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An interview with Maurice Line

Interview by: Arnaud Pelle

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Photo: Maurice LineMaurice Line's library career began in 1950 when he became a trainee for the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 1971 Maurice became a member of the body carrying out the preliminary planning for the British Library. From 1974-1985 he held the post of director-general, British Library Lending Division, and from 1985-1988 he was director-general of the British Library's Science, Technology and Industry Directorate.

For the next 12 years Maurice worked as a consultant specializing in the management of change, and advising organizations in many parts of the world. He has carried out over 50 consultancies in 16 different countries and visited more than 40 countries in a professional context. Maurice also served as Professor Associate at Sheffield University's Department of Information Science, and as External Professor at Loughborough University's Department of Information and Library Studies. Maurice is a prolific writer and speaker affectionately known for his humour and unpredictable nature.


Maurice Line's Festschrift issue of Interlending & Document Supply (ILDS) was the occasion for friends and former colleagues to gather for a celebratory lunch. At the event, Maurice appeared poised, with a quiet serene air about him. Only the occasional, almost imperceptible, raising of an eyebrow or curling of the lips testify to his irrevocably frivolous nature. He is visibly enjoying every minute of the event.

The flow of his words is as quick as his legendary wit, which gives my French brain a hard time keeping up with the pace.

He reminds me first that he has not been in a working job for 17 years, seemingly to pre-empt any pressing questions on the current state of the library universe. He acknowledges that he does not follow LIS issues "a great deal. I scan rather than read intensively", he admits. Asking him if he still writes, he replies "I write things but not on librarianship. I write on social matters, long term interest in things like asylum, globalization. Long time concerns I can indulge in now".

Since the Festschrift is a retrospective of Maurice's career, I steer the conversation towards his personal highlights: "My appointment as the boss of Boston Spa following Donald Urquhart, one of the really great librarians of the last century". He pauses. "No special highlights otherwise. I enjoyed my life in librarianship. Whatever you do, you give your whole heart to it or you don't do it at all".

Maurice Line left the British Library in 1988. For the next ten years he travelled the world as a library consultant, sharing his invaluable and extensive experience of library management: "I wasn't employed by anybody; I worked freelance", he says. It has mostly been an exhilarating challenge for him: "I worked in libraries in countries with an authoritarian history, like South Africa, Hungary and Chile. You could really turn the library around in about three or four years, getting the boss to take a lower profile, get them starting to think for themselves, doing things for themselves. It was really encouraging".

But then we delve into the heart of the matter, discussing what, as a librarian, was closest to his heart: "Developing staff. I got so tired of seeing bosses badly managing their staff, I think. Not encouraging and enhancing them. A good boss is one who tries to make his staff better than he is. I have known bosses who tried to make their staff worse than they were. I had one boss in particular who was marvellous, he encouraged me and gave me faith in myself".

At this stage I wonder whether there are any specific obstacles that need to be overcome when you manage a library? "It's managing generally, I think, not only for libraries. But anybody who's a boss needs to learn how to deal with their staff, give them freedom. Some of the staff you've got will be very good, some less good, but they've all got talents of some kind. You don't nag them about the things that are bad. You encourage the things that are good, bring the best out of them".

As I point out that identifying these qualities requires specific skills, he explains further: "You've got to love your staff, you've got to care for them as people. A good boss is not only an intellectual one but one who's human. I'm happy working on both fronts, the rational and the emotional".

And to achieve this, humour is a key. One of Maurice's most inspirational features has been humour: "Librarians are too solemn. Humour seems, to me, vital. I think it breaks down barriers, it relaxes people. It encourages creative thinking. It prevents you from taking yourself too seriously. At the British Library in Boston Spa, coffee time was joke time in a sense. We used to make jokes, but some crazy ideas proved to be good ones 'Hey, we can do that'. People who have no sense of humour shouldn't be alive".

As I guffaw, I can't help asking what seems to prevent humour from mixing with professionalism these days: "there shouldn't be any barrier at all. It's part of professionalism. A sense of balance and proportion. Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't take each other too seriously".

Maurice Line is still very active on the social front but there is, however, one thing he can do without in his life: "Hope," he claims, "isn't necessary", with a rhetorical pause for effect. The subject of his latest article for U3A is about how "you don't need hope, only contentment. One must live in the present, not the future". But isn't hope the first stage of contentment? "No, I am happy as I am now. In the long term, there is no hope for humanity at all. We're all going to die. Hope only happens in the future."

This twist on carpe diem philosophy probably explains why he looks so serene and content. "I am content, yes", he confides laconically.

"I enjoyed my career", Maurice insists, and he is "very appreciative" of the Festschrift. He comments modestly that the perspective of his colleagues has given him a different appreciation of himself: "better than I deserve, I think".

But there is a worthwhile conclusion to his professional efforts: "My biggest contribution to librarianship is, I think, getting people to think for themselves, to challenge existing practices and beliefs". And that's probably more than enough reason why Maurice Line's professional life must be celebrated.