This week Beth Tapster shares her experience of juggling the start of a career in the library and information profession with the added responsibilities of being a mum to two small children. You can find Beth on Twitter where she tweets as @btapster
My ‘career path’ became rather rocky quite early on, as I became a mum whilst an undergraduate. Although I finished my degree, and did well, ending up as a single parent at 21 lead me to reconsider my teenage plans of doing something political that would involve lots of travelling, and hopefully establishing world peace (ahh, youth). I spent a couple of years working in early years education, and for a while I felt like this might be my vocation, but eventually realised I wasn’t up to the task of dealing with young children both at home and at work. I was also in need of a bit of a break after an extremely intense few years, so happily I was able to use the safety net of income support for a while, enjoy some time at home with my daughter, and get involved with a range of voluntary projects locally.
When I started to feel ready to return to work, I still had no idea what career I wanted to pursue. I wanted to do something that involved working with people, that was worthwhile and non-soul-destroying, but there was a dearth of vacancies at that time and I despaired at my chances of managing to find anything suitable. When I saw library assistant positions advertised through the council, I realised this could be ideal. It allowed me to pull together the retail experience of my younger years, the literacy work I’d done in early years and as a parent, the experience of working in diverse communities that I’d gained through volunteer work, and the research skills that I were always my favourite part of my degree. I then had a stroke of very good luck, as not only was I offered a job, but I was offered the perfect hours and location: 11-3 Monday-Friday, a short walk from my daughter’s school. Truly the holy grail for a single parent!
Working at my local library was a rewarding job, and fitted perfectly into my life at this time. It is a small, busy, often single staffed branch in a very diverse inner city area. Many users are new to the country, others require high levels of support to negotiate IT systems that are now an unavoidable part of everyday life, whether or not you have the skills and equipment to access them. It was something of a baptism of fire, after 2 weeks very patchy ‘training’ I was left in sole charge of the library for much of the time, handling IT support, enquiries, displays, stock work, storytimes, dealing with whichever unsupervised children might be running riot at that moment, and much more besides. And all for a fraction above the minimum wage. There was never a dull moment, and I soon developed a thick skin from handling some ‘interesting’ situations, and got to know some fascinating characters! The job demonstrated very clearly to me how necessary library and information services still are to so many people, and how much inequality there is in both access to, and ability to use, the vast amounts of information that many of us take for granted. Sadly, I often felt it also showed how the capacity of the public library service to effectively meet these needs is seriously undermined both by lack of funding and the political climate (on all levels). It certainly ignited a passion in me for helping people with their information needs, and I think this may have been the first glimmer of the idea that library work could actually be a career for me, rather than just a low paid part time job that fitted perfectly with school hours.
During my time in the job, I moved in with my new partner, had another baby, and then got married. Whilst all lovely developments, no longer being eligible for tax credits and housing benefit meant that the financial side of my wonderful but badly paid library job just didn’t add up anymore. I realised that when I returned after maternity leave I would be actively losing money by coming to work, due to childcare costs. At the perfect time, I saw a job advertised at the library of my old university, for a weekend customer services assistant. I was interested in exploring opportunities in academic libraries, and also in working weekends to help us to offset the cost of weekday childcare. Happily I was offered this position, and was able to combine it with my public library job. Having this ‘foot in the door’ of academic libraries was really useful, as it helped me to discover the wider world of librarianship. It was on the University library’s intranet that I first discovered CILIP, then library blogs, and even library Twitter. The concept of librarianship as a profession in a broader concept wasn’t really something I came across working in public libraries, and it was enlightening to discover the range of different opportunities and ideas that were out there.
I still loved my public library work, but even with my weekend work, it was increasingly difficult for us to manage on such low wages. I suppose I also felt frustrated that I had gone through such a lot to finish my degree, but still couldn’t manage to progress beyond the council’s lowest pay grade. Despite my passion for the public library service, I started to look elsewhere. Late last year, I had another stroke of luck when I got my current job, a part time senior assistant post in Collections at the other university in my city. Whilst I was gutted to leave my local library, the time was right for several reasons. I know it’s unseemly to admit to being motivated by money, but the much improved wages make a real difference to us-and of course I’m enjoying learning about different aspects of library work, in a different environment.
Shortly after being offered this post I also managed to get a supervisor position in my weekend job. With my newfound enthusiasm for librarianship as an actual career path/profession, I had promised myself that if I managed to get both of these jobs, I would go down the route of LIS qualification….and that brings me to where I am now. Which is, to be precise, a mum of an 8 year old and a 2 year old, working in two academic libraries and about to sink all my (very sparse) money, time and energy into a part time, distance learning Library and Information Services Management MA with the University of Sheffield. And feeling both excited and terrified by the prospect! Having kept an eye on job opportunities that have come up since I started this position, I’ve realised that not having the qualification seriously limits what I can apply for above the level of my current posts. However, I don’t want to put myself through what will be a very intense few years simply to be able to tick a box on an application form, especially since I’ve seen how much competition there is for qualified posts at my place of work. So I’m also motivated by how relevant and exciting the contents of the course at Sheffield seem to be. I feel like there is a level of discourse and development within the library world that I can’t fully contribute to due to my lack of formal library education, and I’m really looking forward to engaging with this.
I’d be lying if I said I was 100% certain this is the right choice though. My main fear, beyond the logistics of fitting it all in and paying for it, is about job prospects at the other end. This is true for everyone, of course, but having to factor kids into the equation certainly complicates things further. I panic regularly about how little CPD I manage to do, compared to people I see online (because comparing yourself to people on the internet is obviously the sensible thing to do…?!), as every conference, workshop, and ‘extra-curricular’ activity I want to attend requires horrendously complicated, and often expensive, logistical arrangements to cover childcare. Even things I can do from home in the evenings are problematic because, well, I’m knackered… But I’m trying to make the most of opportunities that come up at work, though it can be hard to find these when you’re in quite a specific role (I’m often jealous of the grad trainee!). Librarians seem to do an awful lot of extra CPD, especially in the early stages of their career, but I don’t know if this is unique to the profession or if I would be finding the same thing whatever field I was trying to get into. I also worry about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to ‘go where the work is’ once qualified, or, indeed, afford to take a less well paid qualified job (sadly this seems to rule out many positions in sectors that I’m particularly interested in). And generally I just worry that I’m stretching myself too thin, and will be neither a good librarian nor a good mother, nor a sane person… Thankfully I have a very supportive partner who does more than his fair share of childcare and housework, so it could be worse, but home life with two working parents, two young children, and a degree to study for, will always be hectic and difficult. I haven’t really met any other new/future professionals with caring responsibilities, so I would be very grateful to hear from anyone in the same boat. I am determined to pursue this career, despite the challenges, because I find it absolutely fascinating, rewarding, worthwhile, and very much ‘me’.