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“Is Scotland different from England?” I was reading email on my Blackberry while riding from the Edinburgh airport with an English colleague who had arranged for us to visit some Scottish university libraries. So far Scotland hadn’t looked different. The distant hills framed by low clouds and gray sky, the open countryside patched by trees, the petrol station off the highway where we had a snack, everything could have been anywhere in the east Midlands of England, which we’d passed through the day before on the way up. Edinburgh’s airport greets the visitor passing out of the arrival gates with a celebration of the grandeurs of this capital city, dramatic photographic panels annotated with brief literary tributes, but we didn’t glimpse the city at all while driving away, and the airport itself is an unprepossessing aggregation of gate modules, a structure you could swap with mid-sized airports anywhere.
At the rental car counter, my colleague and the agent, having discovered through accent that they were Englishmen, had bantered with one another.
“Yes, I’m English,” said the agent, “I hope they let me stay after 2014.”
“And I hope they let me in,” said my colleague. “I’ll bring my passport.”
They were referring to Scottish independence, or the chance of it. Should the Scots be free of the English? Centuries ago, the issue was taken up with lance and battle axe. In our more tranquil century the question will be settled through the ballot box, when in the autumn of 2014 Scottish voters as young as sixteen will be asked to determine their future by answering whether they agree or disagree that “Scotland should be an independent country.”
Scotland has sixty institutions of higher education. Some are among the most famous universities in the world. Others serve the farthest outer reaches of today’s United Kingdom. The University of the Highlands and Islands, for example, has a western campus on the Isle of Skye operating in Gaelic. Its northernmost campus is a marine center located on the Shetland Islands, an archipelago near the North Sea oil fields, closer to the Arctic Circle than to London, whose culture is as Scandinavian as it is Scottish. Fortunately, most of Scotland’s universities are not so remote. From Edinburgh it’s possible to reach many of them with ease, and our itinerary called for visits to four libraries in two days.
We drove north from the airport toward the Firth Road Bridge, a span across the Firth of Forth before a turn east through towns like Auchthermuchty and Cupar, whose shops clung to the High Street as shops do throughout the U.K. At one point, among the restaurants offering curry or fish and chips, we spotted another advertising “southern fried chicken.” That was different, if not particularly Scottish. Our destination was the town of St. Andrews and the university of that name, a seat of learning founded in 1413 where centuries later Prince William met Kate Middleton. Now a few years past that event and celebrating its 600th anniversary, the St. Andrew’s Website boasts, “We were founded: before the printing press, before the battle of Agincourt, before the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, before the construction of Machu Picchu in Peru, before Columbus arrived in the Americas, and before Joan of Arc waged battle.”
All well and good, but what a visitor really notices while entering St. Andrews, next to the ancient spires and towers of university and town, is a golf course. Like the university, golfing is also about 600 years old in St. Andrews, and its Old Course, among the world’s most famous golfing venues, boasts the North Sea itself as the principal hazard along much of its length. These venerable links wrap the coastline above the town in spectacular fashion before concluding at an 18th hole with easy access to a comfortable clubhouse and several hotels. My own was full of golfing memorabilia, and my room had a name, “Jamie Anderson,” who, as a plaque and photographs inside illustrated, won The Open in 1877, 1878, and 1879 but, according to what I read, missed a chance for another when he was not told that the 1880 tournament was on until it was too late for him to enter it.
The university spreads throughout the town, and its main library was a few minutes’ walk. The library came into view as we turned down a narrow walkway off the street, a modern building, unlike much of its surroundings, stacked planes of concrete separated by three floors of glass. We were greeted at the entrance, whisked through the turnstile, and escorted to our meeting room, where we encountered our first Scottish librarians, seven of them, seated at a rectangular table waiting for us.
“Why do we get an error message on this page in your system?” We can fix that. “Can you simplify your bibliographic records?” We’ll have a look and do what we can. “Can you provide more DVDs?” Yes, we are planning to. “From Uruguay?” No, probably not. “How can we get a full MARC record at point of export?” We’ll explain how. “What are your plans to implement RDA?”
The questions weren’t so different from questions I’d heard at English libraries. For that matter, they weren’t so different from North American questions. The librarians were uniformly knowledgeable, sometimes exceptionally so, but the issues they had in mind did not seem local to St. Andrews; nor to Edinburgh, our second stop that first day, where the airport’s welcoming panels transformed into the real castles, cathedrals, and monuments of the living city; nor to Stirling, stop one of day two, where towering on a hill above the university was the Wallace Monument, honoring William Wallace, who a century prior to the emergence of golf in St. Andrews, had defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, inspiring Mel Gibson seven centuries later to film Braveheart. In Stirling the Scots still show some cheek. Official signage inside the library advised students at one point, “Every time you watch Jersey Shore, a book commits suicide.”
The University of Glasgow was our last appointment of the two days. Scotland’s two principal cities are only forty-seven miles apart, a short drive across the narrow waist of the country, highlands to the north, border country to the south. Glasgow, as has been noted often, sometimes but not usually in a complimentary way, lacks the splendors of Edinburgh. As we drove into the city on a dismal, drizzling afternoon, for us at least the effect was certainly the opposite of uplifting. The university’s main campus spreads through the city’s West End and we parked on a narrow street, where our meter didn’t work and the solid stone face of a building adjoining the street was stained dark by the rain on this hard, cold, damp day.
“Dreayyyechh,” said our librarian host as we described the weather to him, once safely inside. The word had an emphasis in the vicinity of the first “e” and the rest seemed like an expressive recreation of the dreary physical experience itself. I thought he’d made the word up on the spot, and had perfectly captured the entire effect of standing in a rain that when combined with gray and cold penetrates any outer garment you might try against it, and your soul too. But as I learned later, “dreich” is a real word, a word “chiefly Scottish.” As one online dictionary puts it, “A combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty, and miserable weather. At least four of the above adjectives must apply before a day is truly dreich.”
This day was, we had our four, and the librarian’s office, cramped and dimly lit, was not much cheerier. We sat across from him, separated by a desktop crowded with papers and reports and other tailings from the backroom workdays in what was, as our short walk to his office showed, with students occupying every available seat in sight, a heavily used and likely understaffed academic library. We got down to business and I asked about our new customer interface, which was in its test phase. Could I show it to him?
Instead, he showed it to me. He was a beta tester and as I witnessed, an active one. The computer on his desktop was an older model, and his keyboard obviously a well-worn implement. He grabbed it to sign on and attacked the keys with what resembled a series of whacks, as if he were trying to revive an injured child, or to help Mel Gibson subdue the English. He knew our system as well as I did and quickly showed me the strong points — thank goodness he’d liked it. We went on to other points of business, and he knew them all cold as well.
We had some small talk beyond the weather. At each stop across our two days, in fact, we’d asked librarians about the impending referendum, but nobody had seemed too engaged with that and if anything, raising the topic seemed to make people mildly uncomfortable. Not this time. “We have our own health system,” our host told us. “We have our own educational system.” The very creation of the United Kingdom, he said, was only so that England could protect its northern border. It all sounded very much like a 2014 vote of Yes. For me it was an on-the-fly tutorial on Scottish home rule, delivered with authority and conviction, passion even, with a warmth to counter the outside Glasgow air.
And it was a reminder of a lesson that every vendor needs reinforced periodically, that despite what on some days can seem a sameness from one call to another, when a library says they are different, they are.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.