15 Dec 2020

Reflections of a mid-career librarian: put your best foot ... sideways

Michaela Hollywood recently took up the post of Assistant Librarian – Engagement and Information Services at Maynooth University Library.


I recently took up a new job at Maynooth University Library. After 20 years working as a Systems Librarian at Dublin City University, I decided it was time for a change. 

I started my library career in 1996 as a Library Assistant at, what is now, The University of Roehampton London. I really loved this job, and it was a great introduction to working in an academic library. I was one of twelve people on a graduate trainee programme designed to provide graduates with work experience before going on to study for a Masters in Library and Information Studies.

In January 1998, my partner Paul and I left London to move to Dublin. Paul had got a job as an English Literature lecturer in Maynooth University (funny how things turn out!). We thought we’d come over and have a bit of an adventure in Ireland for a couple of years. In March of that year, having been in Ireland for only a couple of months, I took up a post as a Library Assistant at the issue desk in Dublin City University Library. 



I continued working part-time in DCU while I completed a masters in library and information Studies in University College Dublin. Quickly after qualifying I was fortunate to get a project post as an Assistant Librarian in the Systems department at DCU, and then very soon after I got a permanent position as Systems Librarian in DCU.

Roll on 20 years. My career had almost exclusively been in DCU. I started to think that it was time to change my job and time to change my employer. Sounds simple!    


Taking time to reflect

There are huge benefits from being in the same job for a long time, especially a technical job like a Systems Librarian. I knew I was very good at my job. I had that confidence that experience brings. A lot of my time was spent dealing with problems, and my experience taught me that there are very few problems that cannot be resolved in one way or another. There is, though, a flip side to being in the same job for a long time. It’s hard to imagine yourself doing anything different. It can be comfortable being in the same place, with the same people. And the thoughts of changing things, of leaving all that is comfortable, can simply make you freeze. 

I was in a situation where many of my work friends and colleagues were of a similar age. We all got permanent library jobs within a few years of each other. A lot of us raised children along the way, and our jobs allowed us combine raising a family and working. It suited very nicely. We had no reason to change things. Occasionally someone would get promoted to Sub-Librarian, but that didn’t happen very often. So what do you do, career wise, when you are a librarian with 20 years’ experience? Do you wait and hope that a Sub-Librarian’s job is advertised, a job that interests you in a place where you want to work? How long do you wait?  These were all questions I asked myself.

After mulling things over for some time, and discussing a few ideas with family, I came up with a two-year plan. But before doing anything I first asked myself a question: did I still want to be a librarian? I gave myself some time to think this over carefully. What else could I do? I did some research on doing a Data Analytics post-graduate course, but while the subject interested me, I knew I didn’t want to go back to studying, especially while working and caring for two teenagers. Also, I felt that this was too related to my role as a Systems Librarian. So, after a while I was happy to discover that the answer was yes, I did still want to be an academic librarian. First step taken.

Making a Move

The Irish academic library world is quite small and that makes it relatively easy to keep track of jobs being advertised. I started to do some research into academic libraries within commuting distance. I explored their websites and social media platforms to see what kind of services they provide. I looked at job websites, mailing lists, and social media to get an idea of what kinds of library jobs were out there. It was on Twitter that I saw my current post mentioned. 

In early 2020, an Assistant Librarian post was advertised – Engagement and Information Services Librarian in Maynooth University! I read the job description and I could feel this sense of excitement as I read and then re-read the details. I texted my sister in the UK to tell her about this great job that had come up, and how I thought that this was the job for me. The only problem was that it was at the same grade as I was on, it wouldn’t be a promotion. Would it look bad that I was moving sideways rather than up?  My sister simply said that sideways is good, and not to worry. It would give me new experiences and new skills. It was then that I came to the realization that a sideways step is ok. It’s more than ok, it’s brilliant!  But first, how did I get here?

I hadn’t been for a job interview for about 20 years, and in fact I hadn’t been to many job interviews prior to that. I do remember thinking that I had been quite good at them though. I needed to work on my confidence to bring it back up. If you haven’t been for an interview in 20 years you cannot imagine yourself in that situation. You cannot imagine yourself in a different job. I remember thinking that if a Systems Librarian job came up, I couldn’t possibly apply for it as I wouldn’t have the required technical skills, despite being very capable and very confident in my own Systems job!  Somehow you have to find the confidence to imagine yourself in a new job and taking that step to apply for it.  

I felt I hadn’t been as visible in the library world as I perhaps should have been. I wasn’t on any library-related committees outside the University and I realised that, although I had worked in DCU for over 20 years, I didn’t know many people in the Irish Library World and they didn’t know me. When my children were young, I decided that having a good work-life balance was a priority for me. I worked hard at doing my best in my job, but I didn’t put myself forward to be on any committees. I didn’t go to many conferences.  I avoided situations that made collecting my children from school awkward, and consequently didn’t really get to network with the larger library community. I needed to get myself out there, and so was delighted when I was able to represent DCU Library on the CONUL Conference organising committee. This was a great experience and a real opportunity to meet lots of people from academic libraries across the country, and for people to get to know me too!  

Updating my CV after such a long time seemed like a mammoth task and a little daunting, but once I sat down and focussed on what I had done and achieved over the years it wasn’t so difficult. Over the last few years I have managed a number of large projects in DCU Library and this was something I highlighted in my CV. Through the projects I was able to demonstrate that I had many skills, and also some experience of managing people. 

I applied for the post in Maynooth University Library in February 2020 and was invited to an interview in March. Unfortunately, the interview was postponed as we had to go into lockdown due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The interview took place in April via Zoom, which was definitely a new experience. I actually liked doing the interview via Zoom as it meant I was sitting in my own living room and I liked the little bit of distance that online gave me. It made me feel quite comfortable, so I was able to relax and answered all the questions with confidence. I put a lot of preparation into the interview. It felt like I was preparing for an exam.  At DCU Library I had the opportunity to do an online course on “Preparing for an Interview”. I studied the job specification and identified all of the required and desired competencies. I made sure that I had two examples of each so that I could pull on these easily in the interview. I identified the key topics that I thought would shape the questions that the panel would ask. I got my sister and my husband to conduct mock interviews. On reflection, I think that this thorough preparation was of huge benefit to me.

 


I am now two months in my new job and I love it. Everyone has been very welcoming. The role is very different to my old one, but also reassuringly familiar at the same time. Starting a new job during a pandemic is very strange, to say the least. At the moment I have a mix of working from home and being on site. Most of the other library staff are not on site which means that I haven’t met a lot of my new colleagues in person yet. I have moved from managing a small team of two people to managing a team of twenty plus. The job can be very challenging at times, but that’s good. I know that I have good people around me for support should I need it. Changing jobs after 20 years has, for me, been a great experience and I would strongly recommend it for anyone considering a similar move.


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