21 Oct 2020

Reflections from a late-career librarian

Beach outside Freetown courtesy of author

Guest post from Helen Fallon Helen began her library career as a student shelver over 40 years ago. She is currently Deputy Librarian at Maynooth University. Her professional interests include libraries and access to information in the Global South, professional development, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and academic writing. 

James Barnett’s blog post The Accidental Librarian: Career Progression Advice for Early Career Librarians offers lots of useful advice. I’ve used his themes/topics as a framework for this blog post and added suggestions and additional themes, from my perspective as a late career librarian. 

To Qualify or Not to Qualify
James started working in libraries in 2008 and began studying part-time via distance learning for his library qualification in 2015. He notes the value of this work experience for his studies and the development of his awareness of the library profession and the higher education sector. I began working as a part-time student shelver at what is now Maynooth University (MU) in 1978. After graduating, I worked fulltime as a library assistant for one year in the Acquisitions section, before undertaking a fulltime postgraduate diploma in librarianship at University College Dublin (UCD). I worked in a branch of the University library in the evenings.  I graduated in 1982, 33 years before James. 

Vary Your Experience
James is now an Academic Liaison Librarian at Coventry University. He advises changing roles and gaining as much experience as possible in the early years. After qualifying in 1982, in an economically depressed Ireland, I worked for two years as an Assistant Librarian in health science libraries in Saudi Arabia, followed by a year in Bord na Mona (Irish Peat Authority), before I took up what was to be my first permanent post as a Subject Librarian in what is now Dublin City University (DCU) in January 1986. During the first ten years of my career at DCU, I made sideways moves and took on extra responsibilities to build up my work experience.  I also availed of a two-year career break, when I worked with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) lecturing in librarianship at the University of Sierra Leone.  I learned a lot from these experiences and am glad that I didn’t restrict myself to Health Sciences Librarianship, the sector where I first worked as librarian, much as I enjoyed the area. In 1996 I was promoted in DCU and took on the role of leading a team of 16. This experience helped me when I applied for the post of Deputy Librarian at Maynooth University in 2000. I’ve remained in that post for twenty years and it has been an ongoing learning experience.

University of Sierra Leone courtesy of author

Consult Job Descriptions of Roles You find interesting

James suggests consulting job descriptions of posts that you think are potentially interesting and identifying the qualifications, skills, knowledge and experience needed. As a Librarian who regularly interviews, I notice applicants frequently use a standard CV, rather than preparing a CV for a specific post. The process of looking at the requirements of the post and working out what in your work experience or education is relevant to each of the specified requirements, is in itself a useful exercise in identifying your strengths and your skills gaps. I suggest updating your CV every year, even if you are not applying for a post. If nothing has changed, apart from the date, consider why that might be and what you would like to learn in the coming year.

Embrace CPD Opportunities
James suggests getting involved in projects and activities at work, that are outside your regular day-to-day duties.  This is sound advice. In addition to learning new skills by working in cross sectional teams, you get to know your colleagues better and to learn from them.  If attending courses or conferences share the knowledge gained with others. The process of writing up key learning points soon after an event is a good discipline.  In addition to encouraging you to reflect on your learning, it offers a way of sharing your learning with others and this is very much in keeping with the spirit of librarianship.  There are CPD opportunities in reading library journals, in writing and in participating in events that don’t require extensive investment. An example that comes to mind is the Library Ireland Job Swap scheme. This takes place during Library Ireland Week in November each year.  MU Library staff have gone on one-day exchanges to local libraries and facilitated return visits. In addition to gaining new insights some have published about their experience (Gardiner, 2013; Finn et al, 2016).

Change is constant in the world of work and the library landscape has totally transformed since I began work as a student assistant 42 years ago.  The skillset required for librarians is now different to what it was then and there are new and emerging roles. Two articles by John Cox, Librarian at NUI Galway, are illuminating in that regard (Cox, J. 2016, Cox, J. 2017).   Consider asking more senior members of library staff questions like What skills do you think I need to develop in order to progress my career?

courtesy of author 

Get involved with your Professional Association
I’ve changed James’ title to “professional association” rather than CILIP and here I focus on the Library Association of Ireland (LAI).  This voluntary body represents all library sectors. Serving on an LAI committee, you can gain valuable skills, including minute taking, budget management, project and event planning and enhanced communication skills.  Being on a committee, and perhaps having a role such as secretary or Treasurer, will also look good on your CV.

The LAI now offers three  professional awards: Associate, Senior Associate and Fellow.  I undertook the Fellowship in 2010 and found it a really useful way to reflect on my career to date and to consider going forward and to publish an article on the topic (Burns & Fallon, 2012). The LAI also offers the Professional Knowledge Skills Base (PKSB), developed by CILIP, to help you identify skills gaps. Laura Connaughton’s article offers useful insights on the programme (Connaughton, 2016).

Beyond James’ six areas of advice, I would add the following, particularly for mid-career librarians.

Get experience managing people
This is key to advancing your library career. In the early stages, it may be quite basic management experience, such as managing work experience students or an ERASMUS or Transition Year placement. Grab those opportunities. If you can’t get the opportunity to manage people, take on the management of projects, particularly cross-sectional projects, where you get to co-ordinate and perhaps lead activities and deal with issues which will arise from time to time. 

Move out of your comfort zone, invite people for coffee/lunch. If you are in a University, meet with academic colleagues and ask about their teaching/research.  Get their opinions on matters of mutual concern, such as reading lists and information skills. In addition to being on committees within the Library, participate in committees relating to the wider organisation. Try to contribute something at every meeting, though this may be daunting at first. Committees are a great way to market the Library as well as increasing your visibility in the organisation.  Sometimes, if you are new to a committee, it can be useful to take on a very specific role, such as secretary/note taker.  I find that helps me learn quickly about what is going on.

Undertake Further Formal Qualifications
As you move further into your career think about what additional qualifications might be of benefit for career progression.  In 1996, I completed a part-time Master’s degree in Women’s Studies at UCD. I was able to align parts of the course with my work. My thesis was on gender and the internet, a timely topic as the internet was in its infancy. The department published the thesis as the book Wow: Women on the Web (Fallon, 1998.) Having the MA and the book enhanced my CV substantially and I believe helped me, in 1996, to progress to a more senior post in DCU. Later, in 2015, I completed a certificate in Adult & Community Education at MU.  This had a strong focus on group work and the adult learning principles of Paulo Freire. I run occasional world cafés and other group activities and again was able to align my projects to my day-to-day work. My main presentation was on using social media effectively. 

Doing further formal education programmes can be a great learning experience. It also demonstrates to prospective employers that you are motivated and have the commitment and drive to complete a programme, and by thinking creatively you can generally align your learning with aspects of your work.  

Be Visible
In addition to being visible in your organisation, be visible nationally and if possible internationally. Be active in your professional body, present at conferences, have a social media presence, publish. As you progress through your career it is likely you will specialise in certain areas. Develop expertise and a reputation in those areas and keep up to date with new developments.

Ideally move library
I’m immensely grateful I have had the opportunity to work in a number of different libraries. The longest periods were twelve years in DCU and twenty years (so far) at Maynooth University. The former had its origins in the 1980s, the latter in 1796 and have very different cultures.

It’s Your Career!
Don’t forget that. Your Library can offer opportunities, both formal and informal, to help you learn and develop in your career, but ultimately it’s up to you to take ownership of your career development.

Finally, enjoy work. I feel enormously privileged to belong to such an interesting and transforming profession in a time, and in a part of the world, where there is so much opportunity.

Burns, Jane and Fallon, Helen (2012). The Fellowship of the Library Association of Ireland (FLAI): Reflections and Guidelines. An Leabharlann. The Irish Library, 21 (2). pp. 6-9
Connaughton, Laura (2016). Library Association of Ireland launches Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB). An Leabharlann. The Irish Library, 25 (2), pp. 34-35
Cox, J. (2016). Communicating New Library Roles to Enable Digital Scholarship: A Review Article.  New Review of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 22 (2-3), pp. 132-147
Cox, J. (2017). New Directions for Academic Libraries in Research Staffing: A Case Study at National University of Ireland Galway. New Review of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 23(2-3), pp. 110-124
Fallon, H. (1998 ). Women on the Web. Dublin: UCD
Gardiner, B. (2013)  Library Ireland Week Staff Exchange Scheme: Diary of an Exchange. An Leabharlann. The Irish Library, 22 (1). pp. 23-24
Finn, M. et al. (2016) The Library Ireland Week (LIW) job swop initiative Experiences from Maynooth University Library. Sconul Focus, 67. pp. 68-74


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