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‘Margaret Thatcher’ of National Library steps down

Michael Anderson, who has been in post since 2000. Picture: Greg Macvean

Michael Anderson, who has been in post since 2000. Picture: Greg Macvean

  • by TIM CORNWELL
 

THE man described as the “Margaret Thatcher” of the National Library of Scotland will step down after a dozen years as chairman, during which he wrenched the institution into the 21st century but made enemies in the process.

In one episode in a sometimes turbulent chairmanship, Michael Anderson did not deny that he was “carpeted”, as one source put it, in an angry meeting with the First Minister Alex Salmond in 2009, after staff were banned from displaying Saltires at their desks.

“The First Minister was his usual self. He was not amused,” he said.

He denied he was being eased out, despite some concerns that a new bill to overhaul and shrink the library’s 30-strong board will give the Scottish Government new powers over the institution.

He said sometime this year, “They will start recruiting some new members of the board, and that will include my replacement because I’ve been chairman for 12 years and that’s far longer than anybody would normally expect”.

Mr Anderson has presided over the National Library since 2000. Behind the doors of the library’s 1950s headquarters on George IV Bridge, he has been a hands-on chairman driving sweeping change.

Early in his tenure six senior figures at the library lost their jobs, with angry complaints that collections specialists were “banjaxed”. A recent restructuring, driven by budget cuts in the library and other cultural agencies, has seen eight senior managers among about 30 departing staff take retirement or redundancy packages. One former staff member called the latest departures an “extraordinary loss of experience”.

Some former staff who spoke to The Scotsman described Mr Anderson as having a management style borrowed from Mrs Thatcher.

“There’s no arguing that the library has changed, so things got done, but he was a bit dictatorial,” said one.

But the modernisations he helped bring about, from a new public cafe to internet ordering of books, were necessary changes driven by demands for more open access at a great research library, said others.

A world where curators and researchers huddled in a corner over manuscripts could not be “put in aspic”, said one long-time library user. Mr Anderson was walking an “uneasy balancing act” in one of the world’s greatest research libraries.

I have been doing it for a very, very long time, but it is a hugely exciting job,” said Mr Anderson. “The achievements that we have made over the past ten years in particular, have really transformed the library in all sorts of ways.

“When I started the library was a library of last resort, it was designed to keep people out. Now anybody can go in, they can go into the visitor centre, they can have coffee, get a reader’s ticket; a huge number of people get readers’ tickets simply to get resources online.”

The most recent changes will see a new “executive leadership team” including a newly-promoted deputy chief librarian and deputy chief executive, on salaries of more than £70,000 each.

Mr Anderson’s tenure has seen a long-running battle, between a corporatist management approach that has forced through change in a digital era and old-guard librarians who cherish their love of books and archives.

The library’s chief executive Martyn Wade said: “A lot of the successes of the library are due to his commitment, effort and enthusiasm.”

A former professor of economic history at Cambridge University, Mr Anderson was also senior vice-principal of Edinburgh University for seven years.

 

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