Information and Library studies

Jamie Sutherland

JamieInformation Services, University of Edinburgh

Degree –  MA Philosophy & Linguistics, 2015.

My current work

I am currently working in the library and information profession in the Edinburgh and Midlothian region. This sector is an umbrella for many distinct roles and professions ranging from traditional librarianship, archiving and collections management to informational literacy, digital curation, and knowledge organisation. I am still very much at the beginning of my career in the profession. Like many people at this stage, I am currently working in more than one role to gain a wide overview of the profession and experience different sectors and organisations.

My main job is currently at Information Services at the University of Edinburgh where I work at various library sites. The principal part of my role is serving on the various IS Helpdesks in a more traditional library role. My day-to-day tasks include:

  • answering all manner of inquiries from users both in person and remotely,
  • registering library users,
  • processing book requests and stock circulation,
  • ensuring the smooth operation of library and IT equipment.

Beyond the ‘traditional’ library tasks:

  • responsible for university card services,
  • digital displays and content creation,
  • information literacy,
  • several social media channels.

I also work in public libraries and local studies across two local authorities. My duties include many of the above tasks in additional to assisting in developing and running library events in the local community. No day is ever quite the same in the public library sector. Our services are at the heart of the community, so we are constantly finding new ways to develop the service to meet the needs of our residents.

My career history

In the summer following graduation, I continued to work in the seasonal role I held during my degree as a Tour Guide at one of Edinburgh’s leading tourist attractions. This was a role that I had enjoyed enormously as a student and it provided me with some stability to consider my career move post-graduation. I had already developed a strong interest in the library and information sector, but I did not feel that I had enough experience to properly judge whether it was for me. In addition to working full-time during the height of the tourist season, I volunteered at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, where I spent time familiarising myself with library processes and answering historical research enquiries. This was a highly rewarding opportunity and it encouraged me to apply for the MSc/PgDip Information & Library Studies Course at Robert Gordon University.

As part of my postgraduate degree, I was fortunate to undertake another voluntary placement at the National Library of Scotland in web archiving and digital curation. My one-month placement was mostly dedicated to a specific archiving project for the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election. After completing my course, I decided to move back to Edinburgh for personal reasons. I was unable to find work in my chosen field immediately, so I used my previous experience to work in tourism for the next year. Although this was not what I really wanted to do, I was able to use my role to develop key skills which would be useful in the library sector such as researching and delivering short talks in Scottish History as part of a learning program.

To increase my employability, I decided to take on casual library work on top of working full time in tourism. This was a challenging balance in the summer months, leaving me with little free time. However, it certainly paid off as I found many roles began to open to me. I finally started my current role in autumn 2017.

How I use my degree skills and/or knowledge in my career

Philosophy and Linguistics have both given me incredibly valuable skills. Research skills are at the heart of the library and information profession and I am certain that the experience I have gained in studying these research-intensive subjects has been indispensable in my already. The library and information profession is also a rapidly changing area of work, constantly evolving to embrace new technology and information sources and respond effectively to the changing needs of its patrons. It is important to be able to embrace change and be able to carefully analyse differing proposals for how to manage and evolve a library service. The analytical skills I developed in my degree have been very useful in this respect, allowing me to critically understand current working practices and how they fit in with the bigger picture of the changing library sector. Philosophy also emphasises the skill of intellectual charity – the ability to consider different ideas fairly and respectfully and to communicate them in a clear and objective manner. Managing change necessarily involves being able to communicate with a wide variety of people with different ideas and interests, and I find that an ability to appreciate this puts me at an advantage.

Useful experience

Voluntary experience was particularly important in my career development. It has given me the opportunity to broaden my professional knowledge beyond the opportunities that paid work alone could provide. Volunteering has also helped to greatly expand my professional network. I have built up an incredibly supportive range of contacts who I can rely upon to share their knowledge and experience of the profession. This not only opens additional career opportunities, but it helps to improve your own understanding of where you are in your career and how to get where you want to be in the long term.

I’ve also found it useful to reflect upon my holistic university experience beyond just my academic skills. I was a very proactive student and I took every opportunity to take on new tasks and enjoy new experiences whenever I could (admittedly perhaps too many at some points!). As well as studying two thoroughly rewarding subjects, I worked part-time throughout my degree, I volunteered for the PPLS department and other organisations, and I was heavily involved in student societies. As Treasurer of the Philosophy Society, I developed confidence in managing a budget and running large scale public events. As the society’s Academic Support Officer, I learned how to effectively communicate with students through different mediums as well as learning skills such as information literacy which are crucial in my current career. All these experiences together have given me a rich set of skills. Most importantly, they have developed my confidence and allowed me to push my abilities in numerous ways that I would not have otherwise considered.

My career decisions

At the end of my degree, I had a rough idea of the type of career I was looking for but a lot of apprehension about taking this path. As I only had a little experience of the industry, committing to a postgraduate degree felt like a risk. I attended a number of university open days where I was able to discuss my options with very helpful academic staff. I was also proactive in contacting people in the field to learn about their career choices. I found that most people were extremely willing to help and this provided me with the information I needed to commit to the first stage in my career.

As I approached graduation, I had a general idea of the career area I was looking for but a lot of apprehension about taking this path. As I only had a small amount of experience in the library profession, committing to a postgraduate degree felt like a risk. There were three key decisions which really helped me in finally committing to my future career:

  • Seeking voluntary opportunities: I found that volunteering was a worthwhile way for me to gain more experience of the sector in a way which gave me flexibility to try out different roles. Of course, it is important to recognise that volunteering can be hard when you are searching for graduate work. I was happy to keep up my student job for a summer to give me the security to volunteer in more relevant employment areas. Although it can feel that you are not really where you want to be in your career, the opportunity really does pay off, and I found it better to gradually build my experience in something which caught my interest rather than throw myself into something that I might not have enjoyed. Volunteering gave me that opportunity.
  • Using networking opportunities: This was undoubtedly the most invaluable resource in helping me choose my career. Having identified my potential career interest, I spent some time identifying relevant professional contacts to learn more about the industry and how to approach the first ‘rungs of the ladder’. I arranged meetings through the university careers service and talked to library professionals at various university open days – everybody was incredibly helpful. I even got in touch with an old secondary school teacher, which just demonstrates how you build up an amazingly rich network of people throughout your life.
  • Embracing flexibility: In the years since I graduated from Edinburgh, I have never had just one role. I have either had two part-time jobs or added casual or voluntary positions on top of my full-time employment. Most often, this was because it was the only way to gain the necessary experience in my chosen field. Although this sounds challenging, I found that I could embrace this working flexibility and use it to my advantage. Having the opportunity to take on a wide variety of roles within the initial stages of my career has given me a much broader understanding of the profession and where my skills are best suited. Within two short years, I have worked in academic libraries, special collections, museums, public libraries, and digital archives. This has been incredible valuable in my professional development.

My advice to students wanting to work in this area

My career area, library and information management, is quite a competitive field – in some part due to the popularity of the work thanks to its record of high job satisfaction! I would certainly recommend gaining at least a little bit of work experience first, both to stand out in the competitive job market and for you to know that you are pursuing the right career path. Libraries, archives, and information managers are fantastic at providing voluntary roles so there are usually opportunities widely available. If you are unable to gain work experience straight away, networking with professionals is another way to improve your knowledge before embarking on your career. The profession is extremely open and supportive, and I found everybody I contacted more than happy to assist in any way they could.

As it is a specialised-knowledge industry, a postgraduate degree is also necessary to qualify for professional jobs in the field. There are many different options available to complete your education. Many people study part time alongside working in a relevant role or work for a few years before gaining a qualification. Some libraries do offer graduate traineeships in librarianship designed for those seeking work experience prior to their postgraduate studies, although these are increasingly competitive. Distance learning courses are also increasingly common, and they certainly don’t put you at any disadvantage compared to full-time study, especially if you are using your other time to gain work experience.

In my opinion, the most important thing about working in this sector is to be constantly committed to your personal and professional development, identifying gaps in your current knowledge, and seeking opportunities to grow. The profession is so broad in scope and so constantly evolving that you will never exhaust your professional skillset. This is both challenging and very exciting – training and lifelong learning will be very much part of your professional life. I have recently enrolled for Chartership in the profession which involves one to two years of reflective professional development. Getting into the habit of critically reflecting upon your skills and experiences from an early stage will put you at an advantage.

My advice for students making career decisions today

The most important piece of advice for me is to really consider your values when choosing your career. It is important to reflect upon your skills and what can do well but it is also important to consider exactly what you want to get out of your career. It is not always easy to identify exactly which career is for you, but I think that you can certainly identity what type of work environments you find satisfying, what you want to bring to an organisation/profession, and how you personally judge your own success. I would also emphasise that you should embrace every opportunity that comes your way. Your  personal development comes from various sources from your career to your extracurricular interests to your personal values. Lastly, think strongly about your personal and professional network. Over time you do build up a fantastic range of contacts from all areas of your life. Building relationships not only gives you an excellent source of advice but provides many opportunities to learn about different areas of work and consider what suits you best.

 

 

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