Wednesday 20 June 2012

Did you want to be a librarian when you grew up?

Did you sort your personal book collection as a child? Or maybe order your DVDs, CDs or cassette tapes by title, genre, series, or musician? I wonder about these early signs as an indicator of people more likely to work in libraries, and how some now-librarians found their calling so soon in life. To try and find out how people just “knew” their career path, I informally surveyed 46 library workers in Australia about their childhood career dreams, as well as asking 29 preschool children in Canberra about their career dreams.

Many librarians spoke of their personal libraries from childhood, where short term loans were managed with the scrawl of “Libry – 3 days” on the back of books, ownership defined with bookplates, or owning a set of flimsies for writing due dates (from this revelation, I learnt the term flimsies, which is a word that sounds better suited to an impractical petticoat).

If you felt affinity for libraries early on, you may have revelled in the joy of a Little Librarian kit, “…the first personal library kit made just for kids!”? These DIY homemade library kits have great potential as propaganda tools for instilling library principles and a love of organising information. Library branches could also sponsor kits so that the brand imprinting stays with people for their borrowing life! Building on this, there are even “home library kits” for adults to play library at home and organise book collections.

My personal book collection was not a good predictor of a future librarian - it was modelled on my family’s sorting method. This is the debatable finding aid of spine height (descending order left to right) and the even fancier criterion of spine colour. However, the book rainbow display method is gaining traction in design circles. Plus, my family visited the library on a weekly basis, so I knew that books were ordered in different ways (but had no inclination towards personal Dewey labelling!).

Exposure to library thinking in early childhood could help more people to consider a career in libraries, or look at sorting books as a gateway to full-on information management. Something that worked in many now-librarians’ favour were frequent trips to the local library to foster a love of books, as well as librarians in the family (with obligatory unpaid work).

So how many now-librarians had any inkling of their professional field during childhood? From 46 surveyed librarians, there were 69 career aspirations (39 when accounting for duplicates), which showed a number of different options at different life-stages.

Childhood career dream responses from library staff
Childhood career dream responses from library staff

As you can see, the most common career dreams were librarian (10), and teacher (11). I think this shows the impact of regular contact with particular professions. It could also show further scope for looking at the teacher-librarian career pathway. Some of the other professions really do overlap, and many respondents observed the commonalities between their different careers and the highly transferable skills of librarians.

Even though my “survey” was only one question “Did you want to be a librarian/library technician when you grew up, or something else?”, it was leading and I should have better articulated that I was interested in the most vivid career aspiration, rather than at a particular age. My sampling was also fairly biased towards government/special libraries and the National Library, rather than public or university libraries. I’m sure that the results would change with a more scientific method!

From 29 preschool children (ages 4-5) surveyed, there were 30 career aspirations (21 when accounting for duplicates). None mentioned roles involving library roles. There was also some crossover with the librarian results, such as teacher (3) and ballerina (6). Their sample provides an interesting snapshot of their personal interests and the professions that are important (or prominent) in their lives at the moment.

Career dream responses from preschool children

Marketing libraries and library services is part of our professional branding, but I think we overlook the need to market the profession itself. There could be a lot more people interested in library careers if they were actually promoted – but another complication ties in with library anxiety, and exposure to negative library experiences during childhood. Observations about the possibility of a library career were that it wasn’t even on the radar (throughout life), or that people didn’t know what librarians actually did – unfortunately we don’t actually explain what we do, so lots of adults are still uncertain about our role! Additionally, no one in either the adult or child groups mentioned “library technician” as a career dream, and I think this demonstrates the decreased visibility of different roles in libraries, or perhaps it shows that we don’t need the traditional demarcation between library roles.

A more telling study is what kind of careers people choose after librarianship, as one librarian mentioned a future career dream. Nerida Hart is conducting a study of librarians who have moved out of the library space, you can find out how to contribute here.
In the meantime, keep an eye on your kids’ and friends' children’s book collections – are there signs of a future library career?

Sonja Barfoed is an artist and librarian in Canberra, Australia. From the age of 6, she decided to be an artist and mermaid – librarianship happened of its own accord!

1 comment:

  1. Among the preschoolers, "person tiger" stands out as a particularly memorable career aspiration, and one that I wish I'd pursued! It reminds me of how we're often told that our careers will be built on jobs that don't even exist yet, and I think certainly the diversification of library and information management is testament to that.
    Also, I appreciate your family's kinetic sorting method. Personally when looking at my bookshelves (arranged by size and then colour) I gain far more emotional satisfaction than if they were classified according to Dewey.