Guest blog – Liz Chapman: professional librarians

Today’s guest blog post comes from Liz Chapman. Liz worked as a library assistant in Cambridgeshire prior to undertaking her MA in Librarianship, and subsequently as an adult, young adult and children’s librarian in the London Borough of Enfield.  She is now working on a PhD at the University of Sheffield.

Back in 2006, when I told people I was studying for an MA in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield, I would nearly always get one of two reactions.  Some people just looked bewildered.  “But isn’t it all stamping books and going shush?” they would ask.  Others would put on a knowing look.  “Ah,” they would say conspiratorially, “I expect there’s more to it than just stamping books and going shush.”  But nobody seemed to know what that might be.

It can be difficult to sum up what librarians do, because they do such a variety of things.  This includes finding information using a variety of specialist sources; organising events such as reading groups, school visits or full-scale literature festivals; teaching people how to use computers; creating websites or online portals to provide access to information; cataloguing; stock selection; and of course the full range of management activities required for any large organisation to run smoothly.  (See here and here for more information on what librarians do.)

So, do you a degree in librarianship in order to perform these jobs?  Not necessarily.   There are many dedicated professionals without a qualification in the field who have gained their knowledge through years of library experience and on-the-job training.  However, many more opt for a Master’s or Diploma in Librarianship.  The common ground in all cases is that librarians put a great deal of time and effort into learning how best to provide and facilitate access to information, knowledge, literature, culture and learning of all kinds.

While recognising professional skills, it is important that we do not devalue the work done by library assistants and other paraprofessionals.  Many paraprofessionals have years of experience, and carry out, or contribute to, many of the activities listed above (see Gareth’s Story).  But – and this is a big but – this is not to say that librarians could be replaced by library assistants.

I started my library career by working as a library assistant for three years, and in this role I carried out a number of ‘librarian-type’ tasks, particularly once it had become apparent that I wanted to go on to a professional career.  I was very lucky to have excellent managers who allowed me to do this, increasing my job satisfaction and allowing me to contribute more to the service.  However – after completing my MA in Librarianship and working as a librarian in London – I now realise how well the MA equipped me for a professional post.

While the MA provided me with skills and knowledge in a number of disparate areas – from finding and assessing high-quality information resources to basic web design – its key advantage for professional practice was that it provided a wider and more strategic overview of librarianship than it would have been possible to gain from working in an individual library service.  This gave me the ability to consider the relative merits of various competing demands, and awareness of the different ways in which things are done in different library services.  I learned about the laws and professional ethics governing librarianship and information provision, and gained a greater awareness of the socio-cultural value of libraries and their contribution to other agendas, such as education, employment and quality of life.  While the course included more abstract and philosophical elements, it was – like much librarianship research – primarily geared towards professional practice.

To give just one example: stock selection.  As a library assistant, I knew about the reading preferences and information needs of those people who were already coming through the door – and this helped me when I was given the opportunity to purchase new stock for my branch library, under the guidance of a mentor.  But, unlike the professional librarians who usually did the job, I didn’t have a strategic overview.  Following the MA, I now know that public libraries have a legal obligation to provide a comprehensive service to meet the general requirements and any special requirements of anyone who wishes to use them: a vast remit.  I learned about the need to consider the profile of the community as a whole, and to address the requirements of less visible communities.   I learned that it might be necessary to look beyond the selection provided on approval by the supplier, in order to acquire less mainstream materials.  I learned what a stock management strategy was, why it is important, and how I might go about drawing one up.  I learned about the need to monitor issue figures once the library has the stock – and, conversely, about the many ways in which issue figures fall short of even beginning to represent what a library really does.

In my library assistant days I would probably not have done too badly at choosing the mainstream stock: the family sagas, the Orange prize winners, the books recommended by Richard and Judy, whose book club was in its heyday at the time.  But what about the less obvious books?  The books which (still) often don’t appear on mainstream suppliers’ lists: the LGBT books, the books in community languages, the graphic novels and manga, the materials for adult learners?  In a time when many authorities are moving towards supplier selection, librarians’ knowledge about collection development and management is far from redundant: indeed, it is essential to ensuring that libraries continue to provide high-quality collections.  And so far I have talked only about books: what about music and DVDs?  What about ebooks?  What about negotiating provision of such materials in a downloadable form?  The internet provides huge opportunities in the realm of information provision, but also raises huge challenges; here again, the expertise of librarians is more valuable than ever in guiding information seekers through the maze of content.

In the current environment of economic hardship, libraries potentially face harsh cuts.  Elsewhere on this website, and beyond it, many people have argued eloquently for the value of libraries: for their contributions to knowledge, culture, quality of life, a cohesive society and, yes, to the economy – research has shown that libraries provide economic returns of many times the capital invested.  I would like to argue in addition for the value of professional librarians, of all those people who put their learning and their commitment to work in order to meet the information, knowledge and cultural requirements of every member of the public.  Cutting professional posts will inevitably lead to a fall in service quality, and will make it more difficult for libraries to reach out to those communities who need them most.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

4 thoughts on “Guest blog – Liz Chapman: professional librarians

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  3. Martin Cove

    I completely agree with the value of professionals but here in Cambs they’re going fast and not being replaced. This means less support for us frontline staff ) professional in our own way !) and so a lower quality of service. This is not to mention the loss of career opportunities – something that might have compensated for the dreadful pay we receive.

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