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.

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