Sam Wiggins, one of SLA Europe’s Early Career Conference Award winners for 2011, shares his thoughts on promoting the information profession to schools.

The idea first occurred to me during a question posed at the CILIP New Professionals Conference earlier this year – how to school leavers know about the information profession? What is it that brings people into the profession? For most at the conference, the answer was a series of happy coincidences.  This made me realise that little publicity is given or promoted to schools about what librarians do now, not what they did in old fashioned romantic stereotypes. I had become aware of the issue, but had little opportunity start correcting it. Until last month.

My job as a law librarian has since provided me with the opportunity to reach out to a sixth form cohort in a deprived London area to explain the work that I do. The aim of the visit was not only to help redefine their conceptions of the information professional, but to help them to aim higher and broaden their ideas of possible future careers. Following the talk, the students had the opportunity to ask questions and subsequently apply for work experience placements within the law firm’s library.

During the talk, I avoided library acronyms or colloquial phrases that were likely to confuse my audience at 9am on a Monday morning. This was achieved by running what I was going to say past a non-librarian friend on a Friday evening, thereby re-creating a similar state of mind to the audience I would face when talking for real! Thankfully, my test-subject seemed mildly interested, and so the introduction was set. It went a little something like this…

The Library and Information Service is not just about books! We are about knowledge, facts and PEOPLE! You can forget sitting quietly in a corner reading, we act in a fast-paced, sometimes pressured environment, providing a legal and business research service to lawyers. We use complex databases to search specialist information. We search the internet to a professional standard. We provide training, often teaching lawyers how to do their own research! We do maintain a hardcopy collection, but rest assured, it certainly isn’t dusty! We even do web design; creating and maintaining our own intranet pages.

So what do you need to become a librarian? A keen interest in technology and an interest in helping people is certainly a pre-requisite. I have an undergraduate degree in history, and many of my team have degrees from subjects considered to be in the “arts” camp. I do not have a law degree, so if you have an interest in law, but do not fancy spending your day drafting documents, law librarianship could be a good mix for you. You will need a degree in information science; I recently completed an MA in Librarianship. It is also possible to become a Chartered Information Professional, a process not dissimilar to becoming a Chartered Accountant or Chartered Engineer.

The feedback received was positive, thought it is always difficult to gauge true reactions when students are amongst their peers. The library service will receive applications for work experience over the coming months, and we hope to accommodate as many as students as our team numbers can support.

The process also acted as a way to bolster the library service within the firm, highlighting to several partners and other departments who also attended the sixth form presentation just exactly what the library service does. Several were surprised at the high level of qualifications needed, and the levels of expertise that our team possess! The event therefore achieved two positive outcomes!

I hope that some of the students will be inspired and convinced of the merits of the profession; future proofing the profession into the next generation. Hopefully there will be several future SLA members amongst them!

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4 comments on “Advertising Library Careers to Schools”

  1. Nicola Franklin

    It’s great to see this kind of activity targetted at FE college students; much of the outreach work seems to be to university students already on a Masters course in library/records/archives studies.

    Do FE college (or school) careers advisors or centres generally hold information on library & information management as a possible career path? If so, is it all about public libaries, or does it include all the other aspects of the profession such as research & current awareness services, intranet content management, records management, etc?

    I can imagine, if such material is held in hard copy, that it would be prohibitively expensive for CILIP, IRMS, SLA or any of the other bodies to supply information to *all* the colleges around the country – but maybe today this sort of information for students is held electronically? Creating and emailing round 1 pdf document would be much less costly.

    • Sam Wiggins

      I’m not aware of the extent to which they hold materials relating to the LIS profession, but I would think it unlikely that it reflects the broad and varied nature of our work.

      An electronic information pack that could be circulated would be a great idea, however raising awareness to both careers advisers and teachers would be considerably more difficult. I had several comments from teachers who were surprised at the complexity and breadth of the profession. Getting through to them, so that they can relay the information and make informed suggestions to students will be the real challenge!

      Targeting FE colleges is definitely key to the future of LIS. If the rise in fees from next year is reflected in postgraduate courses too (which I am almost certain it shall), then I think there shall be a distinct drop in the number of people “falling” into the profession following their first degree and pursuing an accredited postgraduate course. It is likely that graduates will simply look elsewhere for careers which require less qualifications, or provide more support to pursue them.

      I know of very few professionals who have completed an accredited undergraduate degree, and of no new professionals who have entered by this route. By encouraging FE students to pursue an accredited undergraduate degree, a shortfall of suitably qualified new professionals across the next 2-3 years and beyond could be prevented. This can only be achieved by reaching out and explaining the profession further down the ‘education ladder’.

  2. Katharine Schopflin

    This is a really crucial area, I think, and not enough work goes into it.

    I volunteered to speak at my old school, a very academic inner city private girls school, a number of years ago and was really pleased to have done so. My motivation was that, on the basis of the careers advice I’d had – which, for this priveleged sector of the education system, is intense and heavily-resourced – I would never have chosen the profession I was born to be in. I wanted to tell these ambitious young women that librarianship is a place where intelligent people can achieve great things and a huge amount of fulfillment. Like Sam, I emphasised that it is as much about people as about books and other objects: that our special talent is to be the link between the two.

    Of course the 13-year olds to whom I spoke did seem to be mostly interested in plaiting each others’ hair and giggling, but who knows if I got through to one of them – and, just as important, the teachers present were very impressed.

  3. Sam Wiggins

    Hi Katharine,

    As you rightly point out, it is the teachers as much as the students who we need to make aware. I suspect that they are the ones who are most instrumental in helping students decide what career to pursue following the end of their studies, or what to apply for at university. If we are able to raise awareness of the profession to those facilitating in the career process, then they are more likely to in turn to recommend LIS!

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