The Value of the Oxford Library Graduate Trainee Scheme – Margaret Watson

The Value of the Oxford Library Graduate Trainee Scheme:  Margaret Watson’s keynote address at the Trainee Showcase, Headley Lecture Theatre, Ashmolean Museum, 15 July 2016

I was very glad to be invited to speak to this subject on this occasion, because I’ve experienced the Graduate Trainee programme both as a trainee and as a supervisor, and also as a librarian who has seen what our trainees have gone on to contribute to the profession, to academia and to wider society.

I started out as a Graduate Trainee in Oxford in 1981.  So far as I can remember, there were trainees that year at Christ Church, the English Faculty Library, the Bodleian (two of them), St Hilda’s and – my own post – at St Anne’s.  Pretty much all of us planned to go to University College, London (UCL), which was the ‘go-to’ course for the humanities in those days.   I was phenomenally lucky to be at St Anne’s: at the time, it was one of the better paid posts (there seemed to be a negative correlation between the wealth of the institution and the trainee’s salary), and there were free lunches and even free cakes for tea.  However the best thing about it was that I worked with two professional librarians, in a library that had been organized by a professional librarian.  That organizing librarian had been Lady Richmond, whom I remembered from when I was a little girl growing up in North Oxford as a very tiny old lady, and indeed the catalogue drawers were at a very low-level.  It wasn’t until 15 years later, after I joined the Bodleian, that I really understood what Lady Richmond had done for St Anne’s, when Sue Miles the Bodleian’s Head of English and Foreign Cataloguing told me that Lady Richmond had worked in public libraries and took the view that the same principles that lay behind the efficient running of a public library could equally usefully be applied to a college library.

Of course as a trainee I took all that professional organization for granted, but I don’t now.  During that year, I was very fortunate to learn, through both practice and observation, how to run an independent Library; something that was to be invaluable when about four years later I ended up in the City of London, helping first of all to set up a library in corporate finance, and then reorganising specialised law libraries in London and Brussels.   As you can see, the scheme had direct value for me – and for my subsequent employers.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that.  In the intervening years I had gained a Diploma in Library Studies, and Masters in Library and Information Science and got myself chartered, but none of that would have happened without the Oxford Library Graduate Trainee scheme.

So that’s what it did for my own career.  Now I’d like to think about it from the point of view of an employer.  It wasn’t until I was working in the Bodleian Law Library that I had the chance to have a graduate trainee.  And it really is a chance, both in the sense of opportunity and risk:  it’s the opportunity to have someone really motivated and full of fresh ideas on the strength, but it’s only for a year, he or she has to learn almost everything from scratch in a very short time, and of course sometimes it doesn’t work out; I did have one trainee leave to manage a pub.  She was a good appointment, but she realised that she wanted to do something else, and I’m sure she was very good at it.

Of course the success of the Trainee Scheme matters to me, to you and to everyone else engaged with it in Oxford, but it also matters to the profession, as one of its main purposes is to nurture the next generation of Librarians.  I feel very strongly that it is part of our professional obligation as the staff of one of the most important academic libraries in the world to share opportunities and expertise with the librarians of the future and help them to become the best librarians that they can.

This brings me to the question of, ‘what makes a good librarian?’  My father was a librarian, and one of the family jokes was the number of young women who used to apply for jobs in his library armed with testimonials on the lines of, ‘Miss XYZ is very quiet and shy and will make an excellent librarian’.  Of course, quietness and shyness were never on his list of selection criteria, any more than wearing twin-set and pearls were.  But although we can cheerfully rule out some of the older clichés about the attributes of a good librarian, I think that some of the misconceptions of previous generations are in danger of being replaced by others.  And this is where I shall become rather controversial.

In June I attended the conference of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians in Dublin, which included a careers panel session.  At the start everyone present who had recently applied for a job was asked to choose whether the most important attribute of a good law librarian is (1) customer service, (2) knowledge of the law or (3) knowledge of IT.  They all (and this may have been about 100 delegates) chose ‘customer service’.  When those of us who are recruiters rather than job applicants were asked to make the same choices, we got a rather different result:  there was still a majority for ‘customer service’, but a significant group (which included the one major law firm’s Web Team!) chose ‘knowledge of IT’, and some of us, including me, chose ‘knowledge of the law’.[1]

I am very concerned by a notion which seems to be pervading the profession that the most important aspect of our work is customer service.  I don’t deny that it is important to give the best possible service to our readers, but can you imagine an accountancy firm rating ‘customer service’ above competency as an accountant, or a law firm being happy to take on solicitors because they are friendly rather than because they are legally qualified?  How can we give a good service unless we actually have the skills and experience necessary to do the job?  By making a fetish of customer service we risk de-skilling our profession.  In the course of my career, which is quite long now, some of the worst service and poorest quality work that I have ever seen was provided by very bright smiley helpful people.  Except of course they weren’t helpful, because their work was ill-informed or inaccurate.

The fundamental building block of our service to our readers is our professional expertise.  It’s the keystone, and that is why this trainee scheme matters.  Our professional role is to identify, organise, provide access to, and disseminate information.  You may do that by dealing with paper collections, or with data; you may be front-of-house, in a reading room, or dealing with clients in an office environment face-to-face, or you may be backstage, selecting and acquiring material, cataloguing and indexing it, or disseminating it through publications and other means. All this requires skills and both theoretical and practical knowledge, and while you are a trainee you get to see the practical coal face of library work before you go on to develop the theoretical understanding that will make that experience transferrable to an infinite range of different situations.

I think that the Wednesday afternoon sessions that you have attended are terrific, and it is really exciting to see how the Oxford programme has developed since the early 1980s.  When I was a trainee, it consisted of a series of visits to different libraries, organised by a distinguished bibliographer and member of the Bodleian named Paul Morgan and I remember in particular seeing the Christ Church Upper Library and Voltaire Room in the Taylor.  Obviously, you have more sessions, and I think more structured opportunities for interaction with each other than we did, and I think this is partly a reflection of the integration of Oxford libraries now that most of us share a catalogue and some of us share PCAS.  However, the trainee programme is no substitute for a Library School course.  The value of the Oxford scheme is to prepare you for undertaking a Masters, whether you do it by distance learning, part-time or full-time.  At Library School you will encounter ideas, practices and theories that you have come across during this year, but you will also have the opportunity to read broadly, to reflect and consider in depth and to understand how your experiences here are part of a far broader world of library and information science.  When I was a trainee I did a great deal of cataloguing, typing entries directly onto five-by-three cards, and I thought I was pretty good at it.  However, it was when I went to UCL that came to understand the principles behind a catalogue (why we have uniform titles; what the authority file does; how a subject thesaurus works …) and so when I took up my first professional post in Exeter University Library I was able to hit the ground running, even though I was launched straight into online cataloguing, which I had never even seen before.

If you have decided not to pursue a library career, I hope that you will take from this year experiences and knowledge that will enable you to excel at something else. I particularly remember one absolutely outstanding trainee, who went to work for Dods Parliamentary Companion, and told me that she would never have got the job if she hadn’t learned so much as part of the scheme.  I had friend at UCL who decided to do a DPhil and became an academic.  She could only get funding for two years, instead of three, but was assured that with her library training and experience she would get the research done in two thirds of the time of a regular DPhil student – and she did.

Of course it is sad when talented and able people decide not to become librarians, but if you are one of those people, I hope that you will be an advocate for the importance and value of libraries both in the community and in your institution or workplace, and that you will use what you have learned here to enhance your work or research wherever you are.

If you are committed to librarianship, I know how very difficult it is to fund a place library school.  It was hard in the 1980s, and it is much harder now.  But we need you!  The experience of working for the professional qualification will give you a breadth that will open up new possibilities.  I shall always be grateful that I had the opportunity to attend UCL, because it gave me a range and flexibility that I would never have experienced otherwise, and the ability to move between disciplines, between cataloguing and reference work, and between the academic and the private sector.

But the most important thing is what we, as librarians, can do for others.  We are uniquely placed at the gateway to information, and I’m going to finish with a story.  My mother is in her eighties and came from a moderately poor family.  She left school at 16 and worked as a secretary, but was desperate to acquire more education.  It was the librarian in the public library in Chingford who helped her to find the information about how to get the qualifications that she needed to go to teacher training college.  As part of this process, she had to take an ancient history paper, and again it was the librarian that introduced her to The Cambridge Ancient History, of which she read an entire volume, and got a very high mark in the exam. It took a long time, but she ended up with an Oxford DPhil, and it was a librarian who, when she was a young unqualified typist, set her on the path that changed her whole life.

Each one of us has the capacity, through our professional expertise, to transform another person’s life, so what I say to you is:  go out and do it.  That is the value of the Oxford Library Graduate Trainee Scheme.

Margaret Watson

15 July 2016

[1] I would have preferred the concept ‘knowledge of legal resources’ to ‘knowledge of the law’;  in my view none of the three options proposed accurately or adequately describes our professional skills

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