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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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April 2008 Volume 6(2)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Career development

Like something almost being said

Tony Ross and Richard Fallis take stock of their position and also the wider career of librarianship – and how people arrive at the profession.

Now that this column has had some time to bed in, we thought we might step back and take stock a little. Feedback has been surprisingly positive, suggesting we might, as columnists, have something to offer the readers of Information Scotland.

The question is: what? Certainly not wealth of experience: we are only six months out of library school, having never worked in libraries prior to our studies. This lack of experience, though, might actually be the reason our views have value. Since we are only just getting our feet on the LIS ladder, it may be that we can bring a fresh perspective on the profession. Indeed, it has been whispered that we might constitute the voice of ‘young librarianship’ in Scotland.

This is somewhat discomfiting, partly because 75% of this gestalt, column-writing entity is not actually Scottish, but mainly because we will both be 30 next year. At this age, most footballers are past their prime, musicians tend to be dead (the good ones, anyway), and sci-fi fans might recall how Michael York and Jenny Agutter faced the dread spectre of death by Carousel.

OK, we are by no means over the hill, and we recognise that 30 as an age brings its own emancipations. According to the novelist John Braine, “a first novel shouldn’t be written much before the age of thirty,” while a certain Son of God is reputed to have done his best work after he hit the Big Three-Oh.

As regards job prospects, it must be said that reality has bitten hard. It is clear that a library school qualification, on its own, is insufficient: employers place more value on experience, and evidence of practical, as well as intellectual and emotional, engagement with the profession. We came to the profession by a roundabout route, and we now find ourselves scrabbling to gain, retrospectively, appropriate levels of experience. And younger people often describe how they have limited opportunities for career progression: the relative lack of LIS positions in Scotland assures a hard road ahead for those seeking entry into the profession.

Competition within the profession is likely to become even more fierce, as library schools churn out increasing numbers of graduates and as the number and variety of professional positions available fall victim to the downsizing of institutions which hitherto relied heavily on LIS jobs. While such competition benefits librarianship by serving to raise standards in the profession as a whole, there is perhaps a concern that something valuable will be lost. We have encountered many incredibly supportive LIS professionals. But there is a real danger that, if the profession becomes too cut-throat, people will start trampling on each other’s necks, rather than offering help.
Let’s face it: librarianship isn’t a life calling for most people. Rather, pursuing librarianship is, for many, a means of paying the bills which is of ethical and social value, and less subject to the moral ambiguities and extreme pressures of more ‘aspirational’ careers in, for example, law, advertising or finance. Modern work culture seems to frown on this: more and more, people are expected to have fixed career goals in mind at an early stage, towards which they work with steady determination. We are told how employers frown on CVs that show ‘blind-spots’ – periods of time spent away from one’s chosen career path, doing other things. Yet the decision to pursue librarianship is often reached only after years of doing other things. It may only be because we did fewer other things before becoming librarians, that we gained earlier entrance to the profession than did many colleagues. Consequently, the fact that we are thought of as young may actually say more about the nature of our profession, than it does about us.

Librarianship is marked by pragmatism, since many of its practitioners’ career and creative ideals originally lay elsewhere. As the job market grows more crowded, and job applicants necessarily become more aggressive, it is vital that we resist the urge to dismiss this pragmatism as a failing. Yes, the LIS profession needs people who are idealistic and driven: it should never serve as an ‘easy street’ option for those who wish to coast to retirement, and who have no interest in challenging public perceptions that libraries lack dynamism. But that does not mean that people who come to librarianship sideways, so to speak, are less capable of exhibiting dedication and drive than those rare souls who may feel they were born to be librarians. In fact, latecomers to the profession may have a greater contribution to make, as they may invest a greater wealth of working, and personal, experience in their professional practice.

It might be, then, that our views befit our age, and our age befits our profession. We are young enough, still, to perceive the ongoing and pressing need for libraries to modernise, and to embrace the challenges and opportunities borne towards them on ceaseless waves of technological and social change. However, we are also old enough to value the longstanding tenets and traditions that are the foundations of the profession, and that are still valid in the modern world. If nothing else, then, as columnists we will seek always to advise the profession to do what we have done for this issue: step back and take stock, of all that has been achieved to date, and all that may be achieved in the future.

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Information Scotland Vol. 6(2) April 2008

© Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

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Last updated: 16-Jul-2008