My library route…

Now I am about to embark on my first professional post, I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a bit about my path and how I got to where I am about to be. For a long time I seemed to be stuck going nowhere with my career and I know that many people feel the same, particularly after their undergraduate. So I thought it would be good to show that even when you feel like you are stuck, you can find a way to get to where you want to be.

My plan for a long time when I was at school was to be an archaeologist. I was a member of the Young Archeaologists Club, I went on the odd dig, I thought this was where my life was heading. Until it came to the moment where I had to fill in my UCAS form. Having thoroughly enjoyed my English Literature A-level, I decided that I should take that with History (which was by far my strongest subject at school) rather than archaeology. However, I knew once choosing that that my future plans would now be thrown up in the air. I was clearly not going to be an archaeologist, but I had no idea what I would actually do (although, to be fair, who does at 18?).

I very much enjoyed the course I took (English Literature with History at Winchester) and resisted numerous attempts by one of the heads of department to switch to a History with English Literature degree. I had always been a reader and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of studying literature at university and whilst I was ‘good’ at History (throughout my educational life my History grades were stronger than my literature grades), I loved analysing literature slightly more than historical events. So much did I enjoy the literature aspect, that I decided to do a PGCE in English once my degree was over.

Unfortunately, the PGCE didn’t work out for many reasons. I left the course 5-6 months into the programme leaving the door open should I wish to go back. With few options available to me in the interim, I took up a job with a large retailer and used that as a stop gap whilst I looked for something else (which resulted in interviews or work experience at a number of publishers in London – editing was by then the path I wanted to go down).

This stop gap lasted for seven years. During which time I had taken on a number of management positions at stores across East Kent, including a flagship store on the Kent coast. In the period 2000-2005 I led a number of different teams, in different departments and at different locations. I had a good reputation across the area as one of the “up and coming” future store managers and, indeed, I was enrolled on an internal store management course to help me reach that position. However, whilst I enjoyed the challenge of managing teams in a competitive, somewhat harsh environment, store manager was not really what I wanted as a career. It was more a case of needing to make the best of the situation I was in, rather than fulfilling an ambition (not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with being a store manager of course).

Then things started to go wrong. A new manager came in who, well, didn’t like the cut of my jib. Suddenly I went from being a future store manager to someone who needed to be ‘managed out of the business’. So curious and depressing was the situation that my previous store manager tried to arrange for me to be transferred to his store as an escape. Sadly that wasn’t to be. So, whilst getting the trade union involved to fight my case against the harassment I faced, I started to look elsewhere for employment.

It was then that I stumbled across the role of ‘Customer Services Officer’ (CSO)based at Maidstone library. I checked out the job description and everything matched with what I was doing in my role in retail. I had extensive experience of line management, of customer services, of training staff…so I applied. Luckily for me, I was successful (as was another candidate who also came in from retail at exactly the same time – which might tell you something about their recruitment policy…) and I joined the world of libraries as a manager.

It was initially a bit of a challenge to win over those who had worked in libraries for a long time, some retail outsider throwing his weight around when he doesn’t understand the way we work (indeed my colleague also found barriers that needed to be overcome before she was accepted). But I was eventually accepted and have fond memories of my time in Maidstone, managing the children’s library, training and supporting staff development and scheduling staff to cover libraries across the Maidstone district. It was also at this point that I applied to do the MSc at Aberystwyth and committed myself to a career in the library profession.

After a couple of years, an opportunity came up to transfer to Canterbury district (which is where I live). Whilst the commute was a factor in my decision, the bigger factor was the career development opportunity this move presented. At Maidstone I was one of about 7 or 8 CSOs based in the same building. As a result, responsibilities were divided up and we these responsibilities were redistributed every year. Consequently, gaining experience of all aspects of the service would take some time. However, a transfer to Canterbury district (in this case Herne Bay library) meant joining a much smaller team (there were only two full-time CSOs and one part-time including myself) and, therefore, the opportunity to build my skills and knowledge far quicker than if I had stayed at Maidstone. In terms of moving my career onto a more senior management level, it was a no-brainer.

Then came the pressures on public libraries. We knew that registrars were going to merge with public libraries and that there might be job losses. So I looked elsewhere for a new challenge and, again, an opportunity to build my skills. It was at this time that I came across the Library Systems Officer post. I saw this as another good opportunity to build on my existing skills and knowledge not only in terms of learning about the technical side of library services, but also in terms of moving from a public library environment to an academic one. This would, I feel, help broaden my knowledge of libraries in general and stand me in good stead for the future. Until this point my experience was mainly managerial (between retail and public libraries I gained about 9-10 years experience in various managerial roles), I felt that it was important to develop my skills in a different area.

That was nearly four years ago now and I undoubtedly feel that I have gained a great deal from the experience. I have a better handle on the technical aspects of the job compared to when I left public libraries behind in 2010. I also have a good understanding of the academic environment and the nature of library services in such an environment. As well as developing my technical skills, I took opportunities to gain experience in managing the institutional repository (thanks to a three month secondment) as well as in the delivery of user education and induction sessions with our faculty liaison librarians.

So now I am about to join the ranks of the subject librarians. And I feel that I am entering the world with a good deal of experience under my belt. I have extensive management experience, a degree of technical experience and I am about to embark on a subject librarian role. I think all of this background has helped to ensure I have quite a good, rounded experience of libraries. There is still much for me to learn and understand over the coming years, but I look back knowing I have extensive experience in a range of key areas (more by accident than design!).

When I look back to where I was in 2004, it is hard to believe I have reached this point. In 2004 I was stuck in retail with no way out, seemingly set on a course towards store management. A role I had little enthusiasm for other than as a necessary path I had to take in the circumstances I was in. Yet here I am, a few jumps and sideways moves and I find myself in a profession. 2004 Ian would, I think, be very pleased to know that actually, despite seemingly stuck in a job he had no real passion for with no sign of doing the kinds of things he hoped to do when he went to university in 1994, things actually worked out ok. Which, I reckon, is a good optimistic point to end on.

19th March 2014.