Several months ago, inspired by a talk at the CILIP CDG New Professionals Conference, I started writing a post about how I got into librarianship. Between one thing and another I never finished writing it, but was reminded of it today by the lovely @SmilyLibrarian, who asked on Twitter: “Wondering how/why people got into librarianship, would like to hear”. From the replies I saw, it seemed like most people stumbled upon librarianship as a career by accident (with the notable exception of @ostephens, who apparently has several librarians in the family and may genuinely have been “born to it”!).
It seems like most of the librarians I know became librarians by accident. I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who’s ever told me that they’ve always wanted to be a librarian. A friend once told me that they wouldn’t trust someone who said anything like that – I wouldn’t go that far, but I have to admit that I find the idea of deciding, straight out of school, that you were going into librarianship (thinking about it, I do know someone who’s doing an undergrad in library and information science, so she must have decided fairly early on that that was what she wanted to do) slightly baffling. It’s almost a hidden career: not many people who aren’t librarians themselves or are related to librarians have any idea of what we actually do, so how do people actually know that’s what they want to be?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a librarian until about two years ago. I’d wanted to be various things when I was little – a writer, a teacher, an Egyptologist… By the time I was a teenager, I’d fallen in love with photography and decided I was going to be a photojournalist. I did my undergrad degree in photography, and worked as a freelancer for about two years after I graduated. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t very successful at it: finding myself fed up with the career, starting to hate photography, and in a fair amount of debt, I started thinking about what else I could do with my life. I’d started working as an admin assistant in a completely unimportant branch of the MoD, and didn’t really know what else I wanted to do – just that I really, really didn’t want to stay in the civil service.
I went to talk to a careers adviser at the job centre (who was spectacularly helpful, contrary to everything I’d heard about job centre careers advisers!) who talked to me about my interests and transferrable skills. Among several suggestions she made was librarianship (I actually can’t remember what the others were). She told me I’d probably need to do a graduate traineeship if I wanted to be a librarian, and suggested I look for job adverts/descriptions to see if the roles sounded interesting.
And the rest, as they say, is history! From talking to other librarians, I think my story is fairly typical (I even know a few other photographers-turned-librarians). What I find interesting is that it took me so long to realise that librarianship was actually a career option. Libraries were always important to me: I organised all my own and my sisters’ books into a lending library (complete with catalogue cards) for the other kids on our street when I was about 8; I volunteered in my school library in both primary and secondary school; I did two weeks of work experience in my local library when I was 14; my grandma was a librarian for ICI (before she had children and had to stop working). And yet it never occurred to me that this was something I could do for a living. The fact that it was a careers adviser who suggested it to me strikes me as significant: I had careers advice at school, and while I can remember being told that I should consider museum curating, the opportunities in libraries were never mentioned. There was a coment from Katie Hill at the New Professionals Conference that she’d asked her school careers adviser about librarianship, only to be told “you don’t want to do that, you only need 5 GCSEs!”.
I don’t really know what the answer is to this – although, I don’t really know if it’s actually a problem. I love the idea of kids announcing “when I grow up, I want to be a librarian!” – but does it actually matter if most people only arrive at librarianship later in life, after trying other things? Arguably, it results in a more rounded workforce: having experience of other careers/sectors is no bad thing. But then, you do have to wonder how many more people were “born to be librarians”, but may never realise it…