Posted by: billpurdue | October 15, 2010

A bit of controversy

But first -“A tale of consuming passions”

When I first started reading this book, I didn’t think I would enjoy it: it begins with a reckless love affair between a sixteen year old girl, Eliza Tally, and a man who quickly discards her when she becomes pregnant. Her mother extracts some kind of bargain from the man’s parents which means that Eliza has to travel to London to become a servant in the house of the man’s uncle.

Now this is the start of the eighteenth century: after an arduous week long journey to London, she is installed as a servant in the house of Mr and Mrs Grayson Black. All she has to look forward to is a life of unremitting drudgery. Mr Black is an apothecary and Eliza is hoping he will be able to perform an abortion before it is too late, but Grayson Black has other ideas. He is desperate to become an eminent man of science, up there with the famous people of the day such as Sir Christopher Wren and Halley, the astronomer, and Eliza is to play an important part in his “scientific research”.  How Eliza manages after a long struggle to extricate herself from this life of torment is a gritty, realistic and obviously well researched tale, told without avoiding the less savoury aspects of London low life of the early 1700s

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark [ Penguin £7.99 978-0141018348] is not your usual historical novel, nor is it a horror story, though, at times, it verges on something akin to one. I may have been doubtful about it at first, but I was soon hooked. My copy was a library copy and from the look of the date label, it appears that since it was purchased in 2007, only 2 people have read it before me. I think a lot of readers have been missing out.

A little gripe

I’m all for public libraries keeping up with modern technology in their efforts to offer a better library service for customers. There is one aspect of public library modernisation however which I have a problem with – self service issue systems. The installation of these systems is happening all over the country and there are already two libraries near where I live which have these in place.

The sales pitch from the manufacturers and the official line from some library authorities is that the self service system will free up staff time to help customers make the most of their library service. Hopefully it will do just that, but I suspect that the main reason for installing the systems in public libraries is to save on the staffing budget.

The main outcome will be that many library customers will be able to take out and return their books without ever speaking to anyone. Looking at it in a wider context, it is just one more aspect of our daily lives that has had the interaction between one human being and another removed. We already have automated answering systems instead of the old telephone operators and self service checkouts at supermarkets. You can now often register yourself on a computer screen for your outpatient appointment at the hospital. How many times have you become frustrated with the idiosyncrasies of a cash machine?  Eventually we will forget what it is to interact with someone in a civil and polite way.

Libraries have until now been seen as a friendly welcoming place where people can expect to see and speak to a friendly face across the counter. For some elderly people this may be the only person they speak to during their whole day. Self service systems will do away with all that. True, there will be staff available to help people, but I know from experience that many library customers are reluctant to bother a librarian if they can’t find what they want. It’s not that librarians are not approachable, it’s just that people do think they are wasting someone’s time by asking for help.

But hang on – at supermarkets there is always an assistant on hand to help people use the self service checkout machines. Some supermarkets have “greeters” at the entrance to welcome customers and, at B&Q the other day, I was greeted on leaving and asked whether I had been able to find what I wanted. So supermarkets are remembering the value of help from a fellow human being. So come on public libraries, let’s remember that we all like to see and speak to someone when we go into a shop or library and doing away with that won’t increase the popularity of libraries – I suspect rather the opposite.



  1. I could not agree more with Bill Purdue on this subject. I have seen the d.i.y technology of which he speaks at first hand and enjoyed the old fashioned but so right face to face system we are about to scratch to save a few pennies, both of them in one week. I know which one I prefer. I have a friend who works on the council who is told to spend and spend as the finanacial year comes to an end in order to use up her departments annual budget. She told me they buy stuff they do not need so as to balance the books. Its woolly thinking like this that leaves other, much needier departments trailing in their wake and being forced to endure penny pinching cut-backs.

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