ange fitzpatrick

A good man in a storm

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Library Routes: the best job bar nun.

I’ve been meaning to post about the Library Routes Project for sometime: why am I a librarian and how did I become one? The short answer is because my maths was too dodgy to become an astronaut, my morality was too unorthodox to become a nun, and mostly because there’s no height requirement to be a librarian. 

1986_027_31 by chuckp, on Flickr
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This however, is the longer answer.

I left my Catholic high school at sixteen and immediately enrolled in my local Further Education college. It was the kind of place that used to be known as a polytechnic and I spent my days rubbing shoulders with hairdressers, mechanics and trainee nursery nurses. The atmosphere was very unlike school: it was all good. 

The only thing that was not all good was that I couldn’t make up my mind about what to do this year let alone in five or ten years time. I had been equally good at everything at school and plumped for science A-Levels- it could have been on a whim of a coin! Sadly I had unknowingly hit my ceiling; predicted A grades I was getting closer to an E. A month before the end of my first year I negotiated a transfer to humanities- the College believed in me and saved my skin. I sat in my last AS Maths exam. Three questions I couldn’t answer, so I worked out the units the answer would be in if I knew how to deduce it; with all the correct workings in place and being able to spell my name vaguely right I got six marks. They don’t issue certificates when you get a U, but I still have my results slip and I think about it whenever I feel incapable. I failed. It wasn’t so bad, but that was the end of being an astronaut. 

Thatâ¬"s one small step for a man, one g by Shurik_13, on Flickr
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I swapped to English and Humanities and was pleased to find I hadn’t hit that ceiling. I did want to study Latin and Classics at Keele, but some cajoling and prodding meant I applied to Cambridge to read English. Now I used to think that Oxbridge students were just being pompous when they they claimed to be reading subjects on University Challenge; they might be, but I definitely read English. I did nothing but read for three years, and it was great. I chose to study at one of the all-women Colleges, I thought it would be am interesting experience as having been through the comprehensive system: this was not an option I’d encountered before. That was great too, I’m sure lots of people have fond memories of their university years, but in many ways Newnham made me. 

I’d taken a year between college and university to earn some money and I’d vaguely thought about working in a bookshop or a library. I’ve always loved books. I have very fond memories of my Dad and I walking up the hill to Boglestone library, choosing books, walking back down the hill, usually on his shoulders, with a bag of Roald Dahl books safely tucked under my arm. I was really lucky to get a Library Assistant’s job with my local council and spent a very enjoyable year at Roman Road Library working mostly with children and older people. And from the first time I scanned a barcode I knew I was hooked! 

In the third year of my degree I applied for the upcoming graduate traineeship at Newnham College Library. Part of me did want to go a bit further afield, opportunities in Glasgow and Oxford did look tempting, but Newnham was moving to new premises and the chance to be part of that was too tempting to miss.

Newnham College by stevecadman, on Flickr
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The unofficial JCR motto at Newnham was “I’d rather be at Newnham….” and that was certainly the case for me. In my year there I helped the team migrate to a new LMS, physically move the collection from temporary accommodation to a new library building, and be involved in retrospective cataloguing projects as well as researching and purchasing a new collection of post-1970s English literature- my special interest! I’m so glad I stayed, because I’ve never had such a fast-paced or exciting job since, it seemed that everyday I was learning something new. 

It was at Newnham I first discovered I had the gift. Now when you find that you have a gift for something, you should just run with it: don’t ask questions, don’t speculate why, just believe in yourself and go for it. If your gift turns out to be cataloguing then, well… hey, I like cataloguing! It’s an essential and worthwhile skill, not just the nuts and bolts of it, but the intellectual activity behind it too. The first time I saw a string of $ and letters all running into each other it I was library love at first sight. Handling catalogue data is still the bread and butter of my work. Not quite ready to embark upon a Library Masters course I was very fortunate to spend some time at Gonville & Caius Library as their cataloguer, and very valuable year in business followed.

I lucked out when just before Christmas 2006 I was offered a Senior Cataloguer’s position at the University Library: it wasn’t quite a year in the wilderness, but I was very happy to get back to my profession.

Cambridge University Library by Nick in exsilio, on Flickr
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The absence of an Library degree in my bag of tricks has just recently become a problem, but I’ve just started my distance learning course at Aberystwyth. This has been a rather backward way of doing things, but I’m glad I’ve had the experiences I’ve had to help me direct my course. Had I taken it just after my traineeship I’d probably have dodged the technical modules, which means barring a time machine, you’d probably not be reading this because I’d have buried my head in the sand somewhere around 2005.

Starting my library degree means that the journey does feel like it is beginning all over again, and I don’t think I’ve done too badly for the teenager who used to read Dr Seuss to the kids on the Roman Road estate.

As for the cloister, never say never, but I think that’s a path missed!

Filed under Library Routes Librarianship

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