The final part of a series exploring my work history, revealing how I ended up working in a library. This post: from department store to academic library
My wife and I relocated from the US to the UK, with our two young children in tow. A couple of days after landing in the UK, I had an interview lined up for a job at a library within a publishing company. I sailed through the first interview, but stumbled at the second. I soon had interviews at various other libraries, but they ended the same way; I got down to the final two people, but they selected the other candidate. Time was running out, and I needed to start earning money, so I decided to use my customer service skills and experience to find a temporary job while I continued my search for a library position. This is how I ended up working in a department store, as a seasonal temp during the run up to Christmas.
I only worked there for eight weeks, but it felt like a lot longer. My duties included refolding piles of sweaters and t-shirts, fixing the gaps between clothes hanging on rails to make sure the hangers were all equally spaced, restocking and sorting packets of formal shirts into their correct sizes and styles, cleaning the store fixtures, tidying the changing rooms, and serving customers both at the cash register and on the shop floor. Learning how to use the cash register was a challenge; during the week, there wouldn’t be enough customers to get practice using it, and then at the weekends there would be so many customers that there wouldn’t be time for asking for guidance on how to use the cash register correctly. I teamed up with other temporary staff, and we helped each other out the best we could. To confound matters, this department store had different offers and special promotions every week, and each one required specific actions at the cash register in order to activate them at the point of sale; it got very confusing.
I was quite happy to use my customer service skills in an environment other than a library, but there is a very different focus in retail. In this company, there was a heavy emphasis on recruiting customers to sign up to a store credit card. There were targets of how many new credit cards we were supposed to activate, and we had to ask every customer, at every single transaction, if they would like to open one. Not only was this repetitive for us, but it also really annoyed the customers; imagine being asked about a store credit card every time you made a purchase? Customers would grimace and complain as soon as we mentioned it; in many ways, asking the question undermined the rest of the customer service that we were providing. Like most retail companies, the staff were encouraged to go above and beyond, to really help the customer get what she or he wants, and yet, the whole credit card thing left a vile aftertaste at every customer interaction.
I was offered a permanent position at the store, but I declined. Fortunately, I had persevered with applying for library jobs, and secured a library assistant position at an academic library, which is where I still work today. I have been here for two years now, and am witnessing a period of great change. The university is spread out over multiple campus sites, with a different library serving each one. The library in which I work will be closing within a few years, during which time the whole campus will shut down and the various departments will relocate to the other existing campus sites. At this stage, I don’t know if I will still have a job when the campus finally closes, but for now, this is where I am.
I was going to end here with a summary of the highlights of my working life, but there’s a danger it would end up looking like a CV or resume, and this isn’t the right place for that. Looking back through all the jobs that I’ve had has been a rewarding experience, and I recommend you do it, too. Some people have a clear, linear career path running through their working life, but for me that hasn’t been the case. Instead, I have been incredibly fortunate to have lived and worked in a wide variety of places, including America, Canada, Israel and Japan, and have experienced working in education, museums, government departments, retail, offices, libraries and, yes, in a bakery, which was where my employment journey began all those years ago. When I was 17, I had no idea about what I wanted to be; when I was 18, 19, 20 and 21 I still had no idea, and was worried that I would spend the whole of my working life stuck in an office somewhere, because I just didn’t know what else to do. My 17 year old self would be reassured to know that when he grew up, he would have the confidence to take risks, to try new things, and that, yes, you really will live and work abroad someday (in more countries than you dare to imagine), you will get married and have children, and even be a stay-at-home-dad, despite how alien that sounds. I would also tell him that, when you reach 42, you still might not have a career, but it really doesn’t matter. The whole word is out there, so go where your heart takes you, and only stay in the jobs that you enjoy. Oh, and start writing…