Ministry of Justice Library 26/2/13

Arriving at the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice, I was struck by its imposing concrete modernity, a contrast to the opulent leather chairs and majestic fireplaces of the House of Commons Library. Rachel Forrest, Assistant Librarian at the Ministry of Justice, gave us a tour of the resources in the airy, modern and colourful library. With 90,000 potential users, the MoJ library caters for a wide range of professionals, including lawyers, psychologists, economists and statisticians. As well as supplying books and journals to users, the library also keeps all documents produced by the Ministry of Justice, preserving the ‘corporate memory’ of the department.

We were given a detailed introduction to the classification schemes and user statistics of the library, but I was most impressed by the sheer significance of the books and journals on the immaculate shelves – these sources are the authority on the law of the land, determining how justice is defined, protected and enforced. The shelves house a cornucopia of subjects, ranging from race-related crime to youth justice, sentencing policy to rehabilitation, weaving together political, legal, statistical and sociological works. Uniquely, the Ministry of Justice holds the complete set of Inspectorate Reports into the United Kingdom’s prisons. The Ministry of Justice generates a vast amount of statistics, and these are available in the library and on the intranet, with some figures dating back to the 1800s. As well as statistics, the library collates all the bills and amendments that are generated in the passage of an Act through Parliament, indexing the material and preserving it as a complete history of the nation’s law.

The library team of six staff includes four Assistant Librarians who rotate between areas, meaning that all each member gets to develop their skill-set and specialisms. These rotations include Customer Services, Cataloguing and Classification, and Marketing.  Librarians at the Ministry of Justice undertake background research for Parliamentary Questions, a task necessitating incredible accuracy. Another task they undertake involves media searches and media-tracking. A large part of the librarians’ work centres on literature-searching – gathering all information available on a topic requested by an analyst or researcher, which can include books, journal articles, newspaper articles and government material – providing evidence for policy-making processes. The separate library team at the Royal Courts of Justice is responsible for providing access and materials for all the judges in the UK – a herculean task when you consider the magisterial courts, county courts and tribunals, as well as the High Courts.

Perhaps the most useful part of the visit was the chat we had on careers and law librarianship as a profession. It was quite a surprise to hear that none of the librarians in the Ministry of Justice library had law degrees and qualifications – they all originate from Library and Information Service backgrounds. I found this particularly encouraging, as I had looked into law librarianship but had been demotivated after reading a haughty law library book which claimed law degrees as prerequisite for the profession. Emma Child, the newest member of the team, is from a health and academic library background, possessing little previous law knowledge before she commenced work at the Ministry of Justice. It was lovely to hear that she had enjoyed studying Librarianship at Sheffield University (where I’m headed) and to hear her passion for her new law role. Both members of staff assured us that training is made available on the job, which sounds perfect! Rachel recommended visiting law firms’ libraries and making the most of courses, training materials and online information provided by BIALL, the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians. She also recommended a visit to the Inns of Courts, which she says offer a sense of the history of the law, and I hope we can arrange a trainee visit!

Of all the visits I’ve attended, the staff at the Ministry of Justice library seemed the most positive about our chances of succeeding in this career, extolling the benefits of studying for a library qualification and sharing their enthusiasm for the variety, flexibility and challenges of their work. In a time of recession, these librarians are taking every opportunity to develop personally and professionally, to run a successful library, and to enjoy their work. They believe that we can do the same, and I hope that we can share this optimism. 

House of Commons Department of Information Services Open Day

Unlike our usual forays into traditional working libraries, the House of Commons Library Open Day was a finely orchestrated day of conference style active listening intended for Information Professionals working across a range of different organisations. The majority of the day was not spent in the library itself but rather in the very swish location of Portcullis House. Good points about location: Indoor trees and frequent biscuit breaks. Bad points: Plethora of Margaret Thatcher statues and not being spending more time in the actual library.
The morning kicked off with an interesting overview of the library’s history and aims by Director of Research Services, Bryn Morgan. Bryn emphasised the House of Commons library’s attention to giving “specialist active advice” (a stipulation first coined in 1945 with the unprecedented appointment of two assistant librarians). This “active advice” appears to be most regularly demonstrated through their extensive research service, with subject specialists answering enquiries from MPs and their staff often within one working day, and always within ten. Bryn explained that the enquiry research service operates to a number of standards that assures its quality and popularity: specialist knowledge, confidentiality, the ability of staff members to synthesise data from different sources, and having a strong training arm intent on improving the Information Literacy of the individual service user. Aside from this “bespoke” and reactive service, Bryn’s department also focuses on actively and pre-emptively informing its client base through the publication of Research Papers and Standard Notes. These publications vary in length, with Research Papers tending to be more in-depth analyses of all major pieces of legislation and policy and Standard Notes being shorter compilations of FAQs and outlines of topical issues. These documents are made available on the House of Commons intranet and also in hard copy in the library foyer.
After Bryn, we had a series of other talks by other members of staff. Rather than giving a blow by blow account of each of them (apart from anything else many of us were dozing off by 11) I’ll just pick out a few salient points. As with most libraries, the House of Commons library is no different in facing financial challenges and Katharine Marke, Head of Library Resources Section, explained how she has dealt with this by limiting electronic and paper journal subscriptions. Otherwise, we had a talk by Gemma Webb about parliamentary outreach and the ways in which the House of Commons Information Office interacted with the world outside Westminster. This was the point at which my notes trailed into total nothingness but I do remember seeing photos of the Speaker John Bercow posing awkwardly with school children...Basically the marketing aim of the information office was to proactively engage with the public in order to break down the barrier perceived to exist between parliament and the rest of the country.
Less said about the quiz on parliament the better (5/20...not proud) so onwards to the tours after lunch. For the first time in the day we actually got to see the reference library itself. Unfortunately because parliament was in recess over half-term there was no hope of being called a pleb but nevertheless it was fascinating to see where our mps and their staff do a lot of their work. Main observations from the tour included noting that MPs get great quality stationary complimentary on each table, there are unreasonably low green leather armchairs to sit on in front of the fireplace, and also that noise is frowned upon so much in the furthermost reading room that even laptops are banned because of the din created by keyboard tapping. The library has a fantastic virtual tour on the website so anyone that missed the trip can experience the place here.
We rounded off the day with a tour around the chambers of the House of Commons and Lords for good measure. While fascinating to see, by this point in the day I think we were all a bit weary – not to mention chilly – and looking forward to debriefing in the pub with the other trainees! All in all, while I was really glad to have gone and could see myself enjoying the style and content of work performed by librarians at the House of Commons, I felt that it could’ve been better appreciated over a shorter period of time than over a whole day and with perhaps a more interactive tour rather than the long conference style morning. Obviously the library isn’t in a position to put on tours for small groups throughout the year so necessarily needs one big event for a larger number of delegates but still I think a bit of the content got lost among the long speeches. That said, it’s a unique and fast paced place to work and is definitely worth a visit if you get the opportunity again!

Visit to Senate House

I arrived at Euston Square Underground Station on Tuesday 12th February quite early for our meeting with Social Sciences Research Librarian Mura. Walking along Gower Street, I expected to see the famously imposing and Orwellian structure towering above all else but was surprised to find that it wasn’t until I took a left (as my manager had instructed me to) at Waterstones, that the building leapt out and dominated the view. Now, it’s fabulously impressive and majestic and I imagine would be a delightful place to turn up to work every day. On a previous tour of UCL my tour guide assured me that Adolph Hitler admired the building so much that he planned to house his headquarters in it – for the sole purpose of being able to work from there every day I imagine.

After waiting in the lobby for a while and spending a few minutes of the afternoon at the welcome desk, it is apparent that this is a considerably busy library; shortly after arriving a large queue  of people registering built up, and alarms rang a number of times. Mura arrived and explained that her title – due to the library being re-classified as a research library – is now Research Librarian. She told us that having been there for twelve years she has witnessed a great deal of change. First her title was Subject Librarian, then she was Liaison Librarian (here at Brunel we have a combination: Subject Liaison Librarians). This reflects changes to trends in the academic world, and to the leadership the library is under. The change to Research Librarian   indicates an emphasis on supporting faculty, whereas in the past the emphasis lay on collection development as a Subject Librarian, and as a Liaison Librarian the focus was on outreach.

Mura explained that each librarian in her team held their own budget for the respective collection – these budgets being, we’re assured, quite generous, although not as large as UCL's. As Research Librarians they work largely independently, decide their own workload, and really do carve- out their own job role and identity, but of course there is the pre-requisite of needing a lot of motivation. As a research librarian at Senate House Mura doesn’t buy reading list material; that is the task of the individual colleges. The task of Senate House is to stay in tune with the research trends and academic community. At this point in the conversation, Mura explained that the trend at the moment was to appoint subject specialists into the Research Librarian posts: the recently appointed English Librarian holds a PhD, as does the recently appointed history librarian. This, for the small group of us that are all presently considering library school, was somewhat rather daunting and maybe too much like “harsh reality” for us. Readers: do not worry. We did not shed any tears – we did indeed sit down pale faced afterwards to digest this part of the conversation though. However, in my work place this is not the case and I’m not aware of it being the case anywhere else. At Brunel there is a definite feeling that for Subject Liaison roles the key requirements are quality communication and people skills, so I don’t think we have too much to worry about; that is, apart from the current economic climate and a lack of jobs...

The libraries at Senate House use the Coutts service for buying, and they also handily push new titles. Additionally, the librarians use book reviews and magazines to “keep up” – always bearing in mind that they can not buy everything due to having to stick within budget. Research Librarians no longer classify the books as they have done in the past – Senate House has Research Librarians, Bibliographic Services, Space and Management, User Services and IT Support. Their supplier does the very minimum because of the different, varied and quirky class scheme, and cataloguing is left for Bibliographic Services. Buying and selecting used to take 50% but it is now around 30% of the librarians time due to demand for literacy and information training which there is now an increased emphasis on – however, the tours of the library are being handed to the User Services and the Research Librarians were tailoring training to large groups. Mura expressed that she found it difficult to get the groups in as they were a step away from the colleges and had to rely on teachers referring students.

A year in this role seems to be broken up into Autumn in which searching and buying takes place, Winter time for training and little else, with Spring seeing the resurgence of more students. A harking back to the idea of librarians needing motivation and self-management – they must also make themselves known and approachable as often students do not know a librarian can help. Mura helpfully asks students to send her their topic and any bibliography and then she prepares and spends around an hour giving quality, informed advice, something that she says has been good for Masters’ students.

Senate house has recently launched a new website in order to capitalise on its resources – something that reflects the current climate of libraries and librarians needing to be excellent marketers.  All of the Subject Librarians have blogs and twitter – Mura is currently looking for 12 interesting things to blog about. The same applies in my current role – everyone has a blog and twitter accounts (occasionally multiple); it’s seen as a necessity, but how relevant and how necessary it really is as part of a post in a regular university library I don’t know. Mura said that she is still finding her feet (it’s not part of a regular/ natural workflow) with this new technological aspect, and mainly looks for old, interesting books. Whether all this is asking too much of a librarian is up for debate – some people clearly find social media and blogging very natural and easy. One thing is for certain, though: everyone feels the pressure to keep up! A librarian, it seems, has to be an academic, an excellent customer services expert, a researcher, and a teacher. However, things have always changed at a very fast pace – it is an incredibly diverse career with stresses on different parts of the role at different times. Here, Subject Librarians used to do customer service, but it is no longer seen as a valuable use of their time. Similarly, there is no longer a sole reference and enquiries service (who dealt with e-mail and phone): all this is now done at the issue desk.

A final piece of terrifying information was that recently an opening appeared at a Westminster library that attracted four hundred applicants. Of the four hundred, only two hundred were qualified enough. This was then narrowed to a shortlist of twenty-five, which was then further narrowed to seven. This is truly scary, but all we can do is try our best to stand out, continue to enjoy our current roles, and aim to acquire more experience and skills along the way that will make us the desirable candidates we all can be.

Visit to The King Alfred's School library

On Tuesday, Kate, Harriet and I visited The King Alfred School in Golders Green for an informative and pleasantly shortbread fuelled tour of what a career as a school librarian might be like.
Located far enough away from central London to feel like a whole different place (Kate and I walked there - it seemed very far and VERY hilly), King Alfred’s is a school based on liberal principles of respect, trust and mutual responsibility and has the motto: “Ex Corde Vita – out of the heart springs life.” Because of this progressive ethos, its (obvious) child focus, and its emphasis “on discovering and maximising the potential of each child” both academically and socially, the task of the school librarian - Jenny Monaghan – contrasts markedly with the makeup of most of our academic research libraries. For that reason, the trip provided a hugely interesting and informative afternoon which we all got something out of. Our thanks go to Jenny for organising such a comprehensive session.
Collections and library space: The library itself was really just one very large open plan room with computers at one end, a seating area in the centre, and a corner dedicated to reading groups to one side. Roughly half the space was dedicated to curriculum based books with the other half comprising of fiction, comic books, newspapers and dvds primarily intended to be used for pleasure. Given that it’s a private school and therefore has a) money and b) autonomy over its curriculum, Jenny has quite a bit of freedom with what to buy and buys multiple copies for reading groups and book clubs.
Use of library: As with the physical makeup of the library, the library’s function also seemed roughly divided between being an academic resource and a pastoral space where pupils could pursue their own interests. Jenny collaborates with teaching staff whenever possible and welcomes classes from all disciplines to use the library as part of their curriculum. Sixth formers are taught Research Techniques in the library (we got to listen in on one of these lessons and all agreed we could’ve done with knowing that sort of stuff before we’d left school – or even uni!) and English classes make use of the library for book projects and reading groups.
On the general interest side, Jenny also follows the big literary prizes - such as the Man Booker and Carnegie medal – and sets up reading groups, book displays and author visits to encourage reader development. On top of that, she’s set up a knitting club (seemingly inspired by a Ryan Gosling appreciation, who, it appears, is a knitter himself)!
School librarianship as a career choice: Though initially it was something she “fell into” after graduating from UCL, Jenny set out a really clear and comprehensive appraisal of why she enjoys being a school librarian and what it offers as a career choice. Being in almost total control of the whole library and therefore being able to set the agenda for its development and policies was a highlight for her, as was working with young people and observing their development. Jenny also highlighted its relative good pay, the length of holidays, and the benefit of professional networking groups for school librarians. The downsides included a limited career progression, and the responsibility and isolation of working alone.
All in all, while I don't really envisage myself becoming a school librarian anytime too soon, King Alfred's certainly seemed an attractive place to work and one which presented interesting and satisfying challenges.