Gillian Harris MBE
Thinking like a librarian is second nature for Gillian Harris from Tower Hamlets SLS. As she’s due to retire in autumn 2023 we asked for the standout moments helping the right books and collections get to children, and the adults who support them. Interview by Nicola Baird.
The single most important thing in a primary school librarian is creativity, because you are constantly thinking of new ways to engage the children and matching their enthusiasms with what is in the library and what books they like.”
Gillian Harris, who is Head of Tower Hamlets SLS and Global Learning London has spent a lifetime helping children get hooked by books. Born in Reading (surely the perfect birthplace for a librarian), Gill, 64, was brought up in Havant, Hampshire. She then studied to be a librarian at Aberystwyth University before qualifying and taking her first job at Manchester’s public library. Besides SLS her career CV includes specialist committee work including chairing professional librarian organisations ASCEL and CILIP. In 2019 she received an MBE.
“I’d lived in Lewisham for 30 years and I got the notification about the MBE on the day we moved to Havant, so I didn’t tell anyone in Lewisham, although I earned that MBE while living in Lewisham. Then I got a letter from the leader of Hampshire County Council who I don’t know, whereas the Mayor of Lewisham was a friend of mine. It felt very strange as the wrong set of people were congratulating me in Portsmouth News. It should have been the South London press,” says Gill. But she’s laughing as she recalls this MBE mix-up. “I’m not really a great one for the trappings, but I felt very humbled that people had got together and written an application that met the criteria.” It also led to a trip to Buckingham Palace. “You can take up to three people with you and make a day of it. Princess Anne had something to say to every person! She talked to me about the Gambia. When I was a VSO in the Gambia, she’d been a Royal visitor just a few years before, and I remember people were still talking about it when I was there. I was impressed they’d picked out something to talk about. It’s done very well.”
Gill joined SLS at Tower Hamlets in 1991 and has been working there for the past 32 years. She laughs constantly, breaking every stereotype about the uptight librarian demanding complete silence. “We’ve had a bad press,” she jokes citing Harry Corbett’s librarian riffs in TV’s comedy, For Love or Mummy (1981).
Today Gill has just run 5.5 miles from garage to Zoom call at her desk, but her career has taken her around the world. “I’ve been a librarian since 1978,” she says, at first working in public libraries. “I was a children’s librarian for most of those years. When I was in Southwark I did a year-long job exchange in Vermont, US in 1982. We swapped jobs, houses, and cars – which made it very convenient.” Although the swap began in the most stressful way as she left for her new job “on the same day that the ships went out of Portsmouth to go to the Falklands (war).”
In the late 1980s she volunteered for an international NGO, working for VSO as a librarian in the Gambia for two years. Back in the UK – until recently she has spent much of her professional life based in London – she had temporary roles for the well-known Book Aid International and then maternity cover as a school librarian before joining Westminster SLS in 1990 and working there for a year.
“Cynthia Stirrup and I were both VSO librarians in the Gambia. She came to Tower Hamlets to set up the library and school services and suggested I apply for a job to work with her. We set up the whole SLS beginning with getting the shelving, buying the books, unpacking books and making decisions [connected with] the number system. I remember deciding where are the 500s (science) going to go on these shelves. We worked that out and then put the first book on the first shelf. We inherited an artefact collection as well. Over the years you evolve new services and things,” she reflects. When Cynthia retired, “I took over the service and again, different things happen. We inherited a costume collection… [which became] part of the library – different things kept happening and that kept me from moving on.”
“I started off thinking I’d just be dealing with books, but really enjoyed working with all the different artefacts and the costumes. I say to teachers, ‘if it’s robust enough and I can stick a bar code on to it, and it’s not going to break the first time a child holds it, and it can enrich the curriculum then I’ll buy it and you can borrow it’. I just love collecting all the artefacts that can be used in every part of the world curriculum and historical items,” she says. In fact, a recent trip to Dover Castle saw Gill buying Tudor and World War Two objects that will be shared around classrooms – great big keys for locking the dungeon and replica swords. She has added her college iron to the collection and also adds cloth from different countries whenever she travels abroad. As do colleagues and friends – there’s even a big pointed straw hat bought in Vietnam and donated by the chief education inspector.
“When you buy books, you have a much more formal way of going through what’s being published. Our artefacts is a much more eclectic collection and grows serendipitously,” explains Gill who notes that the oddest things are suitable including outdated technology and mobile phones. Even my old mobiles go into the collection. I’d love to find an old brick mobile phone, but they are expensive. We’ve got a few flip ones and are talking about putting a tape cassette into the collection. We used to lend them out with information on, and now they have become an historical artefact in their own right.”
With this realisation that the contemporary is soon another year group’s history, Gill has been busy collecting Royal memorabilia from the Queen’s Jubilee last year and the Coronation in 2023. “We’ve got a coronation tin from King George VI and from the 1952 Coronation, and a Charles and Diana mug. We have bought items and kept newspapers now, so that in 20 years’ time we’ll have examples of what you do at a coronation. We’re all interested in history and world events, so it’s nice seeing something to put into the library.”
So how much has changed during her career? “We were persuading teachers that children that read for pleasure are much more likely to do well. That’s become accepted, we now have to come up with ideas to help with this. The single most important thing in a primary school librarian is creativity, because you are constantly thinking of new ways to engage the children and matching their enthusiasms with what is in the library and what books they like. Setting up the primary school librarians (in its heyday there were 30 schools), we’ve learnt to put systems in place quickly and efficiently, so we also had time to engage with both the staff and children,” says Gill.
“You spend the early part of your career dashing around trying different things out. I did enjoy providing service to the schools covering the school system, the curriculum, providing books for teachers in the classroom and promoting reading for pleasure. So, I was working with a lot of people,” she says.
By coincidence one task in her early career included fact checking and passing a professional eye with her colleague Cynthia for VSO over a book this interviewer was commissioned to write, called Setting Up and Running a School Library, which was published in 1994. We only realised this shared bit of history when in 2022 one of SLS’s interview stars, Glasgow-based Victoria Williamson, author of The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, mentioned that she’d also worked with VSO in Africa and had used this book. https://sls-uk.org/victoria-williamson-lessons-from-the-ugly-duckling/
As you’d expect Gill has a few books on the go. Right now, she’s reading Who owns England by Guy Shrubsole “which is interesting” and is at the start of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. “I hope it’s like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens which was fantastic and grabbed me completely.”
Thank you to Gill for all her dedication and creativity: here’s to many happy days with books but without those daily deadlines.