10 years ‘Enjoyably stuck’ – Part 4 & Reflections on a decade

Intro & Part 1

Parts 2 & 3

Part 4

The beginning of 2017 to now has been the most professionally fulfilling period of my working life.

One of the first projects I collaborated on with the new library assistant was a complete reclassification of the physical collection. I had simply adopted Bliss from my previous employer and although I found it infuriating, I stuck with it as I was also responsible for cataloguing and classification. When the new assistant asked me to teach him, I found that I couldn’t – one of the things that simply disappeared from my brain when I was ill was (weirdly) Bliss classification. As the physical collection is relatively small we decided to reclassify it ourselves, to Library of Congress. I was resistant at first, but we actually got the project done in 3-4 months, fitting it in around our other work. As well as being a useful project it acted as a good bonding exercise. Two years on I’m glad we did it.

I’m really proud of the Library Management System Project, which accounted for one of my darkest times at work and one of my finest. In early 2016 I put together a project plan to secure funding for the new system. The initial project plan had been rejected, which I later found out was due to reasons beyond my control. In early 2017 I decided to have another go at getting support and funding for the system and this time I got the green light to get on with procurement. While my assistant (now promoted to LIS Officer) concentrated on the systems side of things, I worked with the new LMS provider on the design. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, and we’ve managed to achieve that. The library catalogue is more ‘on brand’ with the rest of the organisation and works much better. The new system went live at the beginning of May 2018 and I can barely remember what the old one was like now, even though I worked with it for 11 years across two organisations.

I feel that the contribution of the library to the organisation is now recognised and appreciated. The library was specifically mentioned in the organisation’s Ofsted report in 2018 and I felt quite emotional when I read it. This came a few months after winning the Link Officer of the Year award from Research in Practice. We now offer access to the library to three external organisations in addition to our own staff.

None of this can be achieved overnight, particularly when you are working within severe constraints. I don’t think I could have squeezed everything I’ve achieved in the last decade into a shorter timeframe. It takes time – years, even – to build up the requisite level of resources, support, respect and contacts to get a library service going. The future of the service is now secure and looks extremely promising. Whatever happens next, I can look back and reflect positively on what I’ve done.

Reflections on a decade

Building and managing a workplace library is incredibly hard. I have fought to get the library recognised and for my skills as an information professional to be valued in my organisation. I have had to surmount the ‘Jo is *just* the librarian, what would *she* know about information/research/referencing/knowledge’ barrier on countless occasions. I have had to shift the organisational narrative from ‘An in-house library would be a nice thing to have’ to ‘This seems to be working, let’s see how it goes’ to ‘The service is so successful and well-used that Jo is off work and we can’t manage without it’.

I have been given the freedom to experiment and chances to fail. If I had stuck to my original plan I would have left the organisation in 2011 when the library moved location for the third time. I would have been absolutely devastated to read an article or attend a conference presentation by someone doing ‘my’ job, reaping the rewards of all my hard work. I don’t feel I’m making a direct difference to anyone’s life, but I know that my library makes the working lives of my colleagues’ much easier. There’s a lot of job satisfaction in that notion when I’m having a bad day.

In 2013, as an act of rebellion against the constraints at work at that time I spotted a job that looked interesting, applied, and was offered the role. It would have been my dream job when I was younger, but it required me to be in the office five days a week. I simply couldn’t manage it around childcare. I agonised for a while before, reluctantly, turning it down. When I was ill in 2016 I simply couldn’t contemplate doing my own job, let alone seek career progression somewhere else. I firmly believed that I was a hopeless information professional, that I was a failure, that I should go away and find something – anything – else to do.

I didn’t imagine for a second that I would qualify and set up a brand-new library service from scratch when I was firmly in the new professional stage of my career. When you pay half the rent, you need to work to help keep your family alive, and you don’t have family childcare on the doorstep, you do what you can with the resources you have.

None of my achievements over the last decade are unique or particularly special. I know a lot of library workers have been though similar, or had to deal with much worse, in their careers. The path I’ve taken is not the easy one and I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend it to someone coming into the profession. The highs have been wonderful and the lows have been horrific. I didn’t think it was possible to care about or cry so much over a library service. I currently describe myself as ‘Enjoyably stuck’. If my dream job came along tomorrow I’d be an idiot to turn it down (I absolutely wouldn’t at this point) but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in creating, building, cultivating and innovating a library service. That’s not something you can do in 2-3 years. Looking back, a decade feels about right.

 

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10 years ‘Enjoyably stuck’ – Parts 2 & 3

Intro & Part 1

Part 2

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.

Part 3

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

10 years ‘Enjoyably stuck’ – Intro & Part 1

Introduction

It’s become rather fashionable to judge those that have been working for the same employer, in arguably the same role, for more than five years as being ‘lesser’ mortals. Certainly, when I was qualifying I was (arrogantly) adamant that I would stay in a role for a maximum of two years and each move I made would move me up the ladder to…well, as far as I could go.

Life changes. I qualified in 2006 and got my first professional post shortly afterwards. I had twins at the end of 2007. In 2009 I started my new role with my current employer. My children were sixteen months old when I started this role. They will be 12 this year and off to secondary school in the autumn.

As I am shortly to celebrate a decade with the same employer I thought I would document some reflections on what it’s like to…stay put. A critically reflective version of this document is one of the pieces of evidence in my FCLIP portfolio. There’s also a much longer version with gory details that I gloss over here. Here’s the version I can tell.

Part 1

In April 2009 I stood in a room overlooking HMS Belfast in London, with 200 books on the floor, no IT equipment, no journal subscriptions, no library catalogue, no databases, no copyright licence, no shelving and no other library infrastructure to speak of. I did, however, have a small amount of stationery, which included a tiny date stamp, a desk and a chair. I had six weeks to get a skeleton library service up and running for c.1,500 staff based in (then) 60+ offices across England. I was in an outpost, housed with several  social care organisations but with no direct colleagues.

I’d been transferred over from my previous employer with whom my new employer had worked in partnership for the previous two and a half years. I’d got the partnership between them up and running in my first professional post after qualifying. The partnership had been an immediate success but was left without a home when my previous employer decided to close their library. My new employer and I spent considerable time looking for new external partners, but many organisations in the  sector had already downsized or deleted their information departments. Having exhausted all external options, the decision was made to bring the library service in-house. This meant that I was responsible for setting up the service from scratch, as the only information professional in the organisation and we rented office space from an external body.

As I had limited time I focused on replicating the successful processes that my previous employer had implemented for their library. This meant having the same library system as them, albeit the newer version. We were given permission (for a fee) to transfer catalogue data over. Getting the IT infrastructure in place was a challenge. For several months after the library opened I had to use my personal laptop to access the staff side of the system as the work computers blocked it. IT gave permission for both sides of the system to be made accessible – eventually – after my line manager and I endlessly explained that the library couldn’t function without it.

I got a skeleton version of the library service working in the time I’d been given, but I worked a lot of long days (and nights), regularly switching on my laptop and answering emails when my toddlers were asleep. The first version of the physical library collection was made up of books donated by libraries that had closed down. I felt like I was feasting on the carcasses of newly defunct libraries, but I was giving a home to collections that would have been disposed of otherwise and ensuring that they had a second life. Boxes of books from offices around England would turn up at my office unannounced. I ended up having to put out a message that I wouldn’t be accepting any more donations.

I had to win a lot of hearts and minds, which was exhausting on top of running the rapidly growing library service. I learned to fight the battles I had a decent chance of winning. There were some people that I would never be able to win over and it took me a long time to accept that. I used to travel to different offices, attending team meetings and banging the library drum. Most of the time my little spiel about the library was well-received but I encountered some hostility. A few incidents really stand out and even now I find them difficult to talk about.

In the first workspace I had, my library shared its office with several organisations that weren’t affiliated to my employer. I lost my view of HMS Belfast when a new organisation moved in and their Chief Exec decreed that she wanted my library as her office. This was granted because her organisation paid more in rent to the host. [Side note: this organisation had a huge turnover of (largely unhappy) staff – the CEO went in the first year –  amalgamated with another organisation shortly afterwards and has now disappeared]

Some of what I encountered could reasonably be described as bullying but as I was so isolated I didn’t have anyone to report incidents to after my first line manager left. I’m a union member but the rep had given me incredibly bad advice when I was being TUPEd over from my previous employer, so I didn’t feel I could take issues to them. Moreover, I needed the job. My employer offers flexible working and as I was fitting my full-time job in with looking after twins (they went to nursery three days a week) and a partner doing shift work, I couldn’t afford to move to an organisation that would expect me to be in the office five days a week, from 9-5 every day. (No, I couldn’t afford to give up work. No, I couldn’t afford to work part-time.) I was regularly working 40-50 hours a week rather than my contracted 37 hours. Any time the girls napped or slept, I worked.

Parts 2 & 3

Part 4 & Reflections on a decade

 

LwL Episode 31: Louise Burkett

In Episode 31 Of the Librarians with Lives podcast I chat to Louise Burkett, who is a school librarian. Louise did her graduate traineeship at Bath Spa University, went travelling, realised that she really wanted to be a school librarian and clearly loves what she does.

I was lucky enough to meet Louise in person at the CILIP Careers Day earlier this year, a little while after we recorded this episode. I love meeting my LwL ‘Alumni’ in person and Louise was just as lovely in real life as she is on the podcast.

Louise has recommended a couple of useful sites:

Booktrust book finder

LibraryThing

The next episode will be released on Tuesday 12th June and stars Emma and Ann from ZSL London Zoo Library.
Happy listening!

#cilipw18 – I wasn’t supposed to do that

On 9th May I spoke at the CILIP Cymru Wales conference in Aberystwyth. I delivered a presentation on mental health, professional resilience, career stories, and (of course) podcasting. I told c.100 people my story: the good, bad and downright ugly. I was the last speaker on the first day of the conference, so I knew I was fighting to keep people in their seats and keep them interested.

I didn’t know how my presentation would be received as it wasn’t a typical ‘Yay! Look at this amazing thing I’ve achieved’ talk. I feared a lengthy period of awkward silence at the end before some slightly embarrassed sporadic clapping broke out. I expected people to walk out. The stuff I spoke about is difficult to listen to and can feel very challenging. I probably made some of the audience feel incredibly uncomfortable.

A funny thing happens when you deliver a presentation. The words that you spend ages crafting beforehand don’t always work ‘live’ and so you have to ad-lib. I had my slides and I had a script that I stuck to for about 75% of the time. I left bits out that felt important to the story when I wrote them and added bits in that occurred to me as I was speaking. The overall tone of the presentation was exactly as I intended though.

I really *really* love public speaking and I don’t get to do it nearly enough. I went through a phase where I did a lot of presentations but when I made myself and my world smaller, I stopped. I had forgotten the thrill of looking out at an audience and thinking ‘Right. I’m going to win you over’ and taking it as a challenge. Something happens to me when I deliver a presentation. I feel like I can soar. Usually I try to keep it in check because I fear I’m too honest, too visceral, too frightening, too much. I don’t put on a persona or worry about who I am. I’m incapable of being anything but myself but I often dial it down. On this occasion I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t rein myself in and if I showed everyone who I really was.

I didn’t anticipate beforehand, for a single second, the reaction that my presentation would receive. When I finished speaking there was clapping. A lot of clapping. A lot of enthusiastic clapping. Then there was hugging. A lot of hugging. So much hugging. Then people came up to me to chat and said many very lovely things about my presentation. A lot of people. I was handing out my Librarians with Lives business cards in the same way that Oprah occasionally gives away cars.

When I looked at my phone I had a ridiculous number of Twitter notifications. I took a deep breath before opening any of them because people can be very honest on social media about their thoughts on conference presentations and I was more than prepared for some dissent. There was none. I’m realistic enough to recognise that not everyone in the audience will have enjoyed my presentation but if there were dissenting voices, I was not aware of them.

Afterwards I went to the drinks reception at the National Library of Wales. As I was hoovering up delicious canapes (public speaking makes me ravenous) and hatching elaborate plans to steal the CILIP presidential medals with the wonderful Ellie and Rachel (you definitely find your people at conferences), people came up and complimented me on my presentation. It really seemed to have resonated with the audience. I’ve noticed that when I tell others my story that people feel comfortable enough to tell me theirs and I feel very honoured. I don’t feel I can offer advice as mental health is a very individual thing, but I’m happy to give them space to talk.

After the reception and awards ceremonies there was the pub, there was Welsh gin and I was feeling extremely celebratory. I wasn’t able to attend the second day of the conference so I knew I could have a great time and not worry too much about how I felt the next day. I did lots of networking (of course.) I’ve got used to being a lesser version of myself over the years (particularly over the last 3-4 years) and I felt like it was finally ok to be me.

It lasted 24 hours. A couple of days later I was feeling extremely down. Attending the conference was physically and mentally exhausting. The sea of positivity I’d sailed joyously on during Day 1 of the conference became murky and becalmed. Everyone I met at the conference was wonderful and I had a fantastic time. The further away I travelled from Aber, though, the less real it all seemed. I started to doubt myself. Doubt what I’d done.

I wasn’t supposed to do that.

I wasn’t supposed to rock up at Aber and deliver that presentation. I wasn’t supposed to be that good. I wasn’t supposed to be so honest. I wasn’t supposed to get the wonderful accolades I received. I wasn’t supposed to drink Welsh gin, misjudge the distance from the bathroom to the bed in my hotel room and do a comedy roll onto the floor at midnight (I was fine.)

Yet…

Now I’ve had a couple of weeks to reflect on what happened in Aber, I’m incredibly proud of what I did. As a result, Paul Jeorret has asked me to be a guest on his radio show (it’s all booked for October). I’ve been asked to speak at a CILIP in Scotland event later in the year. Karen Pierce wrote a very lovely series of reflective posts about the conference and said very nice things about my presentation. I’ve now watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (long story.)

I wasn’t supposed to do any of that…but I did and it feels pretty good.

LwL Episode 24: Jenny Foster

In Episode 24 of the Librarians with Lives podcast I chat to Jenny Foster, who has previously worked in public libraries and further education but has spent the last six years working in various facilities and customer service roles for university libraries. Most recently she has found herself at Edge Hill working to deliver a front line service across not just the library but student services and careers.

Jenny blogs here, not just on libraries. She asked me to add the following statement: After venturing down south for work and getting as far as Southampton I’ve happily returned to my roots in the north where you can get real pies with tops and bottoms  🙂

The next episode will be released on Tuesday 10th April and stars Caitlin McCulloch.
Happy listening!