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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Librarian's Career as an Internet Consultant, or How a Library Degree can Get You around the World

by Phil Bradley
Being a librarian doesn't mean that you have a work in a library.  I wanted to be a librarian since I was about thirteen years old, and I've still not managed to work in a library at all.   I hope this article will give you some ideas about where a library degree can take you. In my case it's taken me around the world a couple of times, so I suppose that the first thing I would say to any budding librarian out there that the world can quite literally become your oyster.

Qualifications and background

I got an honours degree in librarianship at an English polytechnic (essentially the same as a university) back at the beginning of the 1980s.  It took me four years of full time study to earn the degree, plus a further two years of probationary work before I could call myself a “Chartered Librarian.”  While I had always wanted to be a librarian, I didn't really know where I wanted to work, so after I had finished my degree I did short term temporary work in a number of specialist information centres.  I'd suggest that every new librarian do this as it gives you the opportunity to try out a lot of different jobs to see which of them, if any, particularly appeals to you.  It will also give you the opportunity to find out what you enjoy as well as what your strengths and weaknesses are.  For example, although I enjoyed cataloguing and classification at library school, it was purely as an academic pursuit, and when I was actually faced with a large number of books to catalogue and classify I found my interest quickly diminishing.

Discovering strengths

Luckily, however, I discovered fairly quickly that I liked teaching.  My first “proper” job was for an organisation called the British Council, which was responsible for getting students to come and study in Britain, performing a variety of duties including overseeing a ”books abroad” project.  For an overseas organisation to qualify for free books they had to be able to provide qualified librarians to look after them, or allow us to train their librarians.  One of my very first teaching jobs was to travel to Lesotho in southern Africa to teach 25 people with no information background at all how to set up and run a small library, and I had to do this in a two-week course.  I really wasn't sure that I'd be able to do it, but my boss knew me rather better than I did, so I trusted her judgment more than my own.  I think that my second piece of  advice would be that you should try anything you get the chance to try; the very worst that can happen is that you'll fail, and even if you do fail, you will have learned something from the experience!  However, I managed to run the course well, and that one project opened up a whole world of teaching for me.  I always took any opportunity that I could to learn more on the job; I taught individuals and small groups and ran briefing sessions for larger audiences.
 In the mid 1980s CD-ROM technology started to develop, and while I didn't have a particular interest in computers, I was interested in information retrieval.  Consequently I decided that it was time to make a slight career change, so I got a job running technical support for a small CD-ROM publisher.  When I got the job I knew very little about computers, so I had to learn quickly by trial and error.  I spent weeks teaching myself how to open up computers, insert interface cards, install software, and troubleshoot.  It was quite scary leaving behind everything that I knew and starting something very different, but that was exactly why I did it.  I've never taken the safe option, and have always been tempted by the job that scares me the most because it's likely to be the most challenging and interesting.  As well as doing technical support I also started to run training courses for staff and clients, which was something that I initiated, and the company was keen to try it.  If you get the chance, it's always worth working for a small start-up company, since they're usually much more flexible about what they do and how you fit into the organisation; established organisations often have very fixed ideas on what you can do.

Building on strengths

I also had the opportunity to take my newly-found knowledge into a wider spectrum when I began to work with a training organisation, teaching librarians all about CD-ROMs and new technology in general.  In the early 1990s, I discovered the Internet and simply fell in love with it.  I bought a computer to use at home and taught myself as I went along, and spent much of my time trying things out on the Internet.  At the same time I began to write about it, first for use inside the company I worked for, and then later by offering free articles to various professional journals.  If you want to be successful in your chosen career you need to invest a lot of your own time exploring and discovering new things and then apply your knowledge appropriately, and you must also promote yourself.  Early in your career, if you're offered money or experience, take the experience every time; money will come later.

Working independently

In 1996 I undertook another career change.  I'd been doing an increasing number of training courses, and realised that I knew more about the Internet than most people, so I decided to give up my job and become an independent consultant.  I won't go into all the ins and outs of how I set this up, but suffice to say that I did my homework and decided that I could make a living for myself.  I wouldn't recommend going independent to everyone, incidentally, because it's not the kind of thing that would appeal to all people. It's quite a solitary occupation (even though I usually get out of the house once or twice a week to run training courses), and you do need to be pretty self sufficient!  There are also the other considerations: no pension, no sick leave, and no holiday pay, for example, but for me the benefits  outweigh everything else.  I work when I want to, I choose jobs that really interest me, and I have a lot of  fun.  In fact, if people ask me what my job is, I tend to say that I don't have a job – I have a hobby that pays  well!  I also have a particular skill set: although I'm a librarian, I can do technical things as well, such as  setting up a home network and sorting out most computer-related problems.  I'm also a writer and am  good at speaking in public.  If you're thinking of working for yourself, you really need to sit down and work  out what you're good at, and then see how you can capitalise on your abilities.  Consequently I spend a  lot of my time teaching, writing about the Internet, designing web sites for clients, and so on.  However,  that's only part of it –- you need to be able to market yourself, make yourself known in the industry within which you want to work, and get people knocking on your doors.  Expect to do a lot of work for little or no money to begin with; I created websites for nothing when I was starting out in order to get a portfolio together, and I also wrote articles for various magazines for nothing except the details at the bottom of the article telling readers who I was and where they could contact me.

If I thought that my days of travelling were behind me when I became an independent consultant, I was incorrect: since I often get asked to travel abroad to speak at conferences or run in-company training courses, I keep my passport ready at all times.


In conclusion, don't think that because you have a library degree it means that you have to work in a library; it can open doors that enable you to work in a wide variety of different areas.  Know your strengths and play to them, try something new (and learn from your mistakes if it goes wrong), and never be afraid to branch out.   Above all, enjoy what you do; if you enjoy it, you'll do it better and more effectively, and who knows where that will lead?

About the Author:

Phil Bradley is an information specialist and has worked in the area of electronic publications for over 20 years.  He became an Internet Consultant in 1996 and specialises in search, often being referred to as the “UK Search Guru.”  He teaches many varied courses on aspects of the Internet, both publicly  available and in-company.  He also writes and designs web pages and is an SEO (Search Engine Optimiser).  Phil is also well known for his writing, and he has written several books on different aspects of the Internet, and is also very well known on the conference circuit.  Phil is also one of the Microsoft “Search Champs,” providing them with feedback on their developments in search technology.
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