I work as an Academic Liaison Librarian – a subject librarian – at the University of York. It’s a role I’d always wanted to do (preferably at York) and last month I was made permanent, proving that it’s sometimes worth taking a gamble for the right role! (It was maternity cover, and I was leaving a permanent contract elsewhere.) But even though I’d always wanted to do this job, and I’d work-shadowed subject librarians before, and I’d talked to LOADS of them about the job, I still felt like I didn’t really know what it would be like – it seems everyone has a slightly different experience, and there isn’t ‘a typical day in the life’ as the job changes all the time.
With that in mind, here’s a post about what the job has been like for me, and specifically where it matched my expectations and where it confounded them.
Things I expected about being a subject librarian
- There’s lots of teaching. October and the student-induction in particular are an absolute manic whirl of preparation and delivery. My previous experience of teaching was putting on sessions that any student could come to (voluntarily) – during induction you’re fitting your content around what the department has set up for you, which brings with it its own set of challenges.
- Working with academic departments is great. I really like the academic environment but don’t want to be an academic – academic librarianship shares quite a high number of themes, as it happens, representing the best of both worlds for me. And I’m really lucky to work with switched-on and fascinating departments / academics. Higher Education is ace.
- You have to be able to balance a budget. I’ve been in charge of a budget before, but it was pretty straightforward supply and demand. With book budgets there’s a whole load of factors complicating things, like different pots for different periods of writing with one of my subjects, and needing to spend up exactly what you have by a certain time, and keeping some money back for emergencies, and developing the collection whilst meeting teaching needs, and all that stuff. There is a sense that if you take your eye off the ball you could really stuff things up. That said, spending thousands of pounds on really great resources is an undeniably great feeling…
- There’s a lot of freedom. You can really be the master of your own subject domain, which I love – and you get treated like a grown-up, and are allowed to get on with stuff in the way you see fit. I honestly don’t think there’s a better fit in libraryland for people who want responsibility but don’t want the kind that leaves you fighting fires the whole time and all the stress that brings.
- You get your fingers in many pies. Relates to the point above – subject librarians tend to get involved with all sorts of wider projects which don’t relate to our subject role, so for example I’m involved with the social media and marketing side of things, implementing the new catalogue, research support, info lit in the digital age, etc.
- It stumps your ambition. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 year’s time, but there’s a strong possibility it’ll be right here doing the same thing. I’ve looked at the kinds of jobs on the pay-grades above mine, and the increased stress and decreased freedom aren’t worth the extra money / career advancement / prestige / whatever. I did think this might happen. You’re always supposed to think two jobs ahead, but I no longer can.
Things I didn’t expect about being a subject librarian
- Checking your email requires actual brain-power. I know this sounds stupid, but the emails you get take a lot more time and energy to process than I expected… They take a lot more thought. I’ve got used to it now, but compared with previous jobs where you could quickly deal with emails and move on, in this one it felt like almost every one I got (and there are lots – it’s an emaily kind of a job) required concentration and good chunk of time.
- There’s lots of tricky decisions… This is related to the above, and I should have anticipated it really – but it still surprises me how often I get asked questions to which there is no right answer. Lots of judgement calls, about whether to buy stuff, about what type of binding we go with, about whether the ratio of books per student we’re buying is correct, etc etc.
- There is an expectation that you know what books you have in your collection – as in, all of them! A side of the job I wasn’t prepared for was going into the houses of the recently deceased, at the request of their family, to see if they have anything we’d find useful. This has actually happened twice in the last month, and generally speaking we get asked quite a lot to look at people’s collections that they wish to donate to us. And they expect me to be able to say “Ah, so and so’s treatise on community in post-war Prussia! We’ve been looking for that!” when, of course, I don’t have off-the-top-of-my-head knowledge of the tens of thousands of books we have in stock already. So I take a laptop and spot-check stuff against the catalogue and then it usually turns out we have much of it already. Maybe in 20 year’s time I’ll be able to nail this particular skill?
- Just how much of my existing interests and skills could be pulled into the job. I obviously thought the job would match my interests but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by just how many thinks I’ve played around with and blogged and presented about have come in handy. I tweet for the library, create Prezis for the library, use Issuu for the library, edit and create video for the library, teach students about web 2 tools for the library, etc etc. Woot.
I asked subject librarians from Twitter what they didn’t expect about their roles – here are some of the replies, via Storify:
So there you go. Would I recommend being a subject librarian? Absolutely, 100% – it’s even better than I thought it would be. Got any questions? Leave me a comment…
Some other stuff I really like about this role which doesn’t really fall into the categories above
- Working with students. I have a real bug-bear with people who dislike students en masse – don’t work in bloody HE then! I like them – some groups are more engaged than others, but the really engaged ones make it all worth while. They’re likeable, enthusiastic, self-aware. It’s fun working with them.
- Helping people. I’m not a particularly virtuous person, I don’t wander round thinking about how lovely it is to help people – but when I actually do, I love it. Quite often students will come for a one-on-one session on finding information and stuff, and leave really, really pleased with what they’ve learned. They’re better equipped and more enthusiastic than when they came in – that’s a great feeling.
- Related training and conferences. I had a bit of an issue in my old job, where they didn’t particularly encourage me to go and present at stuff - I did a lot in my own time. Here, though, they’re very encoruaging – plus the kind of stuff I like talking about is much more relevant to this job. So I’m enjoying presenting as a York person, rather than just as me independently. (Here’s my schedule for 2012 if anyone is interested – so much for saying no to everything! While I’m self-promoting, here’s the updated publications page too, with news of books and things.)
- Twitter being a constant source of invaluable stuff. More so than ever, the time I put into Twitter pays massive dividends. The amount of times I can go from not knowing anything to having several valuable opinions in minutes is amazing – it’s enabled me to learn on the job much quicker.
- My colleagues. Obviously this is a very York-specifc one, but I work in a really great team, with supportive, nice, and funny people.
P.P.S This has very little to do with the above, but I’d recommend reading Katherine Widdows’ excellent post about social media and Web 2.0 in the academic library environment – it’s on her blog here and it’s really informative. Warwick are brilliant at this sort of thing, and this is an insight as to why.