Newest Review: ... than specific qualifications though. The ability to communicate clearly to a range of people (even very stupid ones) is vital, as i... more
“You love books, you should be a librarian”
Library / Information Assistant
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Library / Information Assistant
Date: 13/04/02, updated on 13/04/02 (389 review reads)
Advantages: see text
Disadvantages: see text
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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