The Clerk in the Country

Thursday 16th April 2020
Pleasures and pitfalls

Spending half a day browsing through copies of old newspapers in a quiet corner of a library is one of the pleasures amateur historians like myself are presently having to forego. It’s many years since I began to look into the history of my local area but even then the days of turning fragile dusty pages were gone and newspapers were accessible on microfilm, fiddly to load onto the reader and involving much winding of a small handle which had an annoying tendency to drop off. Whatever the object of the research it is so easy to be side-tracked and find oneself following a story like Mr Allen’s and inevitably something particularly interesting would turn up five minutes before the library was due to close. Much furious winding would result, while the librarians tidied up ostentatiously around me. Nowadays microfilm readers are electric-powered but the result is the same; high speed whirring from my machine as the staff prepare to close for the day.

Another past pleasure was researching in the Borthwick Institute when it was still housed in St Anthony’s Hall. On one occasion I wanted to consult Parliamentary Papers, and found myself alone in a downstairs room lined with tall bookcases full of weighty volumes. The ones I needed were on the top shelf. A stepladder was provided but I decided I would feel safer climbing onto a large solid table nearby. “Nobody will notice”, I thought. But as I dragged it into position, the screeching of the table legs across the floor reverberated around the room, was taken up through the pipes of the ancient heating system and seemingly broadcast to the world by the venerable old building. I froze for several minutes, then as nobody appeared, inch by inch I moved the table and climbed up to retrieve my prize.