National Library’s ‘James Bond’ retires after half a century

For someone who spent the best part of half a century working at one of the UK’s largest and most venerable libraries, it is on the face of it a rather startling admission.

Gordon Yeoman

“I was never a great reader,” says Gordon Yeoman.

But the 60-year-old, who retired from the National Library of Scotland with little fanfare during the coronavirus lockdown, has had a far from conventional career.

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After leaving school at the age of 16 to become an apprentice bookbinder in Edinburgh, he spent 44 years at the institution, looking after the health of some of its most valuable books. As a bookbinder and later as exhibitions conservator, he has worked on thousands of volumes and documents, carrying out essential restoration and ensuring they are safe for the future.

“I treated every book the same,” he says. “Whether it was worth a million pounds or one pound, you still wanted to do a good job on it.

“People have asked me ‘do you get worried when you’re working on something so expensive?’ But I’ve always said no, because I didn’t think about that.”

Among the many valuable documents he has worked on include one of the 49 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the last letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots – and even the first-ever edition of the Beano comic. However, Mr Yeoman says one of his greatest privileges was helping to repair original manuscripts of poems by Robert Burns in preparation for a 2009 exhibition. He also had to design and make a display box for what is believed to be the wedding ring worn by Jean Armour, the poet’s wife. “That was a special feeling,” he recalls. “It was very thin and fragile, but the history made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

“I also like Burns’ own writing, as you can actually read it. He had a very clear hand and you can see those famous words in front of you.

“To actually see the poems in his writing that are recited at so many Burns Suppers is something special.”

When he took the role as a bookbinder in 1976, Mr Yeoman admits he had “no idea what the job entailed at all”, recalling blank looks from his friends. Travelling with particularly high-value books or documents also required James Bond-style security, with items being given their own seat in business class next to Mr Yeoman. He was also responsible for transporting a special edition of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter folklore book The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was insured for £1 million. The edition, one of only six in existence, had been given by the author to Barry Cunningham, the editor who first saw the potential of the series.