A network for new and aspiring library professionals

Interview: Rachel Coleman – Project Worker

cropped-photofuniaHow did you get involved in the information profession? Did you go down the MA route?

I studied English Language and Literature at Newcastle University and was struggling to decide what my next step would be.  I had thought that teaching was a viable option but wasn’t completely satisfied that I would enjoy it.  At this point I wasn’t even aware that Librarianship had a progression route; my only experience had been through my godmother who had worked in public libraries in Wigan borough.  Through talking to friends, I discovered that Northumbria University offered a selection of Masters that seemed well suited to me.  I decided upon Information and Library Management as it satisfied my technical creativity.  It was a diverse modular course which I thought would be a good investment in an oversaturated jobs market.  I studied via distance learning which I wouldn’t recommend.  Whilst I enjoyed the course material, I found it disheartening that I wasn’t getting any face-to-face contact compared to the course costs.  Personally, it was hard to juggle a full time job with my education and I struggled as I didn’t have any social contact with other course participants; I had no one to compare progress with.  With the formation of ManchesterNLPN, future students may not have these concerns which is great.

Can you tell us a bit about your current role as Project Worker for The Reader Organisation? 

I’ve worked at TRO since August 2010, a month before starting my MA.  I started working in Wigan facilitating weekly shared reading groups in community settings with the intention of increasing wellbeing and mental health levels, developing personal social skills and interaction, and increasing the likelihood of group members applying for education courses, employment or volunteering opportunities.  It is a step removed from traditional information professional routes and more akin to teaching and community work.  Currently I work in Wirral primarily reading with children in care.  This provides them with a stable relationship and some much needed quality time with an adult where the focus can be on a book or poem rather than on themselves.  I am currently preparing to take over a Reader in Residence position in a local primary school to complement the work I already do with young people.  In September I will also become the Project Co-ordinator for the Wirral team.  This involves making sure the office is smoothly run, including disseminating any information from management, taking a larger role in the pastoral support of colleagues and volunteers, and assisting in funding bids.  This is an area in which my MA comes more to the fore as I will be responsible for the record management of beneficiary details and the evaluation of groups, reporting both internally and to our funders.  I am excited to take this on as I feel like I am using my full potential and experience working within the systems of a small charity.

Can you tell us about how you use your role to address/impact upon health issues in the community? Is this a challenging aspect of your role? Did you gain experience in the community health sector prior to the role? 

Shared reading groups are crucially linked with community health and wellbeing.  They are many group members’ main social contact in the week and allow small groups of individuals to meet new people and discuss human themes and topics that come up in literature in a safe environment.  It is as far removed from an English Literature seminar as can be whilst still talking about a text.  Literary terminology isn’t preferable, instead group members discuss the emotions of characters or the societal impacts; for example, a recent group discussed what makes a valuable contribution to society and its structures for a substantial amount of time after reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.  Stimulating diverse thought and conversation like this gives individuals confidence and a feeling of self-worth that might otherwise be lacking in their daily routine.

It can be challenging as each group member has different needs and managing the dynamics of a group can be quite tough.  Many of our service users have mental health issues and this has to be considered both in the choice of texts read and in the direction of conversation.  Many relish the opportunity to talk emotionally in groups however as the character of a text may be the focus rather than themselves.  Creating a safe environment is always high on the list of our priorities to allow this healthy discussion to happen.  Through working at TRO I have had specialist training in mental health awareness.  One of our main areas of research is in dementia care where we have found that shared reading, especially poetry, can help decelerate the disease.

Your latest role as Reader in Residence sounds like an interesting opportunity, can you tell us more about the role? And how have you been preparing for the role? 

We have funding from several schools across the country to read with children outside of their traditional English lessons with the aim to harness a love of literature.  In the school I will be working in, I will read with small groups of 7-11 year olds who teachers have identified could do with a bit of extra confidence or focus.  I’m really looking forward to it as reading 1:1, as I have done in the past, can limit the amount of discussion you can have on a topic.  Speaking to one of our apprentices who helped run the groups last year has been a great benefit, knowing that they’re a fun environment to read in and that the children seem to really appreciate a non-teacher listening to them without caring whether the answer is deemed ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; there are no wrong answers!  I have been reading more widely in terms of children’s poetry and books as I do not yet know who will be in the groups or what their interests are.

How do you think the future of the information profession will shape your role? And what would you like to happen? 

I think going forward, the work of an information professional will be more varied.  Already in libraries we are seeing qualified librarians teach and give public talks to service users, providing additional activities to increase service use.  Having a wide range of transferable skills is key to staying up-to-date and of use to organisations.  Budget cuts are creating an environment where more are willing to go the extra mile to stand out but the provision may not be available to do this long term.  I would love for more companies to appreciate the value of a trained professional and utilize them effectively.  Alongside this, there needs to be a provision in professional development to educate information professionals in basic teaching and dealing face to face with service users.  My qualification is fairly recent yet the skills I use on a daily basis were trained on-the-job.  Practically, not everyone in an Information Management role will be prepared for certain activities and a balance needs to be struck during professional qualifications of research intensive/IT knowledge and working with those you will be aiding.

Do you have any advice for people considering working in the information sector, particularly non-library roles? 

Smile!  Even when you have a mountain of paperwork and a looming day stuck in a boxy office, knowing that you’re helping someone else with their equally massive workload can be a great motivation.  Be prepared to get stuck in and sign up for every training course that gets pinged into your inbox; whoever said “she’s too smart for her own good,” was an idiot!  Employers will see you as a useful, vibrant member of any team.  Working with colleagues who aren’t information professionals has highlighted how useful my knowledge is.  Having the time to make a system more effective will make you indispensable.

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2013 by in Interview and tagged , , .

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