Library careers: routes in and what does this type of work actually involve?

This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.

I participated in the Library Routes project in 2009:

Library Routes – How I became a librarian

I have taken part in the Library “Day in the Life” project twice.  Many people blog, tweet or otherwise record their day in terms of how long they spent answering emails etc, but I wanted to take a difference approach in which I blogged about a specific aspect of my job each day.

Round 5, July 2010

Welcome to Laura’s Dark Archive! – in which I launched this blog, described my current role and explained my route into working in libraries

In print or on screen? Investigating the reading habits of undergraduates using photo-interviews – the summary of a presentation I had attended

Library Day in the Life round 5, day 1 – on the theme of  “what else do librarians do all day?”

Visit from another college librarian – explaining the context of the library I work in and the importance of professional networking with colleagues from other libraries

Collection management – outlining the balance between acquisitions coming into the library and the need to weed the collections

Project Management – describing the various projects I had on the go in the library that summer and how their timescales fitted together

“Chips and Mash” Mashed Libraries event, Huddersfield, 30th July 2010 – summarising an event I had attended

Round 6 – January 2011

Gather ye data while ye may – to highlight the importance of data gathering and monitoring

Library Committee – explaining the formal meetings I have each term in which library policies and procedures are ratified or changed

One-to-one meetings – to highlight the importance of my role as a manager within my job

Knowledge capture – explaining the importance of shared information in any team

Philip Pullman adds his voice to the campaign to defend public libraries – libraries in the news

Top tips for getting things done – some advice for how to work efficiently


I don’t think my path into librarianship was unusual: there is quite a lot of cross-pollination between careers in libraries and education – but I find that I am unusual in having a background in science.

If you’re considering a career in libraries, try to offer as wide a range of skills as you can.  Customer service is important, as are numeracy and skills in strategy, analysis and planning.  Being a manager of other people is a part of most jobs above a certain grade level, and it’s a great opportunity for your own development too.  I would like to see more people coming into the profession with a positive attitude to one day being a manager.

Top tips for getting things done

  1. Five Minute Rule: if a task will take you five minutes or less to do, do it straight away.
  2. As well as using a calendar to record meetings, use it to block in time for doing particular tasks.  This will help you estimate how much of the rest of the day you have free, and help you avoid scheduling meetings at points when you have a lot of other projects to work on.  If you share your calendar with colleagues, you can mark these blocks of time as ‘Private’ so that only you can read the details of your appointment.
  3. Do your most difficult tasks at the time of day when you are most alert – for me, this is mornings.  I save more routine jobs for the afternoons when I am feeling less energetic.
  4. Spend the last 15 minutes of your day preparing to hit the ground running tomorrow morning.  I like to ensure my desk is tidy and my tasks for tomorrow are planned so that I know where to begin when I arrive in the morning.

Use tools to remember things so you don’t have to:

  1. Create folders for your sent emails: mine are called ‘Awaiting Reply’ and ‘Finished’.  Most emails I send are moved to the ‘Finished’ folder, but if I need to make sure the message is followed up, I put it in ‘Awaiting Reply’.  A few times a week, I check over what’s in the ‘Awaiting Reply’ folder and either move it to ‘Finished’ or chase up the person if they haven’t yet replied.
  2. Use a to-do list such as Tasks in MS Outlook.  Give each task a due date.  If the due date comes and there are more urgent things to do, bump the task to another future date but add to the notes field that you’ve done so.  When it comes around again, either (a) do it! or (b) move it to your ‘Dream list of non-urgent things to do when I have more time/money/staff’ or (c) if it really doesn’t need to be done, delete it.

Wrangle your email:

  1. Use rules to automatically move emails (especially from distribution lists) into folders.  Catch up on that folder once a few messages have accumulated – they are unlikely to be urgent.
  2. Aim for Inbox Zero: having read each message in your inbox, decide if it needs (a) just to be read, (b) a reply or (c) a longer action – then (a) move it to a folder, (b) do it or (c) add it to your tasks list.

Most important of all, be prepared to change your plans when circumstances change.  Some days it’s not possible to get everything done, especially when other things crop up, as they always will.  Be kind to yourself if you fall short of your ideal organised self, and start fresh the next day.

Philip Pullman adds his voice to the campaign to defend public libraries

I found this story in The Guardian.  You can read his full speech here.

Here’s my favourite bit:

Does he [Mr Keith Mitchell, leader of Oxfordshire county council] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?

I hope that the Library Day in the Life project is helping to educate more people about what it is like to work as a librarian and what the job involves. It’s still nice to have the thank-you and a cup of tea too…

Knowledge capture

It’s funny how much knowledge is tied up in people and unrecorded anywhere else.  In my team, we try to capture some of this institutional memory by creating staff manuals.

Rather than have the staff manual as a continuous work in progress, it is reviewed and refreshed whenever something changes e.g. a member of staff joins or leaves, or a new procedure or task arises.

As well as adding new information, periodic reviews help identify any information which is obsolete or needs updating.  For example, when there are staffing changes, it is good practice to changes usernames and passwords for accounts, especially those which are linked to credit cards.

Keeping a record of old copies of staff manuals is also helpful in building a history of your organisation and how things used to be.  It’s amazing how quickly things change, and looking back on it can give you a great sense of achievement when you see how far you and your team have come!

One-to-one meetings

My top tip for developing a good working relationship with people who are your direct reports is to schedule regular 1:1 meetings with each person.

The frequency of the meetings varies according to each person’s circumstances.  When I was new in my role, I met with each of my team every week.  Once we began to know each other better, the frequency changed to once a fortnight.

Although as a team we spend most of every working day together, the 1:1 meetings create a dedicated space for a more private and longer conversation.

I save up non-urgent points for discussion in between meetings, and each person also has their own areas of responsibility which I ask them to update me about at each meeting.  Action points are agreed and I keep a brief record of each meeting for future reference.

Although the process is quite formal, the atmosphere is relaxed and I encourage my team members to speak freely and hope that in this way, any small worries can be addressed before they become bigger problems.

Library Committee

Today, I am preparing for Library Committee which meets in 3rd Week of each term*.

Representatives from a variety of groups in the college sit on this committee, including the Junior, Middle and Senior Common Rooms (JCR, MCR and SCR = undergraduate, postgraduate and academic bodies respectively), the Principal, the Senior Tutor and the Librarian.

The procedures for Library Committee are quite formal: I have to prepare a set of papers which includes the agenda and a variety of supporting paperwork for the committee to consider in the week before the meeting.

This term, the agenda items include a plan for tackling the conservation and cataloguing of the Rare Books collection, matters relating to staffing, circulation statistics showing rates of borrowing and returning items during the last 3 terms and the impact of switching library management systems from GEAC Advance to Aleph in July 2011.

Agenda items are discussed in the meeting with input from JCR, MCR and SCR representatives.  If all goes well, my proposals will be passed and I can then begin work on implementing them.

*Note on terms at the University of Oxford:

There are 3 terms in each academic year: Michaelmas (October-December), Hilary (January-March) and Trinity (April-June).  Each term is 8 weeks long (Full Term) and these weeks are numbered 1-8.  Noughth Week and Ninth Week are also referred to although they are not part of Full Term.  The week before 0th Week is sometimes called Minus 0th Week or Minus 1st Week.  I’m not sure which is mathematically correct…

Gather ye data while ye may

Many of the tasks librarians do are now becoming better-known outside the profession:  reader services (managing lending and dealing with enquiries), technical services (cataloguing), making decisions about purchases and deselection, teaching information literacy, administering budgets, working on policies, marketing the library and its collections and services…

However, gathering data is a really important part of running a library, and I would like to give it some attention today.

Collecting information about how a library service works is important in order to evaluate its effectiveness and inform its future direction.  Much of this information is captured in numerical form.

At the moment, I am creating data snapshots of the following:

  1. How fast returned books are re-shelved.  Measuring how many books library staff can re-shelve in an hour allows me to plan my team’s time and adapt to busy periods by increasing shelving hours when I know that rates of return will be high (at the end of the academic year, in particular).
  2. Usage of print periodicals: in my library, we take around 40 academic journal titles in print form (as well as online).  By asking library users to return a paper slip each time they use an issue of a print periodical, informed decisions can be made in the next budget year about the cost/benefit of maintaining each print subscription.
  3. Demands of enquiry work on library staff.  In my library, we do not have a reference/enquiry desk, but the library office door is always open and students are encouraged to come and ask us for help.  We also respond to queries via email and phone calls.  The absence of an enquiry desk can give the impression that the library does not handle enquiry work, so keeping a record of the types of enquiries and time spent answering them is useful when compiling a summary of the work done by library staff each year.

Gathering data is a time-consuming activity, so I aim to create data snapshots by measuring certain factors during particular intervals, for example 2 weeks out of a given term.  Although it is difficult to choose typical periods to monitor, and there will always be some confounding factors, I find that it helps the team to focus on the data-gathering projects for short periods rather than having to record data on everything we might measure every day.

For data which can be extracted from the library management system, I do record a variety of statistics throughout the year, for example:

  1. Checkout and checkin stats by membership group and material type – these numbers show how many items of different types (e.g. books; DVDs) are borrowed and returned by different segments of the library user community (e.g. undergraduate students; academics)
  2. My budget! I keep a master spreadsheet of all expenses and a very few incomes relating to the library budget.  Each amount is given a cost code which indicates its sub-budget e.g. Books, Periodicals, Library Materials.  Within the Book cost code, each amount is further broken down by subject area.  All of this information is then included in a pivot table in Microsoft Excel, which I use to see the balance remaining in each cost centre.

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is tidying up a messy collection of information in Excel and producing a clear summary of what it means.

Ned, I take your point that by only measuring what is happening in our physical library spaces, we are not taking account of changing behaviour and increasing use of libraries’ online facilities.   However, the role of my library as a physical space is still its most important aspect, so I’m starting with that for now.