A network for new and aspiring library professionals
Phil, a Technical Services Librarian, has answered some of our questions about his library career and the skills he uses in his current role.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you first become involved in the library and information profession?
My very first involvement in librarianship was my work experience in year 10. I opted to work in the local library because I liked the library and the people working there and the idea of working in a place that helped people rather than selling them something.
When it came time to go to university, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I opted for Philosophy, as it was a broad and interesting subject. At a Philosophy careers event, I heard someone from the BFI library speak about their path into the profession. I got to work applying for any and all graduate traineeships I could, and finally landed one in a law firm’s library in London.
Currently you are a Technical Services Librarian at the House of Commons. Can you describe your current role and the specific skills you use?
I’m based in the Library Resources Section. We’re responsible for acquiring, cataloguing and managing the hard copy and digital collections in the library. I work on maintaining the library management system, ensuring the accuracy of data added to the catalogue, making amendments to the layout and functionality of the catalogue and using the reporting tool to provide information to colleagues on circulation, acquisitions and the collection in general.
Another key skill is understanding how to talk to different groups of people about technology. Much of my time is spent discussing technical issues with our Library Management System support vendor and our in-house digital service. When talking to these people, I can use all the technical jargon needed in order to communicate the problem in question. On the other hand, I might also need to explain to the rest of the library staff or our users that there is a problem. Here I have to strike a balance between accurately communicating the problem, but putting it in terms all of our users can comprehend.
You were previously involved with LISNPN, can you tell us a bit about your role and the skills you gained from your role within the network?
I volunteered to help with the network in 2015, taking over responsibility for maintaining the website, posting on the social media channels, finding people to submit articles for the blog, and growing the network. LISNPN was started in 2010 by Ned Potter and the torch has been passed along as people have moved up and out of the “new professional” bracket.
One thing I learned pretty early on was that a large, amorphous network like LISNPN or NLPN is a difficult thing to manage. I was used to projects I worked on having discrete, definable outcomes: if I wrote an essay at school, it would either be complete or incomplete and I’d get a mark at the end. If I’m asked a research question at work, I either have an answer or I don’t, and find out quickly whether the patron is happy. Maintaining the network never had that sort of clear start and end, or a measurable outcome, so it was difficult to see whether anything I was doing was working or worthwhile. I’ve got to grips with this sort of long-term project work now, but at the time I found it quite confusing and disheartening, not knowing if my efforts had paid off.
I learned some really useful skills from the role. It gave me my first proper experience of planning a meeting – setting an agenda, finding an appropriate time slot, deciding on actions once the meeting had concluded. I was able to gain experience of posting on social media in a professional capacity. Writing for large audiences is a real skill and posting on the LISNPN Facebook and Twitter feeds was a great way to learn how all that worked. If you’re starting out in librarianship, I would definitely recommend getting involved with a new professionals network. It is a fantastic way to meet people at the same stage in the profession.
What tips would you give to aspiring librarians?
Keep learning. I value a lot of what I learned at university, but most of what I use know I have learned through work. There are always opportunities to learn new skills or build on skills you have already gained in formal education.
Find a piece of software, a database or a particular task that people really struggle with and learn it well. Being the ‘go-to’ person for something can help you to form strong relationships with colleagues and make you stand out in the crowd.
Get involved with the wider librarianship community. The best career advice I’ve received has come from people I’ve met in special interest groups or at conferences and events.
What advice would you give to new professionals looking for their first professional post in the legal sector?
Don’t be deterred even if this is the first job you are applying for. You will have plenty of the skills needed for a legal librarian already and the rest can be learned on the job. You do not need to know law to be a law librarian. You do need to be comfortable learning some jargon though. I found it helpful to skim read some of the resources as they passed over my desk in quiet times to get myself more acquainted with “legalese”.
The legal information sector has a lot of professional interest groups that put on regular events. I’d recommend taking advantage of these opportunities to network with fellow legal librarians and to learn more about the sector.
Is there anything you would like to see from NLPN in the future?
NLPN has been doing an amazing job providing advice and help to new professionals. The job shadowing sounds brilliant, and something I would’ve definitely signed up for when I started out. I think one thing that might be useful to put together is a survey of the graduate traineeship landscape. What is available, where is it available and how much do they pay. We can benchmark professional positions quite well now thanks to workforce surveys from CILIP and TFPL/Sue Hill, but at the moment it’s hard to tell where the pre-professional jobs are and whether you’re getting a raw deal.