My early experiences of libraries, though pleasant, did not inspire me to want to work in one. The assistants in Cambridge's children's library, sited in those days at the back of the Guildhall opposite the Corn Exchange, were pleasant, but uninspiring. They could also be a little bureaucratic, as for example when I wanted to move on to use the adult library when I was 11. They were all young women; the sole man on the staff was the librarian himself, a fierce-looking man with pebble glasses who occasionally sat on the enquiry desk in the adult library.
I had no clear idea of which profession I should follow. My father was a doctor, a general practitioner from a long line of physicians stretching back to the eighteenth century, but I found medicine scary and, if I am honest, too much like hard work. My father was single-handed, and nearly always on call. I witnessed the interrupted meals, the night visits, and concluded this was not for me. At various times I also entertained the idea of soldiering though I would have been spectacularly useless in the army; compare the report written on a incompetent officer, 'his men will follow him anywhere, if only out of curiosity'. In an early teenage bout of religious mania I though I might be a clergyman, like my uncle Lewis. Living in Cambridge, and strongly interested in music, the career that appealed most to me was that of don; I could see myself teaching in the music faculty building in Downing Place where I would sit my grade examinations on the clarinet.
The careers advice we received in sixth form was not very useful. We were tested in a rudimentary way, and I seem to recall that journalism was suggested. The headmaster thought I should go to Oxford to do Modern Greats. I ignored this advice and determined to read English, staying on for a seventh term in the sixth form to sit the Oxford entrance examinations. An uninformed choice of college, my failure to remember anything about my examination papers by the time the interview came and a hangover on the day ensured I failed. So I found myself at Kent, reading English, though I swapped this for economic history after a year
I left Kent with a Desmond, as they were subsequently nicknamed, and no very clear idea of what to do. I had used the university library without any real fervour in my four years there. The most exciting moments came in a special study option on science in the Restoration, when I got to look at the accounts of the early meetings of the Royal Society on microfilm, and my tutor lent me Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The university library had no copies so he borrowed them from the London Library and circulated them, illegally, to his students.
I left Kent after finals on a hot July day, driving up to London in a van a friend had put at my disposal, to a flat which my then-girlfriend had found in Temple Fortune. She had taken finals a year earlier than me, for I spent a sabbatical year fomenting revolution as the Students Union secretary. She had been sending me job advertisements from the local paper, the Hendon Times, among them one for a library assistant with the London Borough of Barnet. I applied in the spring, heard no more, and forgot about it. So I worked for a few weeks in Grodzinskis, a Jewish bakery with branches all over North London. I did not enjoy it, particularly not the Sunday working. In those pre-Sunday shopping days, Jewish shops, which closed on Saturdays, were permitted to open on a Sunday. My ignorance of Jewish dietary practices probably didn't help. There had been a few Jewish boys at school, but all I knew about them was that they, with the Roman Catholic boys, were excused assembly, and also allowed to miss Saturday morning school.
Then, some four months after I'd applied, a letter came inviting me to an interview for a library assistant at Barnet's Child's Hill library. I was interviewed by Colin Page, the Deputy Borough Librarian. In those more leisurely days interviewers had greater freedom, and remember we discussed jazz for the greater part of the interview. Much to my surprise, I was offered the job.
I started in August. I found that I enjoyed it, and what I enjoyed the most was what I came to know later as the reference interview: taking a readers' enquiry, refining it, suggesting sources that might be useful. I lacked the bibliographical knowledge I was later to acquire, but got by on native wit. And it was at this point that I decided that there might be something to librarianship.