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Library / Information Assistant

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Write here only if you have personal experience of working as a library / information assistant. Why did you decide to become one? What are your qualifications? What are the ups and downs of the profession?

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      02.08.2002 20:50
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      I have quite a bit of experience of what library work is like - my mother was a library assistant for most of her working life, I worked in my college library while I did my first degree, and funded the MA I am currently doing by working in my local public library. A lot of people seem motivated to do this kind of work because they "like books", but after spending up to 10 hours a week shelving the damn things, you soon learn to see books in a different light! I'll try to cover as much as I can about this type of work in my review, but if I miss anything important, please leave a comment here or over on tooyoo - its always good to hear what people think of my efforts y'know. :-) I suppose a good place to start is by saying what a library assistant actually is. Well, libraries are populated by two distinct species - the librarian (professionally qualified, more important, higher pay) and the assistants (similar role but less important and much lower pay). The assistants look after the main issuing desk (which means they check books in and out, take fines, renew loans and help out members of the public), and shelve returned books ? they may also repair books and work on enquiry desk if the library is large enough to have one. Your role in this job falls somewhere between being a shop clerk, supermarket shelf stacker, admin assistant and receptionist! ● Useful qualifications In my job description, I saw that the only essential qualifications for doing my job were 5 GCSE passes including English and Maths, so it is hardly considered to be difficult job to do. Having said that, virtually everyone I worked with who was competent at the job had extra qualifications, mostly A levels and/or NVQ customer service. As this job requires reasonable general knowledge and an understanding of how to search for specific material amongst hundreds of books, then having studied to a higher level than GCSE is an obvious benefit.
      This is one of those jobs where personal attributes are more important than specific qualifications though. The ability to communicate clearly to a range of people (even very stupid ones) is vital, as is being able to cope when your library is very busy and understaffed, which frequently happens in the public sector. It is also a surprisingly physical job (I was told that if you don't lose weight in the first couple of months then you are not doing your job properly), so you must be fit enough to be on your feet all day and spend a fair bit of that time shelving heavy books. It's a great workout though! ● Training In theory at least, you should be given on the job training on how to use the library catalogue and computer system, procedures and charges and how the Dewey Decimal system works. In reality, if you work in a public library as I did, then there is a good chance that you will just be thrown in at the deep end on your first day and left to pick it up as you go along. The best way to tackle this is to do plenty of shelving, as this familiarises you with the layout and stock of the library and gets you used to the decimal system - it is also a good idea to play around with the catalogue and issuing computers during quiet moments, and learn which colleagues you can pester for help. It should be obvious to your boss that training you will produce a more competent worker and get more work done, but this didn't seem to occur to the muppets who "ran" my library. ● Level of pay Well, this depends on the type of library you work in. In college, I was paid £2.50/hour, which rose to minimum wage level when this was introduced. In the public sector, expect around £5/hour, and anything up to £15/hour for private libraries. ● So, what is it really like? Have you ever seen docu-soaps on TV such as Airline? The sort of programme where you see ordinary members of th
      e public flip their lid and go completely mental when they don't get there own way? Well, a small minority of the public are like this wherever you go - you are always going to meet people who think that the rules are made for everyone else but them, or who hurl abuse at front-line staff over the slightest little thing. I have met them. If you work in a library, you will too. The first time you meet people like this, it is shocking and quite upsetting - in the end, all you are ever trying to do is help people and stick to the rules the council lays down. When serving customers like this, all you can do is be polite but firm, explain why rules exist, and if need be, get a senior staff member to deal with the situation. The most common cause for angry customers in libraries is of course fines, but I have equally seen grown men and women throw tantrums when they cannot take a book out without their card - and I bet you the same person would never dream of behaving like that in a bank or even a video store. The other thing you will inevitably come across are the resident oddballs - libraries just seem to be weirdo magnets. This means that you sometimes find yourself having the strangest conversations... Customer: Umm, I've got a bit of a problem with a library book Me: What seems to be the matter? Customer: It's a guidebook you see, and I took it out walking with me over the weekend. I'm afraid that it rained quite heavily and the book got wet. Me: OK, do you have the book with you? We might be able to repair it. Customer: Well, I didn't want to give the book back to you in such a state, so when I got home, I tried to dry it out. The radiator didn't seem to be doing much, so I put the book in the microwave - I stopped it as soon as I saw the sparks, but... (man puts charred remains on counter and looks very red faced) Me: (Trying to suppress laughter) Err, we put metal security tags into books to stop th
      em being stolen, you know! To be fair to the man, he did buy us a replacement, but can you actually imagine having that conversation? Why not just say you lost the book and save yourself the embarrassment of having to confess to such stupidity? On the whole though, most customers are pretty normal and not attempting to drive to the brink of insanity - after all, that is the management's job. ● A funny thing happened to me on the way to the library... I couldn't possible write this opinion without reference to the following classic librarian's joke: "A customer comes into a library and asks the librarian for a book on euthanasia. The librarian looks in the catalogue for several minutes and then apologises to the man, telling him that they had nothing on that title - they did however have one called Young Man in India..." ● A final word Being a library assistant is quite a useful thing to have on your CV - after all, you can be one all over the country, and use it as a stepping stone to becoming a fully qualifies librarian. It also teaches you many "transferable skills", which employers just love these days, such as: - Communication (getting dumb people to understand you) - Interpretation (realising that when an old woman asks for a medical book, she means Mills & Boon doctor's romance) - Resourcefulness (finding enough buckets to catch drips from the leaking roof when it rains) - Patience (not loosing it completely when the 300th child this week asks you for Harry Potter books and having to explain the concept of huge waiting lists AGAIN) - Prioritisation of tasks (getting that absolutely vital extra roll of sellotape from the store when an angry customer is seen to be approaching your desk) - Teamwork (figuring out the best way for two people to do the work of four on a busy evening shift) I realise that most of you reading
      this will never experience the, errr, pleasure of being a library assistant. But at least now you can cast pitying glances in their direction whenever you use your local library - and know not to ask for Harry Potter books any time within the next 25 years, as you won't get them! (P.S. Can anyone recognise the quote in my title?) :-)

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        13.04.2002 01:28
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        How many of you booklovers on dooyoo were given the advice in the title by parents or teachers during your formative years? Quite a few of you, I expect. Largely as a result of advice from my careers master at school and not really knowing what else I wanted to do, apart from vague ideas of being a writer, with three A-levels to my name I became a trainee library assistant at 17. After two years in public libraries, I studied librarianship at college and (after two temporary jobs with my old employer, in between longer spells of unemployment), found a permanent post in a college library. First of all, what is the difference between a librarian (or information officer, resources centre manager, or any other arty-f*rty term you care to use) and a library assistant? Though both terms are interchangeable to some extent, the former is more of a senior administrative role, with greater responsibilities for ensuring the general organisation and maintenance of the library, attendance at meetings and conferences, et al. The latter is more hands-on, involved with carrying out routine duties, from reshelving books, placing orders for new stock and sending out overdue letters, to dealing directly with users and enquiry work. Most of these everyday jobs are common to both public and academic (college or university) libraries, the main difference being the client group. As regards public libraries, there is additional scope for specialization in that you could have a chance to work in music & drama, reference and local studies, or the children’s department. In the last few years, librarianship has become more degree-oriented than before. At this point, I might add that under ‘the old system’, I became a Chartered Librarian after completing a year of post-college library experience. By this time it was becoming increasingly a graduate profession, and I was actively encouraged to study in my spare time for further
        qualifications, preferably with the Open University, City & Guilds, or similar, as a number of my more dedicated contemporaries were doing. Not being over-ambitious in the career, and already starting to see myself more as a writer doing an office job, I declined. What are the main qualifications and qualities required for the job? First of all, going back to the title, a general interest in books helps. However [cue old man voice], as the book is not the universal provider of knowledge that it was when I left school, let’s make that ‘a general interest in books and information in all its fields’. The last few years has seen an explosion in new media. Even before the birth and growth of the Net, videos and similar technology were becoming a major part of stock. Yet the world wide web isn’t going to replace the function of libraries overnight. Without straying too far off-topic, people still want to read the traditional book for recreation as well as study; and it will be some time before you can access all those old newspapers on the Net instead of making an appointment at your local reference library to see the (often yellowed and maybe crumbling) back newspapers and journals in their original form, or read them on microfilm. Computer literacy and foreign languages will also stand you in good stead, though the fact that you’re reading this means the former of those can be taken for granted. A methodical approach and good organisational skills will likewise help. Finally, you have to be something of an extrovert (or try and train yourself to be) in order to deal with the public well. For an assistant’s post, such qualities are often considered more important than a quiverful of A-levels. Sometimes, working in academic libraries can seem only one step removed from teaching. This applies particularly as regards inductions for new students at the start of an academic year, though this i
        s a task generally undertaken by professionals and senior staff. Helping students at all levels, from mature ex-armed forces personnel undergoing resettlement training who know everything (or think they do), to youngsters with special needs who may have speech impediments or other problems and find it difficult to tell you exactly what they are looking for, is another part of the job. Leaning how to sort out the genuinely needy student from the can’t-be-bothered type who would much rather you not only showed him the relevant page of data in Whitakers Almanac he wants, but also photocopied him the pages he needs for his assignment, will come with experience. Librarians have had an image problem in the past. Even when I was at college, the old semi-serious joke was that the public perception of us was of humourless individuals in severe spectacles, cardies and tweed skirts, sensible shoes, hair worn tightly in a bun. (And as for the women...) Thankfully, this seems to be less the case today. Working hours for assistants tend to be in shifts, including evening and weekend duties. Cutbacks in local authority expenditure during the last few years have resulted in shorter opening hours for public libraries. When I was a trainee in the 70s, the Plymouth Reference and Local History sections opened until 9 p.m. six nights a week (including Saturdays) and all of us had to work one late Saturday in three. Now those same institutions close at 7 p.m. Monday to Friday and 4 p.m. on Saturday. Hours tend to be longer in academic libraries, where Sunday opening is not unknown. In short, what are the pros and cons of the job? On the plus side, you get a chance to read (in your lunch break, mind) or borrow new books before anyone else. On the minus side, when are you going to find time for everything you see and want to read? Also be prepared for your share of mundane tasks (but what job is without these?), maybe irregular hours, and someti
        mes stroppy users. I have heard occasional horror stories of threats of violence against library staff, thankfully few and far between. If you detect a faint lack of bubbling enthusiasm in this opinion, the reason may have been self-evident. Having entered the profession straight from school more or less by default, I was never – or very rarely – driven by ambition to rise to the top, to try and become a County Librarian or Head of University Learning Resources. Nevertheless it has helped me enormously in my original aim to become an author, with ready access to the literature, and learning techniques of systematic bibliographic searching – more or less essential if you intend to write non-fiction. The notorious Philip Larkin, a man who made Victor Meldrew look like Norman Wisdom, is not perhaps the most inviting example. But he managed to combine careers as a librarian, poet and jazz critic. It can be done. Some of my coursework at college has proved useful in other ways. In my second year, one of the options I studied was Promotion of Library Use. Part of that dealt with the business of staging and arranging exhibitions, dealing with and contacting the press, advertising and publicity. It proved a godsend when I was on a local arts and crafts exhibition committee a couple of years later. The pay for library assistants varies according to experience, responsibilities, hours worked and location. According to ‘Occupations’, 2002 edition, published by Connexions, in public libraries the annual salary can range from £7,000 to £13,000, senior assistants up to £16,000 (more in London), and in specialised or academic libraries, from £10,000 upwards. If you are considering this as a career and want to know more from the web, visit the Library Association website at http://www.la-hq.org.uk/ Should you want a more human, warts-and-all, one-to-one rundown, try your local public or academic li
        brary. (The latter, by the way, are by law free to the general public for reference purposes only, though you may need to sign a visitors’ book on entry). Ask the staff, and somebody will be happy to give you the benefit of his or her experience and advice, though short-staffing may necessitate making an appointment to go back later. Librarians are lovely helpful people at heart, so if you catch one of us on a bad day, don’t be put off. Persevere! Senior assistants may also be able to advise you of likely future openings or vacancies, though these are more generally advertised in the local press. If you’re still at school or sixth-form college, it could be worth asking your careers adviser whether there is a likelihood of temporary or Saturdays-only work locally, not only for the extra pocket money but also for the experience.

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