Getting into libraries: volunteering and internships

It sounds like a cliché, but libraries have always been there.

Much to my shame, I haven’t always proclaimed my adoration for libraries – but looking back, they have always been there. I remember taking out my first book – being jealous of the stamps, which I still take great joy in – and lament the loss of as our libraries get ever more technological!

In secondary school, the library was the place that students could go to escape the regimented monotony of school – it was a bright space with beanbags and friendly staff. Later in life, the library became a lifeline (as a poor Masters student with a cold, damp studio apartment) – a place with all the information I could need, with free internet, heat and electricity. I waited outside the doors of the library until it opened early in the morning, when it was still dark, and was one of the last students to be sympathetically moved on by a member of staff long after the last tannoy.

A photo of the stacks in Hugh Owen LIbrary, Aberystwyth Unviersity.

Hugh Owen Library, Aberystwyth University. Author’s own.

I emerged from the university bubble like many English graduates, I think – completely unsure what to do next. I worked in a restaurant for a year while I applied to all jobs where English might be considered useful – copywriting, TV & media, and then anything with a desk…I ended up working a full time job in admin and moonlighting in the restaurant because the admin contract was temporary and I couldn’t face a gap in my employment history.

When the admin job ended, I decided I would start volunteering. You’d think a library position would be obvious, but still…nope. I think it was a case of not seeing the woods for the trees. It wasn’t until I had an epiphany one evening, mid-migraine. If you’ve had a migraine, you’ll know that normally it’s best to try and block out all light, sound, smells…and thoughts. You will also comprehend, then, just how much of an epiphany it was that as soon as the thought struck me, I sat up in bed, somehow managed to crawl to the nearest notepad, and scrawl the word ‘libraries’ (underlined too!) before returning to my bed and passing out.

We can skim over the difficulties of the job market – we all know how that feels. My local libraries were hesitant to even offer volunteering opportunities, for fear that it would render a paid staff member redundant. I was undeterred, and continued to ask at every library I passed. Soon, to my utter joy, the wonderful Lichfield Library offered me a volunteering position.

A photo of Lichfield Library in Staffordshire.

Lichfield Library, Staffordshire. Author’s own.

Everyone was really lovely and welcoming (as all library professionals are!) and taught me the basics I needed to get into the library business. I genuinely felt, and I still do, that everyone there was rooting for me. It was here that I learned all of the hard work that goes into keeping libraries the safe, approachable, tidy(ish) places they are. I learned the art of straightening, the importance of shelving and the small joys that can come from assisting people with technologies that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use.

I applied for an internship at the esteemed Gladstone’s Library, and that small chance that Lichfield Library provided gave me the edge – as myself and another interviewee were leaving the grounds (in the rain), we were chased down by the Warden, Director of Collections and Library Assistant and offered the positions. It was very film-like – dropping bags into puddles, gleefully jumping up and down, and suddenly the world opened up – a profession I so wanted to get into was viable. Before we left, we stared up at the building that we would call home in a few short months. It was an unbelievable thought. I was later told that it was my enthusiasm that partially sold it – never underestimate the importance of telling your interviewer just how much you want the job.A photo of Gladstone's Library in Hawarden.

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. Author’s own.

Gladstone’s Library (affectionately called gladlib) was a plunge into all things library. The internship was residential. The interns and a chaplain shared the flat, and ate at the on-site bistro (which was a wonderful side effect of living there). Our ‘living room’ was the Gladstone Room, which housed the Francis collection, one of contemporary fiction. The room was made so that you could choose a book and sink into any of the sofas, beside the fire in the winter, or by the bay windows in the summer. The internship also involved working on the hospitality side of things – on reception, being on call overnight for all residents and sometimes in the kitchen if needed – but as this is an LIS post, I will focus on the library aspects of the internship.

First order of the day, fresh cup of tea in hand, was opening up the library. We would move the heavy bolt across the door and go around and switch on the lights and lamps. The library at gladlib holds that smell that people dream about; old books sighing and welcoming in the new day. Each desk would be neatened, with the library rules and regs in one corner, and a lamp in the other. We had to switch on all PCs, check the printers were behaving as they should, and circulate all the books that had been used the day before.

The library at gladlib is a tribute to past libraries. It is a silent space, reference only, and all books used must be returned to the enquiry desk. The interns then circulate the books by hand – making a note of the accession number of each book on a piece of paper, reshelving the books and then manually circulating the books.

A photo of the enquiry desk at Gladstone's Library, with books piled ready for circulation.

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. Author’s own.

The day would then be spent in several ways – on the enquiry desk, ensuring readers sign in and gathering statistics, and doing physical projects, such as moving all of the 19th century journals around. There was also an ongoing project involving handling (and gathering metadata from) William Gladstone’s letters. This definitely increased my palaeography skills!

A photo pf writing by William Ewart Gladstone.

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. Author’s own.

The strong room and closed access were filled with treasures, including books from as early as the 1400s. Gladstone’s original collection had books on every subject, and the sizes ranged from less than 5cm long to well over half a metre. We would often find annotations from his own hand amongst the pages. As the library was of historical interest as well as for readers, we also gave three ‘glimpses’ of the library each day.

A photo of various books at gladlib.

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. Author’s own.

The final part of the day as library intern was at 10pm, when I closed the library – neatening the desks, turning off all lights and PCs, ushering out any avid readers and saying goodnight to the books. Interning was a tiring, but wonderful, experience. Unfortunately, as with most internships, it was an unsustainable way of life, but in the wonderful way that it often works, 3 days after I left gladlib, I had an interview at the University of Chester. I had been working tirelessly until the early hours each night during my last three months at gladlib, applying for jobs and using my holiday days up to go to interviews. This was the last that I had planned, before I faltered in my dream and was considering going back into admin. I had managed to find a library job in Nottingham, and though I was enthusiastic about it and was grateful, it was far from ideal – a 15 hours/week contract meant that I wouldn’t have enough money for renting somewhere, so I would have had to make the three hour round trip every day from my parents’ house.

I must admin I did let out a little squeal when HR from the University of Chester offered me the position. As soon as I had accepted the job and informed Nottingham, I ran up and down the stairs about 10 times. I had earned the prize – a full time, permanent position in a University library. I had enough money to move into rented accommodation, and now spend half my time as an LIS resources assistant – working on the enquiry desk, shelving books, shelf tidying, wanding, and assisting with any group projects – and the other half as an assistant to the subject librarian for distance learning and e-resources (which involves many wonderfully colour-coded spreadsheets).

All in all, from the moment I decided I wanted to work in libraries, I would say it took just over a year. It involved travelling long distances and working long hours, but I loved it. In the words of Hermione Granger (kind of), ‘when in doubt, go to the library.’

You can read more about my time at Lichfield Library and gladlib here.


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