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Posts Tagged ‘Librarians’

Or: How to get management experience without being a manager

DucksThis is sort of not strictly possible; you can’t get experience of what it’s like to formally manage other people without formally managing other people. You don’t know what it’s like to have the job title ‘manager’ until you, er, have the job title ‘manager’.

But if you take a different view of what ‘managing’ actually means, it’s likely you’re already doing it in your daily life without even thinking about it.

A quick peek at Merriam-Webster Online tells us that the first definition of ‘to manage’ is ‘to handle or direct with a degree of skill’. Well, who hasn’t done that at some point? Certainly if you’re in a job you’ll be doing that every day. Have you heard of the phrase ‘managing upwards’? It means to ‘manage your manager’, i.e. guide them in the direction you’d like them to go in and help them do their job in such a way that you both gain from the relationship. Managing is basically learning how to deal with people and, once you’ve figured that out, it’s easy to see how you can look to other areas of your life to hone those skills without even setting foot in a workplace.

The example I’m going to give you is from my own life. In my spare time I belong to an amateur dramatics group. In addition to people who act we also have a group of individuals who run the place, taking charge of different departments such as technical, publicity and catering (to name but a few). In my time I’ve taken on roles in a wide range of backstage or admin areas, and – despite it all being voluntary – have gained significant experience of managing a service and directing teams of volunteers.

(It’s true that volunteers are a different kettle of fish to paid employees, and I’m not even going to get into the whole debate about library volunteers, but for the purpose of this blog post I think the basic lessons are the same.)

In catering, for instance, I’ve had to persuade people to do shifts on interval coffee, manage the rotas so that everyone gets to work at times that suit them, and fill in the gaps in service one way or another (and yes, sometimes this has meant doing it myself). I’ve managed a budget, ensured we maintained appropriate stock levels (ordering and liaising with suppliers as necessary) and kept basic accounts. One year we even hosted a conference for other Little Theatres in the region, which was a huge challenge: in addition to the usual jobs I also had to ensure a) that we had adequate equipment for the extra bodies we were catering for, and b) that people providing food were reimbursed for their costs. All of this was done on top of a regular working day and for sheer enjoyment (although admittedly it didn’t always feel like it at the time…).

In publicity I had an even bigger budget to manage, not to mention the expectations of everyone in the entire society. (Anyone out there working in marketing? Find you’re always the ones blamed for lack of business, regardless of circumstances? Everyone else always knows how to do it better than you? Yep, been there.) In our society this was tied up to a large extent with other roles such as internal communications, membership and box office, meaning that the pool of people with whom I had to liaise to ensure everything ran smoothly increased massively. My ability to manage multiple projects was tested to the utmost – liaising with the press, writing marketing copy, organising promotional events, maintaining the display boards, persuading people to come and stuff envelopes – and for me the biggest learning experience was that I found it far easier to manage ‘things’ rather than ‘people’ 😀

However, ‘manage’ I did, and in jobs where I’ve held formal management responsibilities I have been helped in no small amount by the experience I’ve gained from my extra-curricular activities. In fact, in the workplace it’s often easier, as at least you have an element of accountability and lines of reporting to establish boundaries. In a voluntary group it’s very much a case of ‘well, we’re all doing this out of the goodness of our hearts’, which can make it very difficult to hold anyone to what you think they should be doing (especially if they disagree).

So those of you who are wondering how to get out of this Catch-22 situation and gain experience of a job you haven’t done yet – look to your hobbies. If you don’t have one, find one that will enable you to build up your skills in such a way as to give you the experience you need. I appreciate that not everyone will want to join a group in their spare time simply for the purpose of increasing their employability (fitting in a hobby can be difficult even if you are doing it purely for love). However, if lack of experience is the one stumbling block that you’re trying to overcome, then maybe this could be a route forward.

And, who knows, you might even have fun in the process…

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This may set a new record in my life for ‘quickest blog post ever’… I have just found out that my article ‘What are we here for?’ has been published in CILIP Update (the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, for any non-librarians reading this blog). I submitted it with the aim of meeting the December deadline but knew that realistically it could get bumped to next year, or even dispensed with completely. But no – here it is staring me in the face!

The article basically outlines my ‘purpose in life’ and explains my somewhat chequered career. I’ve skipped from job to job, but all the roles I’ve undertaken have had a common purpose: to connect people with the information they need to live their lives or run their businesses.

If you’re a member of CILIP and can access the article, I’d be keen to hear what you have to say about my thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the points I make? Please note, though, that my primary aim is not to state my position as the be-all-and-end-all: it’s just my views, my perspective on life, and I have no doubt that everyone else will have a different take on things based on their own life experiences. Variety is the spice of life, after all!

Above all – digest and enjoy.

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Dear librarians, it has been five+ months since my last blog post.

I do feel that this is something of a ‘confession’, given that librarians are all about sharing information. And what’s the point of a blog if you don’t use it? But, you see, I’m in a bit of a dilemma. I’m an introvert. And there’s nothing an introvert hates more than randomly sharing personal thoughts and feelings with others. I mean, why would you want to do that????

And yet, and yet… Here I am in a profession that defines itself by its natural inclination to SHARE and CONNECT. It’s a bit of a mis-match, don’t you think? Well, here’s my take on why I’m drawn to what I do, despite my own persona.

As an introvert I get drained by too much interaction with others. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it; I really do love socialising with people I know well, who are close to me, and with whom I can just be myself. It’s just that it takes me a lot longer to recover from these interactions than people who are more extrovert. Extroverts gain energy from socialising, introverts’ energy is depleted.

So why would I choose a profession that requires me to interact with people? Here’s what I think.

I find the world hugely interesting and, despite being introverted, have no desire to go off and be a hermit in the woods. I love being able to observe what others do, enjoy the results of their creativity, and become informed by their discussions on life. I therefore recognise that I need to exist in the world of others and, to do that, I have to accept that a certain amount of interaction with others is required; it’s part of the deal, as it were.

There are different ways in which we can interact with others. There is the positive, and there is the negative. And this is key.

‘Positive’ includes the abovementioned socialising with friends, chatting, sharing food & wine, chilling in each others’ company, knowing you’re among people who understand you and love you for who you are. Or it’s about working with a bunch of people with shared objectives and mutual respect, who support and encourage each other to be the best they can be. It’s about things working, people helping other, and life going according to plan.

‘Negative’ includes complaining about things, griping about how unfair life is, and grumbling at things that should work but don’t. How many of the negative experiences you have in a day come about because of something that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to? The call centre that puts you on hold for half an hour before telling you there are no operators free to take your call? The shop that declines to honour your discount voucher because you didn’t read the small print that tells you it ran out last week? The library that fines you for an overdue book because its system was down when you tried to renew online? AARGHHH!

Introverts avoid interactions with others, but if we have to have them, we’d prefer them to be positive because it is SO MUCH EASIER AND LESS STRESSFUL. And so I think the reason I’m drawn to librarianship (and associated branches of the information professions) is because it is all about helping people, breaking down barriers, fixing problems, and facilitating all the processes that make life run more smoothly. When did you ever hear someone complain that they’d been given all the information they needed to make an educated decision? Or grumble about being introduced to the wonders of literature? Or snipe at being pointed in the right direction for claiming their benefits?

So that’s why I do what I do. I engage in interactions with people, even though it takes a huge amount of energy on my part, because I hope that the end result will be an easier life for us all – and fewer people coming to me to grumble about things.

Any other introverts recognise this? Or am I alone in my interpretation? Perhaps I should go off to be a hermit in the woods after all… Oh, but where would I go to find out about such opportunities?

Guess…

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It’s been an interesting day for tweets and blog posts about libraries, mostly sparked by Seth Godin’s post on ‘The future of the library‘. I found it really interesting as, for me, it encapsulated the whole problem with why libraries and librarians have such a hard time getting their message and mission out there.

You see, I think the issue is entirely to do with whether people see the library as (in Godin’s words) a ‘warehouse for books’ or a ‘house for the librarian’.

There are those, mostly in the public library arena (which, to be fair, is the arena Godin focuses on in this post), who want to promote the library as community space, bringing the joy of reading to the masses, providing beautiful, tactile, ink-n-dust-n-paper-smelling actual physical books to its users, an antidote to the quick-as-you-like dotcom world of hyperlinks, URLs and (gasp!) tweets.

And this is a really valuable point. I remember going to library school in the early ’90s and attending a lecture entitled ‘Is the book dead?’ Really – it’s not, and looks not to be for some time, and yes we do need to remind people that not everything is available at the touch of a button. There are joys to browsing a physical copy of, say, the complete works of Shakespeare that simply can’t be matched by clicking on a link and searching for that elusive, misquoted quote.

However, there is another side to libraries – and that’s the focus on ‘information’ as opposed to ‘books’. This argument runs: it’s not the medium, it’s the message! And, in my view, this has to be the key.

Not everyone values the look, feel and smell of a leather-bound folio or a Penguin paperback. Many people these days are overwhelmed by the absolute mire of information that engulfs them on a daily basis, and need help negotiating a route through the swamp. And that’s where the ultimate point of Godin’s blog post comes in.

Librarians’ unique value comes not from ‘guarding dead paper’ but from encouraging, guiding and helping people to see what’s contained within those pages. Whether it’s a first edition of The Canterbury Tales or the latest news feed from the Department of Health about the prospects for your granny’s social care, librarians are the ones who can help you find what is meaningful in this. They can help you filter what’s relevant to you personally and teach you the skills to locate, evaluate and absorb it yourself in future without help. They can advise you on what other choices are out there (Harry Potter fan? Try Tolkien! Setting up your own business? Try Companies House!) and lead you towards self-sufficiency, whether that’s in the realm of traditional print fiction, or the latest social web technologies, or something that hasn’t even been imagined yet.

The problem that librarians have is that defending the public library often means focusing on books – which are, absolutely and without doubt, one of the essential parts of a librarian’s remit. However, when the battle moves from public libraries to corporate libraries / academic libraries / hospital libraries / etc, where the emphasis is on accessing information in whatever format it’s currently available – and these days, more and more, that means electronically – how well are we serving our library comrades if the only message we’ve given out is that it’s all about books? What about electronic subscriptions to vital databases? Providing remote current awareness services over the web to people who work off-site? Accessing that vital up-to-the-minute medical research to treat that unusual patient? A five-year-old textbook isn’t always going to cut it.

I’m not knocking the role of libraries as physical book warehouses – I love books and would happily fill my home with them to the exclusion of many other things. But please, for the sake of our colleagues in less traditional settings, let’s at least acknowledge that there’s more to libraries than print, and that the primary role of librarians is to guide people to the information they need to manage their lives as well as their loves.

Godin describes the librarian as “a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher” – and that’s a description I’m happy to identify with.

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