I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a while and struggled with how to write it, but firstly I feel like this is the kind of blog post I needed to see a few years ago and secondly I don’t think people’s rocky roads to careers are discussed that much.
This post is going to be really ‘me’ heavy, which I cringe about, however I’m hoping even though this is just from my one perspective it might give other people a different insight into working in libraries.
I’m going to begin by talking about my work history from the start and how my experience has led me to where I am now, which is currently working in a library as a library assistant, working in the acquisitions department with books and e-books and looking forward to starting my Masters in Librarianship this September.
I’ve cut this into two sections: the work I did before and during my undergraduate degree then I’ll go into post-university.
Pre- university and university
As you can probably guess from the above I really wanted to work in museums. I dropped out of my first degree as I wasn’t enjoying it and I had no idea what I’d do after. I remember teachers telling me I was good at English and to go study that. I didn’t want to study Literature as I hadn’t at A-Level and the literature I had studied for GCSE I ended up hating. I didn’t want to not enjoy reading. So I went for Language and Linguistics. It really was not for me. I obviously hadn’t done enough research or figured out what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of pressure to go straight to university after school, there’s never much talk of apprenticeships, different courses, areas of study or even going straight into work, which I think I would have preferred.
I went back home and thought about what I wanted to do. I loved art and being creative, but knew I couldn’t do it in a forced environment with deadlines. I decided to work for a year and try and gain as much experience as I could to figure out what I wanted to do. One of the first places I went was my local museum where I asked to volunteer. They told me something along the lines of they didn’t have any volunteer things running, but I could apply for a paid casual post. Would this ever happen now?! Would a museum say ‘No you can’t volunteer, but you can apply for something paid’?! Anyway I got the job and I really enjoyed it. I got experience doing everything from invigilating the galleries and helping the public, to working on the information desk, to the gift shop and became part of the team that installed and de-installed our changing exhibitions. I also got a position in the Family Learning team. The perk of working in a relatively small museum are you get the chance to do a lot! Even though it was zero hours I was lucky there were always shifts going. I rarely didn’t have work and working 7 day weeks wasn’t an uncommon thing. It was also the best paid job I’d had up until that point. I dug out one of my old payslips. In 2010 I got £7.50 for my gallery assistant role and £7.69 for my Family Learning work. Even now this is really good money (sadly? Minimum wage having just got to £7.20 now…Eeesh) My parents weren’t asking me for rent so all this money was mainly being saved because I knew I was going to go back to university.
I’m going to interject here by saying I know how lucky I was then and how privileged I was/am. I’m a white woman from a working class background. Getting a job in a museum, even having the knowledge already that I know I can apply to this job and I might get it, is a privilege. I was also lucky enough to still live with my parents who did not ask for rent and lucky enough I could volunteer one afternoon a week at an archive centre. I know everyone does not get these privileges. Some people would not be able to survive, or even hope to survive, on zero hours roles considering the hours can be so unstable (I was lucky) some people would not even consider applying to a museum or even think about a career in museums because of their background, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, religion, class, and any other aspect that holds people back from professions. This isn’t just museums either, it’s libraries, it’s the arts, it’s all sorts of careers in different sectors. I’m not sure what the right answer is to changing the above. I see internships aimed at groups who are underrepresented, but I’m not sure that’s doing enough to change the culture. Especially when, once you finished your year-long internship, there aren’t any jobs to go to. Or nothing stable enough you could consider doing as you don’t have the same safety net as others may have. It’s all messy and I don’t think it’s changed much in the past 9 years and I’m not sure how it will. I hope it does though and I also believe if I can change things and am in the position to changes things I will.
A few months into working at the museum I spoke to a few of the curators and they advised a degree in Art History. I did my research and it sounded great! I didn’t have the opportunity to study this at school as it wasn’t offered so it felt like something really new and exciting. I had loved history, but got to my A-Levels and completely bombed it. Weimar Germany and Socialist Russia were not my thing, but funnily enough I did a module during my BA on art in Socialist Russia and loved it. Teachers can either make things really engaging or really really not engaging.
I applied to study a BA in Art History and got in to all my choices; having already got my A-Levels this was so much less stressful and I’d advise anyone to wait because getting your A-Level results in August and going to a new city in September and spending most of your summer uncertainly waiting is stupid! (the system not you)
When I started university I had already saved for a year and I didn’t have to work much during the weeks I was being taught (another privilege). Every break from university over the holidays and summer I went to work back at the museum because of the experience, the pay, and because I enjoyed working there. I did volunteer a lot at university though. I volunteered at independent galleries and galleries ran by the council. I worked briefly at a museum, but the pay was so low and it was so far out of town that with the transport costs it ended up being better financially for me to quit. In my third year, with hopes of not moving back home, I got a job as a casual member of staff (zero hours again) in the learning team at a museum.
I’m going to end this long blog post here in prep for part two (because who really wants to read this much?!), but as you can see no library work! Yet.
Part 2 coming shortly.