Sunday, 7 August 2011

Thing 10 : Dreaming spires and lost causes : the path to librarianship

Thing 10 asks us to talk about how we became librarians, and to consider our training and experience and how we arrived at where we are now. For those of us who are a bit long in the tooth this is a lot to consider, so I'm going to confine myself to training in this post. The passage of time also means that a lot of the places and bodies I've been associated with have since changed their names.

I grew up surrounded by books, read at an early age, and always used the public library, although it was quite a trek down a steep hill from our house so I wasn't as frequent a visitor as I might have been. I have an early memory of being ticked off by the librarian for tidying the books! As a teenager I had a great desire to be an archivist (even though a careers talk at school had suggested that there was a minimum height requirement for this, which I didn't reach). I never particularly thought of librarianship as a career, and I certainly didn't consider going down the BLib route.

I was lucky enough to have two particular teachers who had faith in me in the sixth form, and who encouraged me to sit the Oxbridge entrance exams in the lower sixth (the usual procedure then was to wait until after A levels and stay on for an extra term at school). You could say they were my early mentors: success at anything often depends on having someone like this in your life at the right time. I got into Oxford to read English (language and literature), a wonderful three years which allowed me to sit around on the lawn by the river reading novels - and that counted as work! This is all so long ago that perhaps I need to explain that my fees were paid for me and I also had a grant (my parents had to contribute part of this, but not on a scale which broke the bank). I even had a minor scholarship, which was a quaint legacy from the olden times when students did not have grants and fees paid for them, and was given to certain students with no reference to financial need. We were expressly forbidden from taking paid work during term time - it was a disciplinary offence - so no jobs shelving in the library for us.

All good things come to an end. In my third year at Oxford I duly went off to the then Oxford University Appointments Committee (popular name, the Disappointments Committee), and, along with just about everyone else at the time, was told that I should train to be a chartered acountant. No, I said, I don't think so. Further pressed, I said that I was not good at maths, had no interest in economics, law or tax, and didn't think I was suited to accountancy. "Perhaps you're not ready for the world of work at all then". Hmmm. (They never actually explained that chartered accountancy was the route to world domination). My first choice would have been to stay on to do research, but cuts were biting then as now and there was not much opportunity unless you were cleverer than me; I also thought of the civil service, even going as far as a three-day event for potential high fliers (!) but the entrance exams were due to take place on my 21st birthday, and that was enough to put me off (so I can't have wanted it that much). I rejected just about everything sent to me by the Committee except the library graduate traineeship schemes which I liked the sound of (despite the disapproval of my careers lady). To be honest, I fear my main motivation was to stay on at Oxford somehow - there are lots of libraries there, after all! I applied for the SCONUL trainee scheme and various other similar training posts, got nowhere with any of my Oxford choices apart from one interview, but struck lucky with my second SCONUL choice, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

This being the 1980s, the sector was contracting rapidly, and before I could go to my interview, the National Library decided to stop funding the SCONUL traineeship and withdrew its invitation. Then they wrote again, this time saying that they had come to an agreement with St. Deiniol's Library in Hawarden (who up to then had had an arrangement with John Rylands, who had also decided to cut back on its traineeship), and that the post would now be there instead, with a month at the National Library and some time with Clwyd public libraries. It was a bit of an accidental way to get a job, and it wasn't what I had applied for, but it was an interesting year. St. Deiniol's is a residential library and at that time was also a theological college with resident ordinands. It is the Gladstone memorial library, started by Gladstone himself (he lived in the village). Its strengths are theology and history (including Gladstone's own annotated books). Much was expected of the SCONUL trainee (living in, working until 7 every night, working every Saturday, chatting to guests at mealtimes, making teas for the weekend post-ordination and NSM courses). It had atmosphere:  the hand-held lamps planned by Gladstone for looking at low shelves in dark corners were still in use (soon to be banned for health & safety reasons), as were the card catalogues of his design with the original brass rods, and an in-house classification scheme allegedly derived from his ideas. There was little direct funding, and heavy use was made of Manpower Services Commission and Youth Opportunity Programmes, 1980s short term job creation schemes for people who had already been out of work for a while.

My month at the National Library of Wales had a great influence on me, and I can't quite believe it was only a month - it resulted in lasting friendships. Its wonderful flexitime scheme spoiled me for life (I've never managed to work anywhere else that had one since!) It was my first introduction to LC classification (which it later dropped). Clwyd public libraries were also fun, despite being in the middle of a work-to-rule (something to do with data entry and objections to computerisation - hard to believe now!) Scariest moment was being abandoned in Mold Branch Library with a Browne issue system (a child came to my rescue and showed me what to do).

After a year's graduate traineeship you were expected to go on to library school for postgraduate diploma (not a Masters then). My first choice was UCL, which had a good reputation for cataloguing and historical bibliography and for being somewhere from which jobs in academic libraries might follow (rumour had it that Oxford libraries favoured UCL students). I got an interview (much was made of the fact that my application had been posted just before the deadline, and I fell over a bin). I was offered a place, but without a grant. CLW (The College of Librarianship Wales), my second choice, offered me a place without an interview and put me on a reserve list for a grant. I tried to find funding sources and I also applied for other library training posts, but then CLW produced a funded place for me, so once again it was Wales which offered me a chance even when I hadn't made it my first choice. At CLW I chose historical bibliography as my special choice (25% of the course); I enjoyed the projects, I didn't enjoy all the stuff about pre-coordinate and post-coordinate indexing which I didn't understand; I remember being shown "the future", a shiny videodisc the size of an LP. I chose King's College London for a month's placement. By the end of the course I was fairly sure that I wanted to work in an academic library, ideally with older books and with a chance to apply the historical bibliography I had studied. I had no job at the end and (shame on me) I fled the minute the exams were over and rejoined friends in Oxford, where I found myself a room, and hoped to find a job. Most of us left without a job lined up, just a few were seconded from employers they were returning to.

I was lucky to belong to the generation which didn't have to have loans or need to find jobs to get through study. I did my share of studying part-time while working later on, and it's hard work! I was not so lucky in that I graduated and then qualified at a time of cuts and shrinkage in the sector, rather like today.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting post! You must be roughly the same vintage as me I think, probably a few years younger, I came out of library school in 1980, but I recognise alll the funding conditions and the uncertainties over posts. I had a graduate traineeship with a public library (Hampshire) which allegedly guaranteed me a professional post after qualification, but then Thatcher came in and the job disappeared so I was lucky enough to find another one in Nottinghamshire. however, what I found most fascinating is the bit about St Deiniol's. I had never heard of it till recently, can't remember where I came across it earlier. Maybe it was from you as well. Anyway, Gladstone was a bit of a special interest of mine at school so I would love to see it. At university I moved back in time to favour the 17th century becaming very fond of Pepys, and I visited his library at Cambridge a few years ago, so I'd like to do the same for Gladstone.