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Building a library with craft and guile

By Malcolm King - posted Wednesday, 13 February 2008


When 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. Nor do I see my brave and noble colleagues, whose voices are now echoes of a time long gone.

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.

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Being head “fixer” among 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. And I certainly had no time to do my own writing or research.

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.

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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.

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First published in Eureka Magazine on February 5, 2008.



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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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