information profession

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,


Libraries! Let's stop underestimating simplicity. (Simplicity is user-friendly)

Simple image of a display on a bare wall I think one excellent way forward for most libraries would be to adopt an aggressively pro-simplicity stance. We often make decisions about services or models based on the need to accommodate everyone - the need not to put anyone out, rather than the need to really inspire people to use what we have. It's very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be both inspirational and compromising at the same time. Look at loan periods as a really basic example. Most libraries have a lot of them - this is an attempt to make sure everyone is catered for. But sometimes it's so complicated as to be detrimental to the users.

Simplicity is great for many reasons.  It allows focus. It allows us to market with clear messages about what we do. It helps the user feel like they know where they are. It stops the model being too diluted by attempts not to offend. And - and this is the key point I want to make in this post - people can often prefer simplicity even to desirable options.

Think about your own experiences. Let's take a mundane example - sometimes it's nice to go to a coffee shop and have a choice between an Americano, an Espresso and a Latte, in two sizes. Even if you really like cinnamon lattes or whatever, you might prefer the simplicity of options to 7 different types of coffee, in three different sizes, with syrup options ago-go.

There's all sorts of retail experiences like that - booking hotel rooms or flights, for instance, or choosing a sandwich in Subway... - where options that are designed to personalise the experience to suit you actually just get in the way of some sort of essential process.

So I think (and I'm thinking about all this because I suggested it at a work meeting the other day) that all new processes and models and services should be designed to be simple and to make an impact, rather than to cover all the bases. (I realise librarians often feel a sort of moral obligation to make sure we're not disadvantaging anyone, and I'm definitely in favour of that as long as it doesn't come at the expense of our actual future.) And I think any services we re-design should be re-designed at least partly with the question 'What would users who'd NEVER EXPERIENCED THE OLD SYSTEM really want her?e' uppermost in our minds, as well as the need not to offend existing users. Chances are, they'd want something efficient, non-complicated, and easy to understand.

- thewikiman

p.s some of the themes in this post are also covered in my previous one



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

Skip to the end! Library futures, now...

Picture of lego jetpack man


I was reading Bohyun Kim's latest blog post this morning, in which she says this:

For a long time, libraries have been banning food and drinks inside the library. For librarians, books and food/drinks were not compatible. For users, they were the same kind of activity. You eat and drink while studying. So libraries eventually came to change the policies. That was a good decision for both libraries and users.

This really brought home to me the fact that libraries enforced a particular point of policy (no food and drink) for probably 99.9% of their history, and have changed it for the most recent 0.1%, and that really it's been fine. The fears that informed the original policy - that the food and drink would damage the books - are sound, but modern publishing methods mean the book isn't such a sacrosanct object anymore, plus (perhaps more importantly) even if some books do get damaged there is an overall gain in user satisfaction because a lot of them have been wanting to bring food and drink in for years. It's a hit worth taking, in other words. Silence is another rule long those lines - libraries are getting noisier, with quiet zones dotted around in many of them, so again it's a rule we've tried to enforce for all but the last 0.1% of library history, and now we're finally changing to suit a new majority of users (in academic libraries particular).

So that got me to thinking, what else are currently trying to hold back, that we will inevitably have to allow in the end - and should we just skip straight to the part where we let it go? If users want to use us in a certain way, should we just let them and be done with it? Of course some people will be upset, but you demonstrably can't please all of the people, all of the time, and we're really not at a stage where we can afford to be elitist in terms of which group of users we satisfy.

I asked twitter what we will be doing in the future but don't do now - here are some of the suggestions:

  • Lisa Hutchins said "Smaller borrowing limits for unlimited time periods along lines of DVD rental?" This is one I had in mind, too. Let people have stuff for longer, sanction them less or not at all if they don't bring it back on time. LOVEFiLM and the like are built around the concept of no late fees. You don't send the DVD back, you don't get a new one - but you don't accrue fines either. Could this work in libraries? More to the point, will we eventually have to find a way to make it work in libraries, in which case should we just do it now? . Cons are that people could use the opportunity to effectively steal the books, that books in great demand would be unavailable to people, that libraries would have less money to spend on books if fines are actually a revenue stream for them (even though that isn't their intended purpose). But I can imagine ways round those - you could have a no fines policy that is a bit like mobile phone companies' unlimited use policy, ie there's a little asterisk and it says 'within reasonable limits'. I have 'unlimited' browsing on my iPhone but if I left Google Maps on for a month I'd certainly hear about it from Orange, and get charged. You could move the more popular books into a 'high demand' section which ran along more traditional lines, e.g with 2 week borrowing limits and fines - but put the majority of the collection in the LOVEFiLM model. . Would that work? The big pro would be: people would find libraries more accessible, approachable, and usable. They'd be attracted by the relaxing of the rules.Lisa also pointed out that you couldn't return books to other library branches back in the day, but you often can now. This is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about - we resisted that change for years, with very good supporting arguments against it I'm sure, but now we've been forced to make it work and we have. .
  • Sarah Maule suggested: "opening hours changing dramatically? i.e. open on a sunday being normal?" I can completely see this becoming the norm in thriving libraries, and the reverse being true of struggling ones. I can see in 5 or 10 years time that many libraries will be run by volunteers and will only open 3 afternoons a week, while the bigger ones with more traffic will open long hours 7 days a week (and academic libraries will open 24hrs as a matter of course). Obviously it costs more to staff and open libraries longer, but the counter to this would be that - again - they become more friendly, accessible, and usable, thus making them more likely to become part of people's daily lives, thus getting more use, thus being of more value and so worth funding. .
  • Rachel P pointed out: "Mobile phones/devices will be (even more) heavily used (we still ban talking on them here, but in theory only...)" Yes, let's skip to the end of this one, too. We're going to allow them. Mobile phones will be the devices from which humans basically run their lives before the decade is out - banning them will be completely out of the question. The majority of their use won't be for talking on anyway. Just allow them, and tell people to go into stairwells and otherwise talk on them responsibly and with courtesy to others. .
  • LibraryWeb said: "can only speculate - but think frontline staff will become much more highly skilled - not just a shelving job nowadays" and added "you should be able to ask any manager (& also the odd talented lib assistant :) the same question and get an answer" I completely agree with this - it doesn't seem to such an issue in public libraries (although I may be wrong) but in academic libraries there's a real culture of passing the customer from desk to desk - oh, you can't do that here / I can't help you with that, you need to go and speak to X or ask at Y. We need to be able to just answer stuff and help people. Would love to skip to the end with that one. .
  • Mylee Joseph speculated that we'd offer "musical performances, tai chi classes before opening, cooking demonstrations, DIY broadcasting" This feeds into the whole idea of the library as an evolving space, offering things to the community which the community will value, irrespective if they fall under the 'literacy' umbrella that is our primary purpose. I think mission creep can be a great thing in libraries! .

Any more you can think of?

- thewikiman