Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Potay-to, potah-to, librarian, lawyer

Recently, for the first time, I’m involved in a stressy legal transaction. I’ve sold one property, and I’m buying another – when I bought the first property, I was a first time buyer: no chain, no issues, just finances to get sorted, and conveyancing fees to pay. This time around, I have the finances of the property I’m leaving (along with any final bill from the Totally Incompetent and Deeply Hated Factoring Company) to deal with, a new mortgage to apply for, the transfer of the old mortgage from the old mortgage company to the new mortgage company, the transfer of mortgage cash and deposit to the owner of the property I'm buying, and legal/conveyancing fees for buying and selling to cover. So, while one property's definitely sold, I'm still waiting for confirmation of the one that I've bought is officially bought.

Now, as a librarian, I deal with information. My users ask me for information all the time, and I try and get it for them. Sometimes, this information can take longer to get, or is trickier to source than expected. I know my users have various others depending on them, so they need to know when they'll get that information, or at least be able to tell interested parties that they are working on the issue, and hope to give them a response in X hours/days. So I try and ensure that my users know how long something might take, or if something's taking longer than expected, I'll call/email to let them know I'm working on it. It's important to pass on that sort of thing, as, even if your update is "I've been busy, I've not started this yet, but expect to be able to get to it this afternoon/tomorrow morning" etc, then everyone's kept informed, and able to explain to others what's going on.

My lawyer (and, it appears, most lawyers involved in conveyancing transactions) do not share this approach. 

Today I emailed after 8 days without contact (and I move out/in in 14-16 days), to be told, effectively "things are happening, but nothing worth telling you about yet". Which is fine - things are moving along as they should. But as a user, I would prefer to have been given an occasional contact which said something along those lines, to reassure me that there was progress. Instead, I have been gradually fretting more and more that I am going to be homeless/the sale will fall through/I'll need to find temporary accommodation and storage for my belongings/where will everything go/how will I continue to get to work/I don't have enough holidays to cover 2 moving dates, until I finally contacted my solicitor for an update.

Is it a cultural thing? Are librarians trained to make information sharing easier, and are therefore more open about the information they have, and when it will be available to their users, while lawyers focus on commercial secrets, and making sure their profession has some sort of air of mystery? One where solicitors are beavering away in darkened offices, doing arcane Legal Things that us plebs just wouldn't be able to understand, so there's no point telling us about them?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thing 22 - volunteering

For Thing 22, we're being asked to discuss the idea of volunteering, and whether we have ever done this in a professional capacity.

I have to admit that, since qualifying, I've not actually done anything in the way of volunteering in libraries, but it was probably my volunteering in a library that got me onto my library course in the first place.

After realising during my uni course that science was not going to be the career for me, and locating a postgrad course that looked interesting, and local (Scotland is not exactly swamped with universities that run library postgrad courses), I bumbled my way through my undergrad, and got ready to apply for a course that I had heard had far more applications than available places. So I needed to convince the organisers that I was committed to the idea of being a librarian, and that they should let me on the course. Due to the "interesting" approach of my uni and personal advisor (i.e. they didn't manage or advise in any way, and I foolishly trusted them as trained advisors to know what I needed to do better than me), nobody pointed out I'd be half a credit short to graduate after 3 years, so I ended up doing an extra semester in order to make up that half credit. I decided to make good use of this time, and volunteer in a library, to get myself some experience before applying for the postgrad course. My friend was a trainee teacher, and had recently had a placement in a local secondary school, and she put me in touch with the librarian there, who was lovely, and very happy to have some help for a day or so every week.

So, I ended up volunteering in the school for a good few months, continuing to come in and help even when I moved an hour away: it just meant that I had to sleep on my friends floor (alternating between 2 friends) for one or two nights a week. I got to do the things that the very busy librarian just didn't have time to do, like compiling the card catalogue records that came into the library with the books purchased and catalogued by an external service into a proper card catalogue, a task which the kids who liked to help out in the library also enjoyed helping with, under my supervision! Or fitting plastic-film jackets to the books, in order to get them out onto the shelves and useable, as cutting the film to size and fitting it was time consuming and would always be pushed down the to-do list by more urgent tasks. I was shelving the books that churned through the library, and helping to weed material that was obviously dated. And teaching pupils how to analyse the entry requirements and aims of a national poster display competition, encouraging them to consider what sort of material the commercial sponsor behind it would be interested in them creating, and showing them how to use paper and electronic resources in an appropriate way (it all paid off - their entry came 4th!). Staffing the library during lunchtime and breaks, to allow the Librarian a proper time away from her desk/in her office, while still allowing the pupils to access the library during their break time....and also maintaining discipline with the pupils during those breaks...I perfected a great Librarian Stare, which took a few kids who hadn't spotted me by surprise, when they were running around, thinking they were getting away with being rowdy and I materialised silently behind them (or in one case, when they'd thrown themselves on the ground, above them). Staring. Silently. With the Dead Face. It's very satisfying :)

It was a great experience, and I firmly believe that my commitment to volunteering in that school library, and the enthusiasm I left with for a possible career in school libraries, was a big element in securing me a place on that postgrad course. Who knows where I might have ended up working, if it hadn't been for a first part-time job in a legal library?

So yes, for me, volunteering has been a great way to further my career. Would I volunteer again? Yes, if I was thinking of changing sectors, I think volunteering is a great way to get some current, hands-on experience of tasks and duties I would be unlikely to have knowledge of from my current role.

Coming of age - Thing 21

Image credit
Whatever happened to 21 being a big deal? You don't get anything exciting when you turn 21, other than, for some reason, a lot of cards with a key on them. It's a bit of a cheat, really - all the good stuff happened at 16, or 18. Hopefully, Thing 21 won't be like that.

Oh. It's about promoting myself. I hate that. I think I'd rather have a card with a key on it, to be honest...

Anyhoo, I'm meant to be compiling a list of my interests, my strengths, and examples of when I've done things demonstrating a skill that stemmed from an interest. And then update my CV database with those. And share interview tips or experience I've had in my career.

Well, it's been a long time since I was last interviewed and (fingers crossed), I'm not planning to need to be interviewed in the near future, so any tips or experiences are in the distant past. Although the HR manager who kept accidentally playing footsie with me under the table whenever he stretched to relieve the boredom for him of sitting in an interview for a position in a department he obviously had no understanding of, or interest in, that was a...highlight...of when I was last doing the rounds of interviews. All he could tell me about the role was how much my next of kin would receive if I died while employed by the organisation. Cheery!

So, my interview top tip - make sure you're being interviewed by someone who knows why you're there, and what the job would entail!

And it's been over 6 years since I applied for any position, so my CV has become somewhat dated...but this is where the Revalidation process has been very handy. Lovely Beth has been working with me via our wiki, to give me impartial feedback on updating my tired old CV, and incorporating some of my professional achievements into. Being traditionally British, I'm not very good at this, but when I got going, I found I had enough to make it tricky to stick to the 2 page, self-imposed limit! The wiki also helped, as I've been using it to dump lots of info on things I've done over the last few years onto, and this allowed me to easily see exactly what I'd been up to, and meant I wasn't forgetting any relevant activities. So I now have a swishy CV that makes me look awesome. Which is, obviously, cos I am ;)

So, although I have no recent interviewing or job application experiences, the Revalidation process has actually prompted me overhaul my CV and professional achievements, so if needed, I can now demonstrate exactly how busy I've been on the professional front, and exactly what I have experience and skills in.
Which was nice.

Thing 20 - getting back to my roots

For this Thing, I'm meant to be blogging or thinking about my Library Route/Root, or the path that brought me to librarianship, back in the Good Old Days. However, I was involved in the discussions that kicked off the creation of the wiki, and have blogged both my library route, and my root previously, so if anyone was particularly excited to find out, they can have a look at those - there's been no major changes since I wrote them.

I haven't however had a look at many of the other entries since the wiki was established in 2009, so I went over to poke about in some of the newer entries. From reading a good few of those, it seems that librarian career paths can mostly be summed up as:
  • I didn't ever consciously think of libraries as a career, but ended up in them by accident, and it was a happy accident.
  • I started off as/qualified in something else, but I realised eventually that libraries were for me.
  • I always knew I wanted to be a librarian.
It seems that "I always wanted to be a librarian" posts are hugely outnumbered by the "I never knew it was a career, but now I'm in it, I love it" ones. Perhaps the always-wanted posts are so few because of the problems the profession has with negative and outdated stereotypes - I can't imagine that if you asked a kid "do you want to be a librarian?" that they'd say "yes: where so I sign up?!?!". Mainly because "librarian" to kids are the Frumpy Stereotype (well, for the younger ones anyway - give them a few years, then they'll move onto the Repressed Sex Beast stereotype), and that's a long established one. It's not really something that's likely to change soon (unless anyone has developed mind bleach for an entire population), but it would be nice if librarian/researcher/information retrieval specialist was a bit more of a visible careers option. I'm not involved in the academic sector, so I'm not sure how the Careers Service ties in, but how well informed are careers advisors on the information profession? 
Hopefully, a bit better than my one in the early 1990s, who cheerfully advised me not to go into working in libraries (despite it being an equal first on my careers choices, tied with science, and...erm...landscape gardening or something similar in close second!), as "it'll all be done by computers in the future".
Well done, careers advisor. I AM that computer who's doing it in the future: I'm a librarian.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Book first aid

Old law books are the like the ginger children of the book world: they exist, but nobody likes to acknowledge the fact. Along with other factual texts for areas like science and medicine, an old law book is immediately discarded with joyful glee by users as soon as a new edition appears in the library, because relying on old law books is a dangerous thing - you don't want to be the lawyer caught out because new case law or legislation that contradicts the point you want to make has been created since the edition you're using. Often, the preceding edition of a text will be retained for reference if a substantial amount of the contents remain unchanged (with big warning stickers on the covers stating that it's not current, please check the current version for more recent information), but any books older than that preceding edition are usually despatched to the Great Big Recycling Box.

Stingray skin, one option for making an interesting book cover!
However, certain texts are likely to remain in a law library for longer than the law librarians staffing it might live: these texts are usually the writings of legal experts from the 1800 onwards, who have outlined core legal principles so clearly and precisely that they are still being referred to today, and frequently. Also, old cases which also clearly state various principles and ways to interpret the law and which are still adhered to today can see regular use. Due to their regular movements from shelf, to desk, to court, and back again, these old books suffer a lot of wear and tear, and are most likely to need occasional attention from a book repairer, in order to keep them useable for many more years. These expert services can be costly though, so when the opportunity to attend a hands-on book repair event came up, I thought it would be a good idea to attend, and see if I could pick up some tips on how to do some of the more basic repairs myself.

The demonstrators in attendance were providing the chance to watch or attempt to use a variety of the traditional skills and materials involved in bookbinding and book repair. I learned how the gold lettering and decoration is embedded into leather or bursam book bindings (HOT!); saw the types of materials that can be used to create the bindings (including a variety of shades of stingray skin, photo of the black one above); observed a text being bound by hand with thread in a loom-like frame; saw how book edges have different types of colours and marbling applied to them; and I was shown how to repair ripped or defaced pages.

Out of all the activities demonstrated, the page repairs are likely to be the most useful skill for me. Old book pages can be fragile, and a rip that starts off small can soon become much larger, escecially when a book and its pages are being flipped back and forth on a photocopier! Being able to make a small repair before it turns into something that needs professional attention could be time and money saving in the long run. So perhaps I should be investing in some of those meltable strips, and a travel iron to keep in a desk drawer, for OAP book first aid. I'm drawing the line though at getting a wee fabric baggie filled with tiny granules of rubber powder, that's used to gently remove pencil marks and small blemished from pages....my books are just going to have to cope with me using my trusty National Library of Scotland eraser!
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