Why I work in libraries

This wiki wants to know how we come to work in the ‘information profession’, or whatever you choose to call it. What follows is therefore not purely the usual self-indulgent blog-onanism. Honest. Even though it is too long.

I was always a bookish child – except for a few years in my teens when I read only magazines and listened intently to really meaningful music all the time – and used to visit my local library regularly. I graduated in 2003 (Greek and Linguistics, first class!), spent two months on the dole, trying to think of something worthwhile to do, and then worked for a large bookstore chain for over a year.

Although the job was tedious and the employer oppressive, the staff were a wonderful assortment of creative and friendly folk. I found I enjoyed advising customers and felt happy to be promoting reading, but selling them things they didn’t need made me feel dirty.

After an all-too-brief escape to beautiful Istanbul, and on the dole again, I applied for a newly established SCONUL graduate traineeship in the Educational Studies departmental library at Oxford University. I had never so much as volunteered in the library while a student, so, although for the interview I read up on things like information skills training, I didn’t know much about modern libraries and was surprised to get the job.

The library had a librarian, an assistant librarian, and me. It gave me a hugely enjoyable, varied and very hands-on introduction to the surprisingly elaborate world of librarianship in a large but fragmented institution. The staff were fabulous and I loved it. I manned the counter, catalogued, classified, delivered orientation and training sessions, looked after the serials and inter-library loans and single-staffed the library at evenings and weekends. The university’s graduate trainee programme, which was very well put together, showed me all kinds of other library environments and facets of the job, and introduced me to plenty of librarians keen to talk and share advice.

I also worked in another departmental library at Oxford for a while, where I was allowed to catalogue and look after the brand-new video and DVD collection. This responsibility was liberating, in contrast to the rest of the work I did there, which was unfortunately restrictive and dull. [Beware: as a library assistant, your job could be boring!]

For family reasons, I took a part-time post a long way away, as an assistant in the reference section of a public library. Working with the public is very satisfying, and I feel suited to reference work: finding answers for people, showing them how to find the answer themselves, helping with whatever question comes my way. However, lowly employees in this particular library service are, depressingly, not treated as creatures capable of independent thought, unlike in my previous posts, and change, although urgently required, is sluggish and only reluctantly initiated. I could not have done that job full time – so thanks to my little boy for giving me an excuse not to! I left after three years to move abroad with my wife’s new job.

This summer I completed the 2-year part-time MSc in Information Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. Between the course, and more importantly my three jobs in libraries, I have learned a huge amount – skills in the job, experience in transferable skills, knowledge of how organisations function. I also feel like I have a handle on lots of contemporary issues and am capable of instigating change for the better in my next job! I am currently not looking for work, because I am settling in to my new life in Alexandria, learning Arabic and exploring a new place. But in the medium term I would like to work in libraries again, hopefully in a post that will permit some degree of change and development.


4 responses to “Why I work in libraries

  1. theatregrad

    Good luck with completing your MSc! I’m a current trainee at Oxford, hoping to go on to postgraduate study next year. Will definately keep an eye on your blog!

  2. This is a great post. How are you finding Leeds MET? I’ve heard… mixed reports on some of the modules!

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