Sunday, 6 November 2011

Thing 20 : library roots and routes

Thing 20 asks us to blog about our library roots (how we got into libraries in the first place) and routes (our career paths to date, and to add the story to the Library routes project wiki.

I have already talked about how I came to be a librarian here, and my early experience up to chartership here, so I won't go over it all again. While all this was going on, I was on another trajectory, towards ordination in the Anglican church, which ultimately came to nothing but is relevant here because it was the main reason for my switch from academic to public libraries. My Oxford degree and academic library job didn't press the right buttons in the church at the time, so while jumping through various hoops I also changed from full-time to part- time work so as to gain experience as a lay assistant in a parish (as a volunteer), and from the so-called "ivory tower" (ha!) to more immediate contact with ordinary Londoners through working in a busy central London reference library. The public library post outlasted my attempt to become ordained, and eventually needing more than a part time income I obtained an even more part-time post back in the University of London which I fitted round my public library job. The main purpose of the second job was to edit the annual "Theses in Progress in Commonwealth Studies", which has only this year gone online only, and to do some cataloguing at times of the year when there was less to do for "TIP". Although my reason for doing it was not the usual one, I think a lot of people, particularly women, end up working part-time in librarianship, which can change the course of your career. I was ready to return to full-time work at a time of cuts in the public sector (plus ├ža change ...) and in 1991 the university post came to an end and the public library one was scaled back to the half-time hours I had originally been employed on (trying to remember now what was going on in 1991 - probably much the same as today!) This left me with no option other than to seek a full-time job elsewhere (astonishingly, people do need money to live on - coming to that in Thing 22). 

My next move was to the English-Speaking Union, where I was Librarian & Information Officer for two years. Being a solo librarian is another interesting experience! I was rather isolated in the organisation, and I certainly needed to be an advocate both to members and to other staff. I needed to get out to promote the library, but if I did that it meant the library was unstaffed and there was nobody to do the day-to-day work, which wasn't ideal. I did get out to lots of other organisations, and I was also involved in the ESU's literary lunches and evening events. I wasn't there long enough to make a real difference, but I did unearth details of the defunct Travelling Librarian Award and revived it in 1994. There was a little hiatus after I left but I'm glad to say my successor picked it up again and it is now flourishing once more in association with CILIP.


"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life ..."
I don't think I was tired of life, but I was very conscious that if I stayed in London I could look forward to many more years of bedsits and rooms in shared houses belonging to other people, and I wanted to see some of my own possessions again. All this time I had still been gently moving towards another shot at selection for ordination, but in 1994 the parish I was attached to imploded (nothing to do with me, but it resulted in the sudden departure of my sponsoring vicar and it meant I was back to square one). I was particularly, though not exclusively, looking for work in Wales, and the opportunity that came up was, once again, part-time, with the then South Glamorgan County Council, for which the writing was already on the wall with local government reorganisation scheduled for 1996. My post was as a Senior Branch Librarian in the north Cardiff suburb of Rhiwbina (a garden village), as a job-share. The post survived the reorganisation when it was transferred to the new unitary authority for Cardiff. With this post I filled a number of gaps in my experience - some very worthwhile and some not so much fun. Lending experience, and stock selection for it, were really useful, although we soon lost the latter to supplier selection (somebody please tell Tim Coates that this has been going on for years!), also lots of hands-on children's activities, story times and author visits. Less appealing, though doubtless useful experience, was the daily struggle with the timetable, trying to cover the opening hours with not enough staff and negotiating endless requests for relief from other branches trying to do the same thing, and, even worse, anything to do with the boiler or the roof. How I sympathise with Philip Larkin's boiler experiences in his first (public library) job!  How I grew to hate that (oil-fired) boiler! The library was at the heart of the community in Rhiwbina. I seriously hope that the rumours currently circulating about the possibility of a volunteer-run library in Rhiwbina are misinformed.

I stayed there for eight years job-sharing with the same job-share partner, but I also, in the year after arriving in Cardiff, managed to get part-time work on the retroconversion project at Cardiff University, specifically to catalogue the Salisbury Library (the Welsh/Celtic/Border Counties collection), so once again, as in London, I was splitting my time between the public library and an academic library, sometimes on the same day. The retrocon project was for two years, but I was kept on on a number of very short term projects and then became a permanent cataloguer at the university. When my son was born I knew I would find it difficult to do both, and I had to think carefully about which one I should relinquish. The public library job was on a higher grade and I liked the branch and the area, but it did involve Saturdays, and, early as it might seem to anyone wanting to use it, late nights (6 pm and 7 pm) are very late if you need to look after a small child.  Formal childcare ends at 6 pm, which means collecting child and therefore leaving work before that - and that is without all the extra times when you are summoned earlier because of child illness (I hadn't got as far as thinking about school holidays and INSET days!) It was already difficult covering the opening hours of the public library with the staff we had, and in fact I and my job-share partner did a higher proportion of late nights between us than a single full-time librarian would have done. I could foresee problems if I were simultaneously the person needing to leave early and the person trying to make other staff stay on later than they had been expecting. The thing that really swung it in the end was a silly bureaucratic thing - my baby was born 11 weeks early, which according to the rules meant that my maternity leave also began early. The rules therefore expect you to return to work earlier than you were originally planning even though you have had a baby requiring hospitalisation (whereas, if the threatened early birth had not happened but I had been sent home and told to stop work and stay in bed for 11 weeks and had the baby at the appointed time, I could have stayed off as planned). A baby born that early does not come out looking like a full term baby, whatever the date on the birth certificate, and in the early days you cannot be sure what additional problems there may be. I had no child care in place for an early return and in any case it was not appropriate. The council stuck to the letter of the law and said I had to come back early, although I could have taken the four weeks' emergency leave allowed with a child under 5 in one go to defer the date (but what would I have done if I had had an emergency after that?) whereas the university allowed quite a long period of unpaid leave to be added to the statutory six months. It has, of course, all become a bit easier since then!

That is how I ended up jumping off the fence on the academic side, since when my cataloguing post has been upgraded and I have also acquired additional subject liaison responsibilities, so I am no longer "only" a cataloguer. There is obviously a consistent pattern though - I may only have one employer now but once again I have two roles and I am not in the same building each day!

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