I met Ruth Collingwood for the first time at a mutual friend’s birthday dinner earlier this year. We all went through the whole meal chatting excitedly, drinks were flowing and Burger and Lobster was eaten. Then towards the end of the meal my friend who organised the evening said ‘Hey Roh, so Ruth is a Librarian!’ I literally choked on my chips – ‘What?! WHAT!?!!!!’ I said. ‘A Librarian!?!?’ proceeding to monopolise the rest of the evening by quizzing poor Ruth about every detail of her job.
For someone who loves books as I do, I could not fathom getting to spend my working days in a Library. In some way I had imagined that a job role like Ruth’s was unattainable, reserved only for certain members of society I would never cross paths with. Also what threw me was that Ruth didn’t fit my idea of what a Librarian might look like!
Something that stuck with me from that dinner was the simplicity of Ruth’s answer to my question – “How did you find yourself in this role” she said “I loved being around books and I wanted to be a Librarian – so I trained” it’s strikes me that all dreams should be that simple, you want something, the only way to achieve it is to just go and do it. You want to be an Elephant Trainer – go be an elephant trainer! : )
So you are a Librarian! How does someone become a Librarian?
Librarians work in a variety of sectors and there are a number of routes into the job, but most common is to do a BA degree followed by an MA in Librarianship or Information Studies.
I started as a graduate trainee at the University for the Creative Arts, which allowed me to gain some library experience alongside the opportunity to attend relevant training and visit other art libraries. I was then lucky enough to stay on at the university as a library assistant whilst I studied part-time for the MA at the University of Brighton. Once I’d qualified, I was able to apply for professional librarian posts.
What does the course involve?
The MA at Brighton covers the more traditional aspects of librarianship (collection development, cataloguing and classification) alongside units which examine the changing role of the information professional in society, and issues relating to the social context of information in the digital age.
Students also study information architecture, web design and information services management. Research is also a huge part of the librarian’s role, so the MA allows for the development of research and enquiry handling skills, followed by a placement project and dissertation which provides the opportunity to gain experience and apply these skills in a real-world setting.
“I find seeing the date stamps in books or flicking through an old journal really comforting because in a strange way in puts things into perspective.”
Why did you decide that you wanted this career and when?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left university but I remember thinking that one of my favourite places to be was in a library. Even now, if I go to a new city I always make a point of visiting the library. I just really like the quietness and being around books.
I find seeing the date stamps in books or flicking through an old journal really comforting because in a strange way in puts things into perspective. So I thought it might be nice to spend my working days in a place that I liked to be, started looking into how to become a librarian and then came across the graduate trainee scheme.
What did you do before?
I spent a couple of years working supporting students with additional learning needs in an FE college, which was a great experience.
What is your exact role there and how did you find that niche?
I’ve always worked in art libraries, having continued along that path since my graduate trainee year. University of the Arts London is made up of six art colleges in London and each college library reflects the courses taught there, so the focus of our collection is graphic design, advertising, photography, film, animation, journalism, publishing, sound arts and spatial design.
Librarians support specific courses, and my subject area is graphic design and illustration. I’m lucky that I have a real interest in the courses I support and spend time reading to build up my knowledge, visit relevant exhibitions and attend the final shows. One of the great things about the job is that you learn so much helping students with their research and reading around related subjects.
“Each librarian also spends time buying books to develop the collection in their subject area…It’s wonderful to buy books and then see them being borrowed by the students.”
What does a typical day involve for you?
The role is hugely varied so it can change from day-to-day, although each librarian spends some time on the enquiry desk. This involves helping students with whatever they may need, which can range from an in-depth enquiry such as helping a student to access and search across print and electronic resources for a project or assignment, through to helping them to find a book on the shelves. The library is now self-service, so we rarely stamp books, but we still have a lot of contact with the students, which is one of the things I love most about the job.
Each librarian also spends time buying books to develop the collection in their subject area, so I often spend some time using publisher and book supplier websites during the working day. We also attend course committee meetings and liaise with academic staff to ensure the library is meeting course and student needs, and we run subject-specific information skills sessions to larger groups of students throughout the year. And we’re always responding to changes in the way students might want to keep up-to-date, so one of the newer aspects of the job is updating the library’s Twitter feed.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love the fact that the role is so varied and that I get to work in a creative environment. My favourite time is when the final shows go up, and you can see the work the students have produced. We also hold special collections in the library, including books dating back to the 15th century, and a collection of over 800 zines and fanzines dating back to the 1970s.
It’s wonderful to look at these and seeing how life, music, political and social issues have changed over the decades. The library is always really busy, especially during term-time, so I love the energy of being around the students, but it’s also nice to escape to the stacks in the silent zone and have a wander when there’s time too. Most of all I like that the job involves helping people and the students are always so lovely.
Do you get time to read/look through books during your working week?
I don’t really get to read books during work hours, but I certainly have a browse and a flick through. It helps that many of the books in our collection contain a lot of pictures! It’s wonderful to buy books and then see them being borrowed by the students. I also love visiting bookshops in my own time and jotting downs ideas for book purchases.
What can a librarian expect to earn?
I think it varies hugely between sectors and institutions. For a librarian role I think the salary could be anything between £20,000 – £40,000 per year, depending on grade and specific role. In academic libraries, it would probably fall somewhere between the two.
“We’re very busy and are recognised as playing a fundamental role within the university. Students still want access to books, to hold a tangible object and to browse through the images and get inspiration, but as a profession we also embrace the changes which come in an increasingly digital age.”
What is your dream Library to work in?
I’m not sure I have a dream library as such. The most important thing to me is the focus of the collection and that it reflects my interests in some way. Although I visited Copenhagen recently and the Black Diamond library is beautiful. The British Library would be a pretty amazing place to work too.
What is the general feeling about the future of libraries in your line of work?
My feeling is that in academic libraries it’s fairly positive. We’re very busy and are recognised as playing a fundamental role within the university. Students still want access to books, to hold a tangible object and to browse through the images and get inspiration, but as a profession we also embrace the changes which come in an increasingly digital age.
We offer a huge range of electronic resources which contain images, scholarly articles, eBooks, sound archives, and moving images, and are skilled at using these resources and helping others to use them. Students can access a wealth of information through the World Wide Web, but may find it difficult to identify what is relevant or lack confidence, so our role is to support and help them to develop their research skills and to improve information literacy.
And this reflects the role of the library in wider society. This is just one of the reasons why the threat to public libraries is so damaging and worrying. Loss of library services has a very real affect on people lives and on the communities in which they live.