With National Libraries Day approaching, I thought I might write a blog post talking a little about my working day and about what life is like for me in the public library service. This will involve tackling a few myths - that the job isn’t stressful, that there are few career development opportunities in this sector and that the users we deal with are unduly difficult. None of these are true, in fact I get a huge kick out of working in public libraries (as anyone who has ever met me will testify) and am not really looking to move into another sector.
I work part-time for a county library service in a frontline post - I am not qualified nor employed as a librarian, although I am currently studying for a MSc in Information and Library Management by distance learning. (Given the choice, I would specialise in either information services or local studies.) My place of work is a large central library and I have been working there for a little more than a year. I have a second job that I fit around library work - as a self-employed web developer and information architect running my own company, and this offers a very significant contribution to making ends meet on a library salary. It’s also a welcome bulwark against my job disappearing in what I believe is known in management jargon as “business re-engineering”.
I started on the lowest rung, as a customer service assistant, with very limited duties and no enquiry work - instead I spent much of my time doing stock processing, shelving and the crucial job of being the first point of contact for people coming in, something I miss greatly now I don’t do much of it. After six months I applied for promotion to a Library Assistant post with some significant additional responsibility - running a small branch library every other Saturday morning.
I had a very steep learning curve as I started my new job during the Summer Reading Challenge - which, as any public library type will know, is as intense as it ever gets. On my first day in charge of the Little Library we had 200 people through the door - twice the usual number for a very good day. But all this was ultimately to my benefit since, when a secondment to a Senior Library Assistant post became available a few months later, I had the experience to apply. Thus I find myself, one year into my public library career, on a management grade.
For me the opportunities have been there as long as I was prepared to start at the bottom and work up, and also to take a lengthy trip outside my comfort zone - a trip that is still definitely under way. Also I have needed to be willing to do jobs that might not fit my ideal specification but which nevertheless offer exceptionally valuable experience in moving towards the ultimate path I’d like to follow. It hasn’t always been easy but it has usually been satisfying and, as a result, I’m now in the middle of another rather steep learning curve as I work to master my new administrative duties.
So, my working day. My hours are front-loaded into the beginning of the week which means very long days. Typically they start at 8.30am and finish at 7pm which is the whole time the library is open. We are in an urban area with some significant social deprivation which means that we face some challenges but also have the opportunity to do real social good. I’m certainly not seeking to move to a different branch. I get two tea breaks and an hour for lunch and, now I’m off the strict timetable that governs the library assistants’ working day, I have to make sure I actually remember to take them.
On arrival I will generally see to the financial tasks that mean the library can open, including sorting out cash for tills and self-service machines, and then spend an hour or so on banking. Out on the floor of the library I may be called to a desk to help sort out a problem or a difficult enquiry - anything from queries on fines or planning a difficult journey by public transport to the return of damaged stock or sorting out a stubborn computer. Because I am very IT-literate, I am one of a tiny number of people that are the first ports of call for computer problems encountered by staff and customers. As we have a very large and well-used computer suite this can take up a lot of my time if not managed carefully.
I may spend an hour or two a day on desks - we have two, enquiries and information. In a post with a lot of administration, opportunities for working with the public can be a breath of fresh air. One of our librarians has likened working on the desk to being a quiz show contestant - you never know what is coming through the door or what you might have to answer, but I enjoy that. Our enquiries go so much further than “have you got a book by…” or “have you got a book about…” although there are plenty enough of those.
We help people with public transport enquiries, bus passes, blue badges, sending faxes, working the photocopier, contacting council departments, tracking down items on reading lists, finding courses and classes, publicising community events, supporting sick relatives, contacting solicitors, navigating the town centre and surrounding area, learning how to use computers, using computers, printing and scanning, searching and applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, tracing their old friends and/or ancestors, starting a business, finding events and attractions to visit, joining or running reading groups, using specialist services such as the Performing Arts Collection, tracking down music for weddings or funerals, connecting to the wi-fi, getting a child through a life event like the death of a grandparent or a visit to hospital, finding out about storytimes or baby rhyme times, taking part in reading promotions such as Bookstart, using the online reference library and ebook collection, contacting support groups and getting health information. And a thousand other things. These are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
We’re also an important destination for people looking for a quiet place to study, which usually involves trying to find somewhere in a 1950s-vintage building to plug in a laptop - we simply don’t have the capacity for everyone who wants to do this, which can cause problems of its own. Like any academic library this gives us a big challenge in balancing the needs of these users, some of whom might come in for all the hours the library is open and eat at their desks while they are here, against the needs of all our other user groups.
Around managing all of this I will be working to find the time to concentrate on administrative tasks including preparing staff timetables a few weeks in advance, approving leave requests, ensuring our health and safety compliance is in good order, sorting out the tea rota, ordering stationery and supplies, processing invoices, ensuring the recycling gets collected, taking deliveries and supervising contractors, completing training of my own, mentoring junior staff and solving all the little problems that threaten to throw a spanner into the works of the otherwise well-oiled machine. I am also a member of a small team offering digital literacy sessions to any member of the public who comes along and books one.
The main mental shift I have had to make is accepting that the buck stops with me. If a problem occurs then it is up to me to deal with it rather than finding someone else to do it for me. Unfortunately we do have to deal regularly with altercations between customers or inappropriate behaviour towards staff, and crimes are committed on the premises. Luckily we have tried and tested systems for dealing with all of this including a radio link that allows the police to be summoned very, very quickly when necessary, and a process for ensuring no-one ever tries to tackle a difficult situation without adequate back-up.
I’ve also had to learn to trust my own decision-making powers, be assertive and not dither. We have something like 30 staff working a very complicated set of hours, each with their own challenges and concerns, who have recently come through a large-scale cost-cutting exercise, and almost to a man and woman considerably more experienced than me - the eternal dilemma, in other words, of anyone embarking on management. The trick, I think, is to realise that they are your greatest asset and source of knowledge or advice.
The afternoon might take a similar course as the morning or it might involve going out to one of our two satellite branches - the one mentioned above and an even smaller one just up the road. Running either of those is exceptionally satisfying. This kind of community-based branch work with its personal relationships with users exemplifies the public library service for me and is something I will always take the chance to do. I also really enjoy the contrast. Working in a large central library is a very desirable job for the sheer range of library work that you get to experience, but I love branch libraries and always will.
The last task of the day is locking up. Our building is very large and it is like a rabbit warren. Considerable care must be taken to see everything that needs to be done is done. This includes closing windows, turning off lights and heating in non-public areas, closing down the computer suite and all the staff PCs, cashing up tills, shutting down self-service machines, ensuring no-one is lurking in the toilet in danger of being locked in (yes, it has happened) and gently encouraging all those toasty warm people who are quite happy where they are, thank you very much, out of the door. My favourite bit of this is doing the 10-minute warning shout. And why? Because I get to shout in the library. Simple as.
So, there you have it. The job is always stressful and sometimes exceedingly, sobbing-in-the-office-on-colleagues’-shoulders, stressful. Usually it’s satisfying enough to make that OK, however. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to believe that a) I am actually allowed to work here with ALL THESE BOOKS (yes, I am old-school like this) and b) how fast it has all happened. With things the way they are at present I know that a librarian’s job is probably a long way off, if there is one in my future at all, even with a shiny new MSc certificate in my hand.
And people take different approaches to this dilemma. Some carve themselves out a library assistant niche filled with the specialist tasks they love and bide their time until the right vacancy emerges. Others take the available SLA jobs, permanently or on secondment, and either learn to love the admin side or get the experience under their belt and revert with relief to a library assistant’s life. Others (especially qualified people with a wider range of alternatives available to them) sometimes find themselves at the end of their rope and leave for other sectors - or even non-library jobs.
In September I will either find myself back on the library assistant grade or a permanent SLA role will become available. I am a link in a long and complex secondment chain and I have no idea which it will be. But, whichever it is, being a SLA even for a year will have been an experience I will have been glad not to have missed out on.