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Dr Karen McAulay retires after 36 years – and shares memories of life at RCS

We bid a fond farewell to Dr Karen McAulay, Performing Arts Librarian, who is retiring after 36 years at RCS.

Karen won’t be leaving RCS entirely, as she’ll continue in her role as a part-time doctoral researcher. She’ll also continue writing and her second book will soon hit the shelves.

We asked Karen to share a few thoughts and memories from her time at RCS.


The New Building

I was in with the bricks. RSAMD was halfway through the first summer term in ‘the new building’, when the comparatively young, comparatively recently chartered librarian arrived in the late May bank holiday in 1988.

Kenneth Wilkins was Chief Librarian. Shona and Eliana had started not long before me. My role was to share the work of obtaining and cataloguing the sheet music and scores. Other colleagues handled music books and recordings, orchestral and choral, and drama materials.

Karen within the first year of arrival in Glasgow (1988-1989)

The Old Music

Our office rolling stack contained shelf upon shelf of library music donations, many of them very old, but all neatly sorted into categories and shelved in boxes.

None of the donations were catalogued. I looked at the shelves and reflected that they seemed endless – but wondered if I’d be out of a job if I ever got through them!

We wrote catalogue details out by hand. A typist typed catalogue cards; then we filed them. (Mr Wilkins told me that the very first books in the Athenaeum Library had been catalogued by the janitors – our modern-day Client Services team might not fancy this extra duty on top of their much more complex role nowadays!)

The first computer system wasn’t introduced until later, whilst I was on my first maternity leave.


The Long Haul

How can I summarise thirty-six years in a few short lines?!  Time went by, and we had three sons – I had about four and a half months’ maternity leave in each case, if I remember correctly.  In time, we found instrumental teachers for each of them, by word of mouth through colleagues.

The oldest was later taught by RSAMD colleagues who also taught at Douglas Academy, whilst the others were taught by an alumnus of RSAMD, at Paisley Grammar.  It seemed to be a small world!

Meanwhile, I went on being a music librarian. I love handling queries; showing readers how to get the most out of the library; or helping find suitable repertoire. (It is, however, possible to tire of cataloguing!)

More recently, I’ve thrown myself into diversifying our performance material to include much more music by composers of historically underrepresented groups, reaching out to composers online, and taking steps to make it easy to find in the catalogue or via the portal.

Flute Music from Dundee

During a library refurbishment in the very early 2000s, we found three old flute manuscripts which had originally come from Dundee.  Investigating them not only introduced me to Dundee City Libraries, where there’s the famous Wighton Collection of old Scottish music, but also rekindled my interest in research, and ultimately led to me doing a PhD part-time at Glasgow Uni in my spare time.

I’m told that during this time, there were nights when I was found fast asleep in the wee small hours, my head on the dining-room table at home (I was just deep in thought … honest.)

I chose a Scottish music research topic in the hope it would be beneficial to staff and students here. The Scottish music degree had started not long before this time.

Even though I’m a classical rather than a trad musician, I like to think the extra knowledge has been useful (and certainly much more useful than the PhD I didn’t finish!). My first book is on the shelves, and the second one is due to be published later this year.

The Simpson flute manuscripts from Dundee. Early in 2002, three nineteenth-century Scottish flute manuscripts came to light in the Whittaker Library at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD). The manuscripts are inscribed with the name of James Simpson of Dundee.

But Why?

Someone once asked what a librarian wanted with a PhD?  I can explain!  I had started but not completed an earlier PhD before coming to Glasgow, and the urge to do research never went away.

I can’t tell you the difference it made, doing this new one in the digital era.  It also made me enthusiastic to share just how useful electronic databases could be; and explains why I’m so keen on talking about referencing.

I followed up the PhD with a part-time PGCert from RCS.  It was a bit of a shock to the system to find not only that (to quote Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory) this made me temporarily a social scientist – but also that I had been mistaken when I once thought I would never make a teacher.  If I have one bit of advice to offer the student or colleague anxious about taking a big next step, it is not to underestimate yourself.  Please don’t underestimate your own abilities!


The PhD led to my part-time secondment to a research project being run between Glasgow Uni and the University of Oxford; and a continued part-time secondment to our own Research and Knowledge Exchange.

I applied for and won a research networking grant, and it has brought many other opportunities since then. In that respect, I’m not fully retiring.  I’m retiring as a librarian, but I’ll start a new contract working part-time as a researcher.

I’ve made good friends in the library, and we’ve come a long way since the library that I came to in 1988. I know it’s in good hands.

As for all those old library donations? Oh, I catalogued them decades ago. And I’m still here.  I needn’t have worried!