Having been so involved in creating and administering the Library Routes Project, I've not had time to actually take part in it myself until now. But here are my library roots and routes...
*** Update, 25th November ***
I’ve decided to update this post because a: I just got a new job so the route is extended and b: a lot of people are reading this each day, having clicked through from the Routes Project homepage (first name listed, and all that) so I thought it better be good! The whole point of the Library Routes Project is for it to be a careers resource of sorts, so I’ve tried to make this version more explicitly careers related.
I did my degree in Philosophy and English, and then a Masters in Music. None of these subjects are particularly vocational – in fact, most Philosophy graduates at the University of York seemed destined for work in the local Building Society conglomerate. If I had my time again, I’d devote more effort to thinking what I wanted to do as a profession while I was still studying, and get some work experience in that area, as a degree means very little these days. (Actually I wouldn’t change a thing as I’m where I want to be right now, but I’ve certainly advise trying to anticipate your career early and getting appropriate experience to supplement your education.)
Various career options had been rejected: journalism (too soul destroying on the way up, writing for local papers about nothing at all), and musician (too much potential for turning something I loved into something I resented, plus I’d met my wife during my Masters so didn’t want to spend every night out gigging), so I went to see a Careers Advisor at York. People contributing to the Routes Project seem to have mixed experience with careers advisors; either they got told exactly the right information straight away and they were able to head straight into librarianship, or they got told the wrong stuff entirely and ended up spending years doing jobs that didn’t hit the spot, until suddenly realising they’d wanted to be Information Professionals all along. My careers advisor was great – I told her I wanted to be a Careers Advisor, she gave me lots of help, and from there I arranged work experience in the Careers Service. It was fascinating, and something I’d possibly like to return to in the distant future.
I was working part-time for a Consumer Research company, and doing the unpaid Careers experience the other half, having completed my Masters. Then suddenly my wife and I found the perfect house, took on a mortgage, and I needed to be working full-time very quickly indeed. The Careers Service told me, get a job in a library – it’s under the same ‘Information Management’ bracket as Careers work, so it could be a way of making money in the meantime while keeping the long-term career ambitions on the back-burner. I applied for two Customer Services entry-level jobs in academic libraries (Music MA in Not Helping Employment Prospects Shock…) and got one of them, although they appointed someone else first and me a month or so later when another position came up.
I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for – this project has shown a lot of people stumble into this profession, and then find it to be much more involving than they’d anticipated. That said, for every contribution to the Wiki, I’m sure there’s two more people who’ve left librarianship, finding it far too demanding, customer-focused, busy and generally not like the stereotype they aspired to…
I started off in Customer Services, as mentioned above, at the University of Leeds Library. For whatever reason, the library industry is jam-packed FULL of massively overqualified people, most of whom are very competent at their jobs. That, combined with the fact that Leeds has probably around 100 Customer Services staff, means you really have to strive to make any kind of impression at all. I did as much as I possibly could above and beyond my basic job description, and asked for as much responsibility as they would give me. I became the sign-maker in chief, for example - need a new sign for the photocopier? Come to me. It seems a ridiculous and silly thing, but anything you can do to show people a: that you exist at all and b: have something to offer, is essential. I also went on a lot of the Information Literacy courses (some of which I've since taught) to flesh out my CV - absolutely anyone can say they've experience or knowledge in a given area, but it's much better to have training in that area. As it happens, attending the copyright course I didn't need at the time was absolutely invaluable in securing my next role.
After 10 months a post was advertised at Leeds called Online Course Readings Assistant. I didn't really know what it was - it was a newly created position, and the job description was actually pretty hazy. What I did know what that it was a higher grade than my current position, and there was only 1 OCR assistant (as opposed to 100 Customer Service Assistants); if I did it well it would actually benefit people, and if I did it badly then people would suffer too. Ultimately, that has to the kind of responsibility you want. If you can do a job where you individually make a difference, so much the better for your chances of progression.
I actually came second for the post (again!), because the person who came first had experience of scanning and I didn't. They then withdrew, and so I was able to move to the front of the queue. The role was basically that of Project Assistant to a new project at Leeds to digitise core readings. It was terrific to be involved in something from its inception; I highly recommend project work, as you get to shape something new. As soon as I knew this job would be good, I knew I'd be staying in the academic library for a while; at that point I investigated the Library and Information Management qualification and decided to do it via distance-learning at Northumbria. I handed in two years later, and received a Commendation last month. Meanwhile, the project was a great success, the project team disbanded, and OCR became a Service. My contract (previously fixed-term) was made permanent, and I was upgraded and made Digitisation Coordinator.
It's a fantastic role, with lots of responsibility and, if you do what you're supposed to do when you are supposed to do it, hugely grateful academic and student communities! It's incredibly busy and sometimes stressful, but in a good way; I've had up to 5 staff working with me on the Service in the run-up to this Semester, which has given me a great taste of management - an area I want to pursue in the future. Meanwhile, I submitted an abstract for the CILIP New Professionals Conference on a whim, ended up presenting a paper at it, and a whole load of extra-curricular stuff has just snowballed from there; writing papers, presenting, and setting up Library Routes with Woodsiegirl and Jennie Law, for example.
When I’d originally embarked on my MSC, I obtained a generic job description from HR of the position I was ultimately aiming for, and made sure I ticked off all the Essential and Desirable qualities over the next two years. (Or tried to – I needed a language ideally, and my Italian lessons were great but I’m still utterly rubbish at it…) This is well worth doing, because you need to be able to do everything before your ideal job comes up. Apart from anything else, it makes sure you’re always adding qualities to your armoury and expanding your CV. What might happen, as was the case with me, is that you end up doing something else entirely – but the efforts you’ve made will still pay dividends.
Earlier this month, the position of LIFE-SHARE Project Officer at Leeds was advertised. It’s a JISC-funded project looking into the life-cycle of digital materials, and a perfect progression from my current role (I’ll write a whole separate blog post about what it entails later). My Dad always said I’d end up doing something I’d not even thought of, and he was right – not only had I never considered librarianship, even when I was in the profession I didn’t even know that roles like the one I start in January existed. The point I want to stress is – and this a long post already so I’m going to stop now – you never know how opportunities will benefit you later on, so you need to take (and make) as many as you can even if they’re not directly relevant at the time. I’ve done a bunch of stuff I’ll probably never need again (Government Official Publications course, anyone?) but so much more stuff which has come in handy in unexpected ways. I was able to tick the ‘Good presentation skills’ box for this new role because I’d taken the plunge and volunteered to present at digitisation related conferences, and submitted a paper for New Professionals – I wasn’t entirely comfortable doing that stuff, but I knew I might need it later on and I knew I could conquer my worries by addressing them head-on through experience. I could tick ‘experience of creating and delivering training’ partly because I’d become involved with Leeds’s Information Literacy programme, as an assistant trainer and then later as a trainer – again, not something I wanted to do, but teaching is a huge part of modern librarianship. And so on.
4 years ago I was about to go to an interview for my first ever library post. It was temporary measure - an emergency measure, almost, motivated by the mortgage etc. Through a random sequence of events, and applying to the max that old cliché about putting more in to get more out, I've found myself in a profession I really enjoy, working in a sector (Higher Education) I feel passionately about, and doing all kinds of interesting these I never imagined doing. And, ironically (or perhaps just providently) considering my early ambitions to be a careers advisor, here dosing out careers advice, and just about to become a New Professionals Support Officer for CILIP’s Career Development Group. You never know what’ll happen, do you..?