Jonathan Douglas is just two and a half weeks into his new job as director of the National Literacy Trust, and he's clearly been too busy to arrange his new office. Other than a large bunch of flowers on the desk—the third to be sent after his farewell party at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) the week before—and a couple of invites, the room is as his predecessor, Neil McClelland, left it at the end of last year.
The office, and the organisation itself, are in the early days of transition. When Douglas first heard that McClelland would be leaving the NLT (they were both lecturing in Slovenia), he could have been forgiven for thinking that the job had his name on it. Instead, his first reaction was: "Bugger, there goes a great champion for our literacy work. Now what?" The "now what" was, eventually, to consider himself for the role, but only because it ticked the right boxes, he says. "Values are important to me, and doing something I believe in—I want to be able to support or inspire or help other people. I need to be useful." And then he stops himself and laughs: "Am I starting to sound a bit worthy? Because it's all true."
Douglas knows when to draw the line on "sounding worthy" with a stab of humour, and it's this easy balance of government-speak and straight talking, combined with his energy, that will help define the new NLT. To date, Douglas cites his year at the City of Westminster as co-ordinator for the National Year of Reading as his career highlight. "We did so much to create partnerships between different sectors by working with publishers, retailers, the English National Opera and other charitable organisations."
He believes this experience will stand him in good stead at NLT, alongside his experience at a strategic level at the MLA. Still, he admits that stepping into McClelland's shoes is "scary". "He was revered to some extent as someone with impressive personal knowledge and commitment, so following that lead is challenging, but I can see where the NLT is going. The organisation has grown very rapidly, but how does it move from lots of programmes on the ground to fulfil its potential as the leading national body for literacy?" It will need a new structure and more funding, and if anything is likely to keep Douglas awake at night, this is it.
The NLT's programmes, from Reading is Fundamental (free books for children) to Talk to Your Baby, cover a lot of ground, and he needs to raise nearly £2m to fund the priority areas: intervention into literacy for children up to age eight, and creating a socially inclusive reading culture.
Fortunately, Douglas comes armed with contacts in the worlds of government, libraries and publishing—during his library years he was a lively fixture in the industry's party calendar. Other than being back in "an industry full of friends", Douglas likes his new role for several reasons. He flags up the enthusiasm and abilities of the staff at the NLT, but he also sees the role as a challenge, where he has the opportunity to shape the organisation for the future. "It will also give me a bit more free time for my music, after the MLA," he adds. "I've become a choir boy again!" His other secret talent is the church organ—playing at the Durham Crematorium helped fund him through university. "I've bought a lot of books with 'smokey money'," he muses, "but don't write that."