CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group New Professionals Day – Muriel Munguia

On 12th November 2015 the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group held a New Professionals Day, with a view giving new and aspiring LIS professionals an insight into this type of librarianship. Muriel Munguia, an MA Librarianship student at the University of Sheffield, attended the day and has shared a report of the day with us. You can follow Muriel on Twitter @hellovous. You can also find a storify of tweets from the day here.

Last week I attended CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group’s New Professionals Day at the John Ryland Library in Manchester. It was a wonderful event with lovely people, informative and helpful presentations, a delicious lunch and refreshments, and a tour of the amazing library. The presentations were given by people who have either been working with rare books and special collections for years, or who are new to this particular area of librarianship. They gave many tips on the types of skills needed, what the jobs usually entail and how to perform successfully, as well as important things to think about when considering a job in rare books and special collections.  As someone highly interested in special collections, but with little knowledge in how to pursue a career in that specific library field, I was given much to think about in how I should move forward.

The two presentations I found most helpful and interesting were those by Alison Cullingford and Maria Nagel. Alison is the special collections librarian at the University of Bradford and she spoke about the importance of developing various hard and soft skills relevant to the field.  She provided a lot of food for thought: do I want/need to specialize in a particular subject or am I interested in the type of job where a generic knowledge would be acceptable? Am I interested in being a “lone ranger”, where I’ll need to know a little bit of everything, or a “cog in a big machine”, where I’d be working with a variety of people who have a variety of skills. She also shared that those currently in the profession agree that you need a variety of skills at the beginning of employment (some specialized, but most generic) and the rest of what you need to know you will learn after starting the job. In addition Alison also emphasized that it is impossible to gain all the skills necessary because once something new is learned another thing will change, and that recognizing skills you don’t need is just as important as identifying ones you do because trying to develop a skill you won’t ever use is a misuse of time and effort that could be put into a more important project.

In Maria’s presentation she talked about how to get started in special collections. Maria, who recently finished her LIS degree and works at the University of York, York Minster, and the Borthwick Institute for Archives, started by talking about the importance of reflecting on why it is you want to work in special collections and where exactly it is you see yourself in the future and then went on to discuss good ways of gaining library experience, which included volunteering, placements, and entry-level positions. Even though I already have a bit of library experience, and was aware of these options, it was still nice to hear her share them. It was reassuring to learn that I’ve been heading in the right direction. Next she talked about education and training where she emphasized that while earning the professional qualification is important, your LIS degree is often what you make of it, and that special collection modules are useful, but not necessary. She then went on to explain that in many instances you can tailor your assignments to your interest. This was something else I took comfort in hearing because this is the step on the ladder that I am currently on. When I was looking at different library programs something that was important to me was that the program had a lot of options. There are so many directions you can go in within the library sector and while there might not be a direct path to some areas it doesn’t mean you can’t forge your own. That being said, in addition to traditional LIS degrees there are also modules on special collections available as short courses, some of which can be found at UCL, Aberystwyth, and Dundee. Also, professional associations often offer training days, and when choosing which to participate in you don’t have to stay within library associations, you can also explore archive, museum, and conservation training days.

The other three presentations given that day were also interesting and gave me a great deal to think about, but will become more applicable down the road than they are at the moment. One presentation was about how to adjust from working with general collections to special collections. The presenter, Sarah-Jane Raymond, was hired as an assistant librarian at the Durham Cathedral Library, a position that was originally only supposed to involve the library’s general collection, but eventually required her to work with its special collection as well. It was interesting to hear about her experience and the differences she observed about working in general and special collections. Next Adrian Edwards, the head of the British Library’s Printed Heritage Collection, shared what types of positions the library has that those interested in special collections may want to pursue. He talked about what those positions entailed and what types of skills are necessary to have to obtain the position. I think the most important thing he shared for someone determined to work at the British Library was that you should not wait for the perfect permanent job to become available before applying. They rarely come up and because of budget cuts they are dwindling. Instead apply for the fixed term positions because although they might be for a short amount of time, when other vacancies open up they are always offered first to people in the redeployment pool who can do the job with minimal new training. That could be you, and in that way you could potentially work there for a long amount of time. The final presenter was the special collections librarian at Liverpool Hope University, Karen Blackhouse, and she shared about her experience being the sole person working in the library’s special collection. The main thing she emphasized was that as the only person working within a collection everything falls to you and you have to become a “Jack of all Trades”. She also explained how being the only person in charge is challenging, but also provides great opportunities.  While you might be the one in charge of prioritizing tasks and the only one available to complete them and meet targets, you also have the opportunity to learn new skills and you get to work on a variety of tasks so there is no worry of repetitive work. Another bonus is that because you are alone, you’re not constantly being distracted by others or being interrupted in the middle of a task.

Very helpful information was shared at CILIP Rare Book and Special Collections New Professionals Day and I am so glad I decided to attend.  Not only did it teach me a lot and give me a great deal to think about, it was also a wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to other new professionals and hear about their experiences working in libraries and the ways they have progressed through their own careers. This was the first time CILIP’s Rare Books and Special Collections Group put on an event such as this and in my opinion it was a great success.

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