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.

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