Why I am Leaving Librarianship

I’ve been putting off writing this post for ages because, in all honesty, I’m a little bit heartbroken about having to make it official.

I’m leaving librarianship at the end of this academic year, after less than two years. I currently work as an Assistant School Librarian and I absolutely adore my job, my colleagues and the kids that I work with. I think that Librarians are some of the best people in the universe and I’ve learned so much. So, why am I leaving? There isn’t one reason alone. There is a large part of me that wishes it was not so, or that I didn’t feel that it almost has to be so; however, an equally large part of me is super excited about this new adventure.

I am leaving to train as a primary school teacher. I will be training on the School Direct scheme in the school I am currently working in, an Academy in Manchester with both a Primary and a Secondary phase. In the Library I have predominantly worked with secondary and 6th form kids, but the primary children often have Library sessions and I’ve done quite a lot of work with them too. Knowing the primary teachers and kids already, I know that I’ll be in safe hands next year, and I feel like I have a good grounding and a solid base to work from. Another way of describing my feelings would be to say: I know it’ll be tough, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Before I started writing this post, I thought that my reasons for leaving Librarianship were pretty concrete and stable and universal; easy to quantify and describe and not particularly personal, but whilst writing this post I realised that I was wrong, and that everything went back quite a long way. So this may take some time. I do apologise.

Interestingly, before starting my current post, I had only worked with children briefly, during two weeks work at a summer play scheme in 2006. When I did my Librarianship qualification, I had closed off quite a few career paths to myself (including teaching) through a total lack of confidence (completely unfounded) about my ability to work with other people. I concluded that I was inept simply due to the fact I was shy; there was no other reason, nothing concrete or evidenced at all. I guess I’d managed to talk myself out of participating fully in life.

So I chose Librarianship, aged 24 and mid-existential panic, because a) I love, and always have loved, reading; and b) I figured it was a way of contributing something without having to necessarily work so directly with people, or at least having the option to take more of a back seat. My undergraduate degree was in Sociology and, cliché though it sounds now, I always had a notion that I would like to work in a career that helped people in some way. This was all very vague and idealistic when I was eighteen, but then, as now, I had modest financial and material ambitions and a very strong feeling that society is not equal, but there are certain things, like education and information and well-placed resources, that can make it less unequal, and that those things, especially education, are a right rather than a privilege.

I now have no idea why I was so shy and unsure of my own abilities. I didn’t develop confidence in myself magically or overnight, but due to some events in my personal life that took place during my Masters year, I suddenly realised that life is really short and it’s not worth worrying about little things. In other words, I stopped caring what people thought or even what I thought. I just knew I would regret all of the holding back and not trying one day. These things are always obvious, but sometimes it takes certain events to make them real. It definitely took me a long time to fully start behaving accordingly, but I think a large part of my current confidence, the actual change-of-behaviour part anyway, has come from working with kids. You kind of have to get stuck in, working on instinct and basing decisions on emotional intelligence, and don’t really have time to think about over-analysing your behaviour. It’s made me feel free from my own introspection, and confidence has followed.

Of course, there are other things. As part of my course, I did work experience at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, which was a great place to work, but, in all honesty, I was bored out of my mind. It’s a stunning building, my colleagues were super interesting and nice, and I got to catalogue incredible historical documents, but the hours dragged and I became more and more convinced that I needed to work with people. After my Masters, I didn’t really have any clear intention of where I wanted to go, although I knew I wouldn’t like to go into archiving or cataloguing and that education really interested me, and ended up taking the first job I got offered in Manchester. I was incredibly fortunate to find something quickly, as I knew how hard things were (and still are), and although my initial reaction was blind fear at working with kids, I quickly found that I really enjoyed it.

Working with children in a school library has been a primarily positive experience and has made me realise that I would like to devote my life to educating children. I quickly realised that my favourite parts of the job were the parts where I got to work directly with the kids and make a tangible, visible difference. I would never have realised this without getting my school librarian job. I always thought I’d be terrible with kids and the fact that I’m not (or at least, I hope I’m not!) made me completely reconsider my options.

And now for the non-personal side of the matter: I just don’t feel that school librarianship is a viable long-term career option for me (and many others), for two main reasons:

The state of school libraries and the status of school librarians. School libraries are increasingly being closed, scaled-back and/or run by non-professionally qualified staff. I have nothing against these staff members, as I am sure that they have the best of intentions and do their best. But by lowering the professional standards, schools can pay less and give their staff less responsibility, which, I believe has a knock-on effect both in morale and quality. Which brings me to my second point…

Pay. It quickly became clear to me, through talking to other school Librarians, that there is discrepancy in pay expectations and the reality in the school library world. This is the case pretty much across the board, in all types of school. If I wanted to move jobs or advance my career, how many opportunities would there be?

I actually think this is a really serious issue for the Librarian world. I have seen jobs advertised asking for a qualified Librarian that only pay minimum wage. What are the implications of this for Librarians and Library qualifications? CILIP has recommended pay scales, but I have seen very few school Librarian posts that follow these recommendations. Not only is the money an issue, but it’s the symbolic nature of pay. If you are getting paid minimum wage for a job that requires a Masters qualification, surely questions arise. Questions such as: does my employer value me? Do people regard Librarians highly? Are school librarians paid according to their qualifications? The answer seems to be, largely, no. I hope this changes, but at the moment, it just seems to be getting worse.

(NB: If you disagree with me or have a different experience, do please comment below! I would like to hear other perspectives)

So, why don’t I just get into a different library sector if school libraries are so bad? Well, that brings me to my next point, which is again, not applicable to everyone, but which is my third reason for leaving School Librarianship…

– Working with kids. Once I started working with kids, I have not been able to imagine not doing so. My Saturday job last year was working in an academic library, and I didn’t enjoy it as much. I could have applied to work in such a library full-time, where the pay and career prospects are generally better, but I didn’t feel the same sort of enthusiasm for the job. I think that, the whole time, my interest was in education, and I saw librarianship as a way of educating people. I never imagined I’d be confident enough to be a teacher, but I have changed more than I could ever have imagined in the last couple of years. I guess hindsight is a wonderful thing, but, then, I wouldn’t have been ready three years ago. I have absolutely no regrets.

To finish with, here is a video of one of my favourite bands, Frightened Rabbit, playing in a primary school…

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4 thoughts on “Why I am Leaving Librarianship

  1. Sarah, thank you for writing this. I can really relate to your post even though I don’t think I’ll be moving away from librarianship for now. I’m also really shy (you knew me in grad school, so you know it took me about six months to be able to say more than two words to people), and over the years I convinced myself that working with people was something I just couldn’t do. But my job has done wonders when it comes to developing my confidence, and over the last few months I’ve reassessed much of what I thought I knew about myself. I can definitely see why teaching appeals to you, and on one or two occasions I even caught myself thinking this is something I’d have enjoyed doing too – which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

    I definitely do worry about the constant lowering of professional standards and what this might mean for librarians in the future. Things do seem a bit better in academic libraries, but the only two sectors I feel really passionate and enthusiastic about are public and school libraries, which seem to be the ones that are taking the worst hit. My current professional situation is less than ideal even though I LOVE what I do: after a harrowing year of unemployment, I took a paraprofessional job as a library assistant. At my job there are at least three of us with professional qualifications in paraprofessional roles, and the thing is, we DO use our professional skills in our everyday work. We answer reference questions, we help people look for information, we help them develop information literacy and ITC skills, we do a lot of reader’s advisory and reading development work, you name it. In about a month’s time I’ll be starting a reading group for young people, and if that’s not a librarian’s job then I don’t know what is. And yet we’re classified as non-professional staff and paid accordingly, and there are no prospects of the situation changing in the future. It’s like people expect us to stick around and accept the erosion of our working conditions and the lowering of professional standards because we love the work itself – and a lot of the time we do, because what choice do we have?

    So yeah, it’s difficult – on the one hand, I do appreciate what I learned during my Master’s and think my professional skills make me better at my job. On the other hand, I could have gotten this job straight out of secondary school at 18, as indeed some of my co-workers dd. And I’m absolutely not saying they’re not competent and committed and very good at what they do, because they absolutely are. They shouldn’t be barred from the job because they don’t have a master’s degree. But it kind of sucks that there’s absolutely no incentive for them to go for further professional development, because that would cost them money and result in zero benefits when it comes to better pay/any real improvement in their future prospects. If things remain this way, what will happen is that we’ll lose more and more smart and passionate people like you to other professions, because there’s only so much people can take.

    All this to say: I completely understand your choice and think you’ll be an awesome teacher. Best of luck in the future and do keep us updated on how everything goes!

  2. Thank you for your comments Ana. I find the whole shyness angle very interesting indeed, especially, in the case of people like us, the fact that Librarianship does seem to increase confidence hugely. This was not something I necessarily expected when I started the MA course, but it certainly makes sense now. I think when you work in an area you’re passionate about and that you are knowledgable about, and when you can see the differences you can make in a clear way, it is really gratifying and makes you feel a. better about yourself as an individual and b. that what you’re doing is something worthwhile. Librarianship and Libraries are, I increasingly believe (and I always did believe, so this is going off the scale somewhat now!) things that make a huge amount of difference to lives. The fact that this difference is not necessarily quantifiable is a huge shame and seems, to me, to result in this huge misunderstanding of what Libraries are actually for, resulting in funding cuts and a lot of the ridiculous mess things seem to be in currently.

    I completely agree with what you say regarding paraprofessional roles and the situation for library assistants with and without qualifiations. It’s a real shame, because I think the sort of people who do end up working in jobs such as you are the people who do really care and really want to make a difference and are in it for all the right reasons, but end up getting paid much less than they should be getting paid and are faced with difficulties climbing up the career ladder. Not to mention that those who end up in such jobs are probably not generally the types who would necessarily want to work in managerial/less public facing roles anyway! So it’s a difficult situation, especially when you’ve paid for an undergraduate and postgraduate qualification. It really worries me what will happen now that university is getting more expensive; will anyone study librarianship when the career prospects seem to be dwindling? I doubt many will opt to study for the sheer pleasure of academia (which, don’t get me wrong, has a lot of merit) due to the sheer cost. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to pursue the academic interests I ended up pursuing if I was eighteen and choosing to go to university now. I’d be completely bound by financial implications and considerations. I think I’d perhaps be financially better off, but what about studying to broaden your world view, to make you think differently, and not just to get a job?

    I think a lot of amazing potential librarians will be put off, quite honestly, and this is a time when the profession needs some inspiring people. I know that I would very probably have stayed in school librarianship if things were different. If I was seen as equal to teaching staff and paid accordingly, even if I had to have more responsibility and be more accountable, and if there was a clear career path, I imagine my decision would have been different.

    Anyway, I do really appreciate your input. I was quite nervous about posting this; I don’t want it to seem like I’m giving up, but the closer I get to thirty the more I want certain decisions to be mine, and not made for me by my finances! I really do hope that things change for the better, because we both know first-hand what a different libraries can make.

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