Confessions of a rogue library book buyer

'Rogue Librarian', by Chris JohnstonWhen I look back at my career as an academic (10 years was enough), I do not recall a sea of young smiling faces, intent on learning the difficult art of writing.

I see a library, stretching row upon row, of new books.

For three years I was the writing programs director at a large university of technology. My job was essentially that of 'fixer'. I had enough responsibility to be held accountable for everything but too little power to make enduring changes.

Being head 'fixer' amongst a sea of divergent personalities (both staff and students) was a unique pleasure. I was certainly the odd man out as I stubbornly clung to logic and process. But, like the Good Ship Venus, we sailed on with morale swinging between enmity and eros.

I never really fitted in. I was a bit of academic rough trade. More Joe Orton than Mr Chips. They say writing is indelible but teaching writing was, for me, like writing one's name on the wind.

Burning within was a desire to build something permanent, something tactile.

The idea to defraud the other faculties' book budgets came from Janet, a senior librarian and fiction lover. I am not sure to this day whether I was a tool of Janet's nefarious intentions or vice versa.

In the winter of 1998 I was perusing the tatty old library stacks when Janet sidled up to me and said, 'Do you know that most of the faculties don't spend their library allocation? They forget or just don't care.'

We were in the midst of phase four of the third round of organisational restructuring. Buying books and DVDs would seem like fiddling while Rome was burning.

I am not a noble man. I am full of self-interest and given half a chance, I would speculate wildly on the stock market with other people's money. Here was my chance to build a small legacy. Something permanent.

Plus, to be honest, sooner or later my political patrons, the Vice Chancellor and Dean, would be blown away by the winds of change and I would go with them into a new future.

The next week, in my pigeon hole was a manila envelope. Inside was a spreadsheet of every school in the university and their library budget. Some schools hadn't touched their allocation in years. It was a tidy sum, amounting to many tens of thousands of dollars.

What I lack in integrity, I make up for in guile. I asked Janet whether it was possible to access the unspent monies to restock and build a modern literature library complete with DVDs.

Janet was a cool customer. She was the type of woman I would like on deck if I was going to sail around The Horn. Steely. Full of resolve.

'Yes, I think that could be done.'

We were a team, and the university valued teamwork.

In October 1998 I prepared one of the largest single book orders in the history of the university. I ordered $27,000 worth of books split between a large Australian owned-bookstore in the arts precinct and a few other smaller bookshops.

By May 1999 Janet and her cabal of secret literature-loving librarians had catagorised and shelved the books. They had been paid for by the unspent book budgets. The head librarian and her coterie of bun-haired passive aggressives in building 101 were none the wiser.

Between August 1999 and September 2000 I purchased $50,000 worth of books. The librarians had to order more stacks and rearrange the library to fit them in. Don't you love that new book smell? They were delicious and gleamed like apples in the sun.

Even though the university was now in phase seven of its Orwellian audit on 'where money was coming from and where it was going', they still had not yet twigged that there was a cell of book buying anarchists wearing sensible shoes in their midst. This was double good.

By the end of 2002 I had bought $120,000 worth of books and DVDs. Janet resigned to go sailing in the Pacific with her husband. She was a noble woman. Devious but noble.

It was about this time that my patrons fell Roman-like on their swords or simply got better jobs in the corporate sector. I too thought my best work was done. My old humanities school was quickly turning into an agency of the electronic games industry.

On my last day I went to the library and walked down aisle upon aisle of new books. Their colourful spines ran riot under the fluorescent lights. I had done good by doing bad and I was free.

Malcolm KingMalcolm King is an Adelaide writer. He runs an educational PR business and teaches Sudanese children literacy and numeracy. He was the former head of the creative writing programs at a major university of technology.




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Existing comments

I wonder is anyone reading them?
Michael Grounds | 04 February 2008

I had an experience similar to Malcolm's some years ago when as the new CEO I inherited a pretty miserable public library as part of a local government restructuring during the Kennett era.

We were in 'commissioner mode', and all the history of the municipalities had been lost in the upheaval. In preparing the first capital budget, I made a pact with my Library Manager that I would massively increase the new book budget if she would guarantee to get every one of the new books on the shelves immediately they came in.

Since the commissioners were new, they were none the wiser, but with all the new books the library was reborn and has gone on from strength to strength.

Malcolm's article reminds me of an old adage about large corporations - 'It's easier to get forgiveness than permission'.

Ginger Meggs | 04 February 2008

This was great fun. Thanks! Thoroughly enjoyed it. More power to his arm.
Mary Jackson | 04 February 2008

Thank God for creative writers. Many students will bless you.
Margaret | 04 February 2008

Congratulations Malcolm, on your success by stealth. As one who followed a similar devious path a decade-plus earlier in another institution of higher learning I salute a partner in crime! As HOD my tactic was to considerably overspend my department's budget, knowing that the deficit would be covered from those departments that had underspent. When it succeeded one year I continued the same practice over several more. My total spending did not rival yours but it felt just as good!!
Doug Hewitt | 04 February 2008

Malcolm's creative book buying saga gives us all hope that the bean Counters can be outfoxed. Machiavelli move over!
Keith tognetti | 04 February 2008

Wow! What an excellent use of money. Quietly subversive; a great moral victory over those who can't or wont do their jobs & operate their budgets efficiently,
Tricia | 05 February 2008

1.Someone please check what is happening to Malcolm's library.
2. A relevant English tale is at
3. Another story of subversive librarians. In the days when libraries had to pulp their chucked out books, librarians used to secretly give them to me, and I took the best around schools for children each to choose a book they liked for their classrooms (NOT their libraries.) I helped them start reading it and they told their class about it. This was so successful in arousing love of books that I wish it was possible for children in all schools to choose a book for their own possession or for their classroom.
4. Creative non-fiction is needed more than creative fiction – imagining what may be possible in the real world, not only in fantasy.
5. I would like to know if
is of any use to Malcolm as an aid to the Sudanese learners as an overview of the literacy business and to clear up confusions. It is for individual viewing and repeating what they like.
6. I loved the illustration, especially the Dewey Code.

valerie yule | 05 February 2008

great story. just for fun I donated three neat books to my Jesuit high school library. O'Mally SJ -- History of the Early Jesuits, McKenzie SJ The Two-edged Sword (wonderful OT commentary), and to be really subversive, B16's Jesus of Nazareth. AMDG!
Casey Collins | 05 February 2008

I was prepared to believe Malcolm's whole story until he described the Head Librarian's assistants as a "coterie of bun-haired passive aggressives." In over twenty-five years of working in libraries I have never seen any librarian or technician or assistant or volunteer or anyone with bun-hair. Ever. Men with ponytails, women with five shades of henna, men bald as a cashew, women with hair down to their hips, but bun hair - never. Why does this stereotype from the Flintstones continue to interrupt otherwise imaginative pieces about library life? The only industry where we see bun-hair in abundance is behind the counters of the fast-food chains. Passive aggressives though, well that's another story.
An Observer | 05 February 2008

Observor was right to ping me re the stereotype of 'bun haired' librarians.

The head librarian had more of a classical French bun.

In all seriousness, Observor is right. The librarians were the heart and soul of the university.
Malcolm King | 06 February 2008

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