There are as many routes into the field of library and information services as there are stars in the sky, and all have their advantages and disadvantages. Some people know from early on that this is the right career for them, and follow a clear path from undergrad degree to graduate traineeship to Library and Information Studies MA to permanent job. Some start out volunteering or take on a series of internships before settling into a paid position. Others end up working in more specialist areas (such as conservation or manuscript curating) after undergoing postgraduate study or training. And some, like me, seem to take a very roundabout route.
Please bear in mind that as I work in academic libraries in the United Kingdom, my experiences relate more to this type of library in this part of the world.
I worked as practically everything else before becoming a library assistant. I have worked as sales assistants in patisseries, helped make gourmet, handmade chocolates, babysat, worked as a newspaper subeditor, been a freelance book-reviewer, tutored children, taught undergraduates and even worked at the circus. All of this made me very good at working with a wide range of people, confident at talking to just about anyone and adapting my approach to customer service to suit almost any situation or configuration of people.
When I was in my early twenties, I went back to university for postgraduate study in a humanities field, doing first an MPhil and then a PhD. Although I was funded by scholarships to do so, I wanted to supplement my income by taking on part-time, non-academic work. I was also alert to the fact that academic jobs were extremely scarce, and that it would therefore be a good idea to keep my working history ticking over while I was studying so that I wouldn’t have a four-year gap in my CV, as I had seen friends and fellow PhD students struggling to convince non-academic employers that their postgraduate research demonstrated their ability to work in non-academic fields.
Taking a job in my own faculty library seemed the logical thing to do. I already knew how the books were shelved and basic things about how the library operated, and the library always had a handful of postgraduate students working as invigilators, so once a position became available, I applied and got it. Invigilators in this library worked evenings and weekends, and were responsible for shelving, book-processing, and some admin tasks, as well as customer service. I found the work immensely rewarding, a nice change of pace from solitary academic research and a chance to engage with people – colleagues and readers – who were not postgraduates in my narrow field. I realised very early on that the life of a library worker suited me much more than that of an academic, and began applying for jobs in academic libraries in the final year of my PhD.
Essentially a month after I submitted my thesis, I was offered a library assistant job in another faculty library. I initially combined this part-time job with thesis-editing and rewrites, and when that was finally done, I began work in a third faculty library. This involves a lot of rushing around, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The variety – of books, of readers, of approaches to technology and social media, of library environments – appeals to me.
As you can see, my path to library services was a bit unorthodox, although, in my experience, only in the specifics. I have worked with many librarians and library assistants who started their working lives doing something quite different. The important thing seems to be getting experience working in a library environment and taking on opportunities for training and learning whenever possible. Contrary to the stereotype, librarians are a chatty, sociable bunch, keen to take to social media and offer encouragement, help and advice, so even if your library or institution can’t offer much in the way of formal training, there are many ways to learn indirectly. And one of the truly wonderful aspects of library services is that you are always being taught new things on the job by the readers, in much the same way as teachers are able to learn from their students.