A network for new and aspiring library professionals
Rachel Davies is a Liaison Librarian at Leeds Trinity University. In this interview she discusses her career path, transferable skills and the advice she would give to new professionals.
I graduated in 2005 with a degree in English Literature and no plan whatsoever. I spent a few years doing various temporary jobs including retail, call centre work and temping.
I started my first library job in 2007, as a customer service assistant at Leeds University Library. I’ve spent a lot of time in public libraries throughout my life, and I thought the job sounded interesting. At the interview I think my customer service experience from previous jobs came in really handy, along with admin skills from my temping days, so although my employment history was a bit lengthy and varied I ended up with the right combination of skills for that particular job.
I really enjoyed the library environment and the variety of the job, but I wasn’t particularly ambitious at first. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to progress in my career, I needed to do an MA, which I did part time from 2010-2012.
You were an Enquiry Team Assistant at The University of Leeds when you started the MA in Librarianship at The University of Sheffield. As someone who was already working in a library, what further skills did the MA equip you with?
From doing the MA I learned a lot of the academic theory behind things like information searching and library management. When you work in library customer services, you get trained in practical tasks and processes, but you don’t get much information about the research and evidence behind it all. For example, I could help a customer to find a journal article by trial and error, but before I studied information retrieval I didn’t really know why one search strategy was more effective than another.
I also had to do some assessed presentations as part of the course, which was the beginning of a long process of overcoming my fear of public speaking. My experience in academic libraries meant that being a subject librarian was the obvious career path, but I felt uncomfortable talking in front of an audience, so it was difficult to see myself in a teaching role. After finishing the MA, I went on several workplace training courses about presenting and teaching, and even had a few sessions of hypnotherapy to help with my nerves. If anyone reading this has a fear of teaching, I want to emphasise that it’s a skill you can learn, not something you are born knowing how to do!
Finally, to reverse the original question, I think having a few years of practical work experience was hugely helpful on the MA course. As an undergraduate, I knew how to find books but was pretty clueless about searching for journal articles and other resources. It wasn’t until I started working in libraries that I finally learned about using databases and how to do a proper literature search. As a result, I got better grades for my MA than I did at undergraduate level because my research skills had massively improved. I’m also very sympathetic to new students who are learning all this stuff for the first time because I remember what it’s like not to know it.
You have co-authored and published an article based on your MA dissertation topic. What advice do you have for New Professionals who are about to start their dissertation or are thinking of submitting an article based on their dissertation?
For people who are starting their dissertation soon, I would say pick a topic that you are really interested in because you’ll be spending a lot of time and energy on it. Also, if you are working while writing your dissertation, try to get your workload organised in advance. I had a calendar where I started with my deadline date and worked backwards, with goal dates for completing each chapter. I may have been extremely nerdy about it but I did submit two days before the deadline!
For people thinking of publishing their research – go for it, it’s a great opportunity. I would never have thought about writing a journal article until my supervisor suggested it. She was my co-author and was extremely helpful with editing, choosing a journal to submit to (we chose JOLIS) and responding to peer review. As well as looking good on your CV, it’s also really useful to understand the publication process from an author’s perspective. This is especially relevant if you work in an academic library and even more so if you work in research support, as you’ll understand what researchers are going through when they publish their work.
The best outcome for me was creating a workshop for research students about the process of publishing your first article, from choosing a journal to revising and re-submitting after peer review. The student feedback was very positive and I couldn’t have done it without having gone through the same process myself.
You have worked in different subject areas within academic libraries. How did you develop the knowledge needed to support different/new subject areas?
At Leeds University I worked on the enquiry desk at two different library sites, which attracted very different types of enquiry. Just the daily experience of answering questions on a wide range of topics was very helpful as you can gradually build up your knowledge in different subject areas. Often the most important skills are asking the right questions and knowing where to find the information – I think most librarians take this approach regardless of their subject area.
I also spent some time supporting the medical and healthcare librarians, which was intimidating at first as I had very little subject knowledge (and some of the textbooks have really gruesome pictures on the cover). Updating the database guides was a useful start, as I had to learn to use the resources step-by-step in order to write the instructions. I helped out at a lot of teaching sessions too, so I saw a lot of good teaching in action and also learned from helping the students and finding answers to their questions.
In my current job I’m relieved to say that I have at least an A Level in almost every subject I support. But having some background knowledge in a lot of different subject areas has been extremely useful to me over the years. Like the time a student asked me to help him find out the average level of nitrates in a beetroot.
Currently you are a Liaison Librarian at Leeds Trinity University. What are your main responsibilities and what skills does your role demand?
I support the departments of Humanities and Psychology, and I’m also the library contact for research support. In my liaison role, I order books and manage budgets, run library inductions and information literacy sessions, and answer a lot of enquiries. As we’re a small library, I also get to do a wide variety of behind-the-scenes jobs such as creating a referencing guide, working on our inter-library loans procedures, and writing content for the library website.
My research support role was newly created when I started, so I’ve had the advantage of being able to make it my own. I do library inductions and training for new PhD and MbR students, and last year I organised a series of research talks at the local public library. I’m also the main library contact for EndNote.
In terms of skills, I would say that good communication is really important as I deal with everyone from brand new undergraduates to senior academics. Liaison work also requires a certain amount of tact and diplomacy when mediating between academic departments and the library. My research support work covers a lot of different subject areas so it’s useful to be interested in a wide variety of topics. I love finding out about what the PhD students are studying (everything from food labelling to legends of Robin Hood) and getting my teeth into complex enquiries. Being willing to learn new skills and keep up to date is also a must, since the job is always evolving.
What advice would you give to new professionals looking for their first professional post in the academic sector?
Firstly, be prepared for a competitive job market. I went to a lot of interviews before I was offered my current position, although my job search was restricted to the Leeds area – you will have more options if you are willing to relocate. Asking for feedback after an interview is always a good idea. Constructive feedback really helped me to improve, and sometimes it’s also encouraging to know that you did a good job but someone else was even better on the day. Having been on a few interview panels I now understand this more than ever.
Time spent in support roles along the way is never wasted, especially if you make the most of it. I got a lot of temporary roles and secondment opportunities as a library assistant, which eventually gave me the skills and experience to get where I am now. Take advantage of any training that’s available, and talk to the people whose job you’d like to be doing. Speaking of which – I am happy for people to get in touch with me* if they have any questions about working in academic libraries and/or research support.
What would you like to see from NLPN in future?
The new professionals presentations at NLPN events are a great idea, please keep doing these! I presented at the Digital Skills event in January and it was a great experience. I think practical workshops targeting specific skills would be good – presentation skills, interview skills, etc. I also think a mentoring scheme would be good, maybe pairing up slightly more experienced professionals with students or recent graduates?
*r.davies [at] leedstrinity.ac.uk