Friday, 8 July 2011

A happy accident: becoming a librarian

According to James G. Neal (2006), librarianship is often a 'second career’ for its adherents: “Many move to the field from jobs in other professions or after stints in academic assignments. […] [Does this] reflect limited opportunities in [their] chosen field, a recognition of a problematic fit between previous job and personal aspirations, or a profound interest in and commitment to the service goals of librarianship[?] The issue is whether the decision to become a librarian and to proceed through an extended educational program is a reflection of personal disappointment and compromise or a positive orientation to a new professional adventure.”

This line of questioning reminded me of an interesting point raised at the recent New Professionals’ Conference, where a straw poll of speakers and attendees revealed that many had fallen into librarianship ‘by accident’, following a period of career uncertainty or undertaking a non-professional role which brought them into the area of librarianship. Elements of what Neal suggests also apply to myself. Whilst I first applied for a job in a library at around nine years old (some may argue that my application style hasn’t changed much since), it took a series of accidents and snap decisions to get me where I am today. 

As with many in my Library School cohort, my undergraduate degree was in English Literature; like many on that course, I was then planning on doing a PGCE (to teach Secondary English/Media). I duly applied for a PGCE programme, and was accepted (with the caveat of gaining additional classroom experience prior to the beginning of the course); however, I found the acceptance letter physically sickening - I suspect that, deep down, I had known for a while that I didn’t want to teach, but hadn’t wanted to let go of the security of knowing what I was going to do next. Concerned about leaving the warm cocoon of higher education, I opted to do an MA in Modern Literature, with the vague idea of maybe following an academic career.

I knew within a few weeks of starting my MA that I was never going to be an English lecturer; whilst I gained some useful insights into twentieth-century literature from that year, the formative experience it gave me was extra-curricular. The first semester was accompanied by a librarian-embedded information-skills module*  which I rather enjoyed; however, other people on the course found it difficult to keep up with. One course-mate in particular, David, had problems keeping up with the electronic reference sessions. A mature student returning to HE after several decades, David was capable of following the course content; however, he was unable to do so at the pace at which sessions were delivered. As a result, he asked me if I could sit with him and go through the processes covered again. This became a regular thing, with other course-mates also occasionally asking referencing and database questions. It occurred to me that I seemed to be quite good at this sort of thing, and thus my mind turned back towards a career in aiding access to information.

The previous spring, after I had accepted my place on the Modern Lit course, I had spotted a flyer  advertising a graduate library traineeship. I had toyed with applying for this, but had ruled it out as I had already been through several application interviews in that period and wasn’t sure it was what I was looking for. Following my experiences with David, I returned to the idea of working in libraries, and did some research into professional options. I briefly spoke to a librarian where I was studying, who gave some useful advice, and following a summer spent camping in various areas of the library completing my (pretty useless) dissertation I began applying for any and all library jobs, to gain the experience needed to begin another Masters.** Luckily, I somehow convinced my current employer that I was a viable candidate, and became an Information Assistant, working evenings. I recall getting home after my first day, smiling and saying ‘I’m a librarian’ - it felt like I had finally discovered who I was.

I was able to keep this post throughout my MSc studies, which added useful real-life grist to the largely-theoretical assignments I wrote (as well as providing a partially-captive audience for dissertation research), and have since transitioned to a full-time (still non-professional) post. In many ways, I’m pretty happy where I am (which is making applying for jobs that much harder): I get to do varied jobs which sometimes verge on the professional remit, my contributions are appreciated and I’m pretty well paid.*** Whilst I don't leap out of bed every morning, I usually am looking forward to the day before I get to work.

So, is being a librarian the result of several happy accidents or my fate? Helping people learn and discover new things (the thing which most appealed to me about teaching) still forms a core part of my day. I get to interact with a variety of people, doing interesting and diverse things, and who use the library in ways which would never occur to me. Librarianship certainly isn't a "personal disappointment" or a "compromise", and whilst I sometimes lack that "positive orientation to a new professional adventure" I love it, and can’t imagine doing anything else.

This post ended up being a bit personal and stream-of-consciousness. I was shooting for a more considered, wider-ranging consideration of why people become librarians. I may adapt parts of this for the ‘bio’ page. In the mean time, I’d love to hear how any readers got sucked into the profession.


* This Information Literacy intervention (holiest of grails) contributed towards final degree score - that hadn’t occurred to me until I wrote it down...
** I also applied for two or three graduate traineeships, but was unsuccessful.
***Indeed, I applied for one professional role which paid less than I’m currently earning.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I guess I should write my own post about why I became a librarian now I actually have a blog, but I just wanted to say I identify strongly with your reasons - I think they were what made me want to become a librarian too. I love to hear how people got into the profession and although there's nothing wrong with falling into it, I was a bit disappointed that we weren't asked that question in my half of the New Professionals’ Conference, as I feel like I did make a decision to do this. Sounds like you did too! Like you, I studied English Lit and went on to do an MA, although I never wanted to be a teacher (I certainly had to explain why not to a lot of people though)! It's great to hear from so many people, both as part of cpd23 and at the New Professionals’ Conference, who are enjoying what they do. I think I will write up my library route asap, encouraged by reading your post...