Out to lunch with Jim Maguire

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When Jim Maguire landed in Port Macquarie in 1990, it was a stark transition to a place that, weeks earlier, he’d never even heard of. Yet he turned out ideally suited to drive one of the town’s cultural foundations into the 21st century. This month, Susie shares lunch with our chief librarian.


You’re lunching with a librarian!” my mate exclaimed, stifling a mock yawn. Bespectacled, bookish, boring, he thought. Chief librarian Jim Maguire indeed wears reading glasses – unsurprising after a 35-year career in reading. But this IT specialist is increasingly less “bookish” I learn over lunch, as modern library services evolve into an online, downloadable, e-readable cyber catalogue of technology. And you’d hardly find boring our table talk encompassing current cultural phenomena such as One Direction, Reece Mastin and the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. In fact, Maguire steers a $2.2m dynamic business across three actual locations linked to an ever-expanding virtual network. His own story, of taking the knowledge and joy that comes from books to countless readers – from struggling students along the Suez Canal, to poor immigrant communities in outer London and then to remote PNG villagers – is fascinating. A Glaswegian, he took a history degree at the city’s Strathclyde uni but “I wasn’t sure what to do then, so I did a library postgraduate diploma”. In fact, a yearning to travel in his work had begun to gel. After a practical stint in a Dundee library he joined VSO, a British overseas volunteer service for international cultural relations and education, and began the first of his three overseas tenures, in Egypt, spending two years at the University of Suez Canal at Ismailia, near Cairo, training staff. It was the era of President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, when foreigners were regarded with suspicion. The work “was interesting but frustrating; it took a long time to get things done. At the end you look back and try to see where you’ve succeeded …” He gestures to indicate it’s a moot verdict. Two years on he moved to London, to the Borough of Brent around Wembley in the city’s north-west, a heavily multicultural area with 16 library branches. Seven years there catering to an ethnically diverse Afro-Caribbean, Indian-Pakistani and other mixed population established his credentials in lesser-privileged communities. So, now married to Cecilia, from Northern Ireland, Maguire moved to PNG, a third centre of political unrest and poverty. He’s reluctant to recount the difficulty of family life there in the ’80s, when street gangs and armed insurrection were standard. “It did take some getting used to,” is all he says, with a wry grin. First in Lae, then in Port Moresby his job involved improving the emerging nation’s libraries, scattered across the territory in disarray after Australia’s withdrawal. A small rural area persistently rejected his request to visit to evaluate the library. One day he just turned up, and discovered why: a farmer was keeping pigs there. That’s not to say the library was under-appreciated, Maguire smiles: “Pigs are very valuable in PNG!” He does allow to a “huge” culture shock at the outset of five years there and yet another for his two tiny daughters when the family moved here 22 years ago. The little girls were amazed houses had no front fencing “because they’d grown up used to living in compounds and with guards”.

Maguire came to town sight unseen – he’d only ever holidayed in Cairns – but had qualifications Robyn Hardman, the town’s then long-serving librarian, valued. In London, he’d acquired a masters in information technologies and the world was poised to become wired. The library, located where the Glasshouse now stands: “was cramped, the children’s library upstairs and inaccessible. IT was in the mayor’s old changing room. We’d just introduced the intranet and had lots of blue cables hanging from the ceiling.” With the move in 2000 to its new $3.5m home there was space for study facilities, community meetings and displays and Maguire came into his own, directing IT design and fit-out in the purpose-built premises. When Hardman retired six years ago, Port had the ideal successor in place just as online technology took off. PCs have been installed in expanding numbers along with numerous other IT advances. New technology is ever gathering pace: recent innovations include availability of WiFi at all three libraries and in the Glasshouse foyer (a convenient CBD spot for connecting laptops) and self check-out. Audio books are giving way to e-books, CDs to downloadable music (Sony’s entire back catalogue, available to download and keep, includes One Direction’s releases), there are online language and computer courses, online tutoring, and world newspapers in different languages. The libraries’ relevance and popularity are evidenced in annual traffic of around 400,000 visitors. Some borrow nothing at all but carry out online social networking or family history research, or use personal laptops on WiFi. Others merely browse newspapers and magazines. But now: the figure of 800,000 annual borrowings peaked three years ago, yet “the numbers coming through the doors is increasing, so people are accessing more services online”. Students from Years 4 to 12 can log on (at home, if they wish), ask questions of an online tutor and see concepts illustrated on on-screen whiteboards. There’s an HSC schools collection; a dedicated teenage collection. Seniors’ enthusiasm for online services is supported by computer classes, run independently, but held at the library with library software facilities. “There was a spike in e-readers as gifts at Christmas; a lot of people come in asking how to work them.” There are author visits, Friends of the Library and school holiday activities, story-time programs for infants. Newborns are sent a book and membership invitation: a six-day-old became the library’s youngest member! Lions deliver books to those who can’t leave home; a mobile library to take books out into the community is in the pipeline. Maguire himself is a keen borrower. “I read crime fiction, history [of course!] and the Glasgow Herald. I like old movies on DVD. I download music: I like jazz but I’ve lately been looking for ’70s rock.” A novel [pardon the pun] service is Books in Flight: if you’d like some reading material, books are available to borrow as your depart at the airport, a Maguire idea.

A few of the books go missing, he admits, but then others are returned with a note reading along the lines of: “Dear Librarians, Thanks for the great service!”

Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach

This story was published in issue 82 Port Macquarie

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