Nov 26

This feels like a slightly self-indulgent post, and it’s taken me a while to write it – it was initially prompted by the ‘Library Routes’ project which was started just over a year ago.

When I was a child – I’m guessing about 8, but could be wrong – I told my parents that when I wanted to remember something, I filed it in a draw in my head, and then I could find it again when I needed it. If this wasn’t enough of a clue, I also had the books in my bedroom sorted by author (for fiction), or topic (non-fiction), and also had a special (and labelled!) ‘oversize’ shelf.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be a librarian (my earliest ambition was to be a train driver, although that was before I discovered you didn’t just get to drive the train anywhere you wanted and you had to take passengers rather than just picking up family and friends), but I was certainly born to it. My dad was a librarian in FE for most of his career (until he ‘retired’ and started developing and selling library software for school and small libraries) and my uncle (his brother) was a public librarian. I’m a librarian, my sister works in a related area, and one of my cousins is a law librarian (recently elected president of the Caribbean Association of Law Libraries (CARALL)).

As I said, it wasn’t in my mind to become a librarian. I was interested in a wide range of subjects at school, but science was where I focused for A Levels. When it came to University I was still keen to study a range of subjects, and most appealing were the ‘natural science’ degrees at Cambridge and Durham – which seemed to offer a broad base in science without forcing specialisation until further into the course. However, both these applications were unsuccessful, and I found myself choosing between my remaining 3 offers (at that time you got to apply to 5 Universities through UCAS, and could additionally apply to Polytechnics via PCAS – I’d opted for the former route only). Which is how I ended up studying a BSc in Mathematics and Psychology at what was then called Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, a college of the University of London. After a year it became clear I was much more suited to Maths than to Psychology (i.e. I could do maths) so I ended up just studying Mathematics.

During this time I got to use the University library of course, and used the ‘OPAC’ (although at the time the library system – Libertas was the software – didn’t manage circulation, and you had to fill out a card to borrow a book), and I started to become interested in how computer systems might be (better) exploited to help people find the information they needed. This was still before ‘the web’ (although not by much – I graduated in 1993). So, as I reached the end of my degree, I decided I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps and become a librarian. I think that librarianship is one of those things that most people don’t consider as a career option because they don’t understand what is involved – and that’s really how my Dad being a librarian influenced me – I actually had some idea of what librarians did :)

I started applying for trainee positions to get some experience – which was pretty much essential if I wanted to get funding to do a postgraduate qualification – and ended up working in the library service for a large paper making company – Arjo Wiggins (they produce ‘Conqueror’ paper which you may have seen/used). I was based at their R&D facility in Beaconsfield, and we ran a small library, offered literature searches, document delivery, and ran a pretty comprehensive current awareness service for all staff across the paper mills (mainly in Europe). This was the mid-1990s and despite the fact that the worst of the early 90s recession was (in theory) over, cut backs at the company reduced the size of the library from 5 staff to 2 staff – one of whom was the trainee (me).

This was a pretty awful situation, but of course also an opportunity – I basically had to have more responsibility, and I also got to work on using computers to automate some of the tasks that had previously been done by hand – especially in the production of the current awareness bulletins, where I wrote a series of macros in Wordperfect to format stuff abstracted from a variety of sources and the like.

I guess this was the point at which my desire to exploit computers in libraries was really cemented. I went on to do my postgraduate qualification – a diploma in Information Management, as I didn’t complete my dissertation to gain my MSc :( – at Thames Valley University. While I did really enjoy my postgraduate year, that was mainly due to stuff outside the course! I was disappointed that there wasn’t more on offer in terms of computing – I remember specifically being a bit shocked and disappointed that the module called ‘Information Technology for Information Managers’ started with ‘How to use a Wordprocessor’. Despite this, I do think the course, in combination with the previous experience, gave me a reasonable grounding in both management and information management, and by the end of the course I was ready to get to work.

My first professional post was at West Middlesex University Hospital library, where I was responsible for both the collection for nursing staff and this new fangled ‘internet’ (I think my job title was ‘Internet Librarian’!). My contract was only for a year, and I ended up staying only 9 months, but I did get the opportunity to implement a network of computers and network Medline across the library (previously it had only been available on CD-ROM on a single computer, operated by library staff) – this was both incredibly challenging and rewarding – I basically learnt the basics of networking computers from scratch, on the job – brilliant!

My next job was at the Institute of Child Health (ICH), where again I was responsible for the nursing collection – which meant I was responsible for providing library services to nurses at Great Ormond Street – which was a pretty rewarding experience. As with the library at West Middlesex and my previous experience at Arjo Wiggins, the library at ICH was small (only three staff) and I got to work across the whole service – I think this background in working across all aspects of a small library service has been really valuable to my subsequent career – if you want to experience a wide range of work and understand a lot of library processes, in a small library you are likely to get the opportunity to catalogue, do inter-library loans, circulation, web stuff, training, reference – you name it, you’ll end up doing it basically.

I was able to use my experience and interest in computing at ICH as we implemented a library management system (SIRSI Unicorn since you ask) – moving from a card catalogue and manual circulation processes, and also wrote an Inter-library loan management package using MS Access, as well as loads of other bits and pieces. After a couple of years (again I was on a short-term contract – 2 yrs this time), I applied for a Systems Librarian job back at my Alma Mater – now called ‘Royal Holloway, University of London’ (RHUL) – and to my surprise (I thought I didn’t have half enough experience) I got it.

I was at Royal Holloway for 9 years, and got to implement a library management system (Aleph this time), OpenURL resolver (the first in the UK), federated search, two VLEs, and got to speak at and attend conferences in the UK, Israel, Austria, Sweden, the USA, Cyprus, Greece, and probably other places I’ve forgotten – it seems fair to say I worked hard, but was offered huge opportunities, which I really appreciated, and hope I made the most of. Later in my time at RHUL I moved over to IT and took responsibility for the ‘online services’ offered – including the library services, but also the main website, the institutional portal, and the VLE. This was again challenging and a great opportunity, but eventually I decided I wanted to focus back on libraries, as opposed to more general IT – and so I took a deliberate step back into libraries, moving to Imperial College as part of the library management team.

Other factors came into play at this point, and having a young family, we decided to get out of London which brings me almost up to date. I took a short-term contract as a project manager on the TELSTAR project at the Open University, and when this became a part-time position in March this year (2010) I decided I would do something I’d been thinking about, and occasionally talking about, for a couple of years – setup for myself as a library consultant. So that’s where I am now – I still work part-time for the Open University (although now on the Lucero project dealing with Linked Data), and the rest of the time I get to do work with great people across the library sector – and I’m still as interested and fascinated by how computers can help people get to the information they need as I was almost twenty years ago :)

written by ostephens

One Ping to “Library Routes”

  1. Owen Stephens, self-employed consultant | Voices for the Library Says:

    [...] systems. For a full run down of how I got into librarianship and my career so far you can read my ‘Library Routes’ blogpost [...]


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