KPMG in the Crown Dependencies had the pleasure of hosting a range of events to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day. In Guernsey, Linda Johnson and Emma Bailey were delighted to host our celebration in the glorious Haywood Room at the Guille-Allès Library where Chief Librarian, Cornelia James, shared with us and our guests the library’s history, its present place as a Guernsey institution and its future plans.  Emma Bailey sat down with Cornelia afterwards to chat further and you can read more of their conversation here ….

Emma:  Thomas Guille and Frederick Allès founded the library in 1882.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day, what is it like Cornelia to be a female Chief Librarian in a Library that was founded by two men?  

Cornelia:  My personal experience is that it’s been an overwhelmingly female dominated profession – and that’s true all around the world. In the United States today, more than 80% of librarians are female, and until recent years the figure was even higher here at the Guille-Allès – it’s actually been a nice change in the last few years that we do have more men working here now!

That said, having a woman at the top of the organisation is still a relatively new development. I’ve been Chief Librarian for just over a year, and I’m only the third – and the third consecutive – woman in the post. My predecessors, Laura Milligan and Maggie Falla, were really positive role models for me throughout my career. Maggie became the first female Chief Librarian in Guille-Allès history when she took on the job in 2002. So, of those 140 years, it took 120 before a woman became Chief, despite women making up the majority of the staff for most of that time.

It might be a female-dominated profession today, but it’s worth remembering that in Thomas and Frederick’s day it was quite the opposite. In fact, we were very struck by a note we found recently in the archive in Thomas Guille’s handwriting, in which he explained the reasoning behind the library making the decision to employ a female member of staff. Quote, “Following the precedent of several English libraries in which female assistants are employed and give general satisfaction, the Directors have engaged the services of a lady fully qualified for the post, who will assist the Librarian in the issue of Books, and in the general work of the Institution.” This was a very progressive move at the time! Given that Thomas felt the need to write that note to justify himself, we can imagine there may have been some shocked expressions on people’s faces when they walked in to find a woman stamping books.

Emma:  I’m sure many people will be surprised to hear that the Guille- Alles library is available as an event venue, what other services does the library offer?

Cornelia: Times have certainly changed since 1882, but it’s remarkable how far the library continues to embrace the vision that Mr Guille and Mr Allès had in mind when they first opened the doors. They started the library because they wanted to give islanders access to knowledge, and the opportunity to learn. 140 years later, we’re still going strong, and still striving to live up to that vision, working to enrich people’s lives throughout the community – exactly as Thomas and Frederick wanted.

They were remarkably far-sighted people. Before their deaths they wrote a Constitution for the library, expressing their wish that it should keep moving with the times. They wanted it to be a community hub, always responding to the changing needs of the island. The staff today work hard to uphold that vision, and to ensure that the service is constantly evolving.

At the heart of everything we do remains the collection of books, though these are now joined by eBooks, audiobooks, and other digital media. Libraries are all about promoting and championing reading to people of all ages, and this remains our key mission. Reading for pleasure promotes empathy and emotional intelligence, reduces depression, anxiety and stress – it may even help you live longer. And it’s fun! Promoting reading is a huge win-win, and one of the best things we can do as a society.

Reading is key, but there’s lots more to the library than reading – we’re also a focal point for culture, creativity, lifelong learning, and wellbeing, with events, services, and new initiatives for people of all ages. Recent additions to the service include the revamped Children’s Library, which is now a truly magical space for children, and the Fab Lab, a room packed full of high-tech machines including a 3D printer. As ever, everything remains free and accessible for all – a few years ago we even abolished fines.

Emma: Data is an area of high importance to our clients at KMPG and we frequently have discussions with them on how to handle their data but most importantly how to value their data.  How does the library value its “data”?

Cornelia: Our recent exhibition, which brought the story of the library to life and displayed some of the treasures (our “data” if you like)  in our collection, most of which were acquired by Guille and Allès themselves. They had a keen interest in rare and valuable books, and over the decades they collected plenty of these, including seven books printed before 1500, of which the Nuremberg Chronicle is probably the most famous.

This makes us quite unusual for a public library – most public libraries don’t keep rare books like this. I know that people loved seeing some of them in the exhibition. There’s no doubt that the most popular book on show, and the jewel in the library’s collection, is The Birds of America, by John James Audubon. It’s one of the rarest and most spectacular books in the world.

Audubon was an artist and a naturalist who, in the 1820s, set himself the monumental challenge of painting every species of bird in North America – and he painted them all life-size, which meant the finished book was absolutely enormous! The pages are one metre high.

It’s such an incredible work of art – the size and beauty of the illustrations are truly awe-inspiring. And it’s incredibly rare – our copy is one of only 49 of this particular edition known to still exist. We’re extremely lucky to have it. It was acquired by Guille and Alles in New York – Frederick Alles signed his name on the inside cover. I’m so proud that it’s part of our collection – some of the world’s biggest libraries and museums, including the British Library and the New York Public Library, consider their own copies to be amongst their most valuable treasures. The fact we have one of our own is an amazing asset for Guernsey.

It was a privilege to bring Thomas and Frederick’s story to life in our Boundless Curiosity exhibition, and we were blown away by the response and support from the community. More than eight and a half thousand people came to see it, and our team have been shortlisted for a prestigious national award for their work. In light of all the amazing feedback about the rare books and other treasures, we’re now actively exploring how we can display some of these (some of our “data”) on a more regular basis.

Emma:  At KPMG we are helping our clients with meeting their obligations under ESG, clearly the library’s business model of loaning out its books, again and again is the epitome of the E of ESG, one book can be read many times, but how about the S of ESG - it strikes me the library has been hitting that mark too?

Cornelia:   Libraries have always been places of diversity and inclusivity – approachable, trusted spaces at the heart of the community, which champion equality almost by definition. On International Women’s Day we can particularly think about the mums who bring their babies and toddlers to rhyme times in the Children’s Library; the young women who use the Library computers to write their CVs and find help for their businesses; the female students who sit in the peace and quiet of this room to revise and write their essays; the female clients of our home delivery service, receiving new bags of books once a month; and so much more.

Gone is the stereotypical image of the formidable female librarian with her bun, glasses, and finger pressed to her lips in her shush, replaced by diverse, dynamic, creative, and innovative women who are forging links with the community. Recently, one of our team set up a scheme to fight period poverty by providing free period products in our public bathrooms; another amazing librarian has just been nominated for a national award for her work in care homes. Every day I am blown away by the incredible work that they’re doing and the difference it makes to people’s lives.

Emma: Here at KPMG, we help our clients with strategy and most importantly making sure that their plans are future proofed, so what are you planning at the library for the future?

Cornelia: 140 years after our founding, we want to continue to drive the library forward and ensure that it remains at the centre of the community, just as Mr Guille and Mr Allès would expect. We’re proud to say that all our stats are going up, with footfall in 2022 coming in 2% higher than the 5-year average before the pandemic, and loans, new members, and online engagement all trending upwards too. We’re so grateful to the community for their support.

We are continually exploring ways to develop and enhance the services and facilities we provide, and we have significant plans for the future development of this building. In particular, at the moment we’re working on plans to enhance our Learning & Development offer with meeting rooms, study pods, and event space. To fulfil those aims, we firstly need to raise awareness of just what an amazing place this is, and what an asset it is to the Island. There are some really exciting plans in the pipeline, and that’s why we will continue to raise our profile and an awareness of what we have to offer, as we steam towards our 150th anniversary. Just don’t ask me what we’re going to do to celebrate that!!

Pictured below (left to right): Emma Bailey and Cornelia James

Interview with Cornelia James