Monday, 8 August 2011

Thing 10: Career, my dear

In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, the main character, Rob, is asked by his exasperated girlfriend to compile a list of his ideal jobs. (Rob is currently the owner of an independent record shop, but is undergoing something of a personal and professional crisis.) The suggestions he comes up with - NME journalist 1976-1979, producer for Atlantic Records - are all completely impractical and/or temporally impossible, and he and his girlfriend decide he is probably better off staying where he is.

I feel much the same way about me and librarianship. If I had to choose my ideal job, it would be a dead heat between "roadie for Girlschool" and "taste tester for Fox's biscuits". (In my more ambitious moments I imagine combining the two: perhaps I could spend my days at the Fox's factory while moonlighting with Girlschool; or maybe I could take my biscuit samples on the road with me and get the rest of the crew to help me taste them.) However, vacancies for these roles do not come up very often - and anyway, I'm not sure the hours would suit. In their absence, I have always looked to working in libraries as the best option out of the choices available to me.

Dear Girlschool, further to your Job Centre advertisement (ref: MI/0002/1357) I enclose a recent CV...

This tendency began right at the start of my career, when I undertook my 6th form work experience placement at Northumberland County Library and very much enjoyed it. Fast forward three and a half years and I was engaged in the traditional pursuits of the aimless recent humanities graduate: a combination of signing on, desultorily applying for completely unsuitable roles from the Guardian's media section, voluntary work and a succession of minimum wage jobs in the service industry.

In desperation I threw myself at the mercy of Newcastle University's careers service. In the course of my research librarianship came up time and time again as the career most suited to my educational background, interests and aptitudes. I decided to bow to the inevitable, and applied to study for a one-year, full-time masters in library and information management (although I'm not sure I would have done this quite so readily had there not been a course - at Northumbria University - close to where I was already living and working). The Northumbria course was unusual in that it did not require students to undertake a year's traineeship before starting. Still, I decided I needed to gain some additional experience of working in libraries so, by the simple expedient of knocking on the door and asking, I got two part-time temporary jobs: one back at Northumberland County Library and one at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society. These were in addition to my existing part-time job working in the book department of a branch of WH Smith.

For the ten months before I began my masters I was working 60-65 hours (not including travel time) spread over a seven-day working week. Looking back I'm amazed I managed to do that without becoming ratty and exhausted, but I did. It helped that I enjoyed all three of my jobs, but I think most of all I was powered along by the sense that I was finally working towards the job and career I was meant to have.  
The course at Northumbria was pretty good. Some modules turned out to be more useful than others in my subsequent career, but I met some lovely people and at the end of the year had the qualification I needed to progress. The cpd23 blogpost for this Thing says that 
It is becoming more and more necessary for holders of professional library positions in the UK to have or to be working towards a qualification in librarianship. 
I would say that the competition for jobs is so great that it is essential to have this qualification even for para-professional, library assistant-type posts, which is what all of my roles have been so far.  

I was very fortunate that, while I was completing my masters dissertation, a position became available at the Lit and Phil, and I was able to finish my masters and step straight into a full-time, permanent library job.

The Lit and Phil is a delightful place to work: it's charming and idiosyncratic, and houses a fantastic collection of books. Working on the issue desk you got to chat and exchange jokes daily with members who, collectively, were hugely knowledgeable and interesting and enthusiastic about their specialist subjects. In terms of staffing and organisation, staff numbers were small with quite a flat hierarchical structure. The advantage of this was that I got involved in a wide range of tasks; my main role was as an assistant on the issue desk, but I got to do a whole bunch of other stuff: cataloguing, working with rare and fragile books, giving tours, a bit of IT support, preparing displays and posters. The downside was that opportunities for promotion were rare (a vacancy might arise once a decade, if at all) and it was hard to find the time and money for formal training activities or courses.

After six years at the Lit and Phil I felt it was time for a change of environment. I'm going to have to draw a discreet veil over my next job (it was an information-type role, but not in a library). Suffice it to say that when I came out of the other side 18 months later I'd learnt two valuable lessons: 

  1. Don't be a breadhead, man (I'm not, particularly - who really becomes a librarian for the massive amounts of wonga on offer? - but it did ram home the message that no salary increase is worth it if you're not enjoying your job); and
  2. I really, really like working in libraries and am not really comfortable anywhere else. I like being surrounded by books and journals and online resources and the pedantic, nit-picky side of me likes organising and sorting and cataloguing those resources and the sociable, interactive side of me likes helping other people by showing them how to find and use those resources.
Fortunately, it was not long before I managed to get a job at Newcastle University's Robinson Library. This was a six-month contract, cataloguing a number of collections that were moving to the soon-to-be opened Great North Museum. As that was coming to an end, I got another part-time contract job, this time editing records in the University's research management system. Then I got another part-time job working in the Library's Technical Services section. This experience, I would say, is increasingly a feature of the profession (maybe of every profession): full-time, permanent jobs are incredibly hard to come by and you may well have to juggle a combination of part-time and temporary roles for a large part of your career.

This week, after working at the Robinson Library since January 2009, I've started in a permanent role as a senior library assistant in Technical Services.  I hope to stay here for a good while yet. Apart from anything else the University and the Library offers lots of opportunities for training and development, and I want to be able to take advantage of these. Once I've completed cpd23 (ten Things down; only, erm, thirteen?!! to go) my next goal is to set off on chartership. 

However, I do still subscribe to Rock Chick Monthly and International Biscuit News and am regularly scanning their "situations vacant" pages. Just on the off-chance, like.
Surely everybody's ideal career involves copious quantities of biscuits?

 (Picture by Caro Wallis)


  1. I'm really enjoying reading your posts! Keep up the good work (and biscuits)!

  2. Ta Laura! *proffers plate of custard creams*