Librarianship – wet suit not required!

I have been intrigued by the Library routes wiki and am enjoying reading others stories so felt I should attempt to document how I ended up being a librarian, particularly after Ned Potter told me he thought I was one of those ‘born to it’ types. Let’s be clear on this matter, I certainly was not, and despite being hugely proud to be a librarian it was not a career choice I made deliberately. In fact, were it not for a fear of swimming in the sea, I could just have easily ended up a marine archaeologist as a librarian. But I will come on to that!

Now don’t get me wrong, I did love books from an early age. In my childhood bedroom one of the first bits of DIY I made my Dad do was install extensive ‘ladder-rack’ shelving to house my ever growing book collection, which ended up quickly filling all the shelves and the cupboards in my wardrobe and that was even before I started secondary school! Probably my first ambition was actually to be a writer though, which soon developed into an interest in being a journalist. A short stint of work experience on a local newspaper soon put me off that idea and by the time I took my A levels I had no real idea of what I wanted to do and struggled even to decide between my love of history and science. I had always been interested in computers, owning a Vic-20 and later a Commodore 64 – which was very soon requisitioned by my brother for playing football games on! (Interestingly his love of computer games stayed with him and today he is a computer game programmer!) My school had a large number of computers installed and I helped out in the school library, partly so I could spend time using the computers.

The deciding moment in my library career came on receiving my A level results. By then I had decided I wanted to study history at university, but sadly my results in the two science A levels I took (along with History) meant I had failed to get my place. I was thrown into the world of ‘clearing’ and spent a fraught few days ringing various universities to see who might have a place on a history course. Eventually it came down to a decision between Abersytwyth and Bangor University – one of which was offering me history with librarianship, the other history with marine archaeology. The few words of the admissions tutor at Bangor ‘I think you’ll need a wet suit’ meant librarianship it was for me!

From the outset of my first year in Aber I was clear that I didn’t want to be a librarian. I started to consider archival or museum work as an option, but I was resolute – I did not want to be a librarian. In fact, it had been put to me that I could easily drop the librarianship element of my degree and continue in my second year as a single honours history student. Yet something about that first year course intrigued me, we learnt all sorts of computer skills, it was the early days of e-mail and the internet, we were taught about information and the media and finally in the end of the year exams my personal tutor in librarianship approached me asking me not to drop the subject as I had one of the highest marks in the year and a first! I had started to worry about the career path for a history graduate, I didn’t think teaching was for me, so carrying on with my joint honours degree and getting a library qualification seemed the sensible option. I still maintained I did not want to be a librarian, but perhaps it was something to fall back on and maybe archival work was an option. Again another period of work experience, this time in a County Record Office soon put me off the idea of being an archivist and actually made me start to feel perhaps I was destined to be a librarian.

At the end of my degree I was fairly certain I wasn’t ready to stop being a student. I was having far too much fun and had relished the research I did for my dissertation – on local newspapers as an information source. After speaking to my tutor I was persuaded to apply for a PhD and a Masters in Computer Science. The deciding factor came when the University offered me a studentship to fund my first year of a PhD and I leapt at the chance. I spent almost 4 years as a research student and became fairly convinced that an academic career was for me. I taught in computer practicals, worked on several research projects and did a host of other work to supplement the funding I got from the University of Wales and from the AHRC. However, towards the end of my research I started to get itchy feet. I’d been in Aberystwyth for 7 years, I felt that leaping straight into lecturing (even if I were offered a job!) might not be the best thing, and perhaps I needed to get some life experience. I was also aware that some of the best lecturers were always those who had worked in the profession for a time.

The end of the 1990s coincided with a number of funding initiatives for library related research projects, so I soon found my first job in a British Library funded post based at the Natural History Museum library. I was working on a project to examine the journal collections and work out how the two libraries might collaborate over collection development (shorthand for cut journals!) Sadly the post was just for 6 months but during that time I managed to organise a one day event for librarians to promote the project. After a short time temping in the Library in the Department of Education and Skills, I secured another research post this time based at UCL. The project was called ‘Access to Core Course Materials’ and a joint project between Library Services and the Education and Professional Development department. I had two bosses and soon realised both had quite different ideas of what my project was meant to achieve. Here I learnt the lesson that a job is what you make it, and so I threw myself into exploring all sorts of copyright and digitisation issues, of working on e-learning initiatives to deliver materials to students and even producing web-based interactive materials for language students. I also started to realise that networking was really important, as well as being able to turn you hand to many things. However as the project end date was approaching I had also started to reflect on my brief time in a library at the Department of Education and Skills. Delivering a service was actually really satisfying and research projects were all well and good but I was in danger of finding myself unemployed every year or so. So when a job for the Assistant Librarian for Learning and Teaching Technology at LSE came up, one of my bosses thought it had my name written all over it!

I applied for the post at LSE and was duly appointed to work in new small team with three IT staff. I think over the past 8 years at LSE being a librarian not working in a library has probably strengthened my commitment to the library profession. I also found that I had a growing desire to network with other librarians as my day to day job involved working with IT staff. This led to me getting involved in professional groups such as ALISS, the Heron User Group and the newly formed CILIP Information Literacy group. My job has evolved and changed significantly in the past 8 years, but for me being a librarian has become a real passion. I genuinely believe that librarians provide a vital service, helping people to find, access, evaluate and use information. Yes they probably spend too much time in the Library (something no one could accuse me of doing!) and yes they need to blow their own trumpet more. But I am always proud now to stand up and proclaim (as the librarian in the film the Mummy did) I am a librarian!


2 thoughts on “Librarianship – wet suit not required!

  1. Okay now hang on! I said to you and June that I’d never met anyone who was born to do it, and you both said that you sort of kind of were… It was definitely not that I thought you seemed ‘the type’!

    I liked you comment that “it was one of those things that crept up on me and with hindsight seems like destiny” – that seems to sum up a lot of people’s experiences, and I might try and crowbar that in to an article about Library Routes at somepoint.

    Anyway, cheers for contributing to the Project…

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