The Accidental Librarian: Career Progression Advice for Early Career Librarians

October 10, 2019 James Barnett

Ask any librarian how they got into librarianship and I’d wager that a fair proportion would tell you they “fell into” the profession. This was certainly true in my case. Having completed an MPhil in English Literature in 2008, and knowing that I wanted to work in the Higher Education sector (without actually becoming an academic), I took a part-time Library Support Assistant post at the University of Birmingham on the assumption that it would be a nice job to do while I worked out what to do next…

Eleven years of library work later and I’m now an Academic Liaison Librarian at Coventry University, so I’m either having a lot of trouble figuring out my ideal career path, or library work was my ‘North Star’ all along (it was the latter…honest!). 

The truth here – and what I suspect is the case for the majority of librarians – is that it took working in a library to fully appreciate both the rich tapestry of roles and duties performed by librarians, as well as the positive impact libraries make throughout their respective communities (be they public, academic, health, workplace or national libraries). Far from being the book-shelving, cardigan-clad figure that traditional popular culture would have us call to mind, librarians are increasingly recognized as superheroes of the communities they serve – a guiding hand in a world saturated with information. To quote Neil Gaiman, if “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one”

Hyperbole aside, if librarianship is a profession that you find yourself having “fallen into, what’s the best way of developing a library career once you’ve decided to don your librarian super-suit? Here are some observations from my own route into the profession that might help answer this question for you. 

To Qualify or Not to Qualify?

In many ways the route to librarianship in the UK is fairly well defined – a graduate with some ‘para-professional’ experience pursues a postgraduate library qualification before securing a ‘professional’ post in their sector of choice. In some respects, this is still a natural ‘way in’, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, you might not be in a position to fund a professional qualification straight away. This was true for me and my message here is: don’t panic if you can’t follow the traditional route for the same reason. Having begun working para-professionally in 2008, it was 2015 before I began studying for a MA, which I did part-time, distance learning, while working full-time. It wasn’t easy, but in hindsight I’m glad I qualified this way. By the time I began my qualification, I had more experience to bring to bear on my studies and I had also built up enough awareness of the profession and the HE sector to know the direction I wanted to take my career in. This allowed me to optimize my studies by making module and assignment choices that would build up knowledge in the areas of librarianship that I knew were relevant to the roles I was interested in practicing later on.

Vary Your Experience

Following the completion of my library qualification in 2017, I commenced my first professional role as an Academic Liaison Librarian in March 2018. Though I worked para-professionally for nearly ten years I worked in a variety of roles that equipped me with a range of different skills. I started my journey working in frontline customer support before moving into Collection Management and Development roles where I developed skills and knowledge in: cataloguing and metadata, acquisitions processes, electronic resource authentication, discovery and access, and line management. My role now as Academic Liaison Librarian principally centers on providing subject support to students via Information Literacy interventions and developing the library’s support for Coventry University’s growing research community. However, the skills and knowledge I acquired para-professionally are still essential to me now. Working as a Liaison Librarian is extremely customer-facing, so I still draw upon those early experiences in Customer Support to give the best possible service experience to patrons I come into contact with. Similarly, a lot of the knowledge I acquired around resource discovery and access is incredibly useful when working one-to-one with students and researchers to help troubleshoot issues they may be having when accessing electronic resources. My advice to anyone just starting out in library work is to move roles and gain as much new experience as possible since the experience that you gain early in your career can still be useful later on and will develop you as a well-rounded practitioner.

Consult Job Descriptions of Roles You find interesting

The great thing about library work is that there are a range of roles to suit a range of skill sets, but it can be difficult to know the type of role ideal for you when you’re just starting out. What I started doing when I was in the same position was to consult the job descriptions of roles as they were advertised, getting an idea of what the job entailed. If it sounded like a job I’d be interested in at a future point, I’d consult the person specification to find out what qualifications, skills and experience the post-holder was required to have. In this way I could perform a gap analysis of my own skillset so that I could plan my Continuing Professional Development (CPD) around plugging those gaps. CILIP’s Information Professional Jobs is a good venue to search across jobs in a range of sectors, but specific sectors might place adverts in other venues, for example for the HE sector.

Embrace CPD Opportunities

Once you’ve identified any skill gaps, CPD opportunities are a great way of plugging them. However, accessing development opportunities isn’t always straightforward. For example, attending conferences and training courses can be a great way to learn more about current issues in librarianship and network with other librarians, but they can be very expensive. There are potential solutions here - conferences such as the CILIP and UKSG annual conferences often advertise bursaries to cover costs, and it can be common for partners or sponsors of the conferences to offer similar arrangements. However, there are other things you can do to advance your CPD and my advice would be to look for opportunities to be involved in projects and activities in the workplace that are not a part of your day-to-day duties. This will give you the chance to develop skills that you aren’t necessarily expected to display in your current role. You can also use this experience to manufacture other CPD opportunities. For example, when I was working as an eResources and Serials Specialist at the University of Birmingham I was part of a year-long Pop-up Library project. Not only did this give me experience in being part of a project team, but once the project had been completed I was involved in producing a journal article and seminar presentation based on the project – developing communication skills I would not otherwise have developed as part of my 9-5 duties.

Get involved with CILIP

As the professional body for librarians, CILIP supports the career development of librarians in a number of ways. Full disclosure-I haven’t yet made as much of my CILIP membership as I could have, though I’m hoping to work towards chartership in the near future. However, CILIP membership is definitely worth exploring to keep yourself open to the career development opportunities they provide. For example, their Professional Registration programs reward the attention paid towards developing specific skillsets and professional competencies. The Professional Knowledge Skills Base (PKSB) at the heart of these programs is a great tool for helping you identify the skills you have, as well as the skills you need to develop, and you can use it in conjunction with the advice around CPD given above. CILIP’s Special Interest Groups and Regional Networks provide an opportunity to engage with communities of librarians that share your professional interests or geographical location, which can in turn help connect you to CPD opportunities.

To hear more from James Barnett on career development for Early Career Librarians, watch the video below.

About the Author

James Barnett

Academic Liaison Librarian, Coventry University

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