JEN MILLS got lost in a world of books, history and imagination when she find out what it was like to work as a librarian.
HONESTLY, I don’t know how library staff ever get work done because if I worked in Newport Central Library I would be flicking through the merchandise all day.
I could become the world expert on Wake Up Happy Every Day (actually a novel about murder), Young Stalin or The Age of American Unreason, all of which drew my attention as library manager Sian Jones, 33, guided me through the book stacks.
My morning at the building on John Frost Square was a kind of rehabilitation as libraries weren’t always places of refuge.
As a literature student, my enduring impression of college libraries was of students slumped over piles of books circa 1am, bottles of Diet Coke to one side, laptops whirring as they ground out another 500 words before dissertation deadline.
But as a child I was also a bookworm and library regular, carrying plastic bags full of books home and spreading them out on the floor (never finishing them all), so I knew deep down that libraries were positive places to open minds.
Plenty of Newport residents are already clear on that point, judging by the fact that at one point I counted 16 people in the queue for the counter and had to stand aside as Ms Jones checked out, stamped and scanned stacks of books to get through the backlog.
Ms Jones set me to work putting returned books back on the shelves as my first task, telling me to arrange them alphabetically.
I tried, but one of them just wouldn’t fit in the shelf because it was so jammed already. Thinking it should stay with its letter-brethren I slotted it in on top of the books already there, but this was a mistake.
Apparently such untidiness may be acceptable in my own bookshelf, but was not up to the standards of Newport Central so the book had to be placed on an overflow trolley, ready for when a space appeared.
This did illuminate a mystery I had wondered about for some time, about whether whole rows of books might shift along the shelves if, for example, new authors were bought. The truth is much less labour intensive.
Ms Jones then introduced me to the reference library, a vault of history upstairs.
Thousands of copies of old newspapers are stored there, including some which have fallen out of print such as the Monmouthshire Merlin and even old Chartist publications such as the Western Vindicator.
“A lot of them are quite old so I don’t know if we’d get another copy of them,” Ms Jones said.
It was good to see the role of newspapers in establishing local history first-hand.
They say yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, but it’s treated as a commodity much more valuable than that at Newport Library.
Old papers are only brought out occasionally because they are so fragile, but the library also has an extensive number of back copies on microfilm.
They even have an index system for old copies of the South Wales Argus.
Ms Jones demonstrated how this worked by looking for the card dealing with the escape artist Harry Houdini who visited in 1905, appearing at the Lyceum, and then escaping from a cell in Newport Police Station.
Hundreds of index cards with similarly important moments in the city’s history, such as the opening of the now demolished Lyceum Theatre, are stored with the corresponding codes for the microfiche so researchers can look up mentions in newspapers published at that time.
Ms Jones then directed me to the “staff only” section. This was exciting as everyone, of course, wants to find out what Joe Public is barred from seeing.
What I did see was boxes of memories from Newport’s past. I was shocked to see what looked like a double decker horse and cart on Commercial Street, and a snapshot of police officers swimming through Allt-yr-yn lido in full uniform.
“To be a reference librarian you have got to be a bit of a hoarder and keep everything,” Ms Jones said.
I couldn’t resist asking Ms Jones her views on the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.
She said: “It was popular. Lots of similar authors that came out, like Sylvia Day, are still popular.”
Christian Gray is losing out to thrillers of the crime variety among the Newport clientele, however, with writers such as James Patterson and Lee Child the most popular authors at the moment.
Gratifyingly the Argus was also one of the most well-read publications, with Ms Jones confiding they have to keep it behind the desk on request only, “because otherwise it will get taken. We also have to worry about people cutting bits out of papers, like a competition.”
The most exciting part of my taster was stamping out a book. Library stamps have a very satisfying sound, like using a hole punch but with fewer annoying circles of paper.
I imagine using the stamp is similar to how a judge using her gavel might feel.
As I stood at the counter practising the stamp, a teenager came in and handed me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The Critique of Pure Reason by Emmanuel Kant to check back in.
Immediately I started to wonder whether he had actually finished Kant’s critique, what he thought of it and whether it would be going on his personal statement for university applications.
Perhaps I’m too nosy for library work as I found myself fascinated by other people’s reading habits, although curiosity must also be a benefit in recommending books people might enjoy.
But it seems being interested in library users and their likes is all part of the job.
Ms Jones said: “You get to know your customers and what they like. It’s always satisfying to recommend books and they go away with a new author that they really enjoy.
“We have quite a few regulars. Some come in and just have a sit down.”
“It can be quite physical work. At the end of last week we had a delivery of 40 boxes of new books so there’s a lot of lifting boxes and pushing trolleys.”
But there is a downside to the job as Ms Jones explained that perhaps the worst role a librarian has to take on is that of an enforcer, encouraging borrowers to cough up if they don’t return books on time.
“Nobody likes paying fines, even if it’s their own fault,” she said. “I have in the past had people get quite aggressive in their manner and their tone.”
I’m ashamed to say I was a shirker myself, admitting that I had a fine for not returning Berlin Crossing and wondering if I had paid off the debt with my hard work sorting and stacking.
Sadly this was not the case.
But I’ll be returning to pay off my dues, and anyone who values libraries should make a trip down there too.