Gina Davidson: Librarians can't be book-keepers

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MANY years ago I used to work in a library. Now that you've stopped laughing I'll continue. It wasn't just any library, it was THE library, the numero uno of book depositories, the largest in the nation . . . the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge. Let's face it, if you're going to hand out books for a living you might as well aim for the top.

And that was basically what my job consisted of - handing out books. Apart from the exciting times I got to wheel them on a trolley into the rarefied world of the Advocates Library next door. To be clear, I was in no way ever a "librarian", just a lowly deliverer of weighty tomes to the intellectually-gifted few who were allowed up the hallowed stairs to the Reading Room.

I was just out of school, and to even be considered for such an unskilled job I had to be interviewed by a panel of three people. Yes, a triumvirate of academics to quiz a 17-year-old to discover if she's got the necessary qualifications to deliver a book. Apparently, my limbs were deemed acceptable.

Then, the National Library was a daunting place. The Reading Room was run by a matriarchal character called Ms Deas, straight from the pages of a Muriel Spark novel. She had all her staff living in quiet fear - and God help any general member of the public who tried to get into the place without the necessary paperwork. If you weren't an academic or a PhD student you had no chance.

Then there were, to be frank, the rather odd blokes who worked with manuscripts. They wore white gloves, muttered to themselves a lot and smelled as musty as the books for which they cared. They were quite possibly very close in age to their beloved treasures.

Of course, those below stairs - the people who did all the cataloguing, book fetching, and the other myriad jobs which meant the institution worked - were as normal as you'd find in any large workplace.

But at the top of the tree was The Librarian. No matter that all the others working in the Reading Room, the Map Library or the Science Library might well be classed as librarians as you or I might think of them - at the NLS there was only one, and in my day it was Ian McGowan.

He certainly seemed to rule the roost and he knew what was going on. The idea that a long-running financial scam which could see 500,000 of taxpayers' money stolen from NLS coffers by a senior member of staff on his watch (that's the latest in-phrase isn't it?) would be, I'd like to think, impossible.

And yet, just this week David Dinham, the 33-year-old chief information officer, was jailed for two years after being found guilty of embezzling such an amount. Apparently he was able to get away with his scam for four years without it being noticed either by his superiors, by the board and its trustees, or even the auditors.

He could spend on an NLS credit card with no-one but him checking the bills - even though he wasn't the library's accountant. In any other business that seems incredible.

But then the NLS isn't really a business. It certainly hasn't attempted to run along the same lines as a commercial venture until recent years. It was always an institution, not an Inc.

Indeed it was only in February this year - six months after the fraud was finally uncovered by other NLS staff - that the board trustees incorporated the idea that they should be "monitoring, scrutinising and challenging" management on a regular basis into its own "responsibilities document".

And it's only since Dinham was caught that the Librarian, who is also known these days as chief executive, Martyn Wade, has "tightened up" financial controls.

The NLS has been trying to modernise. To lose its fusty, dusty old image, to attract new "readers" as they used to be called. They're described as customers now.

But that's where its problems lie. It opened a cafe and expanded the shop. Even the exhibitions are now aimed at the general public rather than just academia. Which all sounds great, but apparently both the cafe and shop are losing money, rather than generating it.

For the same reasons it employed a 29-year-old whizzkid called Dinham to digitalise its archive, a project worth 1.8m - and left him to it. I wonder if he had to face a panel of three grim-faced people before he got the job?

It used to be the case that the only stolen goods from the Library were its prized books - and that was soon noticed, because that's where the expertise lies.

Most of the staff are not commercial business people. While Dinham was filling his pockets with our cash, the focus of others was on the purchase of the John Murray Archive - which is what you'd expect librarians to be doing.

If the NLS really wants to modernise it has to decide if it's going to continue to be run by academics in their bicycle clips, or by commercial people who really know what they're doing. Perhaps the roles of National Librarian and Chief Executive are not compatible. After all, any librarian will tell you that they're not book-keepers.