It was the Charles Dickens Bi-centenary and the library had no money to celebrate. We were being merged with three other boroughs to cut costs and my manager Geoff Goodtimes kept banging on about ‘smart delivery.’
‘We’re committed to a ‘sovereignty guarantee’ so we can make our own decisions. What have we decided?’
‘To make our own decisions, ‘ I said.
‘And what are they?’
‘We haven’t decided. Geoff, we’re looking for a bit of leadership on this one…’
‘Right. My job is…’ and he switched off with all the appeal of a self-service machine who’s identified you as the unknown item in the bagging area. ‘To progress the proposals and service the service efficiency models… Charles Dickens. We haven’t got any money.’
‘I could read Bleak House over the tannoy.’
‘Like it but you’ll have to combine that with your normal duties.’
The library counter was thronging with people. It was a cold morning and our heating was working. They gathered round the horse-shoe shaped desk – the bridge of our doomed spaceship – puzzled by rubbish collection dates and why we didn’t stamp books any longer. Instead we printed off little receipts that everyone lost.
I wasn’t fooled. Like me they were on a long, interplanetary journey and they wanted to know where they were headed but there weren’t any reassuring answers to that question. Instead they badgered me for details about zumba classes.
We were running on leaflets and internet access, periodicals, low-grade vampire romances to spice up our fuel mix but most of the novels had been removed. Management had decided they wanted colour co-ordinated shelves, face-on books and more access for wheelchair users. ‘It’s got to look like bloody Waterstones or else…’
Geoff Goodtimes was bobbing about in the queue. Eyes bright with utopian dreams about the future of the library, riding out a sugar high from his fifth blueberry muffin scavenged from depressed staff on their tea-break. Nineteen redundancies in our library alone, announced on photocopied sheets of paper. ‘Everything ok?’
‘We lost Sadie, ‘ said Quasim. ‘She was really great with our readers.’
‘Clients,’ corrected Geoff. ‘ I think you’re all superstars…’ Such blatant buttering up was not going to work on Quasim who’d worked three Sundays on the trot at a lower pay scale.
‘Why are we losing all the staff here now that we’ve combined with the other boroughs?’
‘They’re self-service. The staff have already been weeded. And Westminster has got an automated picker that roams the shelves scanning barcodes, selecting books on the basis of gender and diversity—the robo-picker…’ And he did a little mime, a cantilevered dinosaur neck browsing the rich feeding along the top shelf—no one was in the mood.
‘Look I can see you guys are busy but it’s all about…’ and Geoff paused derailed by a long-necked girl in a veil looking for the ‘ethnics’ section… ‘ you know all the old ethnics… Plato..’
‘Do you mean ethics?’ I suggested, ‘ because they’re quite old as well.’
Geoff started again… ‘it’s about the generation of significant savings through the creation of a combined library service…’ sounded like we had a robo-picker already… ‘ to minimise the impact of reduced funding implications to frontline services… ‘
‘You mean cuts?’
‘I don’t see it that way.’ He did one of his Billy Bunterish smiles. ‘I’m a glass half-full sort of person.’
After lunch spent rounding up copies of Charles Dickens novels, running down a great granddaughter who was willing to do a reading, I spotted something glowing under the stairs. There in the alcove beneath the stained glass, under the presiding marble geniuses of both Shakepeare and Milton reclining on their plinths, was the library’s newest acquisition to boost literacy and increase readers. For a moment I thought it was the fabled Robo-picker in bright red armour but then why was it decorated with vanilla swirls and positioned to pick up cobwebs under the staircase?
In the depths of winter, next to the computers and rare oversized art books the council had installed a machine that sold ice-cream.
‘Could it be loosely construed as Dickensian?’ Geoff said, ‘didn’t Oliver Twist want another bowl of the stuff. A Tale of Two Cornettos… Lighten up,’ he said, ‘we got five of them in a job lot!’