A network for new and aspiring library professionals
Ned Potter is an information professional and trainer working in Higher Education as an Academic Liaison Librarian at The University of York. As some of you may know, Ned was the reason we started our network as we were inspired by the talk he gave at CILIP’s New Professionals day in 2012. Ned was one of the 2011 SLA Early Career Conference Award winners and has published a book The Library Marketing Toolkit.
In this interview we asked Ned about his experiences and to share some tips from what he has learnt:
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you first become involved in the library and information profession?
I fell into it, like a lot of people do. I wanted to be a Careers Advisor, and was doing unpaid work experience at a Careers Service whilst working part-time at the Futon Company. You cannot imagine how rubbish that Futon shop job was (or how rubbish I was it it!). But then I needed to get a full time job in a hurry, so the Careers Service advised me to get a job in a library. It turned out to be way more interesting than I expected, so I never went back to the Careers Advisor idea.
How did winning the Library Journal Movers and Shakers award impact your career?
That’s a good question – and the answer is ‘not at all’. I don’t want to disparage this type of award, or sound ungrateful, as it was awesome to get it. I was thrilled! But I really don’t think this sort of thing does – or even should – impact on your career.
Although not in all cases, the Mover & Shaker thing is most often a community award: recognition of something you’re doing in the wider world of libraries rather than in your day job. In my case it seemed to be related to trying to get libraries beyond the echo chamber with Laura Woods, creating the New Professionals Network, the Buyalib project where some other librarians and I crowd-sourced enough money to build a library in India, and to my book – none of those things were anything to do with my job at the time. Employers for the most part don’t care about that stuff. In fact it may even count against you (although it hasn’t in my case); employers want someone who is focused on the job in hand. The most important recognition you can have in library land is from the users of your library, rather than other librarians!
Last year I won an award at the University where I work, and it’s sort of the opposite of a Mover & Shaker. Rather than being this glitzy thing which everyone hears about and is nothing to do with your job, this was directly related to some projects I was doing over a long period of time at work, and no one knows about it. I haven’t even told the people in the team I’m in – only my manager and the senior managers who nominated me for it know I won it. And I have to say, it means infinitely more to me than the Library Journal one! Plus it will mean a lot more on my CV if I ever apply for another job.
As I say, I was delighted to get the M&S but I think it’s important to understand you don’t need this sort of thing for career progression, especially in the UK. Ultimately, it falls into the category of ‘nice’ rather than ‘important’. I tried to write about this a couple of years back – it’s worth reading the comments for others’ perspectives.
Sorry, that’s a really long answer!
Please can you tell us about your day job and the skills you use?
My job is as an Academic Liaison Librarian at the University of York. It’s basically a Subject Librarian role, but we don’t call ourselves that because we don’t necessarily have specialist knowledge of the subjects we cover. I currently look after 4 academic departments. From about 5 months into librarianship I wanted to do this role, ideally at York as that’s where I live, so I feel incredibly lucky to have this job. In terms of skills, it’s primarily about communication in one form or another. Liaising with Departments, making videos, teaching, induction talks, answering a gazillion emails: all communication. There’s also a financial element, balancing the book budgets. We’re self-directed so time management is important. But ultimately it’s about talking to different groups of people in ways appropriate to them, to you, and to the situation.
How do you manage your role at York with your freelance commitments?
My contract at York is for 90% of full time – so basically that leaves one day out of every working fortnight to do freelance stuff. I love this arrangement. I really like doing the presentation skills workshops, and the library comms workshops, and working with all these interesting organisations that get me in to do training, but I also like the security of having a proper job… If no work comes in, I don’t have to chase it because I’m still 90% an Academic Liaison Librarian.
The two feed into each other, too. I apply a lot of what I learn as part of researching and delivering my workshops to my role at York. And having an actual job in libraries is, I think, essential for me personally to be able to deliver relevant training. I describe myself as a Trainer rather than a consultant – part of the reason for that is I think some consultants (not all! But some) don’t appear to be grounded in the realities of actually being a librarian in a library, so their advice can be a bit pie in the sky… I refuse to talk about ‘library futures’. We have enough to deal with right now.
What are your tips for managing your time effectively to further your career development?
That’s really difficult. I did a LOT of stuff in my own time for about 3 years, and now I’ve got two kids so I’ve almost completely stopped, apart from when amazing opportunities come up like going to South Africa or New Zealand. I think it’s hard to sustain doing loads at once, so by all means take every opportunity for a bit but after a while it’s worth trying to prioritise. Learn to say no, it’s geniuinely a crucial ability to possess!
What do you feel really passionate about? What skills do you need for your next job, which you can’t get in your current job but could add by doing CPD? You don’t need to do it all, or do what it currently in vogue. Do what you feel comfortable with.
What tips would you give for new professionals?
The main thing, apart from what I said in answer to the previous question, is be networked! The people reading this I’m not worried about – they’re already checking out blogs in a new professionals group, which is great. It’s the people who only ever talk to those they directly work with that are missing out on a whole world of support, ideas, contacts and advice. Librarianship is a very supportive profession, but you have to go out there and connect with people!
The other thing is to keep in mind that the notion of ‘career ladder’ doesn’t seem to apply to librarianship. I know this network started after the New Professionals Day in 2012 where I talked about this, so apologies for repeating myself! But basically it’s more like a climbing wall – sometimes you have to move across (possibly to an area you’re less interested in) just to find a handhold with another one directly above it. It’s easy to find yourself stuck. For whatever reason, no one seems to move up more than one grade at a time in the information profession, so if there’s two or three grades between the job you have now and your dream role, you need to bridge that gap by moving up the grades even if it means working in a different area. It seems counterintuitive, and I’m not sure it’s all that helpful to the profession as a whole, but it’s the way it seems to be.
Finally, the only comparison that matters in librarianships is between you, the previous versions of you, and the future versions of you. It does not matter what other people are doing. Unless they’re on the exact same career path as you, it’s irrelevant if a librarian of your acquaintance or who you follow online appears to be Doing All The Things. So although librarianship is hugely competitive in terms of applying for actual jobs, don’t feel like you have to compete in terms of CPD. We’re all running different races anyway.
Do what you can without negatively altering your work-life balance, do what stimulates you and makes you happy, and do what helps you get the specific job you want next.
You have an interest in communication, how do you see communication evolving within the information sector in the near future?
I just hope library communication becomes more targeted and specific. Generic communication doesn’t work. It’s not fit for purpose. There’s no point in spending 95% of our time creating and curating content, and only 5% of our time telling people it’s there. We need to focus on spending more time crafting effective communication that actually engages people.
But then I would say that. 🙂