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Thursday, March 23

It's a library, Joan, but not as I knew it...

Lochee Library in the years after its opening

My photographic education, such as it was, was almost entirely library-based. Throughout my life I've been self-taught when it comes to the things that appealed to me such as photography, golf and vintage racing bikes. When I needed help or information, it was only natural to nip along to the library to get some assistance in how to to do these things.

From about the age of 12, I'd become a regular stalker around the non-fiction shelves in my local Lochee Library. And what shelves they were. In the early 1970s, the bookcases were massive affairs, probably about 12 feet long, 7 feet tall and stacked in rows and rows. And all in a sombre, dark wood. Or at least that's how I remember the place.

There was a foot-stool that could be used to gain access to books on the top shelf and I had to use it on occasion even though I was an "early developer" and consequently quite tall for my age. The books spanned decades going back to the late 19th century and covered such a range of subjects that you were almost certain to get the information you needed even though it would have admittedly taken much longer than tapping a few words into Google. Many of the books had no dust jackets and, consequently, were a bit on the dusty side! If I close my eyes I can still smell them. There were some serious books in there as well. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you could have earned yourself an engineering degree just based on the books available under that section.

The building itself was also impressive. It opened in 1896 and was a great success from the start, necessitating an extension about 15 years later. I remember it as being largely untouched from those early years, the type of building that had you whispering as soon as you entered.

My earliest recollection of self-teaching came shortly after I'd been given a bike by a friend's father. My own mum wouldn't let me have a bike as she feared I'd end up beneath a bus and wasn't too pleased when I turned up with a 1950's Freddie Grubb racer, a fine machine and a generous donation. It had lain in a shed for a long time and the Sturmey Archer hubs gears weren't working properly. My dad had been a keen cyclist in his youth so I asked him if he could fix things for me. He said he'd only ever ridden a fixed gear bike, didn't know anything about hub gears and suggested I take myself off to the library. So that's what I did. I was 12 at the time.

In those days, there was a reasonable cycling section in the library and I went home with a couple of books which promised to arm me with the knowledge necessary to put right the Sturmey glitch. Sure enough, after digesting a few chapters I was able to diagnose the problem and get the bike back on the road. When the photography bug bit, followed shortly afterwards by golf, it was the library that provided the knowledge I needed to gain enough proficiency for enjoyment from these pursuits.

There were books by the heroes of the day such as Nicklaus, Trevino and Johnny Miller; British pros including the recently-deceased John Jacobs and some of the all-time greats - the likes of Walter Hagan, Sam Snead and Bobby Locke. There were loads of photography books as well dating back to the 1940s/50s and I know they were regularly borrowed as I'd sometimes have to wait for a particular favourite to be returned before I could take it out again.

A few years later when school exams were coming round, a pal, Keith, and I would use the library for "swotting". I remember when an English exam was coming up and we had the great idea to dig out the oldest reference books we could find on the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, unearth the most intelligent-sounding quotes from these learned tomes and divide them between ourselves by the entirely democratic method of drawing them from a hat.

Armed with these wee phrases we could then stun the examiners with our "original" criticism. That's why I can now say with some authority that Wilfred Owen was a master of subtle harmonies in rhyme and consonance. Funny how things stick in the mind. I wonder how many more of my schoolboy peers around Scotland would be able to say the same thing having also ripped off the words of earlier literary critics!

That, in a nutshell, is my library back-story. Fast forward now to today. When we moved into our present house just over a year ago, I found myself back in the same part of town in which I grew up. Lochee Library isn't the closest one to me but it's not much further away than its rival so I signed up for a library ticket on the local council website. That's why I was in the old building yesterday and why I'm writing this post. To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement. I had to vent.

The old, massive book shelves have long since been replaced by light oak-coloured jobs that are about 6 feet tall and the same in length. They're full of brightly-coloured books none of which looked older than about 20 years. They seemed pretty lightweight "popular" looking books and nothing at all like the serious books that once populated the serious shelves of old. It's a small library but there were still six computer stations each with a "surfer" at the controls. There was also a talking books section and others for CDs and DVDs. It had been modernised and looks like a modern classroom.

Thinking about it, it was more like a children's library in a primary school, to be honest. I wandered up and down the bookcases - there were nowhere near as many as there used to be - and located the arts section. At the end of a row of watercolour master-classes were three photography books. THREE. Two were digital - a beginner's guide and some other God-awful publication - and the third an A4-sized book of photographs by Glaswegian photographer Oscar Marzaroli.

He was described in the introduction as "Scotland's most prestigious photographer of the 20th century". Laying bare my considerable ignorance, I have to admit that I'd never heard of the late Mr Marzaroli. Maybe Phil Rogers can chime in here but I'd have thought that Phil's old tutor Joseph McKenzie might have had a better claim to that title. Or celebrity photographer, Dundee-educated but Edinburgh-born Albert Watson, who took the iconic shot of Steve Jobs (below).

Here's Marzaroli's best-known photograph, The Castlemilk Lads, taken in Glasgow in 1963 (below). It's a cracker, for sure, but, having read the book, I don't think he can stand comparison with Joe McKenzie. Portraits aren't really my thing so I'd also drop Albert Watson in favour of Joe.

Marzaroli, according to the book, never cropped his negatives and yet The Castlemilk Lads is reduced to a square by the publishers. I guess artistic integrity doesn't survive the grave very well.

Above is a McKenzie photograph of my home town of Dundee as it was being rent asunder by the "planners" and "developers", a.k.a. ignorant, greedy arseholes (excuse the language), in the 1960s. Not only did Joe seem to have a better eye than Marzaroli but he was, from what I've seen, a much better printer as well.

But the object of this post wasn't to debate the merits of Scottish photographers. I got back home from the library trip feeling not a little dispirited. I know libraries have been on the slide for many years as people turned to the internet for their information and entertainment but this was yet another example of how we seem to be going backwards as a society. 

Yes, we're becoming ever more technologically advanced (and throwing people onto the dole in the process) but we're also demanding less and less of people in terms of making them think a bit, put in some effort and not expect everything to be dumbed down to the level of a children's library. I read the other day that the state of Idaho, within about 20 years, is forecast to lose half of its present jobs total to robots. That's just unsustainable.

It occurred to me that, such is the parochial mindset of local council officers and their SNP overlords, that the Marzaroli book was probably only there because he was Scottish. It's likely, in their view, that books about international photographers would go straight over the heads of their subjects. But, looking at the lending record of the book, it seems they might be right in a way as even a photography book about a Scot holds little attraction for today's public. The book was published in 2013 and the first lending stamp was January 14, 2014. The next was January 23, 2014. The next one was mine. Borrowed three times in three years. Says it all, really.

The only thing I remembered of the library from the "old days" that hadn't change much was Joan, the librarian. I couldn't believe she was still there. Her association with the place must be almost as long as mine. So will I be a regular visitor to the library? I fear not, especially if it leaves me in the same sort of mood as yesterday.

I'm probably feeling a trifle guilty as I haven't used libraries as much over the last 20 years either as I did when I was younger but I still popped in and out of the one in Carnoustie during our ten years there. There are a couple of old libraries in Dundee that I haven't visited for a long time and I'm hoping that they will have retained some of their character and charm. I'll keep my fingers crossed and give them a try - and maybe I'll become a regular again.


Anonymous said...

You could have taken the Mackenzie photograph. Nice. Bill

slackercruster said...

Enjoyable article. Nice to see something other than landscapes.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - that Joe photo is cropped - the original is I believe a Rollei . . anyway, yes you hit it on the head with Oscar (not to denigrate his photos, but) GLASGOW. They're artistic down there man, hadn't you heard? and Edinburgh too, but Dundee - - phh.
We had some bods from Glasgow up at a local Scottish Photographers meeting a year or so back. Not to blow my own trumpet, but when I produced my (if I do say so myself) decent, really decent, prints of some Hasselblad matter printed on old Agfa MCC and toned, I could hear their mental intake of breath. One of the guys was a 'worker' alongside Thomas Joshua Cooper, and I think he was totally shocked that somewhere as parochial as Dundee could produce anything of worth, worth looking at. They talked about the artistic process and making, and more work, and left. I heard more artspeak in a couple of hours than I've heard in years! Anyway, anything north of the central belt has nothing worth talking about. That's the attitude.
Anyway, for your readers - short biog of Joe here

and an interesting article here (interesting to see that the artspeak bunch are thinking "Oh Shit, we missed this") :

Obviously I loved the man - he's been a light under a bushel for too long. He always said one of his pupils had totally betrayed him . . can I throw a little dissent into this, I think it was Albert Watson, who I believe (though I may be wrong) never really acknowledged Joe's tutoring, though of course it would be lovely to hear differently!

Anyway, libraries- yes, they're no fun any more, that's why I started my own. My house is rammed with books and I remember back in the 1980's and 1990's when you could go to library sales and pick up incredible books for pennies. yes they were often scabby from all that reading, but I was hungry for books so I bought a lot. You should start inhabiting secondhand book shops and charity shop book sections - not all of it is as over-priced as they tend to be in Oxfam book and record specialist shops.

A library in Lochee - well, you were coming from a generation that wanted to move above their lowly upbringings, and before you think I am being critical, I was raised on an estate that became known as 'Little Beirut' so I sort of know a bit about it! Back in those glory days of the 1960's and '70's the attitude was, try and make the most of your place in life AND try and climb the social ladder. These days, people have their screens. You could argue that technology (sic) is the neo-opiate of the people (though someone once sprayed on a bridge in Harrow back in the '70's, that "Nicholas Parsons Is The Neo-Opiate Of The People" . .see - it was beginning to make itself known then!)
Why struggle to better yourself in life when it can be quite comfortable. You've got a small input from the State each week, you get a portion of rent and council tax paid for you; you've got a cheap source of food up the road, you've got your instant comms device and you've got your screen which of course knows everything . . . no need to better yourself. It saves the struggle.
A wise man once compared the internet to a library and said that the internet was the motorway to information - you knew your destination and got there quickly, whereas the library was the backroad. . . you could still get to your destination, but you got distracted by interesting places along the way.
Oh how true that used to be, but cuts, and lack of interest have made the library a homogenised shadow of its former self. Start your own.

Soapboxes away Ginger!

DavidM said...

Hands off Nicolas Parsons!

DavidM said...

Libraries couldn't really stay the way they were. On the other hand, they seem to have evolved into playgrounds. No doubt there are good reasons for the way they are now, but it would be nice to see a bit less current fiction on the shelves. My library doesn't even seem to have a complete set of Agatha Christie. Perhaps we should consider that behind them lurk cost-cutting local authorities, anxious to prove that they are not wasting ratepayers' money on elitist projects like books. I rather like elitist projects myself. We need more.
It isn't the computer that's put people out of work; it's the container ship. We can now afford to transport manufactured goods from low-paid countries whereas previously, high transport costs would have protected the workers over here, and we would have had to pay the difference for our clothes and iPhones. Admittedly, containerisation depends on computer control but that only accounts for putting stevedores and dockers out of work.
If we'd used our prosperity for education instead of for inflating house prices, we would now have an economy based on intellectual strength rather that muscular strength. We'd still need nurses and call centres, I suppose.

Kodachromeguy said...

Oh, DavidM, you wrote, "If we'd used our prosperity for education instead of for inflating house prices, we would now have an economy based on intellectual strength rather that muscular strength." So prophetic. Have you watched the news about the USA election? You saw what was elected? And how he promised to a frightened and naive electorate that he'd bring the good old fashioned muscle jobs back to USA, while meanwhile turning back environmental controls? And throw out those nasty immigrants who actually do most of the nasty muscle jobs? We're in big doodoo on this side of the pond.

DavidM said...

The world is becoming very strange. I have no advice that couldn't be given by a kindly ostrich.
That's made me think: Working with a large format camera, under the big comforting darkcloth, is very ostrich-like.
Get a large format camera and forget your troubles!

milldave said...

We've been here before, though some 1500 years ago.
For Washington, DC, USA, read Rome.
For Barack Obama/Ju$tin Trudeau, read Claudius, Nero, anyone of a handful of Roman emperors.
For the current President, I don't have a comparison; maybe Flavian?
For the Roman provinces read the Rest of the (known) World.
And for the Chinese, read the Huns/Visigoths.
No part of the Roman world survived the barbarian hordes, whether Europe, the Middle East, Africa or Britannica.
So what's new?
The comfortable, easy times have gone and we have to contend with a new empire; we haven't learned from history, so we're doomed to repeat the mistakes of old.
It will be about adaptability, though I doubt if there will be a legacy left such as the Romans gave us.
Ho, hum!
Head back in the sand!