The third in our series of New Professionals stories is from Kerry Baker about the graduate trainee experience. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch – drop us a line here

The graduate trainee experience – Recently Asked Questions

A little bit about me:

Like many people working in libraries, I had a few false starts before I finally found myself amongst the bookshelves. This seems daft to me now; I have spent so much of my life in libraries as a patron, student and volunteer that they feel like my natural territory, yet somehow it took me an embarrassingly long time to consider librarianship as a ‘real’ vocation. After university I drifted quite merrily into a Masters’ course, then spent a few years working in coffee shops while looking for my best-fit career. When I wasn’t making lattés I dabbled in academia and teaching and did a lot of reflection, research and soul-searching, before I finally had my light-bulb moment and started steering myself towards a future in libraries via a graduate traineeship at the University of Chester. Now that I’ve completed my traineeship it seems a good time to share my experiences by answering some questions that were put to me recently by a group of prospective graduate trainees:

  • How do I get started?

A good starting point for general information is the Prospects website. They have loads of practical advice and information about a wide range of library and information roles. There’s also an abundance of library related stuff online in the form of blogs, online journals and social media (particularly Twitter). SCONUL Focus is one example of a free online journal covering a broad range of library-type topics. For something a bit more grad-trainee specific, the library trainees at Oxford keep a blog which gives a good insight into the trainee experience (particularly their ‘day in the life’ series) and there’s also the Manchester New Library Professionals Network blog and the relatively new but already excellent FLIP (Future Library and Information Professionals’ network).

To find out about upcoming trainee positions keep an eye on CILIP’s list of training opportunities. Vacancies are advertised throughout the year and the length and number of positions varies from one institution to the next. At this point I should probably admit that I narrowed my options down to one single institution and then proceeded to put all my eggs in that basket! Luckily for me this slightly reckless strategy paid off, but I wouldn’t recommend it – obviously the broader your scope, the higher your chance of success. These positions are competitive and it’s safe to say you will need to have some recent, relevant experience to stand a chance, so unless you already work or volunteer in a library or similar environment, you’ll want to address that. Local museums and libraries often have opportunities for volunteers; as well as boosting your CV, practical experience will help you to feel confident and prepared when you get to interview.

  • What has been the best part of being a graduate trainee?

These are some of my highlights (spread over an 18 month period):

    • Helping to plan our freshers’ fair event. I was lucky to be involved in this from day one as project lead and it was a brilliant experience that taught me loads of new skills. Attending the Freshers’ fair was a pilot project for our department and it was ambitious, challenging and very rewarding.

    • User education. One of our library subject teams let me help with their user education programme. Under their guidance I was able to observe sessions, do some team-teaching, and contribute towards written and video guides for students.

    • Working with the acquisitions team. I’ve been helping in this department since very early on in my traineeship, and I never get bored of unwrapping and processing all the new books, especially when we get a big delivery of gorgeous art books.

Overall I think the best thing is the variety. No day is ever the same, and it’s been great getting to work with lots of different teams on a wide range of projects. While traineeships themselves can vary massively, one thing they all seem to have in common is the variety and breadth of experience they offer.

  • What have you enjoyed the least about being a graduate trainee?

As the sole graduate trainee in a large department, I felt a bit isolated to begin with, but this soon wore off when I settled in and gained confidence within the team. In our library, the graduate trainee position is an intentionally blank slate. There are some jobs that come with the territory but the trainee also has the time and flexibility to take on extra training and projects, and these could vary a lot from person to person. This means that my CV might look quite different to the graduate trainees that come before and after me. Obviously this is great, but after working in the highly regulated world of retail catering it was a bit of a culture shock and it took me a while to get my head around my new found freedom. My advice to a new graduate trainee would be: don’t be shy, and don’t be afraid to guide your own professional development. If there is something you are interesting in doing or learning about, just ask.

  • What are the most challenging parts of the role?

In our library at least, the graduate trainee is the go-to person when you are in need of an extra pair of hands. I love being busy so I relished these extra tasks, especially anything different or unusual I could add to my CV. However, if you have a big project on the go, or the library is particularly busy, it can be difficult to keep all the plates spinning. So be prepared to develop some serious time management skills. And don’t be afraid to say no sometimes, if you need to.

  • What should I do next?

Sadly, getting qualified is expensive and I would argue that financing a postgraduate course is the main challenge for today’s new professionals (myself included!). If you opt to do a Master’s degree you can of course choose whether to study part-time, full-time, or as a distance learner. Increasingly it seems that people are combining work with part-time study or distance learning as the most flexible and financially viable option.

In terms of employment, following your traineeship you should be a desirable candidate for library jobs. Knowing how competitive the jobs market can be in this sector, I made employment my main priority, and was lucky enough to get a permanent position at my placement institution. I know this is a popular route for grad trainees here, as I currently work with two of my predecessors! Whatever your plan, you should be in a good position now with all your fresh knowledge and practical experience. Timing is key and it’s never too early to start looking around for your next opportunity.

  • What advice would you give to a new graduate trainee?

In addition to all of the above, I would say that my main advice would be to keep a detailed diary of everything you do in your grad trainee role, and that means everything from formal training and conferences, to new skills you’ve learned or one-off tasks you completed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a paper diary or an Excel spreadsheet, just make sure you get it down! This will make job applications and portfolios so much easier, but it is also a nice tool for personal reflection. And last but not least: talk to people. Ask questions. Library staff come from all sorts of backgrounds and tend to have very interesting and varied ‘origin’ stories, so there is a lot you can learn just by chatting to people.

– Kerry Baker k.baker@chester.ac.uk

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