New job overview

So, I’ve been in my current job for four and a half months. I was hoping to write a post to coincide with the fourth month exactly but evidently that didn’t happen.

I feel well settled into this job now. I have gone from knowing very little about serials to having to be an expert and answer both colleagues’ and library users’ questions. I’ve dealt with nearly every aspect of my role so far – ordering, cancelling, invoicing, lots of spreadsheets, cataloguing, claiming, binding, liaising with suppliers … and that’s just the part of my role that is specific to serials. I’ve become well acquainted with regular library users when I’m on the circulation desk and how to register new readers (no longer such a daunting process but still complex and lengthy).

I spend a lot of my time chasing up vendors and publishers for not sending us issues of their journal. Some of them are easily remedied and the journal arrives soon after I claim it but others require constant chasing. A journal issue turned up last month which has been chased by three different members of staff over the course of three years! I could finally send that volume off for binding.

Before I started this job, a number of people cringed when I said I would be working with periodicals because they find them difficult to cope with. As I’ve already said, vendors constantly need to be chased because they haven’t sent a journal issue; titles change which means either an amendment to the bibliographic record or a new one created from scratch; publication patterns change from, for example, monthly to quarterly, which requires amendment to the subscription record and pattern set up so the catalogue creates the correct expected schedule.

I haven’t found any of these things annoying. Serials are constantly changing and I like ensuring everything is kept up-to-date with the correct details. My colleagues have been very important in training me up to this level. I have a manual which covers every aspect of my role as serials librarian, which has also been essential in helping me get to where I am. I’m actually in the processing of making changes to the manual because, even though it was updated last year, it is already out of date with changes to library practice, RDA introduction, and so on.

What is frightening is the number of journals that are becoming online-only. In response to my claims for missing journals, publishers and vendors sometimes reply and explain that I haven’t received it because it is no longer available in print. I think this is quite a slow process but it does make me wonder what the future holds for the serials librarian. At Oxford, electronic journals are dealt with centrally on behalf of all the Oxford University libraries. If print journals cease to exist then serials librarians, in Oxford at least, may cease to be necessary. As glum as that sounds, it certainly reflects the every changing nature of serials I spoke about earlier.

“I can’t find this book …”

This post looks at how far a librarian’s investigative skills can go. My idea for this came about thanks to a kind student who handed in to me on the circulation desk a page that had fallen out of a book, which you can see below.


What I had was a page from a bibliography. Some books have the book title or even a chapter title at the top of the page but this had nothing. My solution was to type one of the references into Web of Knowledge and then look at who had cited it in the hope that this book might come up. A few titles that the library has in its collection popped up but my hope did not last long as I went to the shelves and discovered they were not the parent of this lonely page.

Now this piece of paper is sitting on my desk in the hope I might be inspired with a better idea. In this situation, I really don’t think there is a lot I can do to solve the problem (suggestions welcome) but what about those times where you get caught out on the enquiry desk and say that you can’t help before really carrying out any proper investigation? I’ve certainly been in that situation. A reader will ask me a complicated question, which I don’t know the answer to off the top of my head. I panic, get flustered, type a few token search terms into the catalogue search box before I admit defeat. Once the reader leaves I think that I must be able to find the answer somewhere and calmly think of the various resources I can use, different search terms, the staff wiki or circulation manual for help. Even ask a colleague if needs be. I can almost guarantee that five or ten minutes after that person has walked away, I will have found the answer. Sometimes I have the sense to ask where they’re sitting and say I’ll do some research and see if I can find the answer for you.

I find this is especially the case in a new job, where I don’t yet know very much about the library. Having been in my current role for just under three months, this has happened to me a lot lately. More than anything, I find it embarrassing. What kind of librarian am I if I can’t help the reader, which is what I am employed to do. I am always jealous of my colleagues who then give a wonderfully informative answer to the enquiry, which tells the reader exactly what they need to know. I like to think that one day I will be that wise and knowledgeable librarian who everyone turns to for answers because she’s so great.

I think one of the inhibiting factors here is that I’m really not that experienced with reader services work. Not properly. My first ever job as a librarian was in the technical services office and since then I have gone from one technical services job to another. I don’t like to say I was pigeonholed early on but I definitely think that saying your experience within libraries is processing, assisting with cataloguing, acquisitions, serials, and other behind-the-scenes work, you are unlikely to win over a potential employer who has put up a job advert for an enthusiastic and experienced front-facing librarian. Of course, I’ve spent a lot of time on various enquiry desks but I’ve never worked in The Reader Services Office, ¬†where I am the go-to person for enquiries. In a way, I quite like being behind the scenes. I think I’m good at that kind of work and enjoy the technicality of RDA and LCSH rules and spreadsheets but similarly, I also like interacting with people and being successful in helping a reader with their studies/research. Getting that ‘thank you’ from a drowned and bewildered fresher or a busy academic is quite satisfying.

I think that a librarian’s skills can, sometimes, only go so far. Colleagues who have been working in the same library for ten to twenty years sometimes don’t know the answer. If a book is lost, there is only so much you can do to find it before you just order a new one or do an inter-library loan. If the network is down, you really can’t help find that book. If a reader gives you a really vague reference with ‘I think the title is something like …’ and no author, you’re not necessarily going to find it (but it’s always great when you do). When a library holds hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of items, there is only so much that can be done to keep it in check. But I think librarians are doing a pretty good job so far.