Monday, 11 March 2013

Thing 20: Library roots and routes

I was originally going to write this post as part of CPD23, as I was going to work through the Things by myself, but then I was asked to speak at a careers event at Royal Holloway. What I was talking about was along similar lines, so I'm posting it now, which is why some of the post is  aimed at current undergraduates. I will also be linking it to the Library Routes Project. As well as Thing 20, it also covers Thing 10: Graduate traineeships, Masters degrees, Chartership, Accreditation.

A few months ago I read this post by the Wikiman, about working out where you are as a new library professional and where you want to be in the future and how you get there, as I did something very similar when I was starting out.

First of all, library roots: how and why did I get into the profession in the first place?

Simple - I always wanted to be a librarian! I was the primary school kid who helped in the library at lunchtimes and had a badge that said "Librarian" on it, and the same at secondary school. When I was 15 and the time came to go off to do a fortnight's work experience I went to Lincoln Cathedral Library, and there got my first taste of the world of rare books and special collections. I went back as a volunteer in my school holidays and wrote things on index cards (this is before computers were very, erm, widespread) and loved it.
Lincoln Cathedral, taken from the Castle

I think it was the combination of helping people to find information and organising that information that I particularly enjoyed. I also weighed up whether to qualify as an archivist or a librarian and arranged to do some work experience at Lincolnshire Archives during one school summer holiday to try it out. I really enjoyed it, but decided librarianship was more for me. The archives had a conservation studio and conservator, I also did some work there and decided that I still wanted to be a librarian.

So, there I was, having decided to take A Level Latin because it would be useful for my future career and chosen to read Ancient and Medieval History at Royal Holloway, because I love history. What happened next?

Library routes: the career path you've taken so far.

Being a slightly(?!) geeky teenager I'd already worked out by the time I left school that I was going to do a graduate trainee year after my degree, then an MA in librarianship, then off to launch myself into the wonderful world of libraries. I did do all of that, only not quite according to my original plan!

Alongside my degree I got involved in a lot of other things, all of which stood me in good stead on getting further along into Library World. First of all I worked part-time in the university library, starting out as a shelver for a term and then getting promoted to library assistant (I also spent an entire summer holiday moving every book in the library 12 shelves to the left). All of this was brilliant experience as I got right into the knitty gritty of library work and working with users.
Founders Library at Royal Holloway

 I was also Senior Chapel Warden (College Chapel) for 2 years and Vice President of the Catholic Society (despite being Anglican), both of which gave me experience in event organising and dealing with people. And I became a warranted Guider with a unit of Guides (10-14 year olds) and Rangers (14 years+), which was massive amounts of fun, as well as giving me experience working with children and teenagers, budgeting and planning.

During the final year of my degree, I could have applied to do my MA as I already had the library assistant experience, but instead I decided to go ahead with doing a year as a library graduate trainee, this time at Exeter University Library, as I thought it was preferable to get as much experience as possible before doing the MA. I chose Exeter because it offered a variety of different types of work, including a placement in Special Collections, but also in other library departments, including cataloguing training and some project management type work. Plus living in Devon for a year was wonderful! I carried on with being a Guider in Exeter as well. Graduate trainee posts are advertised via CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

During my year in Exeter I applied for MA courses at Loughborough and UCL, and chose the MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL because it offered indepth cataloguing training (essential for special collections/rare books work), as well as having a module in historical bibliography (again, an essential grounding). I had intended to do my MA full-time, but a sponsorship opportunity came up, via St Paul’s Cathedral, which meant I joined a lay (i.e. not ordained) religious community of people who lived and worshipped together, studied for postgraduate qualifications part-time paid for by the cathedral, and worked in the cathedral three days a week. My interest in the community coincided with work on the cathedral's inventory, so my job as part of the community was working in the cathedral library as an Inventory Assistant on a retro-conversion project, alongside museum professionals working on the object inventory. Although it wasn't what I originally intended to do, I'm really glad that I did my MA part-time as the experience I gained alongside it was invaluable, both for MA coursework and my future career. The work at St Paul's taught me an enormous amount about bibliography, cataloguing, working on a project and museum standards. When I left St Paul's I was invited to become the Assistant Secretary of the Cathedral Libraries and Archives Association (CLAA), which gave me experience in writing minutes and being on a committee, as well as some great networking opportunities.

When it got to dissertation time, my supervisor put me in touch with the National Trust libraries curator, who arranged for me to catalogue the library at Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire, which is what I based my dissertation on. 

Library at Gunby Hall

This led me into doing paid freelance work for the National Trust, travelling around the East Midlands and beyond cataloguing books in many different houses for several years after completing my MA. The National Trust Libraries catalogue is now on COPAC and you can read a previous blog post of mine about a recent conference on National Trust libraries.

Belton House, Lincolnshire. I catalogued some books in the attics!

Being freelance meant I acquired a lot of skills in budgeting, filling in tax returns and planning my time, but meant I didn't have the CPD opportunities you'd expect in most jobs, so I started working towards my CILIP Chartership qualification at the same time. This was a good way of showing my commitment to the profession, that I wanted to develop my skills and, even though it is still fairly unusual for a special collections job description to ask for a chartered librarian, I think it was a good move. 

Around this time the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group published their Skills of a Rare Books and Special Collections librarian document, which I found helpful for doing a skills audit for my Chartership. As well as cataloguing I had some involvement with readers using National Trust books and also helped with an exhibition at one property, but I decided I needed to gain more experience in these areas to progress my career, so I looked for a job that would give me more of that experience.

I was appointed Deputy College Librarian at Eton College Library. Eton has two libraries; College Library is home to some very extensive rare book collections, you can read more on the College Library blog. This meant lots of experience with some pretty significant rare books, working with readers, working on displays and exhibitions, as well as cataloguing. I also project managed a move from one library management system (Mikromarc) to another (BooksIndex+) which included the slightly horrific experience of writing a conversion script from UKMARC to MARC21 using USEMARCON and MarcEdit. I completed my Chartership whilst at Eton.

When I left my freelancing work I had been invited to join the committee of the Historic Libraries Forum and became Chair of the Forum whilst I was working at Eton. 

Having by now acquired a husband and a house my options for re-locating for my next career move were more limited. I wanted to move up to the next rung of the ladder, and manage a collection, so the job I found was as Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians in central London. This is another wonderful collection of rare books, and also involved another move of library management system, this time from Adlib to Soutron. The RCP had excellent CPD opportunities, so I took advantage of training in areas such as public speaking and management skills, which I hadn't had much chance to develop before that. 

My next career move was something of a surprise, as an opportunity presented itself not only to manage a special collection in a university but to set up a lot of it from scratch. This was too good an opportunity to miss, as well as being a lot closer to home, so I moved jobs again to become Special Collections Librarian at Brunel University.

As part of my careers talk at Royal Holloway I was asked to provide some "top tips". Below is what I think really helped me in getting to where I am now:

Languages - an interesting one as not all special collections jobs need particular languages, but many of them do, and it is something that will make you stand out from the crowd of job applicants. I blogged in greater detail earlier on this topic.

Experience - particularly getting as much as possible before completing my MA, and getting in plenty of rare books cataloguing, because it's the best way possible of actually learning about the books and their structure. But not only librarian experience is important. You need to be able to work with whoever comes through the Special Collections door as well as doing outreach to encourage people to use your collections, so getting involved in activities and hobbies outside of work is a good way of demonstrating people skills, as well as giving you the possibility of developing other skills, such as event organising and project management.

Location - yes, I have zinged around the country like a yoyo, and yes, relocating to a new town where you don't know a soul can be a truly grim experience, and yes, quite often I would have loved to have lived somewhere for more than a year at a time. But it meant I got the range of experience I needed. The state of the economy at the moment means that a lot of special collections work is grant-funded, so it's worth taking a fixed contract post and relocating or doing a lenthy commute to get that experience for your CV. You can always settle down at some point in the future! ;-)

Enthusiasm - a difficult one to convey, but you need to demonstrate your massive enthusiasm for this kind of work as well as learning enough about it to know it's truly the career you want. This can be through joining relevant groups (particularly getting involved in committee work). Many of them have reduced rates for students. Groups I'm a member of include:

  • AMARC - Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections
Also keep up-to-date with what's going on in the world of special collections through reading blogs (many Special Collections have blogs, Brunel's is here, and has links to several others), plus Special Collections Librarianship news, which comes out most weeks. The hashtags #speccolls and #rarebooks on Twitter are also useful. It's worth keeping an eye out for exhibitions to go to or look at online as a source of inspiration and knowledge.

And, finally, good luck!

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