Breaking the Silence

It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the library at Salisbury College of Technology – the word SILENCE in prominent black letters posted on the opposite wall. There were at least half a dozen similar signs at strategic locations around the library – they were impossible to miss.

The job of College Librarian was my third professional post and the first in which I was actually in charge of a library. The first thing I did after greeting my new colleagues on my first morning was to take down all those signs.

My predecessor had been very “old school” in his approach to librarianship and had retired not long before. I, on the other hand, was only six years out of training college and full of bright ideas about how a modern college library should work for the benefit of students in the late 20th century, who were certainly not going to be encouraged to use a library that resembled a Trappist monastery.

The library had – in my view – been badly neglected for years, is full of tired old stock that was seriously out of date and in no way suited to support students who needed to be supplied with the latest information.

I, therefore, spent the following years upgrading the library, negotiating ever-larger budgets to buy in new stock, and removing vast numbers of books that had long outlived their usefulness. I had the full support of the College Principal in making this happen.

However, after four years I felt it was time to move on. My personal circumstances had changed and I needed to find a post that paid me enough to consider re-marrying and setting up a new home. I, therefore, started applying for jobs that looked suitable, wherever they might be. The new love of my life had just finished teacher training and was free to find a job just about anywhere, which gave me quite a free hand.

Offers of interviews came in fairly frequently, and I was pleased to see that the ratio of interviews to job applications was quite high. It would appear that my experience and qualifications, plus the statements I made in my applications, were good enough to make potential employers think that I was worth talking to, which was very satisfactory.

However, the downside was that none of the interviews resulted in a job offer. Over the course of about twelve months, I attended something like 25 interviews, all over the country, but got nowhere in terms of landing one. On one occasion I was interviewed in Coventry in the morning and Leeds in the afternoon, after a frantic drive up the M1 in my ancient VW Beetle, but neither interview got me anywhere.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever find a new post when I had a piece of good luck. It was not a job offer, but a conversation with one of my interviewers after yet another failed bid. This was at a college in Derby, and I had recognized one of the interview panels as someone who had been on the staff of the College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth where I had gained my postgrad diploma. He had not actually taught me, but had clearly seen the link on my application form and decided, after the interview, to take me to one side for a quick word.

“Do you realize”, he said, “that you will never get a job with a reference like that? It’s very much against convention for me to be telling you this, but I thought I owed it to you as a personal favor. You should not use your College Principal as a referee if he is going to be saying things like that about you.”

This was an absolute bombshell. I had no idea that the Principal, with whom I was on generally good terms, had been queering my pitch behind my back. When I got back to Salisbury I made a few inquiries and the true situation emerged.

This was that the Principal was unpopular with many of the college staff, who held him in contempt for the way he behaved towards them. He held grudges against people who displeased him and had been known to stand at his office window, armed with a stopwatch, when certain individuals went out at lunchtime to ensure that they did not overstay their permitted time off the premises, thus giving him a reason for being even more unpleasant towards them.

He had installed a tracking system on the telephone switchboard so that he could be sent lists of all the phone numbers of outgoing calls, from which he could challenge people about making private calls at the College’s expense.

As one might imagine, when staff members who were in his crosshairs had the opportunity to leave for pastures new, this is what they did. This had been noted by the County authorities who were concerned that staff turnover was a lot higher at Salisbury than at the other colleges in Wiltshire, and the Principal had been spoken to about this.

He had therefore adopted a new policy, which was to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to leave, whether they were on his hit list or not. When someone employed by a college makes a job application, one of the references they give is almost always that of their college Principal – the applicant could expect to be asked a few awkward questions if they did not. If the reference is a poor one, maybe containing a few downright lies about the person in question, then their chances of landing a new job can go straight down the pan.

This had been my fate for the best part of a year, and presumably, it would have continued had I not had the good fortune to encounter someone on an interview panel who was prepared to break a golden rule and tell a candidate what was really happening.

My next move was therefore to give up on the idea of getting a new job and instead to apply for a Master’s course at my old training college in Aberystwyth. That was somewhere that had no need for a reference from my current employer, and I was duly accepted to join the next intake of students, after which I made a fresh start on my career as a librarian.

Sometimes it is really helpful when a person breaks the silence and tells the truth.

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