What I wish they’d told me in library school

Sorry, I’m back. I’ve had some health issues going on so I apologise for the lack of writing.

Anyway..

I remember when I first finished school and went to university finding everything so confusing and hard to figure out. One of the hardest parts was not even knowing where or who to ask if you wanted more information, and I didn’t realise until later just how much I didn’t know. Even when I went back to uni a second time I still had no idea of what services were available or where I could go for help. I wish I’d known then how much I know now.

While I thought perhaps it was just a university thing, I’ve also worked in a lot of organisations where it’s been difficult to prise information from people, and for someone who is big on open access to information, sharing, and teaching people how to find what they’re looking for, I find this ridiculously frustrating.

So when it comes to libraries I thought I’d share some of the things I wish I’d been taught in library school. I won’t necessarily have all the answers, but these are some of the issues I’ve come across. I’ve spoken to other librarians and library technicians to get some idea of what they wish they’d been told and I’ll share that here too. Part of the problem was that I studied Information Management. We hardly touched on libraries, so there really wasn’t any exposure to what working in a library would mean.

I think the biggest thing I wish someone had explained was the different roles available in libraries, and what can be a huge divide between library assistants, library technicians, and librarians. I knew that I wanted to work in a library, ergo I would be a librarian. I didn’t realise there could be such separation between the roles. I knew that you generally couldn’t be a librarian without qualifications, and a lot of library assistants seemed to be students studying librarianship. In my mind I think I considered library technicians to be people who covered books, and I couldn’t really see why they needed to do a TAFE course to do that. It wasn’t until later that I discovered technicians do a lot more than cover books and do a lot more of the practical side of things. My interests definitely lie in being a librarian, rather than an LT, but if it had gone the other way I’m not sure I even realised I needed to do a different course. In smaller libraries you’ll need to do almost everything, but in a large organisation there can be a definite divide between what librarians and LTs are expected (or allowed) to do.

I also wish I’d known about the variety of libraries. I’ve spoken to friends who did the CSU library course and they said they wished they’d known some of their options outside of libraries. I knew that I could finish uni and work in a library, information management, document or records management, information architecture, research, etc. Other people had no idea that some of these things were possible with library qualifications. I had no idea there were such different kinds of libraries.

My course didn’t require any work experience or placements. This was good in some respects because of the workload and also I think a lot of people were already working full-time. I’ve worked in plenty of organisations with work experience students and I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer, but I think I would have found useful, perhaps, some tours of different industries. After experiencing first-hand the divide between libraries and records/document management, I don’t even necessarily think that these tours need to be exclusive to uni students. I think anyone working in the profession could do with exposure to what is happening and what is available in other organisations.

I particularly wasn’t prepared for leaving uni bursting with ideas, new skills, and motivation to find a scarcity of positions and people and organisations so resistant to change. I found it extremely frustrating that I could see so much room for improvement, fun projects or events to run, ways to make work more efficient, new technologies to experiment with, and run up against either a lack of interest, money, or willingness to try new things. It’s hard to feel like everything you’ve just been taught is for nothing, and to fight a continual battle for change.

The job hunt. If only I’d known how competitive it would be. It’s not any better now, and perhaps it’s even worse. People keep talking about how there are going to be so many librarians retiring, but that happens every year. Most of the librarians I know are overqualified for their roles but can’t find quite what they’re looking for. And the applications are exhausting. So many selection criteria, so little time. Here again you get the librarian/LT divide. It’s difficult to get the experience you need when you can’t get a job in the first place. All I can suggest for this is to get involved in anything you can. Get involved with ALIA committees, volunteer for events and conferences, take any extra training and development that you can. Anything that you can give you an edge.

The importance of a personal learning network, and friends in the industry. I can’t really complain now about a lack of information. I have so much library information coming at me through my friends on social networks and offline. I have received so much help and support from my network, who are all so generous with their ideas and time. Get on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, elists… attend events, conferences, and just participate. Who better to know what you’re going through and to give you advice than someone who has been through the same thing.

How quickly things change. You learn so much at uni/TAFE, and while the theories will mostly stay the same, the technical side of things change rapidly. The digital library, databases, websites I built at uni could now be done so differently (and probably look a lot better as well). But if you’re not in a role where you use the skills you’ve been taught, it’s up to make sure that you’re keeping your skills relevant.

I also wish someone had told me how little time I’d end up spending with books. “Oh you’re a librarian, you must read a lot of books, what can you recommend?” Ah yes, the public perception of your role.

“You need to go to UNI to work as a LIBRARIAN?!”

“You must spend the whole day reading.”

“Doesn’t everyone just use Google?”

“You don’t look like a librarian.”

“Oh I hated all my librarians, what a terrible career, they’re all just grumpy old hags.”

But the reward of people who appreciate libraries and librarians far outweighs any of that.

So what do you wish you’d known in library school?

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My librarian life story

I always thought that I wanted to be an archaeologist or some kind of policy maker. I was tossing up between studying Liberal Studies at USYD or Ancient History at Macquarie, and I went with Ancient History. I soon realised I didn’t have nearly enough passion for it to become a career (I love it but it’s not my everything), I didn’t have the language skills (I did Latin, a semester of hieroglyphs, can read French, but probably needed German and Ancient Greek as well), and really some elements of archaeology are so so science-based it just really wasn’t for me. Now, I like to finish things I start, so I stuck out the 3 years, decided against Honours (I regret this now), and then was floundering around trying to sort out a new career.

I considered everything from the Police to Advertising and things either didn’t work out or I changed my mind. Until I was speaking with a friend’s mother who worked as a librarian in a private school. The more time I spent with her and she explained about her work, the more I thought it sounded perfect for me. I wanted to be a teacher librarian, but to do this in the public system at that stage I’d have to actually teach first. So we looked at what I needed to do to get the qualifications and then I could go forth into the library world, and possibly work in a private school.

Her contacts suggested the Graduate Diploma in Information Management from UTS (which I’m now upgrading to a MA). To be perfectly honest I didn’t do much more of my own research. I explored what I’d have to do at UTS, but I had no idea there were so many other places to study librarianship in Australia. I also liked that the IM course wasn’t just about libraries. In fact, once I started the course the L word was hardly mentioned at all.

I really loved most of this course. I loved discovering how much extra information was out there if you just knew where and how to look. If only I’d known all this for my last degree! We built databases, a website, a digital library, and I discovered technical skills I never knew that I had. I also became passionate about issues like information poverty, the digital divide, open access, and puzzling ways to get information to people who might really need it, but can’t or won’t look for it, or don’t know it exists (e.g. victims of violence, drug-takers, mental health patients).

Before I graduated I started working as a library assistant in a public library and once I’d graduated I was sort of stuck unless I could find a librarian role somewhere. A role came up at work and I was the successful candidate. I was fortunate to have the support of my manager and given a fair amount of autonomy to make decisions and so I enjoyed my time there, but I was fresh out of uni with so many ideas and things I wanted to do (and probably wanted to change the world) and there just wasn’t scope to do it in that library.

I defected and went to work in document management at an investment bank. You probably can’t get much different from working in a public library, but I absolutely loved it. It was hard work, and particularly to start with I had to get my head around not only what I had to do, but all the financial and legal terminology. We provided a lot of technical support for the EDMS, trouble-shooting, controlled access and security to the EDMS, searched for documents, as well as hard-copy filing. I didn’t even mind the filing. I like things to be ordered so I could make sense of all that. In some ways I feel that the IM course was perfect for a role like this, and another classmate ended up on the team as well.

Unfortunately the global financial crisis hit and I was out. It took me 3 months to find a new job, and that was a particularly hard time. I don’t think there’s much to prepare you for losing your job to start with, and then knowing what your skills are, the experience you have, and not being able to find a job AT ALL. I was fortunate that I had the support of an outplacement agency and had someone to help me to review what I really wanted to do with my life, and fix up my resume, and just provide somewhere to go and be around people. And the place was packed. They had to take over another floor because so many people were suddenly out of jobs.

I really wanted to get back into libraries. This probably belongs in the next post I’ve got planned, but there is something that nobody really explains to you and that is this ridiculous divide between libraries and records/document management. I was glad that I did a course that was more versatile than just “library science” (that’s not to say a records dept wouldn’t hire a librarian). Having just worked in both I knew that I was using the same skills, many of the same principles, but there is this crazy large divide. To this day it infuriates me. Both sides could learn a lot from the other but they just don’t seem to get it.

Anyway. I ended up at the Reserve Bank in one of their records departments. It was good to be working again, but my role here was a far cry from what I had been doing, and with the structure of position descriptions there was no room for me to do anything more challenging. I started to try to get back into libraries but again I started getting the ‘well you don’t have any recent library experience’ which was making me want to throw things at people. It was like trying to get your first job all over again. No one will give you the experience to get the experience.

I had a breakthrough eventually and jumped ship to work in a 2-person library, that wasn’t even library as such. It was for a NSW Government Department that keeps changing names, and previously there had been a REAL library but it had been closed and now the materials were in the basement and the key element of the library was the digital presence via the intranet. In fact we looked after a lot of material on the intranet as well. It was lovely to be working with library things and technology again. Research requests! Promoting the library! New materials! The intranet! LIBRARIES! I liked my boss and our manager, and the other libraries we networked with. We were also part of a library network called ACCESS and collaborated with other specialist libraries in architecture, construction, engineering, etc.

However. Months before I got that job I’d applied for a role with the State Library. I didn’t get it but ended up on the eligibility list. So about 4 months into my new job I got a call from the State Library offering me a job. It would have been stupid to say no. If you’re going to be a librarian you might as well aim for the top. Because it was still State Government I took the role as a secondment. It was only supposed to be for a year but I’ve now been extended to June 2013 so things don’t always turn out as you expect.

And now I am cataloguing. University, document management, and records management prepared me for cataloguing to some extent, but I’d never been taught how to do it. I think it’s one of those things that either you can pick up easily or it’s just never going to happen. There are a ridiculous number of rules and I am constantly referring to Libraries Australia and AACR2 and LCSH and LCRI and all sorts of various sources to make sure I’m doing the right thing. I never thought I’d be a cataloguer. There are so many stereotypes and they’re probably correct for the most part. I think it takes a certain type and while certainly I can catalogue (and quite well), and I understand the rules and why they are there, I do spend a lot of time chafing about having to do things in a way I don’t necessarily agree with.

The thing that makes my job interesting is the material. When I started on the project we were working in the 200s (religion) and I read so much online trying to get my head around the different religions and structures and how things have changed in Australia. Some of the material was a bit dull, but a lot was fascinating or amusing, especially anything to do with the occult and the good old Catholic/Protestant fighting.

I started working on maps at the end of last year I think. Just for something completely different. To start with I thought I was going to hate it because I seemed to end up with sheets and sheets of New South Wales electoral boundaries and polling booth locations. Not so thrilling. But I also had the opportunity to upgrade some manuscript maps by William Bradley and things started to get more interesting. Then I was handed a box of maps that belonged in the Dixson collection and it became my own project. They were, I’d say, 99% manuscript and ranged from about 1820 to 1880 (rough guess off the top of my head). They mostly covered New South Wales, but also some parts of the rest of Australia. Quite a few of Victoria. It was crazy that these maps had just been folded up and put in an archive box for so long. Now they’re all nicely catalogued, searchable, have been rehoused, and some have been digitised.

So this is where I am right now. I’m not sure where I’ll end up. I never thought I’d say I miss working with people, but I’ve always been in some form of client-facing role and I do miss it. I suppose it’s the immediate satisfaction. I enjoy hearing that someone has now searched the catalogue and found one of “my” maps, but I’m not down there helping them find it. So I do miss that side of things, and I’m really interested in new technologies, keeping libraries relevant, making things fun, educating clients, improving systems, fixing problems, research (although I do a lot for the maps), and sometimes I also miss the corporate world. I have another 2 years on my contract to work out what I’m going to do.

My next post will lead on from here, and it’s going to be about what they don’t tell you in library school about the real world of libraries, so in a way it helps to know my background first.

It will be shorter but likely more interesting.