A few heart-stopping moments in the mobile library

The mobile library van in Midlothian during the 1960s. Photo: Midlothian Council Local Studies
The mobile library van in Midlothian during the 1960s. Photo: Midlothian Council Local Studies

As I had just left school and actually lived in Newtongrange, I was chosen to be the mobile librarian and I was very happy indeed as I really love reading, and was known to be “a bit of a book worm”, writes Christine Grieve.

I was certain that I would love doing such a job as it was going to be a pleasure to me – more than some boring old office work in the town. Therefore, I could barely wait to finish my initial training in Dalkeith Library in Croft Street so that I could start in my wonderful new post! It seemed like a position 
specially manufactured for me in heaven!

When I first got the job I never gave much thought to any drawbacks as my employment was close to my house for at least three days in the week – I would have few bus fares as well as being able to have my lunch at home. Those were extra bonuses for which my family was grateful. [My mother was a widow so we needed every penny we could get!]

Unfortunately there were two main drawbacks regarding the new post which did not take me long to find out and cause me grief – even though I was totally naive – at that time!

The first of those was actually to do with the driver! Since I could not drive the huge vehicle myself, I badly needed an authorised driver to take me to each place, so it had been decided by some official, sitting in a comfortable office in town, that the new van would be garaged up at the Midlothian Cleansing Department’s headquarters at the Stobhill Depot, and that one of the many drivers who were also Cleansing Department operatives would bring it to the delegated spot – in time for me to open up.

That plan worked perfectly alright – as long as an experienced driver could be found. Sometimes this did not happen due to various staff shortages and sickness so an inexperienced driver had to do the job which was usually easy enough – except in the bad weather.

The second drawback was the bad weather which could make working in the van quite uncomfortable at times as it did not have any proper tea-making facilities or any loo!

Winters were far more severe in the 1950s than they are nowadays! Mind you, even now Gorebridge and Mayfield have snow and ice which lie far longer than in the more sheltered areas of Dalkeith which lie in a sheltered valley.

Back in the 1950s, when a rookie driver was driving the van with me sitting in front beside him, we had more than a few slithery and heart-stopping moments I can tell you, as my head almost went through the windscreen, since safety belts for drivers and their passengers were not thought of at that time, nor would be for many years!

I had also to pick up hundreds of books which often flew off the narrow shelves as the rookie would swerve to avoid something or take a sharp turn too fast.

Once, on a steep brae in Gorebridge the huge van skidded on black ice and went into someone’s garden. But the driver somehow managed , by many awkward manoeuvrings and lots of bad language, to back it out into the roads with the help of onlookers without resulting in any real harm!

I never complained though, as I did not want to “make waves” for my immediate boss – the County Librarian or for the Cleansing Department boss, as this would surely have got someone into serious trouble! Those unauthorised shenanigans could have got me badly injured, or even killed, but keeping the peace at the depot was more important to me at that time! I was desperate to prevent any nasty situation ever happening.

For some time I suspected that the “boys” in the Cleansing Dept thought I was a dratted nuisance anyway, more especially when I had to ask for the gas cylinder of my heater to be replenished every three weeks.

Occasionally, I actually had to plead with the foreman supervisor to come and put a new cylinder in place. He was always saying that he was “too busy”.

What could I say – I was only a young green girl without any real authority. If I had gone to his boss, I would have been termed a “clype” or “a grass” and sent to Coventry. You see, some mornings I had to do some office work in the council garage such as counting and arranging boxes and boxes of issue, as well as doing stats since all library work was manual in those days. I had also to take time to really tidy the shelves which were often in disarray! Those men often laughed at me as they thought me young, foolish, and “fair game”. They could and would have made it very unpleasant for me to work there – so I kept a very low profile.

The van had only this gas burner to heat the place in the winter days and the door had always to be kept open for the readers. I was often frozen to the marrow despite my heavy coat and big boots, except when I stood beside the static calor gas heater which was situated almost opposite the open door.

The final instalment is next week