Archive for October, 2009

Why I became a librarian

My mother was a librarian before WWII, she only stopped being a librarian because she was called up. Librarian wasn’t a reserved occupation. She was in the middle of studying to qualify when she left Durham for the Women’s Royal Army Corp. That was the end of her burgeoning career as a librarian, she met my Dad, she married him, and she never went back.

I have some very early memories of my Mum and libraries. She took me every week to pick books from the mobile library. When I could manage the walk she took me to the main library in St Annes. It was a Carnegie library and Mum explained to me who Carnegie was. She was passionate about the importance of public libraries to the working class, making knowledge available to everyone whatever their status.

I grew up listening to stories about her short career. My favourites were when she found a slice of raw bacon used as a bookmark, and the old man who got increasingly angry with her as she toured the travel section trying to find books on ‘Itly’ for him. He ended up jumping up and down, screaming ‘Itly Itly that German what’s causing all the trouble’. He meant Hitler, of course.

She had learnt to cat and class, understood the horrors of the Brown Issue System, could bind books, and could deal with everyone from small children to irascible old men with humour and grace. It was a great sadness to her that her career had ended before it began.

My Dad was also a passionate advocate of public libraries. He had been forced to leave school at 12 to work on his stepfather’s farm, so everything beyond that stage in education he had taught himself. To do that, he had used the Public Library, studying in the Reading Room and taking courses at Evening School to achieve qualifications in Mathematics, English Language, and other subjects for the joy of study. He became involved in the very early stages of computerisation in the Civil Service. He also devoured Science Fiction and Fantasy, a taste he passed on to me. Mum was more a non-fiction History type of reader.

So, obviously, they both wanted me to be a qualified librarian when I grew up.  Mum wanted me to go to Aberystwyth to study. I, however, had other ideas. I wanted to be a Hotel Receptionist for reasons too mundane and depressing to go into here. To do that I needed to go to Catering College, not University. I gave in and stayed on to do A levels, but decided there was no way I was going to University. I knew there would be terrible arguments and my Mum would eventually wear me down. So I deliberately failed all my exams. Probably not the brightest thing I ever did but it made sure I couldn’t go to University at 18.

I qualified as a Hotel Receptionist, and worked as one for a very short time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Especially answering questions for the guests, finding them information and presenting it to them in a way they could understand.

My Mum became ill, so I had to return home. I applied for various jobs, including Library Assistant at the public library, and Clerical Assistant at the local Government Department. During my interview for the library an incredibly intimidating very superior woman said she hoped I had no illusions about working in a library. It was not about books. I would be poorly paid, get all the dirty jobs and have to make the tea for everyone. If I showed promise I would be able to work towards qualification which would also involve a lot of work and I would have no social life. She really sold the Civil Service job to me! To this day I still wonder if she said the same thing to every applicant.

I am very glad I went to the Civil Service, because it’s how I eventually got into IT. COBOL programmer, to systems analyst to developer to Unix Consultant, I loved it. But there was always the feeling I was playing at it, it wasn’t what I was really supposed to be doing. Then when I was approaching 40 I realised I really regretted not having been to University. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t regret any of what I had done with my life, I just wished I had studied to that higher level.

I also really wanted to be a librarian. I realised that all my jobs had an element of helping other people find information, learn how to find it for themselves, and that was the element that gave me most satisfaction and that was what my Mum had always emphasised as the best and most important part, for her, of being a librarian.

So, I did my research and decided that Manchester Metropolitan University was the best one for me. I applied, went for an interview, and was accepted. I gave up work (my contract ended just before the start of the course), sold my sports car to fund the course, took out a student loan, and embarked on the best three years of my life. I loved every minute of it, even the final exams.

Since graduating I have worked in a Children’s Library Service in the School Project Loans area, briefly lectured on Information Users and Providers to cover for a short term staff shortage at Manchester Metropolitan University, in FE as an Assistant Librarian through to Learning Resources Centre Manager,and in HE as a Project Manager for an information literacy project and as part of an Academic Liaison Team. I love it. I feel completely at home. I can’t imagine a greater satisfaction than that I get from helping someone learn how to find good information for themselves, helping a student understand referencing and how it can be free marks, and the light dawning on someone’s face when I help them get to grips with the Internet.

I only have one regret. My parents died when I was 30 so they never knew I eventually went to University, got a 1st Class Hons degree and work in libraries. I think they would have been pleased. I know I am.


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