relatively small School with a very good staff/student ratio and very stringent admission requirements. Secondly, we intended to attract into library and information work badly needed science graduates and to provide them with a specially tailored course on scientific information work. In addition, of course, to offering a mainstream librarianship course. And thirdly, as a university department it seemed entirely proper - indeed essential - that in addition to offering a basic professional qualification, we should both engage in research, and train research students, And if any other justification for a strong research emphasis were needed, I should remind you that in 1964 research was virtually non-existent in the fields of librarianship and information work - and it was very badly needed.
Well, in July 1989 the Postgraduate School - now the Department of Information Studies - celebrated its 25th Anniversary, and if you are interested you can read an account of its history during that period which appeared in a special double, anniversary, issue of the Journal of Information Science in August 1989 - Vol. 15, nos. 4 and 5. Suffice to say this evening that the School can claim to have been pretty successful in all of its main goals. Quite early on the University recognised the quality of its students and its courses by upgrading the original Diploma to a Master's degree, and Sheffield's graduates have made their mark in all the main library and information sectors - particularly perhaps in academic libraries and specialised information units. The science stream, which came in due course to include social scientists, had produced 579 graduates by the time of the School's 25th Anniversary - this is in fact a very substantial proportion of all the professionally qualified information scientists in this country. So far as research is concerned, we normally had three or four funded projects on the go, with around a dozen or so full-time research staff, and by the time I retired in 1982 our research funding had totalled well over one and a half million pounds.
Looking back, I suppose I can fairly say that the Library School gave me the opportunity to put into practice some of the beliefs about library and information work that had built up during my rather varied career as practitioner. For example, in my own courses I gave great prominence to the importance of collection development - as a number of people in this room can testify. We also placed a lot of emphasis on the user's needs and viewpoints, and in the mid '70s we were given a great deal of research money to create a Centre for Research on User Studies.
One of the themes I want to dwell on just a little is that of the overseas and international experience that has come my way. It started, of course, with the Unesco year in 1962, which I have already mentioned. During the library school years that followed, it built up quite considerably, and after my retirement in 1982 a very large part of my time was taken up either by preparing for an overseas assignment, carrying it out, or writing up the results and report after it was finished.
This work has been enormously interesting, and at times extremely frustrating. It has taken me to all five continents, and while the greater part of it has been carried out for Unesco or British Council, I have also carried out work for the Inter-University Council, for overseas governments and universities, for Aslib - in West Africa, for bodies such as the Ontario Council of Universities, New Zealand's Joint Advisory Council on Librarianship, the Committee of Principals of South African Universities, and so forth. The main themes, on the whole, have been manpower, education and training, and research, though there have been others. This went on until about a couple of years ago, when I decided that enough was enough, and began to say no.
My involvement with the British Council began in the 1960s, when I was going out to Makerere as External Examiner at the East African School of Librarianship. The Council was paying the air fare and they thought it would be a good idea if I took a look at the library and professional education situation in a number of other African countries while I was out there - Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. A year or so later I was appointed to the Council's Libraries Advisory Panel and stayed on it for 17 years.
I came before long to have a pretty good idea of the Council's entire library and information activities because in 1977, by which time I was Chairman of the Library Advisory Panel, Max Broome and I carried out for the Council a very comprehensive survey of their library activities. This took each of us to about 20 countries of the 80 plus countries that had Council Representations, and we also put in quite a lot of work at their huge headquarters in London.
One special reason for remembering this assignment was that the very substantial report that Max and I produced was not put on the shelf and forgotten - which of course is the fate of many, many such reports - but the Council actually did something about it. It became something of a Bible for the Council's library and information activities, and over the next few years virtually all of its quite far reaching recommendations were implemented.
So far as Unesco is concerned, I had quite a bit of involvememt with Unisist and the General Information Programme from their very early days, and in 1975 I was asked to produce for them the document which provided the basis for their Manpower, Education and Training Policy. Even more importantly, it provided the guidelines for determining their expenditure priorities. For many years after that I was a member of the committee which met annually for a week or so in Paris, to review and take forward PGI's activities in Education and Training, and finished up as its Rapporteur.
I think it may be of some interest if I say just a little about one or two of my overseas professional education assignments. Over the years I was asked to do quite a number of these - mainly, I believe, because of the pioneering work we had done in Sheffield with our Information Studies programmes, and with building a fair number of information science components into our librarianship programme. One of the more unusual of these assignments was to create the first postgraduate programme in Information Studies for China. This was a joint British Council and Unesco project and the bureaucracy of each of these organisations is pretty formidable. In combination, they are even more so. Add to the cocktail China's own unique brand of bureaucracy and the result can at times be almost unbelievable. I was International Coordinator for this project for some two-and-a-half years, and it was one of the most interesting - and at times, most frustrating - of all my overseas experiences. At the personal level I found the Chinese absolutely delightful people to work with - tremendously hard working, friendly, generous, kind - and in a great hurry! But also, at times, completely baffling - the culture gap is more real than that of any other nationality I have ever worked with. Even with the most westernised and sophisticated of them, I found it almost impossible to carry out an objective, critical discussion of problems that were up for solution - their contributions nearly always took the form of telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. Likewise, I found that at all levels the traditional concern with keeping face was something one had to be constantly aware of. As for international coordination - and remember, my title was International Co-ordinator - I would defy anyone to carry out that role in any real sense. Chinese scientists, administrators, and academics - or anyway, those I dealt with - are nature's unilateralists - coordination is simply not in their vocabulary! However, it was all, as they say, very challenging, and it was certainly very stimulating. And the final outcome, in spite of their insistence on starting the course at least a year and a half earlier than I advised, showed every sign of being successful.
Just one example, of a very different character. The last major assignment that I took on was a comprehensive review of New Zealand's professional education arrangements in the library and information fields, including a detailed critique of the courses and teaching in their two schools, and a blueprint for change which would take them through to around the end of this century. Two - no, three things -make that assignment very memorable for me - and for my wife, who was working with me throughout. One was the fact that they allowed enough time to do the job properly - and I was able to involve in it a very large proportion of all New Zealand's librarians, and library school students - almost unique, in my experience. The second was that they took the very substantial report which I produced extremely seriously, and are taking positive steps to implement its recommendations. The third thing which made the whole project memorable was nothing to do with library and information work - it was New Zealand itself and its people. I have found this to be the case in other countries of course though never to the same extent as in New Zealand, and I suppose this is one of the great rewards of overseas consultancy and advisory work.
Time doesn't permit me to say anything about my experience over quite a long period with IFLA or with FID, or with one or two other aspects of overseas and international activity - but of course, if you wished, these could come up at discussion time.
To round out the "looking back" part of my story there are one or two matters to which I should at least make a passing reference. The first of these concerns cooperation. From my Institute of Education days onwards I was a firm believer in the scope for and value of properly thought out cooperative activity in library and information work, and I had the opportunity to put this in practice in Sheffield. As a sort of 'neutral', or honest broker, I convened a meeting in, I think, 1969, between Sheffield's Chief Public Librarian, the University Librarian and the Polytechnic Librarian, to explore ways in which their libraries could usefully work together - a far cry, incidentally, from my pre-war days in Birmingham, where Cashmore, the City Librarian and the University Librarian were not on speaking terms! This meeting led to some quite interesting developments and there was established a very active 'Sheffield Local Libraries Coordinating Committee', chaired by our Vice-Chancellor, or by myself in his absence, which got under way a whole range of cooperative activities. The Sheffield scheme, together with a Newcastle counterpart, which actually pre-dated ours, in fact made quite an important contribution to the thinking which resulted in the LISC reports on the Future development of libraries and information services, and the emergence of the concept of LIP's - Library and Information plans - which Royston Brown and, of course, Cambridge, played such an important part in developing.
Before I leave the subject I should mention another aspect of cooperative activity with which I have been very much involved. In 1980, which was my Library Association (LA) Presidential year, the annual conference was held in Sheffield. It was different from the normal pattern in that for the first time it was to be a joint conference of the LA, the Institute of Information Scientists and Aslib. It was a very successful experiment and the justifiable post-conference euphoria led to the reactivation of the dormant Joint Consultative Committee - the JCC. This brought together the Institute, Aslib, the LA, Sconul (the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries) and the Society of Archivists, and in fact at a later stage they were joined by a sixth member, COPOL (the Council of Polytechnic Librarians). I became the JCC's first Chairman and I must say that I was pretty excited about the whole business, because to me it symbolised something in which over the years I had come to believe very strongly - and that was the essential unity of all the library and information professions - in fact I suppose it is this belief which lies behind much of what I have to say in my recent pamphlet on the unification of the L.A., Aslib and the Institute of Information Scientists, with which some of you may be familiar.
The Library and Information Services Council
But going back: before long there was a development which was to take me away from the JCC. There was at last created an official body which would advise the Minister for the Arts - which of course means government - over the whole spectrum of library and information matters. This was L1SC - the Library and Information Services Council. It replaced the old Library Advisory Council, which was largely public library oriented, and its membership covered a very wide range of library and information related activity indeed. I was invited to be the first chairman of this new body, LISC, and spent a very fascinating three-and-a-half years in that position before handing over to Royston Brown in 1985. One consequence of this appointment was that I reluctantly concluded that I must pull out of the LISC Chairmanship, because of possible conflict of interest.
Those three-and-a-half years were quite an educational experience. They brought me into very close contact with a small Civil Service department - the Office of Arts and Libraries - and into occasional contact with a very much larger one - the Department of Education and Science - mainly through their concern - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say lack of concern - with school libraries, it would be nice to be able to say that it also brought me into contact with politicians at Ministerial level, but to do so would be, as they say, economising with the truth. I was appointed by St John Stevas when he was Minister for the Arts, but I had little or no contact with him because he very quickly gave way to Paul Channon. Paul Channon, to be fair, did care about libraries and information, but was very heavily committed in other directions. However for most of my time as Chairman of LISC Lord Gowrie was the Minister responsible for Arts and Libraries and you will probably not be too surprised when I say that, not to put too fine a point on it, the Arts side of his remit was far and away his number one priority and preoccupation.
The LISC years were interesting in many ways. I came to realise for example that I had a lot to learn about dealing with Civil service departments and civil servants, and I'm sure that I was not always outstandingly successful in this. But those early days of LISC were quite heady and exciting, as we gradually came to realise not only what we could do, but also that there were many things that we couldn't realistically hope to do [e.g., at that time, Freedom of Information]. Looking back, I suppose the outstanding LISC achievement of that period was to achieve a much greater degree of openness and involvement with the profession than there had ever been in the past. The most significant specific achievement was probably the Future Development of Libraries and Information services reports, which Royston Brown master-minded. I also took particular personal satisfaction from the production of a LISC sub-committee under Max Broome's Chairmanship of a report on School Libraries, which had a more positive and fruitful impact than any previous utterances on the subject - though, make no mistake, a very great deal remains to be done. The LISC contributions on the subject of Copyright, electronic publishing and conservation were quite significant too, and so was their major review of the whole field of Manpower, Education and training.
On the other hand there were not a few disappointments - most of which stemmed from financial stringency, cuts, and what often seemed like extreme government parsimony so far as library and information matters were concerned. For example - and here I am offering a personal view - I would have dearly liked to be able to take a much more positive and sympathetic approach than we did to the matter of Regional Reference Libraries. I also found very uncongenial - and again, this is just a personal view - the official rejection of any concept of a national information policy; and likewise the rejection of minimum standards for public library provision and the associated inspection role that would have gone along with it. Still, as they say, you win some and you lose some, and on balance I suppose we didn't do too badly during those early years.
Well, this more or less concludes the "look back" aspect of this talk. What about the glance forward? In my unification pamphlet I did a bit of crystal gazing in a chapter on "the next decade" - the run-up to the 21st Century. In it I mentioned such matters as continuing progress towards an information society and the scope which this should offer for raising the whole profile of library and information work. I also mentioned the increasing pervasiveness of information technology, but made it quite clear that I do not believe in the so called "Paperless society" and that I see the book , as a physical object, continuing to have a very firm role for a very long time to come - particularly of course in the area of recreational reading, which should be more important than ever if we are truly moving into an age of greater leisure. I say that I foresee an increasing importance for the skilled intermediary role of librarians and information workers as the complexity of many information sources increases; but conversely there is likely to be an increase in direct end-user access to information - that is to say, the by-passing of information professionals. This, if you like, constitutes a threat to the library and information professions, and I want to conclude by pointing up two other threats, which I believe that librarians and information workers of the'90's will neglect at their peril. [Latter 'threats' to be covered only if time permitted - it didn't.]
Note: this is the text of an address to the Cambridge Library Group, 21st February, 1990