My bear hunt started back in 2008…While I was studying for a Theology degree, I decided I wanted to experience the other side of the coin, or perhaps more accurately sit on the other side of the desk! I had spent a wonderful three years benefitting from the library facilities in Oxford as a student – be they those provided by the college, the Bodleian or smaller faculty and departmental libraries and I was curious to see behind the scenes. So in September 2008, as I embarked on an MSt in Jewish Studies, I also applied for an evening and weekend post at the Leopold Muller Library at The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. During shifts I would be responsible for circulating stock and helping with enquiries and I also had the opportunity to assist with the cataloguing of an ephemeral collection of pamphlets on Dutch Jewry.
Having whetted my appetite for all things library-related, the following year I took up a traineeship at the Bodleian Library, which then consisted of four 3-month placements; reader services, circulating libraries, special collections and rare books and copyright receipt office. I think my application for the traineeship was successful because I had already demonstrated an interest in university libraries and had library experience, which although limited, had given me exposure to some key library tasks. Enthusiasm also speaks volumes in interviews and so I tried to put across my engagement with the profession using concrete examples from the workplace, as well as suggesting projects I would like to work on as a trainee.
My trainee year was a very happy one and one that taught me a lot about what working in a library involved. Never underestimate the power of a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ and use your ‘newness’ in a job to your advantage- you’ll be able to question why things happen the way they do, see what works really well and be able to evaluate what might need adapting a bit. When combined with the experience, patience and expertise of colleagues you get a good overview of how things work and can start to make a real impact in the library. The Oxford traineeship also offered a Wednesday afternoon training programme and this was a great opportunity to visit other libraries, discuss library school options and to learn more about the wider university library service.
Also during my traineeship, I was involved with a project to help rebuild the first public library in Sierra Leone post civil war. By a series of happy coincidences, I was invited to London to see the then MP for Crosby, Claire Curtis Thomas who was heading up the UK team. I was immediately drawn to the idea of transferring some of the library skills I had learnt in the UK to a new library in Africa and to helping train librarians on the job. I spent 10 days with journalists, engineers and fellow volunteers in schools and libraries in Sierra Leone, getting a greater understanding of the challenges facing their work and helping to put in place practical solutions. Reflecting on this experience, I realised that I really enjoyed working with children, although was probably not cut-out for long term work abroad!
By this point it was March 2010 and I realised one of the benefits and the drawbacks of the traineeship placement is that it’s only a year long. Obviously, this gives you a good chance to find out about libraries and whether you want to pursue a career in this area, but it also means you need to start considering your next steps and job hunting after around six months in post. Several of my fellow trainees chose to stay in Oxford and had their contracts extended, although this was usually on a temporary and sometimes part-time basis, which made planning ahead and putting down roots difficult. In May, I saw an Assistant Librarian position advertised at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith on the Lisjobnet website. Having enjoyed my involvement with school libraries abroad, and as I was interested in education, I decided to apply. Obviously I didn’t have a huge amount of experience at this point so for the application it was all about ‘dressing’ my skills and experience in the right way. I drew on examples from tutoring I’d done at university and volunteering opportunities I’d pursued, as well as the library experience I’d gained, as I knew working in a school would require a broad and diverse skill-set that would include teaching, designing displays, pastoral work and generally getting involved with wider-school life.
Having worked in a big organisation such as the Bodleian, with all its various departments, making the move to a smaller library in a school was a significant jump. However, I was motivated by my interest in working with young people, especially as they prepared for university, and throughout my traineeship had explored ‘bridging the gap’ between school and higher education. So in many ways, jumping into a new sector reinforced my interests in information literacy and enquiry work. However, on a practical day-to-day level I soon realised the work was going to be very different! I reflected on these differences, and some of the challenges I faced, in a post as part of Bethan Ruddock’s New Professionals Toolkit blog, which coincided with the launch of her book of the same name.
Once I felt I was established in my new role, I decided it was time to apply for library courses and thanks to the generosity of my employer, between September 2011 and August 2013 I studied part-time for an MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL. As you carve out your library career you’ll be faced with questions such as, should I do a formal qualification? How useful will it be to my day-to-day work? And of course how much will it cost and how do I fund it? For me, the MA offered the opportunity to hear a wide variety of speakers working in libraries, archives and publishing and allowed me to see the links between and across sectors, in a way that is very difficult to achieve through your own CPD programme. In addition, the dissertation also provided a great opportunity to research an area which particularly interested me, and in my case, to conduct some primary research which can add to the body of professional literature. This was particularly important to me as there is a significant American bias in school-library literature, and also, as a sector, many practitioners do not have access to ‘academic’ publishing in this area and so on-the-ground research and evidence (disseminated through mailing lists such as SLN and websites such as Heart of the School and the SLA and CILIP SLG) is particularly important. It has been exciting to be able to build on this research and revisit it through the forthcoming publication Digital Decisions, which I have been working on with two fellow school librarians.
So, what’s it like working in a school? The one thing that continues to strike me each and every day is the variety and the breadth of the work. I can spend the morning teaching poetry and doing a bit of cataloguing, lunchtime running a book club and the afternoon promoting online resources. The list of things you can do is endless so long as you’re in a supportive environment. There’s great scope for showing initiative, bringing in new ideas, trying things out and forging meaningful relationships with colleagues and students.
These relationships are especially important when you’re a solo librarian (as is the case in most schools) and so you might like to consider if you enjoy working in a team, or are happy to work with one other person or by yourself? For me, my support network at school includes teachers, the development and communications teams, the finance office and maintenance and caretaking staff who regularly help me out. These relationships reinforce the library’s role in the school community and emphasise the importance of having a strong network who can help you and vice versa.
Career progression and salary are two other considerations which I think are worth pondering if you’re interested in working in a school. As a school librarian, in charge of your own space and with the opportunity to manage your budget and shape the library’s development, you might think what next. And you’re right, there isn’t a very clear progression path. Of course, you can always build on what you’ve done (and I’m constantly learning) but there isn’t a formal hierarchy like there would be in a larger organisation. Secondly, I do still feel that people ‘pigeonhole’ you as a school librarian and it can be very difficult to switch sectors even though a lot of the work is often very similar and interchangeable (with particular overlap with the FE/HE sector on the information literacy, e-resources side of things). Having said this, you can easily keep up-to-date with what’s going on in other sectors through committee work (I have been on the CILIP London Member Network for the past 4 years) and through your own CPD programme, something you have time to pursue if you’re only working term-time.
And of course, you need to think about salary. Many school library jobs offer disappointingly low salaries which fail to recognise the skills and expertise required for the job. Adverts can be rather opaque, simply stating ‘competitive’ for the salary, a term which seems to be open to interpretation! You also need to remember that most school library jobs will have a pro-rata salary as you’re only paid during term-time and for the hours you work, although your salary is split evenly over 12 months. Most contracts normally involve a couple of weeks holiday work, which are often worked at the beginning or end of holidays tidying up from the last term and looking ahead to the next.
So, I still very much feel like an intrepid explorer on my ‘bear hunt’, continuing to look for new opportunities and developments in the library and seizing those serendipitous moments that happen in the dining hall at lunch or in the playground when chatting to students. Working in a school can be incredibly rewarding and although probably not for the ‘library purist’, it is an interesting and challenging role. If you’d like to find out a bit more about school libraries and our work then the School Library Association (SLA) and CILIP’s School Library Group (SLG) are good sources of information and provide lots of practical advice.