A network for new and aspiring library professionals
Following on from our last member interview with Sarah Mallen, Megan has given us an insight working in the careers service.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you first become involved in the library and information profession?
Before and during a degree in English Literature I worked in customer service roles. After graduating, one of these was at the British Library. I found I enjoyed library assistant work, particularly answering enquiries and training readers to use the catalogue. However, it wasn’t until I got a full-time Information Assistant role at King’s College London that I discovered professional librarianship.
Moving to Bristol for an MA, colleagues put me in touch with contacts there and I was able to find work in the university library service. Since I knew I wanted to qualify and they were offering financial support, I went straight from my MA into a part-time Information and Library Management MSc at UWE. During this time I gained experience across different branches, eventually working as a Senior Library Assistant and a voluntary post cataloguing and classifying a collection for the City Museum.
Can you tell us about your previous role as an Information Specialist in the Careers Service?
This was my first professional role. I loved the variety (of both the work and subject matter). No two days were the same and included front-facing and back-office tasks. I had significant autonomy in terms of managing this work which included: html editing, collection management and planning group training sessions. Similarly, the range of users and enquiries kept frontline work interesting. In 1:1 and group training, Information Specialists focus on signposting key resources and teaching how to search them effectively (developing information literacy and commercial awareness skills). People are often confused about the role of a librarian within a careers service, but my post was similar to that of any information professional and always distinct to that of a Careers Adviser.
Another positive of careers work is the collaboration with non-information staff in the wider service and institution. Our Employer Services Team are quite commercially-focused and it initially felt strange to host visits from large corporate organisations, but I now appreciate this. Similarly Careers Advisers taught me a lot about running workshops and presenting and the teams now regularly collaborate on training sessions, pooling our different skills and specialisms.
I have been Acting Head of Information Services since last year and have found that I enjoy making decisions, leading changes and supporting my team. I don’t believe I would have been ready for this role yet if I had stayed in a traditional library environment.
What are the challenges that you face as an Information Specialist?
It took me some time to feel confident in answering most questions at our enquiry desk within 15 minutes (e.g. “How do I find relevant work experience in Spain?” / “What opportunities are there in publishing?”). I also had to learn to curb an impulse to bombard people with information and not simply do their research for them when faced with a tricky query (e.g. “Where are the roles in bioinformatics?” / “How can I use my expertise in sleep patterns and psychology?”).
Information training sessions are well-attended and receive good feedback but require time away from other work. Collection development is a constant challenge, since careers is a broad topic, information dates quickly and there are few ‘reliable’ sources of information equivalent to textbooks in academic libraries. We have always dealt with a lot of non-traditional material (websites, leaflets, emails) which are not easily described.
Challenges also arise from the need to regularly face change. Last year we moved from a Library Management System into a new online system and we now work closely with the system providers to try to improve this. We constantly review where information sits and how it is organised and Information Specialists have a key role to play in a current project to review and restructure our website.
The variety and autonomy are also probably the biggest challenges. There is always more to do than can be completed, so setting and reviewing priorities is a continuous process. In a small team it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the core parts of your role, since you become an expert in lots of areas and everyone helps out as needed.
Have you ever worked in another Library sector?
In addition to roles already mentioned, last year I had a part-time maternity secondment as a Music Subject Librarian. I had to work hard to demonstrate the relevance of my non-academic experience at interview. I enjoyed working in a larger team and having a role that felt clearly defined but missed the collaborative work in Careers and the ability to quickly make changes that a smaller service offers.
What do you think was the most useful thing you gained from the course at UWE?
Primarily presentation practice (useful for interviews and conferences) and meeting other new professionals. I gained an instant network of librarians across a range of sectors. Some modules – like Corporate Information and Cataloguing and Classification – immediately informed my work, whereas the value of the management elements has only recently become apparent.
What advice would you give to new library and information professionals who are looking for their first professional post?
Be flexible about the type of role you consider and your job title. Consider a more varied role where you get to try out a range of skills. Look at organisation websites and not just library job sites. Save job descriptions for interesting roles and use the essential criteria as a checklist to plan your development.
Look for anything you can do to broaden your experience. Not everyone can volunteer or do things outside work but can you ask for new responsibilities within your role? I did this with line management and user training.
Use your network! Twitter and LinkedIn are good ways to find people to ask about roles.
What would you like to see from ManchesterNLPN in the future?
Keep telling people about the range of roles in information and sharing tips with them.