My first month: Simon Barron, E-resources Co-ordinator at Durham University Library
What’s it really like to start work as a new professional? In this series of guest blog posts, we’ll hear from new professionals about their first month in a new job. What have they learned? How have they fitted in? What’s been the best (and the worst!) thing?
Three months ago, I started at my second professional post in librarianship. Starting a new job is always a challenging experience: it’s the perfect trauma cocktail of learning new things, meeting new people, and settling into a new place. With dissertation deadlines passed and the new year fast approaching, many new professionals will be in the same position – starting in a first post or starting a new job. This blog post is about what I’ve learned while doing this new job and what I wish I’d known a month ago.
In October I started work as E-resources Co-ordinator at Durham University Library. I left my cosy, comfortable first professional post, I left my cosy, comfortable first flat that I’d lived in on my own, and I moved to the completely unfamiliar North-East of England. On the evening before I started, I re-read the job description so I had a rough of what was expected of me and I did some research into the library itself by poking around the OPAC, the website, and Wikipedia. The week before I’d been to Library Camp in Birmingham and attended some sessions on cataloguing and digital repositories to refresh what I learned in library school. I felt prepared and I felt excited.
Basically, this job involves maintaining the electronic resources of the university library – electronic journals, ebooks, electronic databases. I’d always wanted a position involving cataloguing (particularly digital resources) and so I was delighted to discover just how much cataloguing the job involves. Delighted and intimidated as I began to realise how much I didn’t know about real library cataloguing. The evening after my first day, I scrabbled through my library school notes for information on metadata, MARC, AACR2, and all the other cataloguing concepts that I was aware of and that I must have been taught but which, at some point in the year between now and library school, must have snuck out of my head. Suddenly I actually need to edit catalogue fields, put full stops and commas in the right place, and decipher the arcane numerology of the MARC system. It was a steep learning curve.
I was also struck by the wealth of new technologies that I needed to use. Quite different from the desk-and-shelf general library work of my first post, this is a computer-based role managing an ethereal digital collection and navigating dense webs of hyperlinks. I knew it was a ‘techie’ kind of role and my previous experience working in IT support stood me in good stead but learning about so many new technologies so quickly was still a challenge. As well as the new OPAC and library management software, I need to work with the electronic resource management system, adjust URL resolvers, enable Shibboleth authentication, and configure the library’s proxy server. And journal subscription spreadsheets are some of the most intricate and byzantine that I’ve ever seen. Good general advice for dealing with new technology is to mess about and explore: there’s probably nothing you can do to completely break something (although on my second day, my manager pointed out a button in the LMS that I should never ever press under any circumstances: it’s a good idea to avoid these kinds of buttons!).
One of the things I’ve learned over the past month is the importance of communication: within and outside the institution. Although communication was important in my previous job in an Army library, it was also restricted and often difficult to send and receive information from inside the camp. In my new role, I need to keep abreast of e-resource developments and to liaise with publishers and suppliers to ensure we have access to everything we’re paying for. As well as subscribing to half-a-dozen JISC mailing lists and a host of new RSS feeds to keep in touch with other people doing the same work as me, I’ve been picking up and talking to new Twitter contacts to share information (and indeed, frustration). A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that we couldn’t access any of the journals of a major publisher. It was only because I was following their Twitter account that I was able to discover that it was an outage problem with them and not an access problem with us.
Taking on a new job, I’ve also communicated with my ‘network’ more and relied on them for support. We were told in library school about the importance of a professional network and keeping in contact with the people around us and I’ll admit, I only half-believed it. But being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar (but lovely!) people, I’ve relied on the people I know to support me and keep me going. This includes my friends from library school, my regular bunch of library folk on Twitter and Facebook, and my email contacts. As well as general friendly banter, they’ve given me advice and tips about how to survive in the cold, unforgiving North-East (apparently ‘shy bairns get nowt’).
It’s been a month and so far I’ve survived my new job without incident. I’ve met new people and I’m learning new things about library technologies, about e-resources, and about how big libraries work. Though I do feel like I’ve been thrown in at the deep end, I think I would have drowned without the background that I received at library school. My Masters degree wasn’t perfect and there’s loads that I’ve had to pick up on the job but it provided a background. Even if I’ve had to fill in the foreground myself, that background to librarianship has kept me from embarrassing myself – for at least my first month!