This post is in response to the Library Routes project created by Ned Potter et al. If anyone wants to include their roots on the Library Routes wiki but doesn’t have a blog, then they are welcome to have it hosted here.
I have worked in libraries since 2005, first at Sheffield University Library, and since 2007, in the House of Commons Library. I will explain why I started working in libraries and give an account of my (very brief) career.
I graduated in 2005 with a degree in Philosophy. Since philosophy is about as non-vocational as it is possible to get, I was not granted a clear idea of how I wanted to spend my working life. However, the naval-gazing tendency among philosophy students does not lead to unemployment in most cases: philosophy degrees are highly prized by employers and philosophy students are more likely to be employed than almost any other type of non-vocational graduate.
My previous work experience had consisted of shelf-stacking in Waitrose (yogurt, and then pre-packed deli), till work in WH Smiths (fun but annoying because for some reason I was never given training on how to use the tills so constantly made mistakes) and working as an interior decorator in a large sixth-form college (being given a task and completing it to exact specifications is highly satisfying – there are no ill-defined success criteria and, provided the people you are working with are pleasant enough, decorating is a very enjoyable way to spend time). Thus, I had no obvious work experience which lead towards a fertile career area either.
However, after I saw an advert for a graduate trainee job at Sheffield University Library, the central role of the library in academic discourse and the skills librarians use began to seem like a fairly good fit with my own interests and academic background. Philosophy underpins all others areas of study, in the same way that the library is relied on by the whole academic community. The analytic skills required in philosophy seemed to be mirrored in much of the work of librarians, all of which encouraged me in my application.
Like the majority of library users, I had no real idea what librarians did – for some reason, as a profession we are very bad at communicating our role. Thus, the graduate trainee job was a genuinely educational experience. I enjoyed the final third of the year more than the first two, mainly because it involved more engagement with projects and interesting strategic library developments rather than the normal counter work. That’s not to say that the counter work was awful, and in fact working in the Health Sciences Library at Sheffield remains one of the most enjoyable periods of my career.
After my graduate trainee year I took a job as counter supervisor for the weekend team at Sheffield University Library. This was interesting because it involved more responsibility and because, when it was opened, I was one of the first people to work in the Information Commons – Sheffield’s undergraduate study facility. This was a fascinating place to work in as it opened, with opportunities to shape the way services were provided and see first hand the challenges of opening new libraries.
Whilst working on the weekend team, I also studied for the MA in Librarianship at Sheffield. I worked harder then than I had ever worked before, and as well meeting many interesting people, I also gained confidence in my abilities and confirmed my ambition to work in the LIS arena. I enjoyed many parts of the course but the dissertation was uniquely interesting.
I was supervised by Dr Andrew Cox and studied the contrasting cultures of customer service librarians and computer technicians using ethnographic methods. Since I worked in the Information Commons, where both groups were operationally combined, I had privileged access to each culture. Ethnography, unlike many qualitative methodologies, recognises and relies upon the subjectivity of the researcher. My own interpretations of each group’s behaviour formed the basis of the study, with my own prejudices being integral to conclusions reached (since I was a member of one of the groups). I think part of the nature of MA study is that it opens the door on academic research, but doesn’t really allow you to walk through. Thus, although the study was interesting and I think valuable because ethnography is not a commonly used method in LIS research, my conclusions were not particularly illuminating. But it is a testament to the originality of the department at Sheffield that they were willing to support a study using unusual methods that could so easily have become unmanageable.
A few weeks before I finished my dissertation I saw an advert for a job in the House of Commons Library. It was for an indexer, so I was initially skeptical that I had any of the skills required. However, I sent in a speculative application form and was invited to interview. The interview day was grueling, with a group interview, critical reasoning test, indexing test and an individual interview. The day I handed my dissertation in I also heard that my application had been successful.
The Indexing and Data Management Section (IDMS) in the HoC Library provide a service that is almost uniquely specialized. IDMS use the Parliamentary Thesaurus to indexing all Parliamentary material, including all Parliamentary questions, debates, papers and Acts. The worked is highly skilled and many people become extremely good at it, some of them very quickly. I was not one of them, and moved to another section in the library fairly quickly.
I now work in the Statistics Resource Unit, which supports statistical and economic specialists. The specialists work proactively to produce briefing papers on current or upcoming issues, and reactively by responding to enquiries from MPs and their researchers. My job is to make sure that they have the resources they need, and to help them keep up to date with reports, statistical releases and relevant current affairs. I find my job stimulating and there are plenty of opportunities to do interesting things that are not directly related to the role.
I became New Professionals Coordinator for the Career Development Group at the beginning of 2009. I was involved in organising the 2009 New Professionals Conference and another one will take place in 2010, again involving mainly first time speakers – more details will follow.