Careers advice

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…

37 comments on “Careers advice

  1. Interesting post! I used to love visiting the library when I was child (and I used to actually ‘play’ librarian with my teddy bears – stamping books that they took out!) It was only in my third year at University in Sheffield studying English that I saw a graduate trainee place at the University library that I thought seriously about it as a career though. I didn’t get it, but managed to get a library assistant post a few months later….and now here I am! And it doesn’t seem to surprise anyone I know either 😉

    I always find other peoples stories quite fascinating, as you’re right, most people do seem to fall into it by accident. But most people are from different backgrounds, deciding at different ages, which I think is a good thing: you definitely can’t categorise a librarian as being a certain type of person as we’re clearly all sorts!

  2. Ah, I’m actually one of those ‘born librarians’. Mum has always been one, my Aunt has been one on and off, and I only ever wanted to be a librarian. I grew up spending my after-school hours in the library, while Mum worked, and I read my way through the age ranges.

    Sadly, my careers advisor (and Mum!) advised against librarianship The careers advisor said that computers would be doing all the work in future, and we’d not need librarians (see how well that’s turned out?), and Mum said there was no money in it (true, but as a kid, are you really planning on working to be rich?). Even the early computer programmes that guided you on possible careers options advised librarian for me (I think I still have that dot-matrix printout somewhere too!). But, the grown ups must know best, right?
    So, I was pointed in the direction of science, my best subject…

    1.5 years later, in the middle of an Environmental Biology degree that I knew I was unsuited for (in science, you either are great or mediocre. One means working as a researcher, the other means working as a lab tech….I would have been a lab tech), I was hunting for information on what I’d need to do to be able to be a librarian. I found out that Strathclyde Uni did a Masters: Yay! All I had to do was drag myself through that EnviBio course, get a General Science Degree, and THEN I could finally do what I’d always wanted to do!

    I volunteered at a school library near my uni, to get experience, got into Strathclyde, found the course a nonsense and left after the PGDip…but…it meant I could now go look for library jobs, as a LIBRARIAN! Deep joy!
    Ended up in law by chance, and luckily love the field. Hell, if librarian never comes up as a career choice, imagine how little I knew about the option of being a law librarian!

  3. I fell into it too – I was actually working part-time in the Career’s Service at York University whilst working part-time as a Research assistant in the Music Department, post Music MA. The Career’s stuff was unpaid work experience and what I wanted to do for a living, but then my wife and I found the perfect house and suddenly had a mortgage, and the option of being paid for only half my working week was no longer open to me… So I asked the career’s service I worked for what I should do to get a job quickly but help my long term careers advisor, and they said library work was under the same ‘Information Management’ umbrella, so go for that. I applied for a Customer Services post and it went from there – I was very, very suprised that it turned out to be enjoyable (once I’d left Customer Services) and that I actually wanted to make a career out of it (although less than thrilled at having do another Masters, but what can you do..?).

    Anyway, I too couldn’t imagine anyone growing up wanting to be a librarian – and it’s changed so much since I was a lad (God I’m an old 29 year old) that even if I had wanted to be one when I grew up, it wouldn’t really have been the same job that I ended up getting if you know what I mean. Do you find that Jennie, that what you thought you’d be doing has actually been superseded by a whole new role of modern information professional?

    It’s amazing though, there really are people who’ve always wanted to do it. I’ve twice said to colleagues, ‘well obviously no one *grows up* wanting to be a librarian!’, and had them say ‘oh well I did actually…’ – and these were young cool ones who dress well and everything! Great faux pas times.

    • thewikiman,again: I’m only 30, so the whole landscape has changed in the 15/16 years sine I was being asked to make my subject choices at school…the technology for doing what I do has kinda been appearing at the same time as I’ve been taking to using it. But nothing disappears: although I’ve also worked with older stuff like card catalogues and bound printed catalogues, I’ve used modern things like online cataloguing systems too, often in the same place / time.

      I don’t know quite what I imagined being a librarian to be – when I was seeing my Mum work in a local public library branch, the main thing was she was helping people and solving their problems (finding books, dealing with the admin tasks, calling round other libraries to source stuff, teaching people how to use the systems) . When I volunteered in the secondary school, I was doing admin that was swamping the librarian, setting up a card catalogue, and helping pupils with sources for projects and research…I guess the common theme is problem-solving. I’ve always enjoyed helping people find answers to questions, and in the end, working as a librarian, no matter where you end up or with what technology available, you’re always the one solving problems! The things we use to solve those problems are just tools – the desire to fix things, sort them out seems to be the librarian ‘calling’.

      • Ooh, nicely put! It’s true, library work is so varied, and changing all the time – probably the only constant is that you’re helping people and solving problems. That’s what I like about the job!

  4. Yeah that’s really interesting actually – in a paper presentation I’m doing next week (based on one Woodsiegirl has seen before!) I *was* going to say something along the lines of – we shouldn’t be defined by any one thing as Information Professionals, let alone the library building, because really what do the Systems Team, the cataloguers, the customer services people, the VLE people, the e-Resources people, etc etc have in common? It’s meant to be rhetorical by if they have anything that defines them all it is of course problem solving.

    You should really turn that thought into a journal article or something! Maybe someone already has.

    Anyway, it’s great that you can want to grow up being something, and that you can still really enjoy it despite the fact that by the time you get to be it it’s massively changed…

  5. This seems to be a common story. Most people I’ve talked to have had that epiphany moment where they look around at their well-organised books and music and videos and suddenly realise that a career as a librarian is a viable option.
    It’s an interesting time to get into librarianship at the moment because computers and the internet are changing the information landscape. More so than perhaps other groups, librarians and information professionals are really embracing the digital future. We’re going to be well-equipped for the internet further taking over our lives.

  6. I am though not quite the stereotype – books, CDs and DVDs go on shelves however they fit: no order on my shelves! 🙂

    Maybe we should all blog our “Librarian Roots / Routes” 🙂

    • Me too… I have to say, I’ve never had that epiphany… I’m not organised (in terms of my possessions, anyway) and I don’t think I like books more or less than the next man, really. I just happened to have stumbled into an interesting area.

      What I’m trying to say is, my CDs are a mess. I did once alphabeticise them but then we got burgaled and all the As and Bs got nicked, which seemed really annoying somehow…

      • Ohhh, and if one more person asks me if I “like” books / read a lot of them, I will kill them!

        Evil burglars by the way…bet you miss ABBA and Boyzone, huh? 😉

    • I’m only glad they were interrupted before they got to Cher. 🙂

    • I’ve had a go at Jennie’s suggestion

  7. Interesting! I was halfway through writing my comment and then realised that I could quickly cannibalise it from my defunct library blog and update it…:g:

    For me, librarianship is a career change. I come from a very technical background – I worked in and around the IT industry as a web designer/codemonkey/technical support for most of my late teens/early twenties and chose an undergraduate degree that while softer than traditional technical degrees was still going to get me into more work along the same lines as pre-university. But by the time I finished my BSc. I’d burnt out on the IT industry and was staring down my graduation date with absolutely no idea where or what I was going to do after that.

    So I started considering other careers. I’d always been a voracious reader and as a child, I spent a lot of time in various libraries, including a stint as a library assistant in the school library in South Africa. I’d learnt how to play the system at Uni – two copies of the core textbook on a month-long loan vs. five on a week loan and approx. 150 students? Ahahaha! Guess who always got a month loan copy? – and I’d always been an information/object organiser. I have a hobby where I actively worked as an archivist for several years and in my second year of my degree I had the opportunity to do an internship abroad where I worked for a digital archiving company in the Czech Republic. I wrote my dissertation on archives and archiving in online subcultures.

    Suddenly my career path looked a lot clearer. I applied and interviewed for several Graduate Traineeships before ending up at Gray’s Inn and after working in a library for a year, I had pretty much decided that yes, this was the career for me. The original plan had actually been to do my masters at Strathclyde but seen I was at the time very much involved in law libraries, I opted to stay in London and did it at City and wrote my thesis on online communities and social bookmarking as a cataloguing tool.

    And oddly enough, I’ve gone almost a full circle now because being a systems librarian means I spend 80% of my time doing the same sort of stuff I did as a tech (writing databases/programming/developing websites etc) but this time they’re all for the library and I use/develop them as a librarian myself because the remaining 20% of my time is devoted to enquiry work.

  8. Oh, I totally fit the stereotype – everything I own is perfectly organised for efficient retrieval! Drove my boyfriend mad when we first moved in together, but now I think he appreciates it – he was looking for a book the other day, stopped and looked at the shelves, and said “I really like how you’ve done this, I know exactly where everything is”! 😀

    I don’t think that’s why I went into librarianship though – in fact, at work I’m definitely a “messy desk” person – I can find everything, but it’s pretty much all just in heaps on my desk.

    Sorry to hear about losing your As and Bs, wikiman – you’d think that since you’d organised them, the burglars might actually have been able to be more selective about what they took… Perhaps they were more used to browsing music according to Library of Congress classification? :-p

    • I think they weren’t browsing so much as ‘pulling stuff off the shelves into a sack’ until I came home and they ran off out the back…

      Jennie said maybe we should all blog our Library Roots/Routes, and I enjoyed reading the result of her having done so! I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday, and was wondering if we should actually try and do this in a formal, organised way? Take some of the methodology of the Library Day in the Life and encourage bloggers to blog about the library root (how they got into it) and the library route (how they got to where they are – I always wonder, for example, what jobs Head Librarians do on their way up), and link to their post from a Wiki. We could call it The Library Routes Project or whatever, and market it as a resource for potential new professionals (maybe get CILIP involved, at least in terms of linking to it). We could also encourage non-bloggers to get involved – they could just create an entry on the Wiki itself, and link to that. What do you reckon, is this something we could do collaboratively? I could sort the wiki side of things, obviously… 🙂

  9. Well save it till we’ve got this off the ground! I think it could be a really good thing. I’ll have a think over the weekend about it.

    We should continue this by email really – mine is Ned@ and then the name I’m posting at here, and then .org, if you two want to get in touch to discuss it. Don’t worry though, I won’t hold anyone to any commitments!

  10. […] read my friend Jennie’s blog on this subject, and her friend’s post that started her off, I have been told its “my turn” so here […]

  11. Laura – I’ve always wanted to be a librarian – no really. My mum was a Librarian when she was young and raved about it, although she used to work in public libraries in some very dodgy areas of London so had some very interesting tales to tell.

    I remember deciding pretty much as soon as I started my A-Levels that I wanted to study Librarianship from then it has all just gone wrong…I mean right! The only thing is I’m moving further and further away from traditional librarian duties, which feels a bit sad but for my career it’s important that I do something I really enjoy and where I want to develop my existing skills.

  12. Ooh, I like this. Will have to tell my own librarian story soon. Really need to blog my new job first, though!

  13. […] chimes in something I was wondering over on Woodsiegirl’s blog, about whether people who grow up wanting to be librarians actually do any of the things they […]

  14. […] by vashtiz I really enjoyed reading a blogpost by Woodsiegirl on her Organizing Chaos blog about how she became a librarian, and it seems others did too, as another librarian blogger, Jennie Law, followed suit with a blog […]

  15. […] days since a discussion started on Twitter about how we all came to be librarians. A few people (Woodsiegirl and Jennie Law) have already blogged their routes in to librarianship and Ned Potter has kindly […]

  16. […] (since deleted, as this one serves the same purpose but in proper detail). This came about after a post by Woodsiegirl (her Organising Chaos blog is terrific, I highly recommend subscribing) about her reasons for […]

  17. […] out of a discussion that started on Twitter. Woodsiegirl followed this up with a post on her blog, Organising Chaos, and this got others posting their stories. Seeing that the meme was escalating Ned Potter has […]

  18. […] think the most-commented post I’ve written was my post about how I got into librarianship – 27 comments! Although, a lot of those are pingbacks rather than actual comments. […]

  19. I think some of the challenge in getting correct advice can be getting the best advisor. If you do not gel with the person that is advising you, and they do not understand you, then that will not. So that is the reason that I feel that there is quite an issue with buyers trying only banks or price comparison sites looking for financial advice. One on one in my view should be the only way.

    • Ok, I normally just delete comment spam, but I was grudgingly impressed with this one – up until it veers off topic at the end, it actually almost looks like a real comment! So cheers for that, “Henry Cornwall”… Oh, I didn’t think your financial services site would be of much interest to readers of this blog though, so I replaced your URL with one that points to some cute pics of kittens instead. Hope that’s cool 🙂

  20. […] regularly. In fact, it’s the second most accessed of any post I’ve written (after this one), and some variation on “creating email template in outlook 2003 problems” is the most […]

  21. Glad to hear of someone appreciating a careers advisor! Careers advisor bashing is very popular, usually by people who haven’t seen one besides a brief encounter with an under-resourced school advisor. Journalists actually get to write whole articles on the basis of such research. Sorry – going off track.

    I’ve always organised my books and CDs, but not alphabetically because I heard that was ‘uncool’, so early on I adoped a subject-based system that from the outside doesn’t actually look too organised, but is completely intuitive. One day when I came home to find my flatmate had re-arranged by colour and height. She hasn’t done it again.

    Will have to write my own library route – I am definitely one of those who only realised after uni.

    • Yeah, careers advisers tend to be a bit of an easy target. I have to say I don’t really remember getting much helpful advice from the careers service at school, but I’ve had only good experiences with careers advisers since then.

      Please do write your own library route – it’s fascinating seeing how many ways into the profession people have found 🙂

      BTW, I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but something about this strikes me as slightly sinister:
      “One day when I came home to find my flatmate had re-arranged by colour and height. She hasn’t done it again.”
      …why, what did you do with her?? ;-p

      • Hah, the dark side of the librarian! Part of a long tradition…

        “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”


        It wasn’t all that bad actually… 🙂

  22. […] into librarianship. I’m not going to do that now, partly because I’ve written about it before, and partly because one of the Things coming up in future weeks is the Library Routes Project, so I […]

  23. […] – yes her again, had a nice post about why she became a librarian. She liked it so much she set up a wiki for others to share their […]

  24. […] Since I wrote the CPD23 post for it, I’m just going to link to that, and to my original Library Routes post – together, they really say all I have to say on this topic. I’m still fascinated by […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: