From librarian to history as a business: profile of Rupert Colley

Rupert Colley

Rupert Colley is a former librarian and the editor of the website “History in an hour“.
Rupert, could you describe “History in an hour”?

History in an Hour is a series of books that takes a big subject and condenses it to sixty minutes’ reading. For example, readers will get a basic introduction to the momentous events of 1939 to ’45 in World War Two In An Hour. I call it ‘history for busy people’. Then, as well as the books themselves, there’s a blog which presents new articles on a frequent basis – so there’s always something new on the website to come back to.

Why did you start “History in an hour”?

I’ve always been interested in history and wanted to know a bit about so many different subjects. But history books are getting bigger and my time more precious. I just couldn’t keep up with all I wanted to know. So many years ago I came up with the idea of providing what I wanted to know but within a set amount of time. It took me a decade to do anything about it and it was only when the self-publishing revolution started, I decided to re-visit my idea, and started to write the first title. I wanted it written as a straight narrative, with no links to take you from where you started, no adverts half way down the page, etc. Just a traditional book form utilizing today’s reading technology.

After a while, I started to recruit other writers and was able to expand the range of titles. Then in May 2011, I sold the rights to History In An Hour to HarperCollins UK. They now own the series but have maintained me as their principal writer, series editor and webmaster.

The site is attracting visitors, 70 per cent of them from the US.

You started out as a librarian, could your tell us about your life as a librarian?

I trained as a librarian in Liverpool and started off as an assistant at a British Gas library. My first professional job was with the London Borough of Enfield, where I worked for 22 years in a number of different capacities. I finished at Enfield in September 2011, primarily to concentrate on History In An Hour. I consider myself fortunate to have been a librarian during an incredible 20 years – from library’s first steps into computerization to the joys of providing free access to the Internet for the benefit of all, to the provision of such amazing range of online resources and consortium-wide catalogues whilst still maintaining a credible front-facing core service. And from the backroom, seeing the radical  changes over the years to the point now of supplier selection, borough-wide stock management systems and the provision of ebooks and digital audio.

What librarian skills / knowledge  do you use while making “History in an hour”?

The ability to organize information is almost a forgotten and certainly an undervalued skill. Organizing a mountain of facts into a concise, 11,000-word book, is not dissimilar to being given £X and told to totally stock a new, small library. You don’t have much space, so every book has to count and earn its keep. Your audience, your users, are paramount and to forget this, to take it for granted, you do at your peril. When I write I always have the utmost respect for the intelligence of my potential audience – these books may be short and concise but they’re well written. A new library must do the same – know your users, garner their opinion and get them on your side from Day One.

Do you have advice for fellow librarians who are considering pursuing their own business?

Have a firm idea of who your users could be; have a narrow but easily identifiable niche; give your business a name that conjures up what you do; write down an overriding mission statement; and a set of objectives. Make some of those objectives short-term and easy to obtain – to give you a start on reaching the next level and to have something to celebrate. Don’t be afraid to adapt your objectives as circumstances change. Ask for advice, make a nuisance of yourself. (I went to see the small business adviser at the British Library). Ask people for favours even if it feels awkward – if it pays off, it’s worth it.

I tried to get a household name historian to write for me recently. He looked horrified! It didn’t work – but next time it might. Be prepared to make mistakes. Have a partner as a sounding board. Listen. Learn. I’ve learnt a lot of history over the last two years but I’ve also learnt a lot about social media, web design, search engine optimization, keyword research, etc.

It’s already been a long journey, but still one that has only just begun.

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