Breaking the Library Stereotype (Stories of our Journey)
For International Women’s Day, we would like to celebrate the women within the Library and Learning Services and share their stories of how they got to where they are today. There are a range of career opportunities within the Library which most of us would not have even thought about. Most of us might have a typical stereotypical view of a Librarian who tells people to be quiet. However, this is what we have seen in movies, but the reality can be the complete opposite. The library has been a big part of all our lives and all of us within the library have various responsibilities with everyone having a unique story to share about their journey to reaching this role. You can also see from the stories below that everyone started from a different stage, but the library has been a place of opportunities and ability to grow and develop depending on goals and aspirations.
I began my working life as a valuer and auctioneer of fine art and antiques. I studied for a professional qualification and became a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Fine Art and Antiques Surveyor). I conducted auction sales and travelled all over the country visiting homes filled with lovely objects and meeting a wide range of interesting people. Clients included a well known musician in the British music business and members of Middle-Eastern Royal families.
Life moves on and I needed to change my focus to fit in with family life including supporting my youngest child for 5 years in his career on the West End Stage. This led me to applying for a role in the Customer Services Team in the University of Surrey Library. Although this was a huge shift in career on the face of it, my new role was people centred (as my career as an auctioneer and valuer had been) and allowed me to meet and support a wide range of students and staff. I became interested in gaining a qualification in my new field so I studied for and achieved a Master’s degree (MScEcon) in Information and Library Studies with a Module in Archive’s Management. I studied by Distance Learning whilst working and managing a family.
So don’t think that you have to take the traditional route of Undergraduate Degree followed immediately by further qualifications in your early 20’s – there are lots of different ways to achieve your goals and it is never too late to take a course of study so follow your dream!
Marion Lewis, Library Team Leader (Front of House)
In the final year of my undergraduate degree I realised I really needed to start thinking about getting a job after university as ‘real life’ was just around the corner. I decided to take a careers questionnaire to give me some ideas. One of the top careers suggested was Librarian and, studying English Literature at the time, I had visions of a future where I could spend lots of time reading and shelving books, living my best life in the library. I quickly found out that shelving was only one small aspect of working in libraries and that there were a myriad of career options within the profession, some of which had very little to do with books at all!
I decided to undertake an MA in Librarianship and this helped me to secure my first position at the University of Reading library. This involved a range of different duties including managing a book budget and staffing the information desks. To my great surprise, the one aspect of the role I found I enjoyed the most was teaching students how to find, evaluate and use information in their studies. This discovery led me to apply for my current role as a Learning Development Librarian in the Learning Development team at Surrey. My job is still varied but with a learning development focus, meaning I get to chat to students one-to-one and in group sessions, supporting them to achieve their full potential in their studies. I absolutely love my role because I get to work with lots of the fantastic students at Surrey and every day is a bit different.
I’m so glad that I decided to find out more about library jobs and challenge my original assumptions about what librarians do. In doing so, I’ve found a job that I feel passionate about and that makes me excited to come into the office every day!
Katie Winter, Learning Development Librarian
Working in Libraries was a career change for me when I was in my mid-30s. I didn’t want to work as a librarian before then, probably because I was influenced by the usual stereotypes from books and films, and I suppose I was concerned about what other people would think. It’s funny, as even now when I tell people I work in a Library, they ask if I just go around telling people to be quiet all day. The truth is my day is quite the opposite as I’m usually talking a lot! Anyone who visits the Library now will know it’s much different to the movies and I feel my fantastic role, supporting learners to develop their academic skills, certainly proves that point. Occasionally I’ve been asked about my journey which is great to share as I never thought teaching in a library would be possible when I started out, so didn’t plan it this way! It became possible as I found so many supportive people who were willing to let me try different aspects of a librarian’s role until I found the right one for me. Volunteering on groups, visiting other libraries and universities as well as chatting to so many inspirational professionals has meant I found a career path that is never boring and continues to evolve every year. I’m very grateful for the support of others who gave up their time to help me on this fabulous journey.
Heather, Lecturer in Learning Development (Information Literacy)
“You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close-up the library!” (It’s a Wonderful Life”, 1946)
In the second half of the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Mary Hatch Bailey (played by Donna Reed), with George now dead, is depicted as an “old maid librarian” and it is this image of Mary, who is now timid and shy; bespectacled; dressed in sensible clothes with hair pulled back, that eventually breaks George down.
During my studies, whenever I wanted to escape from noisy housemates, distractions, or even between lectures, I almost always found myself in the library. I mean, it’s where all the books are, right? Striking-up the courage to go and ask for help to find a book from the person standing behind the desk was a different story, however. Little did I know then that few years later, I would have the opportunity of working in a library (finally, I was surrounded by books!) and getting to meet those wonderful, interesting people I was for so long afraid to speak to.
And yes, we might at times need to push our sleeves back and pull our hair up to unbox those new books, and certainly can’t make any promises that there is no shushing happening, but pretending Mary Hatch Bailey closing-up the library isn’t leading her best life, would be a lie!
“He (Mike Hanlon) sat there studiously bent over his work (Bill saw him), which lay in a slant of crisp white winterlight, his face sober and absorbed, knowing that to be a librarian was to come as close as any human being can to sitting in the peak-seat of eternity’s engine” (IT, by Stephen King)
Keeping asking questions, keep seeking knowledge, keep becoming interesting.
Stella Georgiou, Content Assistant
I never thought I would be working in a Library. I completed my MSc in Health Psychology and went onto to do various jobs within security vetting, tutoring, learning support, and working as a Research Assistant for a cyber security project. I wanted to increase my knowledge, experience, and skills in multiple areas after finishing university, and that’s what I did. It was not easy in the ‘real world’, and I was rejected multiple times. I was always interested in going back to working at university and so I started at University of Surrey Library in a temporary role within Learning Development which got extended and made permanent. This was always a temporary role for me; however, the people and opportunities kept me here. I developed a range of skills within various aspects of working within a Library and certainly not what I expected. I was involved with working with various teams across the university, marketing, digital communication, as well as opportunities to share my Psychology knowledge to create guidance and processes for various Learning Development programmes. This was always a part-time role which worked well for me as I developed my vegan baking business as well as my training towards becoming a Health Coach. Working within a Library changed my perception and the reason I am still here is because of the various opportunities for personal development, progression, and the ability to help others on their journey.
Jaswinder Neta, Learning Development Coordinator
I started off in a pretty traditional way – after university I worked for a year as a Library Assistant in a law firm in London, shelving books, cataloguing, doing looseleaf-filing, and legal research (often by actually looking stuff up in physical books). I then went back to university for a year to do my MLIS, after which I got a job at another law firm, where I did much the same thing, but was also responsible managing subscriptions, and running legal research training. I helped to develop and launch the firm’s intranet, my first experience of this type of work. In my next job, at yet another law firm, I created an intranet and enquiry system/knowledge base for the Library department.
Having discovered that I enjoyed the more web/technical side of things, I began a three-year fixed term role at the University of Surrey, as the Virtual Support and eServices Developer, working on projects that included creating learning content, setting up social media accounts, and managing the Library website. That was almost 15 years ago, and in that time I have worked on several website redevelopments, created a Group Study Room booking system (and seen it replaced), developed a virtual tutorial, set up a lot of request forms, been on and delivered various training courses, created an intranet for the Library and Learning Services department, presented at a couple of conferences, got married, and had four children.
These days I am the Digital Content Librarian, working three days a week. I look after the Library websites, develop web applications, set up and support colleagues with sites on SharePoint, work on displaying statistics, create booking systems, create and update the Library floorplans (including a current project to improve floorplans in SurreySearch), deliver training, and make and edit videos. No more cataloguing, and I rarely touch an actual book at work.
Claire Koch, Digital Content Librarian
I arrived in libraries by accident rather than design but after working in 2 different university libraries for 35 years I am pleased that this work still provides me with the combination of solo and team working, using technologies and systems, opportunities for creating thinking and troubleshooting, knowing that the work I do helps to support students in their university experience.
I entered University aged 19 planning to go into teaching, but due to a combination of illness and change of direction I left University without completing my degree. After a short period in Hamley’s toy shop I saw a temporary job advertised in a university library, then obtained a permanent post and eventually completed the Postgraduate library qualification on a day release basis and then used this to progress in the career that I have continued to enjoy, alongside mostly single parenting a now grown-up son.
I have been fortunate to cover a wide range of tasks and responsibilities – variety is something that I particularly enjoy, and knowing that 2 days are never alike, and that there is always work to be done keeps me busy and motivated. I have been involved in some big projects – implementing new software and systems and migrating data from one system into another. I have also been involved in library building projects – planning, creating reports to provide the data about the library stock, organising and supervising teams to move thousands of books and journals. I helped to bring in the Language Centre Collection around 2011 and the GSA library in 2009, both of which have stand out moments, and more recently I was involved in a project to clear out over 15,000 titles from a library store in AC building in a very short period of time, requiring many different skills, which I think would transfer very well if I wanted to pursue a new career in house clearance!
I also enjoy the opportunities to network with others at conferences or events, or via mailing lists when we can share tips, work collaboratively and find out about new developments.
Sally Smith, Content Metadata and Discovery Lead
It was my father who made the choice for me to study librarianship, he listed a few reasons. His voice is still echoing in my ears, he said, ‘Librarianship is suitable for a girl; you like reading, there will be plenty books there; Chairman Mao was a librarian’.
I thought my father knew me better than I knew myself sometimes. As a young girl my eyes were filled with the hope for my future career.
After completing my Master of Science in Information Studies, I started working in George Edwards Library in 1998. I witnessed the changes; we are far away from the stereotype Librarians.
I believe one picture could speak thousands of words.
In the early 10 years, my role as an Evening and Weekend Supervisor who worked on Information Desk as well as responsible for tree teams LDAs.
My senior colleague was Coffey Holland in charge of Information Desk where staff would deal with more complexed and more in-depth questions. In my first three months, she suggested that I recorded all the questions which readers asked me, then write down how I answered it like a desk portfolio. I was very thankful to her reviewing it every week. After three months I did it, she told me, ‘No problem, you can handle the most complex queries!’.
I used to spend substantial time processing books, and they are now ready to go on the shelves. We used to have whole floor with periodical, nowadays more and more journeys with online access.
I am a Customer Service Advisor; I have multiplier tasks to do in the library. I work closely with our customers from various cultural backgrounds over the world. I organised “Welcome International Students Food Event” second time this year. We set up the tables with two big wide board display areas with books, recipes, posters, food. Tea /Coffee service was welcomed by the students. Welcome Wall/Window was an amazing, small, and fantastic idea for us to engage with our students.
Zong Dai, Library and Learning Support Advisor
I joined the University of Surrey in February 2023 as Associate Director (Research and Innovation) in the Library. My background is not what you might imagine a typical librarian might have!
I hold an Italian A-Level equivalent qualification as a building surveyor and I then continued my study in Archaeology and Preservation of Cultural Heritage (BA), Computing Archaeology (MSc), Digital Humanities (PhD) and AI applied to Libraries and Archives (Post-Doc). Before moving to the UK, I worked as a researcher in Italy, Oman, Tunisia and led research projects working with local and indigenous communities in Canada and Australia.
I have also worked as International Partnership Manager within the International Office of another University, working on climate change and public health policies, before taking up my first role in the Library as Head of Digital Scholarship and Innovation.
While my background might seem quite “atypical” for a library, but it has been one of my strengths as I have been able to share and directly apply the knowledge I have acquired in partnership development, open research and digital skills and innovation to the Library context.
I really like working in Libraries, as it allows me to experiment with technologies while working across different areas and disciplines. There is always something new to learn and incredible archives to discover! You will be surprised by the “treasure” you can “dig out”, to use some archaeological terms! In the last couple of years, Libraries have discussed quite extensively areas such as digital preservation, sustainability of our resources and data, accessibility of the data and content, open research and education, in addition to bias in our collection. Working with students, local communities and colleagues across institutions has become the norm for Libraries as we are improving the inclusivity of our collections and, yes, we need your help!
I would encourage everyone to consider working in a Library as there are so many different areas to explore and innovate, from working with data and AI applications, to teaching or supporting our students and staff communities!
Dr Eleonora Gandolfi, Associate Director (Research and Innovation)
After finishing my Masters degree in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, I was in two minds whether to pursue a PhD or not. After careful consideration, I chose to do a paid library traineeship at The London Library for a year so I could have a break from academia, earn some money, and take the time I needed to make a decision regarding the future. However, during my time as a trainee, I found I loved working in libraries! I’d been a student shelver at University, but my traineeship allowed me to get involved in so many different aspects of librarianship, such as research, special collections and even acquisitions – that it opened my eyes to what it actually meant to work in a Library. It wasn’t full of librarian stereotypes (although I have to admit, we do all seem to unanimously love knitwear!) and the work was so wide-ranging too! When the year was up, I chose to undertake a full-time Masters degree in Library and Information Science at UCL, whilst continuing to work in libraries to support my studies. After completing my degree, I then continued working in London for a time before spotting an opportunity to come and work at Surrey! I’d always loved the student-facing aspect of librarianship – so was thrilled to take up the post of Team Leader in the Customer Services team, responsible for front of house communications. After 8 years in this role, I have now side-stepped into the Faculty Librarian team in January 2023, where I now get to support PGRs and staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The thing I love most is that no day is the same, and there are always new challenges to face; none of which would be possible without the amazing support of such wonderful colleagues in Library and Learning Services!
Carley Stirups, Faculty Librarian (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences)
Today we celebrate women’s achievements and thank all the women in the Library for providing a short entry for this post. Each journey is unique and personal, and our gender should certainly not stop us from reaching our goals. Support International Women’s Day today by visiting the Library display and sharing your message on the display! #IWD2023
[Photo of some of the University of Surrey’s Librarians standing by the Library and Learning Hive and photo of one librarian talking to a student]