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.


Topic tags: malcolm king, confession, rogue librarian



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