Career path

Life, Librarianship and Everything at #NLPNOpen

I gave at talk at the #NLPNOPEN event on Saturday, organised by the wonderful Manchester New Library Professionals Network. I actually invited myself to talk at this event, something I've not done before, because I think NLPN are ace, and because my favourite events have always been New Professionals events, and I miss the enthusiasm and hope, and what to learn from the new ideas. They were kind enough to let me talk at them for an hour at the start, basically about things that I've found to be important and that I'd wish I'd known earlier, about life, librarianship and everything (although mainly, it has to be said, librarianship).

Here are the slides.

Really the key messages are firstly that the tools exist now for you to make things happen if you want to - start a network, start a JOURNAL even, write blog, join a wider dialogue, whatever it may be - and that if you take one action it can lead to all sorts of other actions, that are rewarding in themselves and can benefit your career.

BUT, that said, the second message is no one cares if you're a rockstar, and interview panels don't actually ask about the stuff you do outside your job very often. It may be that you talk about it - it may be that when they say how would you cope with marshalling an annual resources budget, you can reply 'I'm the treasurer for this committee so I have experience' - but no one seems to say 'tell us about what groups you've joined / what conferences you've presented at / what articles you've written'. Not normally. In HE particularly we literally have to ask the same questions to every candidate so there's no room for those kinds of digressions. So this slide is, I think, important to reassure people who feel like they should be Doing All The Things but cannot Do All The Things because life gets in the way:

Everyone present did a brilliant job of tweeting the talk and indeed the whole day, which you can see in the Storify NLPN have pulled together - it's embedded below this next bit.

I saw some really good talks at this event, and I really enjoyed the open nature of the discussion - sometimes at traditional library conferences everything feels quite narrow because so many conversations have been had before, or are on sort of perpetual loop. The standard was very high too, in terms of presentation skills and the slides themselves - hardly any bullet points, lots of images, lots of creativity, lots of good communication.

Suzanne Coleman gave a great mini paper about Instagram, which is absolutely the most important platform for academic libraries using social media at the moment. Laura Green and Louise Beddow (who joined Twitter off the back of my talk - please go and make her feel welcome!) then talked about what they did for National Libraries Day at MMU - generally the academic sector engages with NLD in a fairly minimal way but they went all in and it really seemed to work. They had huge success with their comment board, allowing students to write things which other students (and staff) could reply to on the wall - this is an ethnographic technique which seems to work well so much of the time. We have walls at my own institution which you can write on, but they're specifically designed for students to just workshop ideas or get things out of their brains, rather than for feedback. But we're doing the feedback wall thing properly soon and I'm interested to see how it goes.

Carly Rowley talked about music librarianship, which was interesting to me as I've been a Music Liaison Librarian here. The discussion was a lot more Content / Collections based than my experiences - I tended to focus on the services we could offer rather than the stuff we had, but that probably just reflects my biases and interests. It was interesting that a few people in the room could play instruments or read music but didn't consider themselves musicians! I think if you can play or sing, you're a musician. Surely? I love being a musician and in how I define myself it's a lot more important to me than being a librarian is, although outwardly it takes up far less of my life. On that note, there's actually a secret (as in, unlisted in the navigation) part of this website that acts as an outlet - along with my Instagram - for drum-related things. You can find it here, friends of drums and drumming...

The final two presentations were Open Access themed. They complimented each other well actually - Jen Bayjoo representing the librarian and Penny Andrews representing the Researcher. The common theme was really around what it is actually like to be an academic, which is to say a human being with pressures and insecurities and lives to lead, and interact with library systems. A healthy dose of realism ran through Penny's talk - it's so important to be realistic about which parts of what we do work, which parts really matter, which parts may or may not endure... Jen had a nice practical element too, discussing real life problems and issues of working in an OA advocacy / support role. Her slides are online here.

It's also important that we as info pros are Open Access all the way - don't submit your article to a non-open-access journal, folks! I wrote most of my 'proper' publications before I really understood Open Access, but I've retrospectively got as many permissions as possible to make things OA. See my Publications page for the links, including a thing for Bethan Ruddock's New Professionals Tookit book - although my take on a lot of that stuff has evolved since I wrote that, so if NLPNOpen-me disagrees with Bethan's-book-me, go with NLPNOpen-me...

Organising events is hugely stressful - it's THE WORST, worse than dating a Tory, even - so massive thanks so NLPNOpen for doing this, for free, on their weekend (and of course many more days in the run-up to the event, working everything out). I got a lot out of the day. I learned stuff and I felt good afterwards. It was ace.

Here is @ManchesterNLPN's excellent Storify of the day - check out the tweets to get more of a feel for all of the presentations. Thank you SO MUCH to NLPN for having me. Loved it.

A decade in Libraries: it's more fragmented now, but that's okay


10 years ago last month, I started my first job in the Information profession.

This is the New Horizons space probe, which launched in the same month as my own journey through librarianship (**HONKINGLY TRITE JOURNEY METAPHOR KLAXON**) trying to get to Pluto. It got there last year - my daughter was 2 that day and I deeply regretted not taking annual leave for her birthday. Other things that happened in my first month in this profession included Charlie Kennedy resigning from the Lib Dems and a whale swimming in the Thames. #AbsoluteScenes

This is the New Horizons space probe, which launched in the same month as my own journey through librarianship (**HONKINGLY TRITE JOURNEY METAPHOR KLAXON**) trying to get to Pluto. It got there last year - my daughter was 2 that day and I deeply regretted not taking annual leave for her birthday. Other things that happened in my first month in this profession included Charlie Kennedy resigning from the Lib Dems and a whale swimming in the Thames. #AbsoluteScenes

It was a Customer Services role at the University of Leeds: back then I was fine with the term 'customer' in a library context, actively pleased about it in fact, and right away my Dad began the process of helping me understand how wrong I was... I had no intention to stay in library work - it was a temporary measure, and I wasn't even first choice for the job: I'd been interviewed months earlier and was first reserve for if anything came up! But it turned out to be about a million times more interesting than I expected, so I stuck around. (There's more on my library roots here. Remember the Library Routes Project? That was great. The wiki has gone but you can still find people's blog posts about how they got into this profession.)

A lot has happened to the industry and the profession in the last 10 years (there are many fewer libraries open, for a start), and there are people who'd be much better at documenting it than me. One thing I think we can all agree on is that the profession has become much more fragmented. There are many groups and sub-groups and splinter groups, and we don't speak with one voice very often. This is undoubtedly sad, but it's also completely inevitable.

People tend to regress towards the mean, by which I mean most of us see what's normal and that at least influences our thinking. The great thing about social media and the connected world is that there are so MANY means, so many normals - everyone can find their tribe. (This, of course, has its downsides in the wider context - idiots and hateful people can find other idiots to legitimise their hate. But that's not what this post is about.) So if you have a set of views, and you find others who share them, then you can DEVELOP those views rather have your rough edges smoothed off and your rebellion derailed... So I don't think we can really bemoan our fragmented profession - in a way it should always have been like this, but people couldn't find each other so easily before. Views and voices were more homogenised than they are now. It's true it would be easier to get things done if we all felt the same and agreed on everything - but given that isn't going to happen, we can all make progress on a local level, making our services the best they can be, and contributing to our communities in meaningful ways.

Over the last 10 years I've fallen in and out of love with various library organisations, I've said and done some things I'm proud of and some I cringe when I remember, and I've had amazing experiences I could never have predicted. The constant through all this has been the people - librarians are, for the most part, a magnificent community to be a part of. We are supportive. We share things. We talk openly about failures so others can learn from them, and we don't closely guard our successes so others can benefit from them too. We build meaningful networks online and in person and help each other get things done.

Of course there are exceptions to this happy picture, but that's the case in any large group of people. The trick is to work out who needs to blend into the background noise, and who might be on to something useful that can change the way you think...

If you read this blog, or are / have been part of my Twitter network, or if I've chatted to you at conferences or via email, thank you for helping shape my views and experiences over the last 10 years.

Image by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Applied Physics Laboratory - "PEPSSI Instrument Tastes Pluto's Atmosphere" from the Applied Physics Laboratory New Horizons website., Public Domain,


Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career

I have a theory: I think the 2nd job you ever get in libraries is the most important. We’ll come on to the why in a minute – first of all I wanted to see if others’ experiences backed up my hypothesis. I put a poll on to Twitter, asking this: Which job was most significant in getting you to where you are in libraries now? Which most influenced you onto your current path?

I didn’t want to prejudice the outcome so I didn’t mention my theory. The results were interesting – they did seem to (just!) back me up:


36% said 2nd job, 34% said 1st job

Now, this is a very specific question. I’m not asking which factor is most significant to where people are now (a lot of people would say professional development outside of their 9-to-5 jobs, or their Masters perhaps) and I’m not asking which job is the most important in terms of people being in the information profession at all (presumably that’d be the first job for the vast majority of people) – it’s all about where you are, the path you’re on, the area of librarianship you’ve ended up in or the role you’re currently doing.

So I believe the 2nd job you ever get in libraries is arguably the most important because it dictates much SO of what happens to you afterwards. Obviously all jobs have an effect on what comes after them to some extent, but the 2nd job is something of a tipping point whose significance is, I’d imagine, not appreciated at the time most people are applying for it. Most people’s first library jobs fall into one of two categories – securing an entry-level position prior to doing the Masters (or becoming a graduate trainee), or securing an entry-level position because you’ve sort of stumbled into libraries accidently, and then finding it was a lot more interesting than you thought, so you stay in the sector. As has been discussed before, almost no first library jobs are beyond the entry-level – even people who have the Masters have to start at or near the bottom.

So – as a result of this, there’s not much proactive career choice about your first library job: you just need a job. Most people start as something like a ‘Library assistant’ – often a customer facing role, in the library itself, issuing books and helping with queries etc. You only really start to mould you career when you apply for that 2nd job – and my argument is that you need to make a really sound choice here, because it has a vital domino effect on your subsequent career. And actually, it’s tricky to divert off the path you choose for yourself at that 2nd job choice, because the 3rd job will (probably) be a higher up or better or related version of that 2nd job and (probably) pretty good, meaning you build a career off the back of it.

I’m obviously generalising here, and of course there will be exceptions – and throughout I’m imagining someone staying in more or less the same place, rather than having accrued several jobs at the same level on their CV simply because they’ve relocated a few times. But generally speaking, if you’re in that position that so many of us were in – you’re in your first library role, thinking it’s actually pretty good, wondering about making it into a career – you need to think carefully about the path you choose and, not least, how long that path is in reality.

I’ll take the academic library as an example, because that’s what I know best. Your first role was in Lending Services on the desk, so where do you go next? If you choose to stay in Customer Services then you’re looking at a Reference / Enquiries Desk role perhaps, otherwise there’s a big jump up to something like Customer Services Manager or Site Manager. If you go into the cataloguing side of things you could go for an Assistant Cataloguer post. You could try and move towards the subject librarian side of things by going for a Team Assistant post in an academic librarian subject team. Or there might be a ‘Digital Library Assistant’ type role, to do with digitisation or e-Resources. Whichever of these you choose, your 3rd job will probably also be in this area, is my point. And your 4th job too, perhaps. Of course people change all the time, but it’s quicker to develop a career in a roughly straight line. (I know this, because I didn’t - and have only in the last few months arrived at the job I actually wanted to do all along, and have much younger colleagues who took a more direct route…)

Part of the reason I’m writing this is because I know some people who’ve been working in libraries a good while, and are just sort of treading water – because that second job took them down a path, and now that path is blocked for whatever reason. There just aren't any more senior jobs than they're already doing, in the area they've come to specialise in. So I’d recommend getting hold of one of those organisational structure charts for your library (or the library you’d like to work in) and literally plotting your ideal route upwards, seeing what’s feasible, where the obstacles are, when you’d be waiting an age for people to retire or leave, etc. Some paths have very few destinations so are more competitive. Some might not even exist by the time you get to the good bit. Some paths might look like their beyond you in terms of expertise, but actually you could get there over time. Some paths have loads of destinations but aren’t well paid. Money certainly isn’t everything, but progression means a lot – you don’t want to get stuck in a rut.

It would be nice just to live in the moment, just to ‘be’ and not worry about all this stuff. But librarianship is a hugely competitive profession, with far more qualified librarians than there are jobs for qualified librarians. So it’s really never too early to be thinking about the career path you’re embarking upon – ideally, you need to start making informed choices almost from the very start.

If you’ve made it through all that - do you agree with my 2nd Job Hypothesis?

- thewikiman

my own library roots

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... 

Exit here for professional fulfilment...


 *** 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..?

- thewikiman