What does a Senior Library Assistant do?

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.

#Libfesto: My vision for public libraries

I’m writing this blog post in response to a challenge from Voices for the Library to try to envisage what the public library of the 21st century should be like. This is quite a hard thing to do - because, in order to get your thoughts on this subject straight, the first task is to free them from the straitjacket in which they are customarily imprisoned, whether you still notice that or not.

By this I mean ceasing to make the cost-cutters’ and library sceptics’ arguments for them, a particularly insidious form of self-censorship. I’ve spent a few days mulling this over and found myself in a bind: if I say what I actually think then a very persuasive inner critic starts shouting: “But they’ll only say, ‘Who do you expect to PAY for all this?’”

Turning this voice off is quite hard but I have silenced it with irrefutable arguments based on the thought experiment of an ideal local authority somewhere which has responded to the fact that libraries create more value than they consume and offered to fund some accordingly. Thus I am not going to succumb to the constant calls to be unselfish, pragmatic, practical or to worship at the clay feet of deficit reduction. No, I’m going to say what I actually think.

(These views are, of course, entirely personal and don’t reflect those of any organisation that I am associated with through a business, employment or membership relationship. In other words, mind of my own, views of my own.)

Two out of three ain’t bad

I’ve come to the conclusion that public libraries are not doing too badly on two of the three essentials, but the third is a sizeable problem for them. By this I mean that they are clearly acing the customer service and the stock situation is not too bad, not least because we can create networks to share the resources we do have. But the buildings, and the level of investment in them, are arguably our biggest weak point.

To expand on the customer service thing. I believe that, when we do this well, we generally do it better than almost any other category of organisation. Of course there are some grumpy or old-fashioned people and others not doing their job. And people will always have off days. There are also often organisational or financial restrictions that mean we simply can’t provide everything people want us to. But generally people do feel genuinely welcome at the library and they get a level of friendly, face-to-face service that most of the commercial and a lot of the public sector would find hard to match. We are great at this and have things to teach a great many businesses and institutions, a point we should be making forcefully. Or running seminars and charging steep fees, ho ho.

I do think that self-service has a place in the 21st century library. Not least because for every person that hates it there is another that thinks it’s the best thing libraries have done in years. I also think it has seriously reduced the potential for arguments to start between customers and staff - if people find they have a fine or other account problem they have a chance to privately absorb the information and satisfy themselves what is going on before they need to make their case to another person. This makes the library foyer a much calmer place to be in than it was a few years ago.

But I (and a lot of other library people that I’ve discussed this with) do think that people should have a choice. I like the set-up where the kiosks are the first thing that you encounter but a desk with live people on it is clearly visible in your line of sight. I think that, if a customer would rather visit the desk than use the kiosk, they are arguably perfectly within their rights to do that. I also think that unstaffed self-service is a dreadfully risky proposition, with the potential to permanently alienate users who can’t easily achieve what they need to, driving them out of the library for good. It is, furthermore, extremely hard to justify within most existing customer service policies and standards.

The stuff we have

And so to stock. Stock is potentially infinite. There is no budget that could satisfy our cravings for everything we would like to have in our collections. But there are a few things that square this seemingly unsquareable circle - and most of them are based on networks and sharing the resources that each library and authority does invest in. First of all is the wonderful inter-library loans service which gives us access to potentially any library book in the UK. I think networks like this are an essential part of our networked 21st century society. Also, subscriptions to online reference resources and ebooks have the potential to vastly extend the range of resources that users have access to. Consortia I have mixed feelings about. On the plus side, I really like the idea that users have easy access to a wider range of library holdings and can use their cards in more than one authority. It’s sort of what we’d like about a national UK library card, an idea whose time is long overdue. But on the minus side I’m rather uncomfortable about the potential for consortia based on shared use of a proprietary library management system to tip over into a privatised service, a problem that a member of Voices for the Library actually alerted me to.

And stock is definitely both books and e-resources. I love books and surround myself with them - my house has more books in it than any other kind of object, they fill every surface and inhabit every room if not scrutinised constantly and chased back to their proper places, which usually includes the library. I also believe very firmly that the book-as-object has important qualities not shared by e-texts. I value the e-text’s portability, its searchability, the beautiful flexibility of the written word in a digital format. I appreciate that, on a digital device I can make the page look however I find it easiest to read. I love the idea of taking 10 novels on holiday - but their only weighing a few grams - as much as the next bibliophile.

But the physical book is a tried and tested means of preserving knowledge whereas e-texts are worryingly ephemeral. And books carry a history of your use, and of others’ use which is a crucial part of their value. They look and smell beautiful and are a joy to read and live with in a way that an e-text isn’t. I also know exactly what I can do with any book I buy - the format is not subject to battery life, recharging points, wi-fi signals, restrictive digital rights management or the sun not shining at them in the wrong way. Though I grant you they become useless if dropped in the bath. So my 21st-century library is stacked to the rafters with good-quality well-maintained books as well as having a jaw-dropping collection of electronic reference resources and subscriptions, and e-books that people can use with the device of their choice and with a reasonable level of assistance in troubleshooting problems.

Bricks and mortar buildings

This is the place where I think years of restrictions on local authority/public sector spending and budgeting have caused the severest problems - a phenomenon that has caused such dreadful difficulties for schools and seen ideas like Private Finance Initiatives coming a cropper for hospitals. Libraries are often perceived as shabby and dingy and, where they’re not, it’s often a result of action taken despite the condition of the underlying building.

I want my library of the future to be a lovely place that people are clamouring to visit. I want it to be in an accessible, well-located building with reasonable parking and public transport facilities nearby. I want it open all hours of the day, evening and weekend and I want it to be so comfortable, verging on the cosy even, that I don’t really want to get up and leave. I want nice chairs, nice carpets, nice furniture, nice toilets and no funny smells or peculiar stains anywhere. I think people respond to nice surroundings by respecting them more than shabby ones. I want art on the walls. I want plentiful locker space for my coat and bag and a place to get a hot drink and a snack. I want a lovely, enticing display of magazines and newspapers to distract me from what I came in for. I want community rooms and space for events and exhibitions. I want maker space. I want adequate dedicated desk space with power sockets for laptop users and reliable wi-fi connections as well as fixed PCs in a computer suite. I want all unnecessary restrictions on what you can do with the computers abolished. I want the library website to be high-concept and as cool as fuck and commissioned by someone who really understands about the web and accessibility and user-centred design - rather than being rigidly tied to a local authority offering or handed down by a LMS supplier. I want to find my local library active and engaged on Twitter and Facebook.

I want a building design that recognises the possiblity for noise leakage and contains it, so quiet study and noisy storytimes are equally possible. I want social areas where people can chat and collaborate - and peaceful thinking space where users are asked to respect the conditions of entry and those conditions are enforced. I think university libraries have got a lot of this right and I would like to see more collaboration between this sector and public libraries including, where feasible, the sharing of facilities. I want the joyous serendipity of browsing along long runs of shelving. I want new books and old books and ebooks and things that aren’t books at all. I want to see experts respected for their expertise and words like collaboration and innovation reclaimed for our side. I want to meet staff with the freedom to respond to their users’ needs without having to consult up a long chain of authority - as good a definition of localism as any other. I want the opportunity to talk to a librarian who specialises in the areas I’m interested in and to know the regular times and days on which they will be available at a desk in a branch. I want reader development experts developing readers and information literacy champions championing just that. I want catalogues that assist users in finding stuff rather than causing them frustration.

Damn proud of what we do

I want public libraries that are proud of what they do and have the confidence that comes from knowing they can hold their own among any other organisation from the commercial, public or non-profit sector. I want us to stop apologising and building renewed faith in what we do instead. I want the sceptics won over and the cynics silenced when it becomes clear their specious arguments simply can’t hold water. I want a library in every community that wants one, staffed by valued professional and para-professional people, as well as forming fruitful, mutually beneficial, well-managed and non-exploitative relationships with people who want to give their time as volunteers.

To sum up: It’s time we worked out where we left our bows and arrows, spears and chariots. Jerusalem’s more than half-builded here already. All we have to do in this century is finish the job rather than standing by while the dark forces pull it down stone by stone.

#Libday8: Day 5 and National Libraries Day

The last day before National Libraries Day is all a bit of a blur - I was incredibly stressed and feeling that I was responsible for far more than I could, in reality, affect. When I realised this, and limited my ambitions to simply making sure all the materials we needed were ready for the next day’s events, I started to feel much better.

And the day itself was inspiring. We organised events in three North Herts libraries and estimate that we were able to engage around 300 people in a National Libraries Day activity - that’s the he approximate number of signatures we collected on our Library Valentine cards. More than 100 people also signed pledges to use the library or advocate its services to others during the next year (of course, most of these also signed a card).

The best thing of all was talking to the library users - people on their regular Saturday visit, and people who’d heard about National Libraries Day and made sure that they’d come along to mark it. There were even a few people who said they were using the day as a reason to re-engage with a service they hadn’t used for a while.

But the best thing was the sheer scale of personal connection and involvement that people feel with their library - it’s great, in the midst of so much difficulty and negativity, to know that this reservoir of goodwill and support really does exist and I’d guess that most businesses or service managers would give their eye teeth for clients that feel this way.

We also got some nice local press coverage and have established a base of trust and confidence that should allow us to organise more activities and events in the future. So, for us, the first UK-wide National Libraries Day was a resounding success, and I’d guess that a lot of library advocates and activists around the country would probably say something similar.

#Libday8: Day 3

Today is the first day of this week on which I will be working as a member of a library’s staff rather than a self-employed information professional managing my own workload in my own time. I’ll also be spending around four hours volunteering in the afternoon, so it’s a really busy day, and one that helps to demonstrate how being a librarian, library worker or information professional is not necessarily a quiet, cloistered occupation dominated by routines at all.

During my four-hour morning shift, I’ll be working at a large central public library in a busy town centre. I’ll be helping the users find their way around the building and operate the self-service machines as well as answering their basic enquiries (the advanced ones are handed on to my more experienced colleagues at the enquiry desk). This is a job I really like - if you care about the public library service, what better way to make a difference to people’s perceptions than working right in the front line?

As well as assisting users my job involves a fair bit of stock processing. So, I could be shelving or tidying fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, audio-visual stock or periodicals. I could also be helping to process all the stock that’s moving around the county, leaving our library and travelling to others, or returing to us after a period being borrowed somewhere else. This is a big task because, in addition to circulating stock and reservations, users can return books to any branch in the county, regardless of where they are borrowed. It’s also a quiet, contemplative task that you do sitting down - a real contrast to the full-on business of customer service and the physicality of shelving.

Other tasks that might come my way include managing my own training and CPD needs, responding to any administrative questions that have arisen or catching up with my mentor within the library service (a different person to my ACLIP mentor). The minute my shift finishes I will dash off for my regular Wednesday afternoon activity - working as a collections volunteer at a local museum, and probably downing my lunch on the two-stop train journey between the two towns.

This volunteering is something I am really interested in, and it is a high point of the week. Working in a small team, overseen by the museum curator, I am helping to assess and catalogue various items in the museum collection. This is a fantastic introduction to all aspects of museum practice, as so many different things tend to arise in the course of a session - everything from the importance of temperature and insect control and good manual handling skills to tackling a tricky IT problem or thinking through the implications of how you catalogue or store something. After all, the decisions made now could affect the integrity and accessibility of an object for the next 100 years. No pressure, then. The work is particularly interesting because the museum, while being relatively small and locally-focused, has a collection of international importance, and it attracts researchers around the world, some of whom will occasionally visit for access at the same time that we are cataloguing.

So, that covers what is likely to be the busiest day of my library and information week. Tomorrow I’ll be working on web development projects during the morning and back to the library in the afternoon.

#Libday8: Day 2

Today my main focus will be sitting down and writing the big piece of user documentation that I need to complete. It covers performing simple updating and maintenance tasks on a website that we built for a client some time ago. Since then the website management system has been extensively updated - so new documentation will be timely.

The biggest decision I will have to make will be to consider how much of the more advanced administration this user wants to know about and how much to leave out in the interests of keeping it usable. Then it’s a question of customising it to the specific website and using appropriate examples and illustrations.

I’ll also be trying to come up with a definitive list of the National Libraries Day activities in my area and to make sure the information on the event’s main website is accurate.

Oh, and I just read an anonymous course review for City University’s Library and information Science courses on LISNPN. So, that’s my day covered. Tomorrow morning I’ll be working in the library!

#Libday 8: Day 1

So, what’s all this about? Well, twice a year or so, all kinds of people connected with libraries from librarians, library assistants and library students to information professionals, advocates and campaigners, share a week’s worth of detail about what their working life involves.

This year it’s more relevant to me than usual, since I now actually work in a library (albeit not today when I’ll have my info pro hat on instead of my library assistant one). So I’ll be blogging about it this week. (You can find more information about the project here.)

So, here’s what I’m doing and expecting to be doing today:

  • Organising my working week from the point of view of my information architecture/web development job. My biggest task will be to write updated user documentation for a client and I intend to get started on that today.
  • Updating my company website with some details of a past project that we have included in our portfolio.
  • Reading through some local council agendas which are likely to offer some insight into the future direction of library cuts in my county. Worried about what I might find and what implications it might have for the future.
  • Working on plans for National Libraries Day on Saturday. This could include glitter and poster paint as well as some quite high-level negotiating…
  • Trying to pick up work on my ACLIP portfolio which has been thrown into disarray by the changes to my working life that started in December.
  • Following up an unanswered email to City University’s postgraduate enquiry service to try to get more information about one of their Information Management courses that I’m very tempted to apply for.
You can follow #Libday8 on Twitter here.