Intro & Part 1
By 2010 the library had become successful enough to need a full-time library assistant. It was my first experience of line management which was a massive adjustment. The library moved (in the end the service moved four times in five years and I project managed every move), into our head office in 2011, then based in Westminster. Initially we were based with the collection on the lower ground floor of the building with the rest of our colleagues six floors above us, but I started a campaign to get us moved upstairs. The collection remained where it was, but we were surrounded by colleagues who worked for the same organisation as us. My first library assistant left in 2012 after two years in post and there was a gap where I ran the library solo again before the new assistant started.
I had three different line managers in my first year at the organisation (the second was an interim manager while recruitment took place.) My first two managers were very supportive of the library, of what I was trying to achieve, and of my professional development. The third, by their own admission, was uncomfortable about line managing staff (they hadn’t done it before), *really* wanted my role although it wasn’t their job or background, found the organisation difficult to get to grips with (and therefore to gain traction in), and didn’t quite understand the degree of separation between their role and mine. This led to numerous problematic conversations and frustrations on both sides. After enduring a difficult three years that caused me to question what I was doing and whether I should be a librarian at all (this led to my becoming a mildly qualified sport psychologist), my manager left. I gained a new line manager, who still manages me now. He is deliberately extremely hands-off – there when I need him, but he doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day running of the library.
I’d spent four years to that point building up the service, slowly developing the collection, cultivating new users, keeping the existing users satisfied, managing my manager, and doing extensive relationship development and then it all bore fruit in one year, with demand going through the roof from 2013 onwards. My then library assistant and I were incredibly busy and had a great working relationship.
In conjunction with a graduate from another department I conducted a library impact study in 2013-14. It’s a piece of work that I’m still incredibly proud of. The study indicated areas for development and innovation, some of which I’d already identified, and justified the need for funding and support for them. The main area was the library catalogue, but I also wanted to do a massive weed of the physical collection. We secured funding to employ a part-time library assistant, which would free me up to do development work. From being on my own in 2009-10, and 2012, I suddenly had two members of staff to line manage. This was a delicate balancing act. I had an established relationship with one member of staff and we now welcomed a third person into the team, working part-time, on a fixed-term contract.
In early 2016 the full-time library assistant left the organisation after 3.5 years. The part-time assistant was on a one-year-fixed term contract, which was coming to an end. I wasn’t allowed to recruit to the full-time role for several organisational reasons, and at one point it looked like I would be a solo librarian again. The part-time assistant found another job and left shortly after the full-time assistant. In the end, I was on my own for six months, trying to do the work of 2.5 people (probably more, in reality) by myself.
My father in law passed away in 2015 after a significant period of illness and so I was trying to support the people hit hardest and deal with the associated fallout, which none of us could have predicted. Up to this point work had acted as a protective factor. Whatever was happening in my life elsewhere, work was a reliable, safe, fixed point in my life. I quickly realised that I was no longer built to be a solo librarian. Moreover, my workload was so overwhelming that I simply couldn’t manage it. I accumulated hours of TOIL but if I took time off the work piled up and was waiting for me when I returned.
In some ways this was a nice problem to have. I had built a service from nothing that was now highly-respected, well-used, and constantly attracting new users. I had done the ultimately stupid thing of making the library I had created indispensable. This was unimaginable in the early days when I waited to be the next person to be made redundant. The summer of 2016 vindicated when I had done since 2009, but the cracks started to show. Essentially, over the previous seven years I had worn myself out. I kept getting knocked down and picked myself up again every time. I got used to getting told ‘No’ for everything I tried to do, fighting to get a yes the second, third, fourth time, and became adept at finding workarounds. This took a huge toll on my mental load because I was juggling so much work on top of my life away from the office.
I became so unwell that I had to go on sick leave for a significant period. I’d fought to secure a full-time replacement for the library assistant post and kept hitting brick walls while trying to keep the library service running on my own. I was given permission to do a full recruitment process and shortlisted for interview just before I went on sick leave. I was able to access the Employee Assistance Programme, which gave me eight one-to-one sessions with a therapist. It took a long time for me to get up to speed again when I returned to work. I returned initially part-time, building up to doing full-time hours again.
The phased return process was exhausting. I had to re-learn some basic processes that had simply fallen out of my brain when I was ill. I was also getting used to working with my new library assistant, who had been appointed when I was on sick leave. He’d been in post for three days when I started my phased return and was full of questions, most of which I struggled to answer. It was hard letting go of some of my work as I’d got so used to doing it all out of necessity but I’m a much more productive employee now and we’re a brilliant team.
Part 4 & Reflections on a decade