John Coll is the forthcoming President for SLA Europe taking on his new role from January 2016. In this post he shares some background details about himself as well as his thoughts on his new role.
Tell us how you started off in the information profession and what were its attractions?
My first degree was in History and Politics at University College Dublin. Like most people my age I didn’t really have a clear idea of my future career path. The Careers Service recommended a number of options including librarianship. To be honest, I had never considered this type of work but once the seed was planted in my head it grew and grew and after working a couple of years in Dublin including at the Honorable Society of Kings Inn law library in Dublin I applied and was accepted to do a post-graduate diploma at the College of Librarianship Wales. Like many graduates, interest in research and finding and using data were key attractions. My experience in working at Kings Inns also made me realize that I liked the whole customer side of this work and the positive feedback from working with Library users.
What was your experience of Library School?
It was a very long time ago! This was in the pre-internet era. I do remember the College had just introduced the new Amstrad PCW word processors for students. For us it seemed really cutting edge technology along with the ability to dial into online databases to conduct searches – I’m not sure current library school attendees would be quite so impressed!. Perhaps from a career perspective, the most important thing was my field-work. I was lucky enough to get a placement at the Business Research Centre at the Financial Times. I had a fantastic time there, learnt a huge amount about business research in a very short time and it basically convinced me that I wanted to work in business information.
So what happened next?
After the course I moved to London and was again fortunate to join the investment bank, Morgan Stanley. This too was a great experience. The organisation was going through some rapid growth and I enjoyed the challenge of working in a very dynamic and fast-moving environment. As a major bank it also was strong on information resources both physical and electronic and this gave me an excellent grounding in using and being familiar with a huge range of content as well as building contacts with others working in the profession. I also enjoyed the strong team spirit that existed in the Library team who worked well together despite the pressures of the job. I still see this as an excellent model for team working and have attempted to carry this ethos forward in my other posts.
Your current role is within a National Library. Tell us more about this work?
I have had a number of roles at the National Library of Scotland but my current post is Head of Access at the Library. This post forms part of the Library’s senior management team and I report directly to the National Librarian. I manage a team of 77 staff across 4 locations. The work includes responsibility for the delivery of services across all three reading room, the Library’s exhibitions and events programme, learning and outreach, enquiry and chat services, the Visitor Centre including our shop and café as well the Library’s website. There is a huge amount of work involved in this role but it is a great organisation to work for. As Scotland’s largest Libraries and a major European research library we hold over 24 million items in our collection ranging from the first books published in Scotland to modern born-digital e-books. We are also one of the UK’s legal deposit libraries entitled to receive items published in the UK and the Republic of Ireland
How different are Libraries in terms of when you started work in this profession?
In some ways we find it easier to see the differences than note what has remained unchanged. Certainly the changing publishing model with the increasing shift to digital has had a profound impact on how libraries collect, store and disseminate information. It has also changed the way our users interact with our services and their expectations and assumptions. However, in some ways, things are not that different. There is still a need for Libraries to play a key role in supporting research, education, and business decisions not to mention meeting the specific needs of the very diverse user base that interact with Libraries. Looking ahead we need to keep this in mind when planning services and content.
How did you first get involved in SLA and why?
It might come as a surprise to some but I was something of a sceptic about SLA when I first came across it. A fact that makes me ideally suited to convince current sceptics to join! I should mention Neil Infield now at the British Library who first introduced me to SLA and Kate Arnold, past-president of SLA who convinced me to join the Board. My initial scepticism was removed when I realised not only the incredibly diverse user base that SLA represents but also the passion and commitment of those involved in the association. In particular, I was very impressed by how SLA worked to support networking among members and by its approach to mentoring. I believe this is a key requirement for anyone, at any stage of their career path, and one that SLA has a particular strength in.
What do you see the challenges for SLA going forward?
The challenges facing SLA are no different from those facing libraries. That is a need to adapt to changing needs and business models while remaining true to the core strengths that appeal to those who are members of the Association. In SLA Europe we are very lucky in that we have a committed and experienced Board who are willing to work very hard in the interest of their members to support SLA as it changes and adapts in its journey ahead.
And finally – the things you are most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to continuing the good work done by the Board and the outgoing President Sam Wiggins. The Chapter is very active and we have a great range of events. I am keen to see more of these held outside London and outside the UK but recognize we need members to play a key role in assisting us here. Related to this, I am also looking forward to getting to know more members both in the European Chapter and in building relationships with colleagues across SLA. One of the strong attractions of SLA is its global presence and working with colleague across a range of special libraries and related organisation on an international level is something I am very excited about.