Interview with Alison Wheeler, MBE

Suffolk Libraries chief executive talks to Voice about the importance of reading, her career, and offers advice to young people

Interview with Alison Wheeler, MBE

Hello!

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hello, I’m Alison Wheeler. I’ve just turned sixty, I’m married with three grown up children and I’ve just retired as CEO of Suffolk Libraries IPS ltd.

Why did you first want to work in a library?

I fell in love with libraries as a child. I grew up in a single parent family and I was a voracious reader. We couldn’t afford lots of books, so my mum always took us to the library every Saturday. We came home every week with two shopping bags full and I’d always read them all by the next week! As a ten-year-old, I couldn’t imagine working anywhere more exciting. I was so lucky to have a parent that really understood that reading was such a brilliant way to expand my knowledge, extend my vocabulary and stretch my imagination. It really helped me get on at school, and then go to university.

You graduated as a librarian from the University of Wales. What skills are required to be a successful librarian?

Then as now, you need good people skills to help you to really understand what your users want, excellent knowledge of the subject area you work in (as librarians work in many different areas – health, science, prisons, schools, business as well as public libraries these can be quite diverse), strong analytical and research skills, and it helps if you have an enduring curiosity.

What did you do before you worked in the library service?

I went from school to university, and then started work as a qualified librarian in Suffolk, in 1979.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Starting the first public library mutual in 2012. It kept all our libraries open, and protected the service from damaging cuts by working with the community. It’s now in its sixth year. We have a contract with the Council and do more than they did, but at 66% of the cost. There are now three others, following our example.

Tell us more about how the mutual works, and its relationship to the council?

Our library mutual is community owned. We have 44 members who are ach a group set up to support their local library. Our 44 members each year attend our AGM and elect the Board. There are seven elected Directors, and myself as CEO who set the direction, monitor the spending and ensure that the Society is running correctly and delivering on its contracts.  The operation and management is delegated to the CEO and their staff.

We have a contract with the Council to deliver the library service, specified and measured each year to check they get value for money.

66e4b915c998a592783f400db70d1e68221b095b.jpgWhat stands out as the most difficult point?

When you are CEO, you have to sometimes make difficult choices. The hardest choices are usually people related. I can’t comment on any individual situations but these are the ones which give you sleepless nights.

What was your career path to become the CEO of Suffolk Libraries?

I worked as a branch, stock and children’s librarian for eighteen years. In 1997 I then set up and ran a regional unit for library’s services for four years before becoming the head of Suffolk’s frontline library service in 2001. I also spent four years away from libraries as a senior manager in adult social care before moving then to work on the Suffolk Libraries review. That was in 2011. I got the job to lead out the library service in 2012. The rest is history!

What does an average day at work look like for you?

If I’m in the office, I get in at about eight, have a start of day chat with our Office Manager with coffee, then catch up with emails until nine. I make a lot of lists!

Throughout the day I meet and talk to colleagues, partners, and sometimes Board members to discuss ongoing situations, advise and problem solve, consider new projects and prepare decision papers for our Board meetings.

I spend quite a chunk of most days on the phone, and I frequently go out and about to meet people. About ten people report to me directly so I spend a lot for time talking to them individually or in groups.

I finish at about six, but will dip in and out of emails once I’m home.  It’s quite common to get calls or email people in the evening.

What are the parts of the job you love?

Working with people, giving the people who work with me the opportunities to experiment, try out their ideas, and celebrate their triumphs with them.

And which bits aren’t so fun?

Arguing about the money with politicians.

Why are libraries important for the community?

Where else do you get free access to world class resources, a supportive environment to help you make your way in life whatever your age or situation, and a friendly welcome from expert staff? Libraries help people and communities in ways which go way beyond book borrowing. They are increasingly about experiences rather than transactions with a broad range of activities for people, of every age.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen to the library service since you qualified as a librarian?

Obviously the biggest is the internet which has changed how we all live and work.

It has democratised access to information and made it possible for anyone to find what they want. However, information literacy hasn’t kept pace with the advances in technology. By that I mean people’s ability to discern what is and isn’t authentic and what might be fake or accurate. Some people are scared of what’s on the web, especially older people, and some should be scared of how easy it is to scam, groom or clone.

That said, it’s an awesome tool which makes content, experiences and information so easy to access. I’m glad I live now and not fifty years ago!

With technology like Kindles and mobile phones becoming more ubiquitous, making it easier to access books and the internet, how do libraries stay relevant? 

See above. Libraries aren’t about software or formats. They are about people. People who can help, and people who need help. Simple as.

What do you believe pose the biggest risks to the library service over the next 5 years?

Two things.

Some libraries need to be more welcoming, put on more community friendly activities and diversify. They have to remain as relevant as possible to local needs.

Secondly, many politicians don’t use libraries. This is a shame as they are likely to make the big decisions about investments and closures.

And where do you think the big opportunities are for libraries?

Libraries are ideal places to bring people together, in groups or to connect them with help. Here are some examples.

  • Lots of people need help with getting online for services like universal credit. As more and more becomes digital, there will still be people who need help.
  • We find that our family activities are really popular. The Summer Reading Challenge, Baby Bounce, Harry Potter nights, half term activities etc.
  • Many libraries now have Minecraft and code clubs.
  • We run really successful activities for older people too

Growing up in a remote village, one of the most exciting things was the mobile library. What are the logistics behind the book bus? How is it decided what books get put on it, and are they still as popular as they used to be? 

It’s exactly the same as for a branch library. Books are chosen usually by a central team assessing what is and isn’t popular. Sadly, they are not as well used as they used to be, with mainly older people in villages as the main users.44c6e200be51819385feb1b0ae197a23a6e29f01.jpg

You received an MBE this year for your contributions to Suffolk’s library services. How did you find out you were on the list, and what was your reaction?

It was a great thrill to get a letter in November which asks if you will accept it, and then it’s top secret until New Year’s Day. I feel very touched by all the people who nominated me (you don’t know who), and I’m really looking forward to going to the Palace with my family later this year.

What do young people need to do if they want to work in the library services?

Volunteer if you can to see if you really like it. Apply for weekend jobs if they are going.

Study hard at school and take an interest in IT as well as books. You can’t work in a library without great digital skills as well as an interest in people, and an enthusiasm for knowledge.

What advice would you give to 16-year-old you? 

Try harder and get maths O level. I never did!

What are you reading at the moment? 

The Botticelli Secret. By Marina Fiorato. It’s a historical novel about medieval Italy.

What are five books that everyone should have read by the time they are 26? 

  • Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Jaws by Peter Benchley
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

It was announced that you are retiring this month. Do you have any exciting plans? 

I’m going to carry on being a library supporter as a trustee of CILIP, support a local theatre company, spend more time with my four grandsons, help set up a literacy charity in Ipswich, and read every morning in the bath!

Finally, where can people find out about the events that their local library hosts? 

Go to their website. They should be there. Ours is www.suffolklibraries.co.uk

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is a Politics graduate, and holds a Masters in Journalism. He serves as Editor for Voice, and has an almost unhealthy obsession with Batman. His hobbies include gaming and reading graphic novels - his current go to series is Bill Willingham's Fables.

View more posts by Tom Inniss

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