The Incredible Shrinking Library

bookshelf-29811_960_720

As we all know, public libraries across the UK continue to be threatened by closures, budget cuts, and reductions in paid professional staff. Much less common are closures of academic libraries within the higher education sector, but such things do happen. In fact, it is currently happening to the library I work in.

I’m employed as a library assistant in a British university that has multiple campus sites, with a different library serving each campus. On my very first day at work, it was announced that the university would eventually be closing this campus, moving the departments to other campuses, and then selling off the land. This was some two and a half years ago, but within a few months from now these changes will begin to be implemented. Half of the campus departments are moving to another site this summer, and going with them will be half of the library’s collection. What remains will be a dying campus, with empty buildings, a reduction in staff and students, and the knowledge that in three or four years from now, the campus itself will no longer exist.

So far we have weeded and subsequently discarded 10,000 items from the library’s collection, and 75% of our academic librarians will be moving to a different campus at the end of this semester; this means three out of the four librarians will be gone, which is a huge change for those people affected, and will make a big difference to our small team. Library assistants, like myself, are as yet unaffected. We have been assured that when the time comes for our library to finally close completely, there will be jobs for us to be slotted into at the libraries on other campuses. Whether or not people want to relocate to other campuses, however, is another matter.

On the positive side, our library is going to be redesigned this summer, taking into consideration the fact that half of the book stock will be gone. As the campus around us shrinks, so will the library, yet it will simultaneously become the hub of campus life for those students and staff remaining; incorporated into our library space will be the IT department, student services and career services, and we are staying in our current location, right next to the food hall. Although we have had no input into how the library will be redesigned, I am genuinely excited to see what it looks like by the time the next semester begins in September. More to follow in due course…

Have you ever experienced periods of great change at your library? Moved into new building? Undergone staff restructure? Feel free to comment below!

UX: Breaking Up

train-308471_960_720

Towards the end of last year, I attended a UX workshop at my place of work, presented by Andy Priestner. Among many of his excellent ideas for engaging with library users was the concept of writing a Love Letter or a Break-Up Letter, to a service or company that you either enjoy or dislike. I recently had cause to write one for real, so here it is. Writing it was very cathartic!

Dear Great Western Railway,

I’m sorry that it has come to this, but our relationship is truly over. I have been turning up and waiting at our usual meeting place three times a week, but most of the time you’re late, if you even arrive at all. I’ve tried talking to you about your lack of time-keeping skills, in an effort to find out the reason for your behaviour, but my questions go unanswered. You brush me off with comments like “we are continually improving our service” or with empty apologies such as “we’re sorry for the inconvenience the delayed service may have caused you”. You have even sent me gifts; those £50 worth of rail vouchers were gratefully received, but they sit at home in a drawer; I just don’t have the enthusiasm to use them. For two years now I have relied on you to get me into Oxford city three times a week, a train journey time of just over ten minutes, and yet, it never is just ten minutes, is it? The problem is, my journey doesn’t end when I get off the train; I then have to catch a bus and travel to the other side of Oxford, and if you don’t run on time, then I miss the bus and have to wait for the next one… and all this lost time adds up. Each journey became a gamble of whether or not I would get to work on time. Well, enough is enough, I quit. I’m leaving you. I’m going to drive to work twice a week from now on, braving the Oxford traffic, because I know I stand a much better chance of getting to work on time. I will still have to see you once a week, for just a single journey into the city on a Tuesday morning. It will be painful to see you, but there’s no alternative. I will get the bus home after work though, so at least we won’t have to see each other twice in one day. I tried to make it work, I really did, but two years is long enough. Goodbye.

If you ever have the chance to attend one of Andy Priestner’s UX workshops I highly recommend it; he does a wonderful job of showing how you can use ethnographic techniques within the library environment, and it was one of the most engaging workshops I have ever attended.

The Red Shoes

red-shoes

They say you can tell a lot about a person by looking at the shoes they wear to work. Shiny black loafers, for example, may indicate a person is meticulous and tidy; a soft, brown slip-on suggests someone who is comfortable in their role; and flip-flops, well, they tell us that your colleague is very confused and has come to work by mistake instead of going to the beach. I work in an academic library as a library assistant, and as many of you may have noticed, the shoes I wear to work are red sneakers, which apparently, indicates “confidence and personality”. I think it is safe to assume that, yes, I do have a personality (I’m not sure I would have survived without one), but the question remains: do I wear red shoes because I feel confident, or do I feel confident because I wear red shoes? Either way, confidence and personality are positive attributes to bring to any library.

My sons have recently discovered The Wizard of Oz and I think they are somewhat disappointed that my red shoes do not magically take me to Kansas or Munchkin Land. They have not yet been exposed to The Red Shoes fairy tale, in which a young woman buys a pair of magic red shoes from a mysterious shoemaker; when she puts them on, they force her to dance forever, until, finally exhausted, she pulls them off, only to die. Fortunately this has not happened to me. Coincidentally, my eldest son’s favourite pair of shoes are his red Converse All Stars. Now, he certainly has confidence and personality, but that’s a whole other story.  

#WhyBooksMatter

1243_web

The Big Issue launched a new campaign this week called #WhyBooksMatter, to highlight the important role that libraries play in our communities. At the launch of the campaign, The Big Issue explained their reasons behind it:

Our future success is dependent on providing the next generation with the tools they need. And literacy is key. Without reading skills, doors will close and futures will be darker.

Fundamentally, #WhyBooksMatter is about keeping communities together and libraries open. If you would like to get involved, contact The Big Issue to let them know what your local library means to you, by email: editorial@bigissue.com, on Twitter: @BigIssue or Facebook.com/BigIssueUK or alternatively, click the link for more information.

Below I explain what libraries mean to me (taken from an earlier post on this blog)

Going to the local public library with my mother and checking out books with my very own library card is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood. It felt so grown up and powerful, to be able to take whatever books I wanted, to then go home and spend time reading, sometimes slowly savouring every new word, other times devouring a book at breakneck speed, just to find out what happened next. Choose Your Own Adventure Doctor Who books were a favourite, along with Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and The Hobbit. 

At secondary school, the school library very quickly became my sanctuary, a safe haven away from bullying threats in the playground or lunchtime football games that I didn’t want to play. It was a comforting, quiet place to explore new books and old favourites. I recall one lunchtime reading all of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine, and went to my afternoon classes feeling giddy with the thrill that I had devoured a whole book in only an hour. That story was now inside of me, like some big juicy secret, and no-one could take it away. I felt sure that my classmates would be jealous if only they knew the wonderful story that was now stored inside my head. I went to the school library every lunchtime, and got to know all the shelves, the different categories, and the other kids that also hung out there. One of my classmates spent all his lunch hour reading reference books, storing away facts and figures to boost his already overflowing fountain of knowledge. He was the smartest kid I ever knew, and I was constantly trying to get better grades than him (I never succeeded, I had to be content with second place).

Visits to my local public library continued during my teens, although I now went there alone rather than with my mother. I used the library to try out new genres, to explore unfamiliar authors, and to seek out books that would somehow help me discover who I really was, or lead me down some path that I just couldn’t find by myself. Like most teens, I was self-obsessed, and needed to find books that spoke only to me. I wanted to be deep and meaningful, but despite my best efforts, I remained wallowing in my own shallow pools of self-importance.

My world was too small, I needed to venture further afield. I read books at the library about these mysterious things called “a gap year” and after reading all the ones I could get my hands on, decided that, yes, a gap year was most definitely for me. I read about volunteering in foreign countries, and using library books as evidence, I talked my parents into letting me go, aged 18, to live on a kibbutz in Israel for three months that summer, as soon as I’d finished school.

After college, I lived in Japan for three years, and although there were libraries there, I couldn’t use them, because I was unable to read any of the books. There is nothing quite as frustrating as being in a foreign library, surrounded by books that you can’t read. Instead, I’d make monthly trips to Kyoto, to go to the few book shops that stocked English books. It was a poor substitute for going to the library.

Upon returning to England, I once again spent many hours in my local public library, but now it was to use the computers, so that I could keep in touch with my new friends around the world. The library became my internet cafe, and the books suddenly didn’t seem so important any more.

Another gap year beckoned, this time in Vancouver, Canada. As soon I was able to, I joined my local library there, and took out books to read on the beach, on the bus to work, to read anywhere, really. That Canadian library card gave me power that I hadn’t felt since I’d been a child.

A six-year adventure in the United States followed soon after, and once again, getting a library card was top priority. I remember going to the local public library, with my official documents to prove that I was eligible to get a card. The lady behind the desk probably had no idea how much that library card meant to me; here I was, in a new town, in a foreign country that I had decided to call home, unable to work yet due to my visa situation (I was there because my wife is American) with lots of time on my hands. That card gave me access to free music, free magazines, free books, free knowledge, and a place to go to hang out when I had nothing else to do in those months before my work permit was issued.

Within a few years, I ended up working part-time in that library, initially as a shelver, and then as a library assistant, working alongside that very same lady that had issued me with my library card. I became a father, and took my sons to the library every week, to attend the wonderful story time. I formed friendships with other parents. We even had breakfast in a diner every Wednesday morning; a group of us exhausted parents and this large brood of noisy babies and toddlers, before all going to the story time together. That public library became the centre of my world; not only as my part-time workplace, but as somewhere I could rely on, where as a stay-at-home dad, I knew my kids and I would always be welcome, whether we’d be there to enjoy the air conditioning on a hot day, or just to get out of the house for an hour. There would always be friendly faces who didn’t mind that my two-year old was playing noisily in the children’s section, or that my newborn was crying. And yes, there were books, and magazines, and CDs and DVDs, all ready for the taking, all improving my quality of life in immeasurable ways. And it was all free.

Later, my family relocated to England, and one of the hardest parts of leaving the United States was saying good-bye to our wonderful public library. It’s been two years since we left, and we still miss it. Of course, there are public libraries here, too, but they’re different; not only smaller, not only further away from our home, not only less well-stocked, but with fewer staff and less funding. However, I’m still thankful that the public libraries are here. We need them and use them and value them. We visit every couple of weeks, letting my sons take whatever books they like, just like I did when I was a young boy.

 

 

the naked library assistant

man-144976_960_720

I used to work in a public library in America, at the circulation desk helping people to check books out, issuing new library cards, collecting fine payments, and answering general questions. During those couple of years I became a familiar face in the library, and would sometimes get recognised by members of the community outside of work. People would say hello in the supermarket, for example, nothing too awkward, but I wouldn’t always recognise them as library users.

Well, there was this one time I got caught naked. Not at work, I hasten to add, surely that would be illegal? No, I was minding my own business, taking a shower at the gym after a workout, when a guy walked over, looked at me and asked Do you work in the library? I suppose I could have lied, and said Not I, sir, surely you are mistaken, but instead I simply looked at him and said Yes, yes I do, and continued on with my shower.

Staff Development Day

5476296068_9a64582176_b

I work as a library assistant in an academic institution, and have volunteered to join the team to help plan a staff development day for the library employees. I have no prior experience of planning such a thing, and there hasn’t been a staff development day at this institution for many years. Last year we had an away day, which was actually an afternoon in a different part of the campus, with a free lunch, and a couple of guest speakers who also work here; in other words, it didn’t really feel like much of an away day. It was more of a short trip to the local corner shop to buy a loaf of bread rather than an excursion to John Lewis to buy a sofa, if you get my meaning.

Well, this year is going to be different. My suggestion that we try to hold the staff development day off-campus was met with enthusiasm, and we have already managed to find a venue in the city centre. I guess that was the easy part; now we need to come up with a program of activities to entice our library colleagues to join us for the day. I should point out that the staff development day is not compulsory, and that many of the staff will be unable to attend anyway, because we still need to open and run the university libraries that day. (It was decided that we would have only the one day for some staff, rather than repeating the day twice so all staff could attend.)

Anyway, my question is this: have you ever attended or helped to plan a staff development day for library employees? Do you have any suggestions for topics or themes? Any engaging workshops or activities? Things to avoid? All ideas are welcome, in the comments below. Thank you!

I will update you on the progress of our staff development day as and when. It is scheduled to take place in May.

4 years

I started this blog four years ago; initially as a place to share my senior thesis research, which looked at adult education programs offered by public libraries, but the blog evolved to focus more on sharing articles that related to how public libraries connect with their communities in general (hence the name). During this time, the situation for public libraries in the UK, where I currently live, has become pretty dire, due to severe funding cuts from the government, and my interest shifted more to being an advocate for public libraries, and supporting various library advocacy groups and campaigns.

I worked for over two years in a public library in the US, and when I relocated to the UK, it was my goal to find a similar job here, as a library assistant, but those kinds of jobs are few and far between. Instead, I have spent the last couple of years working in an academic library. There have been unexpected benefits to this; I have had more opportunities for training and development than I would probably have had in a public library, and I only work during semester, so I am fortunate enough to be able to spend the whole summer taking care of my young children. I work in a small library that holds book stock relating only to a few subject areas, and primarily serves the students that are studying those specific subjects. This is, naturally, vastly different from working in a public library, where both the users and the book stock are more varied.

Recently, I have been sharing more personal pieces of writing on this blog, that traced my career path from working in a bakery at age 17, right up to my current position. The idea behind it was to try to make sense of my apparently jumbled work history, in an attempt to see how all my experiences led me to wanting to work in libraries. The story doesn’t end here, of course; I have a passion for working in libraries, but I am not a qualified library professional, and I am unsure what the next steps in my career will be. For now, I remain a library assistant.

Sharing articles from external sources on here feels a bit hit and miss; I’m not sure how much I am actually contributing to the library advocacy movement by doing that, and indeed, there are other people blogging far more effectively about libraries than I am. For me, it is far more rewarding to write original pieces that somehow relate my personal experiences to the context of libraries; in a way, connecting myself to libraries through sharing my experiences of them, whether as a library user, advocate, or as an employee.

The library in which I currently work is going through a period of great change, and I think that will become the focus of some of my writing on here for a while, as I try to contextualize and make sense of my experiences. An academic library serves a different kind of community than a public library, but I believe that libraries connect communities regardless of the kind of libraries they are or the kind of communities they serve.

Thank you for reading; we’ll see how this blog changes and develops over the next four years…

My Employment History Part 17 (or how I ended up working in a library)

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

writer-107391_960_720

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…

 

My Employment History Part 16 (or how I ended up working in a library)

Part sixteen in a series exploring my work history, revealing how I ended up working in a library. This post: library assistant.

Time Note Calendar Pen Hand Leave Levy Deadline

I worked as a shelver for a few months before getting a job as a Library Assistant, and my hours increased to working four evenings a week and every other Saturday. A shelver shelves books, but what does a Library Assistant do? I was on the front-line, serving library users at the Circulation Desk; checking items in and out, collecting fines, issuing new library cards, handling reserved items, and answering general questions like Where is the restroom? In a nutshell, I was providing customer service.

Simultaneously, I was still studying part-time for a degree, and during the day I was a stay-at-home dad, taking care of my young son while my wife worked full-time. Juggling household chores, childcare, classes,  writing essays, and going to work was challenging but manageable. However, I then had to start work on my senior thesis, and we discovered we were having another baby, due around the same time as my thesis deadline. Every moment of my day was taken up with something; time became a precious commodity.

It all came to a crescendo in Spring 2013; I finished my thesis a month ahead of time to ease the pressure, I became an American citizen, and then our second child was born, arriving on graduation day (needless to say, I was at the hospital with my wife rather than at college collecting my degree). My wife had six weeks’ maternity leave before going back to work; now I no longer had any study deadlines to meet, but instead I had a two year old and a newborn to take care of during the day, followed by my shifts at the library in the evenings. This was a different kind of tired.

However, despite the tiredness, I really enjoyed my job. I was on the committee that organised social events for library staff, I helped devise and implement a campaign to promote the library’s new Blu-ray collection, I contributed to writing circulation procedures, and genuinely enjoyed getting to know the people that used the library. I would have been happy to stay in that job, but my wife and I decided to relocate to the UK.

Part seventeen to follow.

My Employment History Part 15 (or how I ended up working in a library)

Part fifteen in a series exploring my work history, revealing how I ended up working in a library. This post: turning a page.

bookself-clip-art

During that first year of being a stay-at-home dad, I returned to college part-time to work towards completing my Education and Museum Studies degree. It was a requirement to undertake an internship in a museum-related position, so unlike my classmates who went off to spend the summer working in museums in New York, Chicago and other exciting places, I secured an internship with the local historical society, and spent a couple of hours there once a week. The only way I could do this was to take my young son with me, and although far from ideal, I was able to get work done while he played on the floor with his toys. I was very lucky; he was amazingly well-behaved, and as long as I wasn’t too far away, he kept himself entertained, while I read through dusty old files, trying to create an efficient way to cross reference the information contained within. Around the same time, I also had to do a collaborative project in the community, to fulfill an Education course requirement. I chose to create four museum programs, which involved me taking objects from the college campus museums and presenting them in the public library as educational events. (This later evolved into the subject matter of my senior thesis, but that’s a topic for a different, much longer blog post.)

By the time of my son’s first birthday, I was ready to find a part-time job; I knew that I needed something else to focus on that was neither baby-related nor college-related. I applied for all kinds of things, including working in Target and Walgreens, just to find a job that would somehow fit in with my wife working full-time and me taking care of our son full-time, while also studying for my degree part-time. Even as I write this, it seems like madness, but I was desperate to find something else to do, while earning a few dollars.

A Library Page position was advertised at the public library. I had applied for a couple of jobs at the local public library before, and hadn’t got anywhere, but I thought I’d give it another shot. Firstly, though, I had to figure out what a library page was; surely a page belongs in a book? Thankfully, the job description revealed all; a page is simply the American term for a shelver (someone who re-shelves library books after they have been returned). Now, I thought, even I can do that, so I applied. I knew that I was over-qualified for this position, and doubted that I would get an interview, but I had become known in the library due to my museum project there, and I was very familiar with the library thanks to all the storytime sessions I had been attending with my son. I was very happy to be invited to interview, and even happier to be offered the job. I worked 12 hours a week, shelving books. Yes, it wasn’t the most interesting of jobs, but I loved working in the library. The money I earned went straight into paying for childcare so someone could watch my son while I worked, but for the pure escapism those 12 hours provided, it was worth it. My life had become incredibly busy, juggling full-time parenting, a part-time job, being a part-time student and still doing all the reading and essay  writing, as well as undertaking college projects, but I was happier because I had a job in the library, and who knew where it might lead? What I learned from being a page: shelvers provide the backbone of the library, and without them, nobody would be able to find anything.

Part sixteen to follow.