Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Across the sectors and through the decades

I qualified as a librarian in the early 1980s and during the course of my career I have been fortunate enough to work in public libraries, industrial libraries and academic libraries, gaining different experience in each sector and being able to bring ideas with me from one sector to another.

The public sector

I started my career in public libraries, initially working as an assistant on the issues and enquiries desk. I travelled to different branch libraries and experienced life on the mobile library, as well as shadowing the reference and children’s librarians. After a while you got to know your customers; the same people would come in on the same day each week, and would be looking for similar reading matter each time. Even in a busy town library it was possible to develop a rapport with the regulars and provide them with the service they expected. I thoroughly enjoyed the mass 9am shelves too!! This was a real bonding experience and helped to get one familiar with the library stock. It might also amuse you to learn that the public library had just moved from the Browne issue system to an automated one – Plessey light pens and barcodes had just been introduced, and we were excited to be part of the IT revolution!!

*Most remembered book: the westerns of J T Edson!

My second role in public libraries took me behind the scenes, where I supervised a team of retrospective cataloguing assistants. This role was very much out of the gaze of the public, but nevertheless, one had to be mindful of the users when deciding what areas of stock to re-catalogue/re-classify next so as to cause minimum disruption. It was during this role that I gained experience of a couple of things that I now realise were extremely important in furthering my career and my love for that career: cataloguing/classification was fun, interesting and rewarding and we became intimately familiar with library stock; supervision of a team was the stepping stone to managing a team; and you can never quite sit outside the hierarchy! This particular role was interesting, not just for its cat/class operation, but also because the project was run by the staff at County Hall, so my training and overall direction came from them, but working on the ground in the town libraries I had to liaise closely with the town and district librarians!

*Most remembered book: In and out of the box (a biography of Robert Dougall)

I was quite glad when the time came to move from public libraries, not because I didn’t like the sector, but more because I got fed up with the train commute and was lucky enough to secure a job about a mile away from my home.

The industrial sector

Industrial libraries proved to be very different from what I was used to in the public library, the only similarities being with the smaller public library, as the firm’s library was quite small and it was great to develop a professional relationship with so many of the staff. The huge difference, of course, was in the information needs of the staff, so much so, that the service was actually divided into the Library, staffed by a librarian, and the Information Service, staffed by information scientists.

As an assistant librarian I was responsible for ordering, receiving, cataloguing, classifying, processing and shelving all the new books. I issued books, stamped newspaper and also helped out with inter-library loans, and occasionally journals work when necessary. Staff would come into the library for a variety reasons, and as in the public library it was easy to recognise their information needs, as they would come in regularly, often to consult the same journal or resource. They were all specialists in their field, and it was my role to help them with their “quick reference” enquiries, often referring to the Merck Index, the BP (British Pharmacopeia), Martindale or the BNF (British National Formulary), but I made sure to steer clear of Chem Abs!! I was not allowed to do any in-depth enquires: these were assigned to the information scientists, the staff who had first degrees in biochemistry etc., and experience of using expensive dial-up information tools, like Dialog!

One of my proudest moments was producing a series of leaflets for staff outlining the services offered by the Library and the Information Service. I was keen to get people who didn’t normally use the library to realise we had something to offer almost everyone, and this was one way of drawing them in. I was also involved in helping to develop an automated in-house library system; remember, we are still talking early 1980s here, and computerised library systems were still in their infancy, and although we looked at ALICE, even that was too grand for our purposes. I also remember having in-depth discussions about the principles of AACR2! However, at this particular firm there was limited scope for career progression so I eventually secured a post in an academic library.

*Most remembered book: The chemistry of heterocyclic compounds (series)

The academic sector

And once I got there I realised just how similar the industrial library and the academic library were. It had never really occurred to me before, but I had got used to dealing with people with doctorates and people whose interests lay in the chemistry of heterocyclic compounds, anti-oxidants, free radicals, anti-coagulants etc., all areas that had never entered my vocabulary until I took up the post in the industrial library: My father was an industrial chemist, working with nylon, but I didn’t even do a chemistry “O” level!

The interaction with the users was, however, somewhat different as initially I was dealing with issue desk functions - arguing about fines (we didn’t have those in the industrial library), claims returned items (we never lost a book in the industrial library!) and people activating the security alarm (we didn’t have a security system in the industrial library!) I soon got fed up of that, so I moved into cataloguing!!

I moved from a one-person cataloguing (and doing everything else) operation to a department of cataloguers! That was one BIG difference! We ordered humungous amounts of books! We checked in thousands of journal issues a week, and the inter-library loans department was incredibly busy! We all took turns at staffing the enquiry desk – where I should say that being in the cataloguing department was tremendously helpful in knowing about new resources – but relied on the subject specialists (librarians, not information scientists) to do the complicated, expensive dial-up research. These days, of course, this doesn’t happen: Users input vague words into discovery systems and out pop millions of potentially useful references! 

Both positions I held in the academic library – at the issue desk and in the cataloguing department - were at team leader level, so my experience of supervising staff in my earlier roles, proved to be a great foundation on which to build.

*Most remembered book: Kotler Principles of marketing


In summary, in my experience the principles of librarianship are remarkably similar, regardless of the sector in which they are being applied, as are the principles of management. But it is the application of these and other principles that can highlight the difference: UDC is perhaps not best suited to a public library collection but may be common to both an industrial library and academic library; the buying power of a small industrial library is never going to match that of a huge county library service, nor a large academic library; journals/periodicals/serials do not feature much in the public library, but are primary research material in the industrial and academic sectors; selection of material may, however, be quite different in all three sectors, as a public library service may rely heavily on publishers’ lists, the industrial library may simply buy stock that is requested by its staff, and an academic library may purchase stock requested by the academic staff and by the specialist subject librarians; to name but a few. 
I’ve spent 32 years in the profession, and after 26 years, I am still at that same academic library. There have been enormous changes during that time – automated library management systems that included issue functions, an OPAC, and inter-library loans; dial-up information sources; databases on CDs; the internet; electronic resources; student fees; tightening budgets etc. – but the principles of helping people find the information they need, by organising it properly and being able to retrieve it easily, have remained a constant, not only through time, but also across the sectors.