Roots and Routes
This post is my contribution to the Library Routes Project which has the admirable objective of seeking to document why librarians got into the profession and the career paths they have taken subsequently.
Above: Exeter University
Back in the heady days of 1992 as I was approaching the end of my second year at Exeter University I began to seriously think about the career options open to me after I completed my Theology degree. No the priesthood wasn’t on the list (in fact the course had ultimately confirmed my atheism as Theology at Exeter was about enquiry and philosophy as much as it was about Christianity). By that time librarianship had only ever been vaguely on my radar. I had never felt very comfortable in the University Library there and definitely wasn’t a model user – I certainly paid my share of short loan fines! However, perhaps a spark of something came out of my pleasure at mastering the Libertas library system and realising ahead of my peers that I could ensure I had the books I needed by booking specific slots of time up to a week in advance. I’ve always been very organised so this came naturally to me, I just had to plan my essay writing early and around book availability. Sounds a bit sad I know but this was essential for our poorly resourced subject (I did go out and have a good time as well).
Above: Exeter University Library
Over the summer break I decided to find out about the graduate trainee schemes available but had no real clue as to what librarianship was about, in fact in many ways, if I’m honest, it felt like a very safe and therefore very viable option to this rather gauche 20-year-old. Unfortnately this meant that I became one of those idiots who had no clue how to communicate why I was interested or what the profession really entailed. Yes I did mention ‘love of books’ in my interviews and no it turned out I didn’t know the difference between cataloguing and classification when asked! After two interviews and several rejections including one from the Bodleian Library trainee scheme (particularly amusing in retrospect as I later found myself selecting interview candidates for their scheme!), I was no further forward, although I was at least starting to realise that I’d need to communicate my interest much more eloquently.
And so, there came the dreaded return home and an increasing feeling of desperation. After a relatively short time I decided that my best course of action was to offer my time on a voluntary basis to Stafford central lending library and thankfully they accepted. This was the turning point. I was very lucky as just a few weeks down the line a vacancy came up and I applied and duly got the library assistant post on offer – not I’m sure because I had suddenly developed a lucid understanding of the profession, but rather because of the hard work I had already put in. As much as I was grateful for the post and the myriad duties involved in a large and busy lending library, I quickly concluded that the public library sector was not going to be my cup of tea. How well I remember the unbearable stickiness of the items recovered by the book recovery officer, the weirdness of some of the patrons (“Yes I really DO want to register my son for the Library as “I am Jesus Christ”, is that a problem?”) and the time we made national news when our head librarian fell down the lift shaft while demonstrating lift safety!
Above: Stafford public library (the welcoming building on the left). No I Didn’t work there in the Thirties (!) but the library has now moved and I couldn’t find a recent photo.
The next step was applying for my Masters course. I was intent on choosing Loughborough due to its reputation for being more cutting edge and technologically-oriented than others. The only problem was that I had very little cash – my hours had been cut mid-year due to county council cuts, so I would HAVE to get a bursary in order to take the course. However, his time around I must have been sufficiently prepared at interview as I was awarded one and soon it was goobye Stafford, hello Loughborough.
Above: Loughborough with blue sky (presumably added in Photoshop)
Looga-barooga, as everyone calls it there, is not the most alluring town in the British Isles. Not only was it consistently grey and windswept (think Skaro) but there were sporty people all over the place making you feel permanently guilty for being a) unfit and b) alive. Thankfully the course was excellent, and its hard to believe now, but as part of my course I used the Internet and Windows for the first time (Demonstrator: “No – you can’t possibly break it Andy… er… what have you done? Could you move to that other PC please?”) Despite being briefly had up on a charge of collusion during the course (by then I had a girlfriend on the same course and not thinking about the consequences we stupidly worked on one assignment together – a very easy classification exercise) all went swimmingly. Most importantly I discovered that I definitely did want to become a librarian, specifically in the academic sector.
After a near miss at a Theology college in Birmingham (thank the gods I didn’t get that one – or should that be God?!), I secured my first professional post at an Oxford college (called Templeton) despite a very nervy interview. The college specialised in executive education so it was run and looked like a posh hotel and I had got there too early and the atmosphere had freaked me out a bit. Initially the post was 40% cataloguing – something that still amuses me to this day – and involved no staff supervision, however, after a year or two I was promoted (in name only – Templeton were good at that) to Deputy Information Centre Manager and my time spent on staff supervision increased while the cataloguing reduced.
Above: Templeton College and an airport lounge yesterday
After 5 solid years there, two signficant things happened, the Information Centre was refurbished and turned into an airport lounge (or something very like an airport lounge) and we were informed by the Dean that we were not performing. On the contrary, I knew that I was definitely performing, as were the rest of the team and damn well, if not innovatively. The real problem was that the College was haemorrhaging money and they were on the look out for soft targets (heaven forbid at that time if any of the usually power-suited fellows approached you in a friendly cardigan – it was a sure sign that you were about to be told you were for the chop). The arrival of a new librarian who neither liked me nor understood what it was to be a librarian in the new millenium was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and I trotted across Oxford to the new business school instead.
During 7 eventful years at Said Business School (above), I had the freedom to really find my feet professionally and was given the opportunity to develop, teach, build, recruit, design, promote and, perhaps most importantly, to start to learn the dark art of staff management. By 2007 I’d been a Deputy for around 10 years and had realised I could only give more, and also get more out, if I was in charge – something that becoming Chair of BBSLG (now BLA) had helped me to discover. There’s only so long that you can defer, especially when your skill-set is improving all the time. Again my luck was in when the Head Librarian position at Judge Business School (below) was advertised at an opportune moment.
I’ve been in post here for two years now and, though I say so myself, I have achieved a great deal in that time, indeed in terms of services now offered, the Library is almost unrecognisable. My job is challenging and fascinating in equal measure, especially given the current economic climate and the unfailing pace of technological change.
Looking back I can see that I was very fortunate to join the profession at a time that has meant that my interests and strengths have almost developed in parallel with the changing role of the librarian. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to be a librarian twenty years ago, but as it stands now it’s unquestionably the career for me.