It’s been really fascinating reading about the different experiences that led people into a career in libraries. Mine is a somewhat predictable path by comparison! It just goes to show the varied routes that can lead to librarianship, whether officially qualified or not; I’m definitely with Bethan when she says that “The profession is defined by what we do, not the letters after our names.”
I went straight from school to an American Studies degree at Hull (plus a year at NAU in Arizona), which I absolutely loved and which gave me some vital skills but wasn’t particularly career-oriented. When I graduated I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I applied for anything and everything that appealed to me. I wasn’t really looking for a vocation or an office job, but I had a vague notion of a ‘career in publishing’, so I fired off CVs to a list of publishers, all of which were met with a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’.
I was getting desperate (I’d been rejected by the local Iceland for being too qualified!) when I received a letter inviting me to interview for a library trainee post at the Guardian. I’d been rejected in the first round of CVs but one of the trainees had dropped out at the last minute. I don’t know who she was but I will be forever grateful to her for not turning up to work because I got the job instead, and it set me on the route to a career that I love.
When I was a trainee at the Guardian some eleven (!) years ago, the post was quite different. There were five of us, for a start (oh the heady days of economic certainty!), and our main roles were to archive the Guardian and Observer online and to file away newspaper cuttings from the day’s papers. We weren’t trusted to classify articles and cut them out (the librarians did that); after lunch, once the paper was archived, we were presented with a pile of newspaper clippings and sent off into the stacks to pop them in the right files.
There were a few visits to other libraries and the occasional opportunity to get involved in research, but otherwise the job was dull, and when we stopped adding to the cuttings halfway through the year, I was able to spend most of my time doing very little!
Despite this, working in the library was enough to convince me this was what I wanted to do, and I followed the traineeship with the MSc Information Science course at City University. At the time, Dave Nicholas was head of the department (this is before his team decamped to UCL); he’d done some research with the Guardian library and it was the natural path for trainees to take.
I didn’t really look into courses elsewhere, but I think it matched my interests anyway, because a lot of the course was about online information, databases, search techniques… I didn’t study a lot of traditional classification and cataloguing, but looked at it in the context of thesauruses and online taxonomy. Maybe if I’d ended up in a more traditional library role I’d have struggled without that basic grounding, but as it is the course gave me a great background for the job that I do (and the digital path the profession is taking now).
While I was sitting my final exams an assistant librarian post came up back at the Guardian, and I grabbed it with both hands! It meant switching to part time to finish my dissertation (which I finally handed in two years later) but it was an offer of a proper, professional job. In July 2002 I became a Guardian researcher and, nine years on, I’m still here.
Things have changed over the years. We’re down to three researchers from seven, and one trainee (with that post up for debate every year in a climate of cuts); we’ve moved to a shiny new building in King’s Cross, with some of our cuttings, bound volumes and microfilm stored off site; we have a digital archive, and subscribe to most reference resources online; we work increasingly with Google docs and data; and we’ve raised our web profile, with a blog and a Twitter account.
From time to time I’ve thought about moving on – with such a small team there isn’t a career ladder to speak of, and I’ve watched other colleagues go on to bigger and better things. But this role has changed, and continues to change, so I’m constantly learning new skills. More than anything it just seems to ‘fit’, and while I’m still passionate about working in the media and passionate about the job I’m happy to stay.
What I’m focusing on instead is developing my career by chartering with CILIP. I started last year and stalled quite quickly (baby number two got in the way!), but I’ve registered again and this time I’m determined to make it to the Chartership finish line! My working world may be small but that’s no reason to hold back on my career development.
Looking back over my career so far it’s clear that chance played a big part in how I became a librarian. If the original trainee hadn’t pulled out; if the Guardian hadn’t had a link with City; if a researcher hadn’t left just when I was finishing my course… I’m a big believer in serendipity, and it seems I’m also a bit lazy when it comes to making career decisions!
What is also clear though is that I’ve always had a passion for working with information, for libraries and, yes, for books (not, as Nicole Brock points out in her post on why she became a librarian, that books are all libraries do!).
I’ve always devoured books; I was off the reading scale at primary school and read everything they had. When we had to arrange work experience during GCSEs, some kids worked in local shops, handy for summer jobs; I organised a week working in the local county archives (yes, ladies and gentlemen, I once toyed with becoming an archivist). I even spent a summer when I was 12 or 13 cataloguing my parents’ book collection. Wow, that sounds tragic out loud.
Although I didn’t grow up wanting to be a librarian, and fell into it as a profession, I always had the tools for it, I just didn’t realise it at the time. I like to think that even if I’d taken a different job after uni, serendipity would have led me to the library one way or another.