Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Leaving the Library

I wrote this post in the summer of 2014, describing my move out of library work. I'd had my first job in the village library as a teenager, our village not offering much else to anyone too young to sell alcohol. I worked in the field for nearly ten years. And eventually, I felt compelled to leave it. At the time, I felt like writing this up but wasn't so sure about actually posting it. But now, I don't see any particular harm.

So until a few months ago, I was a library assistant, although as far as most people are concerned, I was a librarian.

I had a Saturday job in the village library as a teenager, and for one reason or another I decided to try a library traineeship after university. I had a profitable traineeship that showed me a wide range of library roles and tasks, helped me understand what I wouldn't like to do, and highlight the bits I did enjoy. From there I was lucky enough to find a full-time library job (I know!) in an academic library, and stayed there for six years.

I left my job by choice, for a number of reasons that I'm going to talk about a bit. The job had ceased to inspire me, which made it hard to meet my own standards. My role changed considerably over that time, both in great leaps and subtle shifts, which was a major reason for my change of heart. There were some personal issues, which aren't especially useful to talk about, so I won't. And I had, for these reasons and others, taken a long hard look at the future and seen something resembling the hopelessness-inducing fens of Mordor.

First, some relevant background: when I took the job, it was made clear that there was a plan to merge the library with several others into a new cross-disciplinary library, and that various changes and rationalisations would take place towards that goal. Largely due to the financial crisis, this did not in fact happen. However, due to a mixture of irreversible steps already taken (such as selling our premises) and top-level decisions to which I was not privy, something had to be done. As such, we ended up first sharing our librarian with another department, then sharing staff, and eventually merging the librarians into a new joint library in new premises. This was, of course, a pretty stressful and significant set of changes, and it involved some of the same work that the original plan would have called for.

Put me to doing

One of the main factors leaving me dissatisfied with the job was that the variety and scope of my job decreased significantly over the course of the years, which is precisely the opposite of what I'd expect.

Early on, there were a large number of one-off projects to work on: old donations to process, videos to digitise, some collection management changes, and most importantly, the conversion of the entire stock to Library of Congress in preparation for the expected merger.

I was also the only full-time library assistant, and between than and a prominent desk, I was the de facto receptionist, spending a lot of time interacting with readers or other visitors. The library layout meant everyone passed by me on their way in. I got to know many readers well, and showed a friendly informal face to reassure the more nervous new arrivals, and encourage them to actually approach us with problems. Between visitors, I worked on my projects, or did some of the many backroom tasks like checking new purchases, updating the catalogue, marking up new stock, replacing worn labels, taking and analysing statistics, collecting requests from the basement stacks, arranging rare book consultations, checking and fixing the photocopier, and so ad nearly infinitum.

How times change.

One by one, most of the projects were concluded, until only the conversion to Library of Congress remained. By that time, we had merged, giving us two librariesworth of stock to deal with, and essentially zero room for shuffling. There was also a constant suggestion that the remaining work would be outsourced, so we were regularly pulled off the project, each time drifting back to it when we ran out of other jobs or when certain sections became over-full and relocation was inevitable. No new projects arrived to fill the gap, leaving a net reduction in both workload and interest. Some were very repetitive, but they had added to the overall variety of the job, and some offered interesting problem-solving.

Meanwhile, the layout of the new library placed the enquiry desks in a side room, usually bypassed entirely by readers, who didn't build up as much of a connection with us. Library visits didn't seem to increase much, since although the new library combined two departments, its new location reduced its attractiveness as a drop-in centre between lectures. The new library was much simpler: its layout was much more straightforward, and several confusing sections had been reclassified or sent elsewhere (such as the antiquarian books), so readers needed less help finding their way around. There was no basement stacks to fetch books from, everything now being open-shelf, which was a great help for readers but did cut another of my tasks. Shelf-ready books took off, and suddenly new books didn't need any processing. E-books and scanning became widely used, cutting loans and shelving, while self-issue machines allowed readers to borrow books without staff intervention. More recent students also seemed more comfortable with a lot of library technology, since a modern catalogue has a lot in common with the Amazon interface. The reduced need to consult staff again weakened the rapport between readers and library staff, reducing enquiries and making the job rather less sociable; though readers did still come to the desk, the relationships seemed generally more distant.

Overall, I noticed a massive reduction in the variety of what I was doing, and in the amount of work overall. At the same time, during the merger, staffing actually increased significantly and remained at its height. From being the sole full-time assistant, I was now one of four. There were still only two enquiry desks, so those of us with slightly more admin responsibilities tended to end up in the back office. In my case, I was often scrabbling around for work, and many of the tasks available were extremely repetitive jobs of minimal interest.I found it quite exhausting to be always thinking of things to do, and felt guilty when I wasn't able to find any work to do. At the same time, I had less sense of accomplishment, less satisfaction from solving puzzles, and less social contact with readers to keep things interesting. I felt myself surplus to requirements, and frankly bored.

None of this was really anyone's fault. Technology had advanced, and reduced the need for traditional library work along the way, while younger readers were comfortable using this technology with minimal help. Old projects had been finished off, and no new ones had come along. The library was leaner, better-organised and more efficient in various ways that helped readers. The layout of the new building meant readers no longer naturally flowed to the enquiry desk. Changes in the market (like shelf-ready) shifted traditional library jobs over to the supplier. The outcome happened to be that most of my work melted away. I was no longer necessary.

Money, money, money

Shallow as it sounds, I'd be dim not to also be concerned about money. As a library assistant on Grade 3 of the UK Universities payscale, I began somewhere in the £18k region, and over six years I progressed to around £20k between annual increases and adjustments to the payscale, almost hitting the cap. In the city where I lived, this was enough to rent one room in a small terraced house shared with two others, in a nice enough area, and to go food shopping without worrying, which is not to be sniffed at. However, there was simply no way that I could ever afford to live on my own, bar getting a tumbledown flat above a takeaway in the worst part of town, which would in no way improve matters.

My housemates were nice enough, but at the age of 30 I was sincerely longing for a place where I didn't have to worry about access to the bathroom, could cook complicated meals without worrying about inconveniencing housemates, no cleaning rotas were necessary, and I had enough room to actually put all my stuff away just once instead of moving it from floor to bed and back. Where housemates wouldn't plan a big date night and occupy the kitchen for three hours, using every utensil in the house. Where I wasn't covering extra housework because my cohabitees had serious health issues. Where I wasn't worrying about getting bills paid for three and then reminding people to pay me back. Where no partners would suddenly move in for months at a time.

The problem was not just my current circumstances, but the increasingly evident issue that nothing was going to change. Rental prices would not suddenly drop. My salary couldn't increase much further. There was a small possibility of getting a slightly higher paid job (Grade 4), which after a few years could conceivably stretch to a single flat somewhere less desirable. Librarianship is a traditionally female profession, and I've always been convinced that this, plus the fact that you actually talk to people, explains its low wages. In universities, and particularly in old and hidebound universities, there's a sense (with evidence) that it used to be a job for the wives of academics to keep them busy and earning some pocket money. In reality, work at the library desk is pretty challenging, at least if you're going to be any good at it, and most library staff I know also do a considerable amount of administration, some data analysis, website management and ad-hoc pastoral care at the very least.

Though it's in no sense scientific, typically the response from other staff learning about library grading is a kind of shocked bewilderment. One friend stammered that they thought only the door staff were on that grade.* Another didn't believe the university was allowed to actually recruit to it. I was briefly seconded to an administrative team, who looked poleaxed when the fact emerged during a meeting; given what they'd asked for in a secondee, they'd assumed I must be on at least a Grade 5, like every single person in that department. I had to break the news to them that even a deputy librarian in charge of day-to-day operations only just scraped it.

* Door staff also do a valuable and demanding job, especially evening and night porters. I hope they get paid better than I was. They deal with a lot.

Any further promotion was essentially ruled out by the library world's arcane insistence on a split between Library Assistants and Librarians, reinforced by the ever-growing trend for certification. It's rare indeed to see a librarian post that doesn't call for Qualified Librarian status, a professional qualification which requires either an undergraduate or Masters degree, which will set you back around thousands of pounds and around a year of your life. Between my own observations and the experiences of the many people I know who have taken the qualification, let us say I am sceptical of its merits.

A further barrier is offered by the existence of chartership, a privilege shared with seven other professions in the UK, in most of which professional incompetence can result in mass fraud or death.

Essentially, to improve my quality of life significantly while remaining in the field, I would have to pay to complete an unwanted postgraduate degree in the hopes of getting a proper Librarian job. From what I know of the field, this would involve giving up most of the interesting parts of the job, in order to spend the time writing presentations for management, attending meetings and analysing budgets. Another route is moving into a technical field, such as cataloguing or electronic resources. These are all laudable things, but of approximately zero interest to me as a full-time job. I got into librarianship because I like humans and providing practical help. Unfortunately, reader services is not an actual career path where you can learn, progress and become a highly-respected professional, in the same way that cataloguing, staff training or electronic resources management are.

Much simpler, from what I can see, to move sideways into administration. It probably won't be quite as interesting, and many of my well-honed skills will go to waste. Intuiting where a book will have been misshelved based on shelfmark systems and historical patterns; remembering the names of several hundred readers and what they talked about last visit; using library software; extensive knowledge of classification systems.

Look to the future

The last of the major factors was an increasing concern about what will happen in the library world. The disappearance of all the work I used to do is a pretty good indicator of current trends. A lot of work that library staff used to do can now be done by readers, or even via assistance apps. Traditional complexity is tending to melt away, with software falling in line with modern norms and become more user-friendly, and libraries reorganising in the face of modern ideas about how buildings can be used. Staff mediation is reduced by the (laudable) abolition of old restrictions and red tape that obstructed readers.

Other work is being outsourced, increasingly easy now. Books can arrive shelf-ready. Electronic resources can be managed by an agency or as part of a conglomerate. Cataloguing can be done by agencies, or records downloaded. Even collection management can be farmed out to specialist firms. A lot of remaining jobs are fairly low-skill, and I predict that desk jobs will tend to be downgraded over time - it's certainly what I would have done to my job, with the best will in the world. There's pressure on opening hours in many places too, both public and education libraries, which encourages rotas and casual staffing. I expect an even starker division in future, with a MacDonalds-like team of low-paid desk staff called in to keep the place nominally staffed, handle shelving and work through simple lists, while specialist staff handle technical jobs that can't be outsourced. And there's no shortage of willing staff: library jobs seem appealing and get hordes of applications, which will surely keep those McJobs filled.

There's also a lot of pressure on libraries in general. Budgets are readily cut and rarely expanded. Public libraries close, university libraries merge. Many people don't use libraries much, now that books are easily and cheaply available, thanks to a thriving online second-hand market. All of this makes me expect yet more job losses to come.

Partly because of these pressures, and partly because of the specific demands of the profession, few library jobs are full-time. Some are tied to dates of term, others work only evenings or weekends, or every Thursday for six hours. Few seem to be permanent. Rotas aren't uncommon, making it hard to work multiple jobs. Part-time, contract-based and poorly-paid? You're spoiling us.

This does not look like a profession in which I can feel secure. I have reached a point in my life where I would like to feel secure.

I'm sorry, Libraries. I really tried to make this work. It's not me; it's you.

So, how's that working out for me?

I spent six months abroad studying intensively to improve my language skills. This proved interesting, but basically useless; the supposed demand for language skills doesn't translate into many actual job openings. There are undoubtedly lots of situations where they're useful, but very few jobs that either ask for them or are willing to pay for them. I've seen a few asking for fluent speakers of X, which I can't claim to be, mostly in roles liaising with the appropriate countries or translating documents.

After nine months of unemployment and sporadic freelancing, I finally managed to land an administrative role on my roughly 100th application and my tenth interview (this is not hyperbole). It's on Grade 3, but housing's cheaper where I live now so I did get my own flat. And then a load of fuckwits voted for Brexit, so the economy went to hell, and my chances of climbing the pay scale are currently zero.

Nice one, genius.