Would you recommend librarianship? The results!

10 Jan

So, would you?

Most people have an automatic response to this question – many people will say ‘yes’ straightaway because they love librarianship and know it is largely misunderstood, while others will say ‘no’ straightaway because they’ve had a rough time of it.

What I’m interested in is, would you ACTUALLY recommend it to someone, who might then act on your recommendation? I was asked about entering the profession in an email recently, and my reply sounded, I realised as I re-read it, quite negative. That’s because I think you have a responsibility when someone wants your advice to actually think about what you’re saying! And there’s a lot to be said for not-entering librarianship (by the end of the decade who knows how many worthwhile jobs there will actually be, for example) just as there is a lot to be said for entering it (it’s ace). I sometimes worry that we’re so busy promoting our value and the value of the profession, that we blindly tell everyone to become librarians even though they might not thank us later if they become one.

So I asked Twitter, a brief and unscientific 24hr poll. 133 responses. It started off more or less equal, with recommending just about edging ahead of not doing so – when I tweeted something to this effect, the vast majority of the subsequent votes were in favour of recommending it. So I don’t know if that’s because people who hadn’t previously voted felt moved to ‘defend’ the profession, or just a coincidence.

So of the 133 respondents, 72% would recommend this profession of ours.

Pie chart showing 72% voted in favour of recommending librarianship, 28% against

Here’s the split by country. This started off VERY interesting because the US had 100% of voting no, but then every single other vote from that country was yes so it ended up being a landslide in favour of recommendation… Ireland, from this miniscule sample-size, doesn’t look much fun.

Chart showing that with a couple of exceptions, regional breakdown just follows the main results

Swedes: when it comes to Librarianship, they can take it or leave it


So would you recommend librarianship to a friend? I’d like to hear what you think in a comment.

Some reasons I can think of why I wouldn’t recommend it:

  • you can’t avoid starting at the bottom (can’t do the MA until you’ve had a year of experience, can’t get a higher graded job without the MA);
  • some career paths hit the buffers very early on unless the right person happens to retire / move etc;
  • the long-term future of the profession is far from certain;
  • constantly fighting peoples’ misconceptions of what we do and how valuable it is (I think the need to do this may fade over time because I’m far less fussed about it than I used to be);
  • there are far more capable librarians than there are decent posts;
  • the money isn’t amazing for the first few years (I know it’s very cool to not care about money but when you’re having to buy new shoes for your toddler every 3 months, you do);
  • you have to fork out a fortune to do the MA but, if you think about it, the difference between librarians with the Masters and those without it is very rarely the Masters. It’s a qualification that is both essential and of questionable value.

Some reasons why I would recommend it (heavily academic-librarianship bias here):

  • it’s fantastically engaging;
  • the community (if you chose to be part of it) is kind, fun, and unremittingly helpful and happy to share information and advice;
  • you get to work in a role that helps people, which is genuinely fulfilling even for a partial-cynic like me;
  • unless you’re unlucky you won’t be expected to work longer than the hours of your contract (so many non-librarians I know work all the hours God sends, and are incredibly jealous of the flexitime scheme I’m on);
  • libraries are supportive employers, generally;
  • you get to investigate, write about and train people on stuff you’re interested in anyway, in my case;
  •  you can do academicy stuff like presenting at conferences and writing papers, without having to actually BE an academic;
  • once you get up the ladder a bit you get a lot of freedom and your time is self-directed as well as self-managed;
  • the people you work with are NICE.

For me, my day to day environment is the most important thing. I’d rather live in a smaller house in a nicer area than a grand house further away from town. I’d rather work in a nice room with nice people who will understand if I need to go home and pick up my daughter from nursery, than have a high status job with a company car a career trajectory ending in a six-figure salary. My job is challenging but fun, it suits ME better than any profession I could imagine.

But everyone is different, and I’m already entrenched in this profession, whilst at the same time developing the skills to keep working if this profession ceases to exist – that’s a very different situation from advising someone to just now start applying for entry-level library posts with a view to doing their Masters in October 2014 and maybe, just maybe, getting a job they really want in 2017ish.

Where do you stand on this? What would you add?


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New Professionals! Get hold of a Library organisational chart and start plotting your path…

15 Nov
Picture of a path  - CC pic by Brian Smithson

Nice excuse for a moodily-lit path picture (via Flickr CC, Brian Smithson)


I believe that as a new professional in the information industry, you’re better off with a plan of where you want to be, and specifically HOW you want to get there. Some people (who I respect very much)  have advocated a ‘relax and see what happens’ approach, pointing out the need to be able to try new things you’d never have thought of, and be taken off in new directions. I agree with this, but I still think this:

The profession is SO competitive now, if you can come up with a plan of how you’ll move through it then it’s worth doing so, even in the knowledge that it’s perfectly okay not to stick to it if something interesting comes up.

So how do you go about this? Well first of all you need to know where you’d actually like to end up. (And by ‘end up’ I don’t necessarily mean the job you’ll retire in – just the one you’re aiming for in the medium term.) There are various ways of getting a feel for this:

  • Talk to people in those roles (seriously do this – it’s MUCH more effective than anything else I can think of. If you’d like to chat about what being a Subject Librarian involves and the skills it requires I’m very happy to do so)
  • Try and get some work-shadowing in those roles, or an actual job in a more junior version of the same role
  • Read about how people got where they are today via the many excellent stories on the Library Routes Project
  • Keyword search the Library Day in the Life wiki for the kind of job titles you’re interested in, and see how people in these roles actually spend their days
  • (I’m probably missing something useful so please leave a comment with more suggestions if you have them…)

Once you’ve formulated an idea as to where you want to get to (and keep in mind this may evolve or change completely as you go along, which is fine), you can start to plan how to get there. Relating to this there are two important things which I’ve mentioned on here before, and in talks to New Professionals.

Firstly don’t think of Librarianship as having a career-ladder, think of it is as having a career-climbing wall. Ladders go straight up and have evenly spaced rungs; climbing walls require a certain amount of traversing or diagonal movement, and a certain amount of inching forward followed by ambitions stretches, to get to the top of them. The example I always give is if you want to be a Customer Services manager for your library – the natural place to start is in Customer Services itself as a lending assistant (or whatever – the terminology is interchangable here but hopefully you know what I mean) but there’s often a 3 pay-grade gap between asssistant and manager, with no obvious jobs in between. It’s very, very rare for anyone to jump three grades in one go – so you need to go diagonally upwards so you’re high enough up the grade structure to get a high-graded role, whilst trying to retain the relevant experience necessary to become the Customer Services manager. This improvisation and flexibility is not very ladder-like, and much more akin to a climbing wall.

The second thing I always advocate is to find the job you really want (Head of Special Collections, Subject Librarian, Children’s Librarian, Law Librarian or whatever) and when you see it advertised at the kind of place you want to work, download the job spec and save it in a folder even when you have absolutely zero chance of being able to apply any time soon. Look at the person specification and make sure you shape your professional experiences to hit every single one of the essential and desirable skills over the coming years (either through jobs or involvement with professional bodies or writing papers or giving presentations or all four of these) so that you’re in a position to nail the application in the future. Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity as they say – every time a great job comes up, you have a chance to try and manipulate your future luck in your favour…

 The Organisational Chart

So to the point of this post, the Organisatinal Chart (known also as Organisational Structure, Staffing Framework and, apparently, an ‘organogram’). The Organisational Chart shows how the hierachy of any given organisation works – who is at the head, who is responsible to and for whom, how the teams fit together, and who manages what. It’s quite hard to get hold of ones for organisations you don’t work for, so I’d recommend finding your own library’s (it’s probably in the intranet somewhere…) and saving a copy into the same folder as your ideal job spec. Obviously libraries in different sectors have very different charts, so if you’re aiming to work in the academic sector then a public sector chart may not be of much use to you.

I can’t find a single Creative Commons example online (for obvious reasons) so here’s a link to a publicly available chart for a big library. Obviously the point of this chart is to detail the positions and how it all fits together, but for the excited new professional it’s a chart to literally plan an upwards trajectory with a highlighter pen (if you print it out – I wouldn’t recommend using one on your monitor). Ask yourself, which of the higher jobs than mine can I get next? Does it lead to the job I really want (or the job before the job I really want)? Could I stand doing X for a year if it helped me get to Y the year after, or am I better off doing Z for two years and getting more relevant experience outside of the workplace at the same time?

I think it’s particularly important to look at where the tree structure stops or hits a dead-end. Look at the role you’re in now – is the only position directly above that your boss? Is your boss likely to leave any time soon? If not, you need to make proper plans for progression or you’ll be doing the same thing you’re doing now in 5 years time. Is there a path which opens up lots of possibilities for you, as opposed to the ‘dead-mans shoes’ syndrome of waiting for one or two people to retire or leave? Is the division you’re in one with many holds on the climbing wall or just one or two (both of which someone else already has a firm grip on)?

I’m not advocating naked ambition – ambition for ambition’s sake is something I’m not a fan of at all. But you DO want to be fulfilled, and ultimately you will want to earn a decent wage rather than get stuck on an okay one forever. If your current path hits the buffers in one job’s time, think about the fact that you’re going to be in this for 20, 30, 40 years so even if it’s worthy and fulfilling now, it may not be stimulating when you’re still doing it in 2020. Because as much as the rhetoric around library jobs is often about how ‘none of us are in this for the money’ and ‘I just want a job I’m happy doing’ the fact is there are lot of frustrated librarians who have just got mired in a certain part of their library and can’t see an obvious path forward. So I really think it’s worth being aware of what the future possibilites are, so you can start planning how you’ll meet the challenges and achieve whatever it is that will make you happy.

It is, in my view, much better to be happy than successful. Being the ‘best you can be’ is only worth it if it makes you happy – I see a lot of people putting pressure on themselves, hitting great heights, but not being overly content. But forward planning never hurts, so even if you’re not aiming for Head Librarian (I know I’m not – I’m going to completely ignore all my own advice and stagnate in my current job forever, although I did a lot of the above into practice to get to this position that I actually like in the first place) then knowing what you ARE aiming for will help you stay fulfilled.

If you’re interested, there’s a whole page of essential advice for new professionals elsewhere on this website, put together from the quotes of loads of librarians who have been there and done that…

Good luck!

- thewikiman


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Rebooting infolit, the BATTLE DECKS way

09 Nov

This is quite a long post because I’m very excited about all this… Here’s the super-short version: I decided to completely redesign my academic skills teaching. It went really well. Feedback was great. The students took part in Battledecks competitions, which was awesome. I learned certain things along the way. I think there’s room for rethinking our approach to infolit.


I do quite a lot of external talks and workshops, and much to my relief the feedback is generally better than I could hope for. What’s more, I really enjoy them. I also do a fair amount of academic skills teaching as part of my job, and the feedback is just okay. And I don’t particularly enjoy it a lot of the time – I enjoy the interaction with students, but I can’t get worked up about the sessions, they feel a bit dull for all concerned.

Last academic year was my first as an Academic Liaison Librarian, and although I’d done information literacy sessions before I wasn’t sufficiently confident to do more than take my predecessors’ induction teaching materials, and try and make them my own. This time around though, I wanted to see if it was possible to do something different. I basically wanted to approach this presentation like I would an external one, and see if the students could get more out of it.

The biggest problem I have with teaching academic skills to undergrads is that the subject matter is boring. It really is dull. And a lot of it probably not that useful either; maybe to one or two students, but not most of them. I wrote a whole book without once using advanced search techniques for example (some would say it shows :) ) so why would a 1st year realistically want to know about them? For infolit teaching my process used to go like this: look at all the stuff I have to tell them about the library, and then work through it as unboringly as possible. For external workshops my process goes like this: think what is most useful and interesting to the audience, then try and present it in an engaging way so it stays with them.

These are definitely distinct approaches. Thinking about what is most useful to the audience may well involve not actually talking about ‘library’ stuff nearly as much. But if the students get more out of it, is that really a problem?

The plan

  • Tell them about all sorts of things – some of them directly Library related, and some of them more generally information related
  • Brand it like I would an external presentation – so rather than ‘Library session’ or whatever, I titled it ’6 really useful things to make your academic life easier’ (classic marketing tactics – sell the benefits of the session not the features, and stick a number on the front so it feels focussed)
  • I created the slides like I would for an external presentation – ie I tried quite hard to make it nice, and didn’t use any kind of template
  • No workbook – instructions on the slides, and embed the slides where they can find them later for all the links etc
  • Introduce Battledecks to end the session. Battledecks is something that happens in US Library conferences, where participants battle against each other, presenting on slides they’ve never seen before, which move on automatically after a certain amount of time (usually 15 or 20 seconds per slide). I’ve also seen it done here as part of Betta Kultcha sessions. Earlier in the year I tried it with some slightly drunk librarians at an SLA event as a way of summarising the session – what better way to reinforce the key points then to get someone else to do it? Better than me droning on about the same stuff all over again. Plus it’s always quite hilarious, seeing people improvise over slides which are often just tenuous visual metaphors for the subject matter…
  • (In this instance, our local cinema City Screen had given us some free student memberships to use as prizes in the Battledecks. I’m now thinking about local business I could contact about providing prizes for my other departments in the future. I offered each winner 4 student memberships – worth £100 in total, it has free tickets, money off at the bar etc – so they could give some to their friends. Having a desirable prize definitely helped ensure we had volunteers! We used an applauseometer to decide the winners in the session, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to feel bad having been brave enough to volunteer so I declared each session a draw and gave both participants the full first prize…)

The stroke of luck

I was only planning to do this with the Department of Film, Theatre and Television because I was banking on there being enough performers in each class for there to be Battledecks volunteers. TFTV are a fantastic department and very supportive of what I try and do with them, and the head of department Andrew Higson has been extremely helpful in trying to further embed info lit. This year I did my usual 15 minutes as part of the general induction talk, to tell them about the Library and the services we offer (using the interactive map prezi with lots of our new videos embedded in it) and got the actual PC lab session moved back to Week 4, when the students aren’t drowning in new information, and have been set assignments so realise they’ll actually have use for the Library.

The stroke of luck came when Andrew invited me to do another 15 minutes in one of his lectures, the day before my PC lab sessions. It meant I could get all the not-overly-exciting-but-absolutely-neccessary stuff about finding resources off reading lists out the way then, and focus on more non-library stuff the next day.

The session

The session (the same thing repeated three times to get all the first years in) went really well – it felt quite good at the time but the feedback suggested it was very good. Here’s the slides I used (which, incidentally just got featured on the Slideshare homepage – spreading the word for infolit!):

Battledecks was AWESOME! What I really like about it, just like at the SLA event, was that although it was hilarious and there were times when the presenter literally had no idea what the slide meant (until a member of the audience shouted out ‘Duck Duck Go!’ or whatever…), it was actually a really, really good summary of the session. It showed they’d really listened, they picked up on the key points and they fed them back to their peers. So much more effective than me summarising. And because it’s the last thing we did and by far the best part of the session, it meant everyone left feeling happy (and gave good feedback!).

The feedback

The best part of this was the feedback. I compared it to an equivalent set of sessions from the previous year and in terms of rating it from 1 (outstanding) to 5 (terrible – there were no  4s and 5s  in either year hence they don’t appear below) there was a huge improvement:

Feedback showing an improvement of around 30% in most areas

‘Confidence’ refers to the users’ confidence in using the materials. I’m trying not to be slightly miffed at the presentation scores. :-)

This was great (not Judge Business School great but better than I am used to!) but I know from filling in those sorts of forms myself how easy it is to just tick numbers, so I was more interested in the comments.

Some of them referred to how the session had cleared up specific problems they’d been having, which was great. One referred to the ‘excellent academic insight’. One person said ‘I used to hate PowerPoint; you made me love it’ (!), lots said it was either great or perfect, and one person ticked the box to say there was ‘too much’ covered in the session but then left comments in capitals that said ‘BEST PRESENTATIONS EVER! PERFECT. THANKS FOR EVERYTHING’… There were lots of smiley faces, a few nice comments about me, and a third of them took the time to answer the ‘what could be improved about the session?’ question to specifically say that it couldn’t be better (one person wrote: Not physically possible!). It was overwhelmingly better than my (distinctly underwhelming) feedback last year.

What was also interesting was that in answer to a question about what they found most useful, by far the majority replied that the stuff on SubjectGuides and JSTOR etc was the most useful (and none of them picked it as the least useful) – so smuggling in the Library stuff amid some more glamorous stuff elsewhere obviously didn’t diminish its impact, in fact I’d argue it probably increased it.

Conclusions and changes

As you can tell I’m really chuffed about this. I enjoyed the fact that the students actually got more out of the session. I enjoyed the chance to talk about what I was interested in. I enjoyed actually applying the stuff I do / learn externally to my day-job (something my previous employer when unable to imagine was possible, but my current employer are very supportive of). And just as an aside, a colleague of mine tried this whole idea with Archaeology students and they really liked it too – proving that you don’t need a great prize and a room full of budding actors to get battle decks volunteers…

When I do it again I’ll be making some changes based on the feedback – in fact the slidedeck above is the 2nd version with some of this already taken into account. Someone suggested more funny clues for the battle-decks (hence Jay-Z is in there, rather than the JSTOR logo as used to be the case…) and someone else said they’d like to have seen some kind of information finding competition earlier in the session. I’d love to make it more interactive prior to the big battle decks finish, certainly. (The most common suggestion for improving the session was ‘free chocolate’, by the way…) I still don’t think I’m very good at getting the balance right between talk, discussion and hands-on exercises so I’d like to improve how that works generally.  But basically, it was fun! I’d genuinely recommend Battle decks to anyone – feel free to steal my slides if you’d like a starting point…

If you have suggestions on how to make sessions like these more interactive, or you’ve revamped your own infolit and the students have responded well, let me know in a comment!

- thewikiman

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Libraries! Let’s stop underestimating simplicity. (Simplicity is user-friendly)

07 Nov
Simple image of a display on a bare wall

Simplicity can be delightful. (Flickr CC image from MarcelGermain)

I think one excellent way forward for most libraries would be to adopt an aggressively pro-simplicity stance. We often make decisions about services or models based on the need to accommodate everyone - the need not to put anyone out, rather than the need to really inspire people to use what we have. It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be both inspirational and compromising at the same time. Look at loan periods as a really basic example. Most libraries have a lot of them – this is an attempt to make sure everyone is catered for. But sometimes it’s so complicated as to be detrimental to the users.

Simplicity is great for many reasons.  It allows focus. It allows us to market with clear messages about what we do. It helps the user feel like they know where they are. It stops the model being too diluted by attempts not to offend. And – and this is the key point I want to make in this post – people can often prefer simplicity even to desirable options.

Think about your own experiences. Let’s take a mundane example – sometimes it’s nice to go to a coffee shop and have a choice between an Americano, an Espresso and a Latte, in two sizes. Even if you really like cinnamon lattes or whatever, you might prefer the simplicity of options to 7 different types of coffee, in three different sizes, with syrup options ago-go.

There’s all sorts of retail experiences like that – booking hotel rooms or flights, for instance, or choosing a sandwich in Subway… – where options that are designed to personalise the experience to suit you actually just get in the way of some sort of essential process.

So I think (and I’m thinking about all this because I suggested it at a work meeting the other day) that all new processes and models and services should be designed to be simple and to make an impact, rather than to cover all the bases. (I realise librarians often feel a sort of moral obligation to make sure we’re not disadvantaging anyone, and I’m definitely in favour of that as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of our actual future.) And I think any services we re-design should be re-designed at least partly with the question ‘What would users who’d NEVER EXPERIENCED THE OLD SYSTEM really want her?e’ uppermost in our minds, as well as the need not to offend existing users. Chances are, they’d want something efficient, non-complicated, and easy to understand.

- thewikiman

p.s some of the themes in this post are also covered in my previous one



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