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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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August 2005 Volume 3 (4)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland


William Andrew Greig Alison (1916-2005)
– an appreciation

Three significant things happened in Glasgow in 1962 – the last tram ran, the St. Andrew’s Halls burnt down and Bill Alison, FLA, arrived from Edinburgh to take up the post of Superintendent of Branches in Glasgow Public Libraries. These events were not related.

A Mitchell Library insider of the day mourned on learning of Bill’s success “It’s not the job he has come to get that worries me; it’s the job he has come to take.” That insider was right to be worried because in a culture where seniority was paramount, Bill Alison personified merit and in due course, and on merit, he was promoted to Depute City Librarian and in due course City Librarian. In 1975 his post was re-designated as Director of Libraries.

In his early days as Superintendent he crossed and re-crossed the city on foot visiting branches, discovering the lie of the land and the extent of his responsibilities. He eventually established the case for a car but still walked when he could. Those early days gave him an intimate knowledge of his new city. It was quickly clear that Bill Alison was a people person and the relationships he established then stood him in good stead when as Chief Librarian of Scotland’s premier public library service he faced the realities of management with decisions that sometimes were not readily or whole-heartedly accepted by all his staff.

As Depute City Librarian his responsibility centred mostly on the recruitment and training. He did this again with a real interest in the individual applicant and as his successor I encountered people whom Bill had sent back to school to improve their qualifications and consequently their long term professional prospects. He was held in affection by his senior staff and many a routine branch inspection seemed more like a social occasion than a formal visit. Cakes and savouries were laid before him and there were pleasantries and friendly laughter. During this time he was able to evaluate the library service and draw up the plans which he was quick to introduce when in 1974, around a time of local government reorganisation, he was appointed City Librarian.

In those days the city had a programme for modernising library buildings and Bill Alison inherited amongst other things the task of completing an extension to the Mitchell Library. In his early days he had been in charge of Edinburgh’s Art Library and he had an eye for buildings and interiors. Several projects were undertaken by private architects and any of them who thought that Bill would not have opinions or ideas had to think again. With his City Council colleague, Andrew Mackenzie, the Chief Architect responsible for the city’s civic buildings, he worked with external architects on the £12m Mitchell project providing an outstanding extension which made Glasgow’s Mitchell Library (according to the Guinness Book of Records) the largest public reference library in Europe. Andrew Mackenzie had two mantras “Nothing but the best” and “Cheap is dear” and in Bill Alison he found a ready supporter so that the completed extension and finishes drew admirers from around the UK and abroad too.

When Bill Alison was appointed City Librarian in 1974 he was a man in a hurry. He was within seven years of retiring and had things to do. His staff just hung on to his coat tails as he reorganised the Mitchell Library and established a divisional organisation for the lending libraries. He created a career structure for the staff with new posts. He introduced computerised issue and catalogue systems as well as new services. Libraries were extended and modernised. New libraries were built. The staff was galvanised. The feeling of achievement and professional attainment was all down to Bill Alison as a driving force and motivator.

Bill was a benevolent man who sometimes did good things by stealth. Learning on occasion that some individual member of staff was experiencing personal difficulties he acted off the ball to their benefit. His Union Representatives never realised what an ally he was to them because as a young librarian in Edinburgh he had been a union representative himself and was well aware of the frustration that young people felt in the face of intractable and established management practices. His enthusiasm spilt over into all his activities. He was Session Clerk of Shawlands Cross Church in Glasgow for around 22 years where he (and his wife Jessie) sang in the choir. In fact a highlight of the 1979 INTAMEL (an organisation which comprised the librarians of the world’s principal cities) conference which he organised in Glasgow was when he and his wife Jessie sang as a duet “Will ye no’ come back again” at the conference’s closing dinner in Pollock House. The invitation seemed to work because INTAMEL returned to Glasgow in 1994.

Outside his professional life Bill Alison took knocks like anyone else. His generation was caught up in the Second World War and he served with the RAF as a medic. Home on embarkation leave he planned to be married but was recalled to his unit before the day arranged for the service could dawn. A family summit decided to bring the marriage forward and he recounted that he left for his honeymoon by tram! Rejoining his unit in the south of England he was immediately put on a troop train which came straight back to Scotland and passed through Edinburgh on its way to a troop ship at Greenock. We can only imagine his thoughts as he stood in the corridor of the railway carriage and could actually see the house where his new bride was living without any way of letting her know that he was so close. He seldom spoke of his service though it was clear that his duties involved meeting shot up aircraft and rendering aid to their crews. He was in India for a time but was back in England in an aid station when the wounded were being brought back from the D-day beaches.

In 1981, during the industrial dispute in Glasgow’s libraries brought about by budget cuts, he was required to suspend Senior Librarians who had obeyed Union instructions to keep their branches open rather than management instructions to close them (to save money) and I accompanied him to act as witness. Separated at one library I eventually found Bill taking tea with, as his hostess, the librarian he was supposed to suspend – and we ended up giving the newly suspended librarian a lift back from her branch library into the city centre!

I joined Glasgow Libraries as Bill Alison’s Depute in August 1974 and by Christmas of the same year my wife and I with other senior colleagues were dinner guests in his home. It was the first of many visits. Laughter-filled evenings were usually rounded off by a slide show of Bill’s latest holiday. He and Jessie were fond of foreign holidays. On their return he would prepare his slides and write and tape a commentary. He took these programmes around guilds and clubs, and he was much in demand.

Bill was President of the Scottish Library Association in 1975 and was given honorary membership in 1976; President of the then Library Association in 1979. In 1978 he received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal.

Bill Alison retired in 1981 with things still to do and I succeeded him as Director of Glasgow City Libraries. For the next 17 years we lunched together every four to six weeks. In the beginning I was happy to keep him informed of the progress of projects which he had instigated but as the years passed he was a resolute and reliable sounding board for projects which were evolving under my hand. As he was from Edinburgh and retired I naturally assumed that I would pay for these lunches but some of Glasgow had rubbed off on him and we paid alternately. I could never remember whose turn it was to pay but strangely enough, he could.

His family and his faith were the centre of his life. He was proud of his wife and daughters and could not have been happier when a grandson came along to put gilding on the lily. He enjoyed company and had a ready laugh. An administrator with an artist’s eye he was the sort of caring librarian we do not have these days – and we are the worse off for that.

Andrew Miller

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Information Scotland Vol. 3 (4) August 2005

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Last updated:11 October 2005