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Career Challenges: The journey from public to school librarian


Career Challenges: The journey from public to school librarian

I started out my career in UK Libraries as a Reference Assistant; there is nothing wrong with Reference Librarianship but I discovered early on that it was not the path I wanted for my career. Fortunately at the time my line manager was of the opinion that if I kept my reference work up to date she saw nothing wrong with me branching out and doing other work in the library. So I set my focus on my main goal at the time, which was to engage with the gangs of young people from the estates bordering the Library who had been coming in and causing chaos. My boss game me the go ahead – going over the heads of the youth service team who were concerned that if I got this wrong, it could ruin the chances of a functioning youth group ever being set up in the library.

Nevertheless I persisted. I set up an event, and when I announced it on the day it launched I have to this day, never seen a library empty out so fast. This taught me my first, and most important lesson of youth library work – if you want to engage with young people in a library, to get them involved and to stay involved, then you need to include them in the planning and execution of events. When the kids cautiously came back to the library, I invited them to chat to me about what they would like to do in the library and bribed them with the snacks I had purchased and we went forward from there.

I then started to look into training for library work with young people and was put in contact with the London branch of CILIP’s Youth Libraries Group (YLG). If you want to do anything involving Library work for children and young people, you need to join the YLG and if you want to do more than attend training days and special events then ask about vacancies on their regional committees. This helps with continuing professional development, networking as well as improving professional skills, including budgeting, minute-taking, chairing meetings and if you are extremely lucky, becoming a judge for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals. On top of all that you get to know and work with other library professionals in your region. You will also have the opportunity to organize and attend professional training events that you otherwise may miss out on.

As with many careers, if you do the work for long enough you usually end up with a very specific set of skills, skills that not everyone else may possess, this opens up avenues for you to offer training to colleagues within your local authority and further afield.


A solid grounding in youth library work gave me the opportunity to change lanes in 2010 when my public library post was cut from beneath me thanks to the austerity agenda put forth by the government. While the underpinnings of librarianship theoretically can allow a practitioner to move from one field to another, it is worth taking the time to match your existing skills to those you will require in a new library field.


The biggest shock of moving from a Public Library to a School Library setting was going from a large team to being a department of one. While some school librarians have an assistant, most are staffed by a single Librarian, which if you have a singular vision can be good, but if you are used to having a support network of other library professionals it can leave you feeling very alone. You really feel it when you have to classify, catalogue and process the new materials yourself, eventually you can train up a team of student library assistants, but initially it can be a bit of a culture shock.


This can be ameliorated somewhat by finding a nationwide network of support, the CILIP School Libraries Group, the School Library Association and the School Librarian Network mailing list are invaluable when it comes to finding colleagues who understand what you are going through and will be able to provide support and ideas if you get stuck on something. At the very least moving from a public to school library gives you the chance to brush up on professional skills that may have become rusty while in public library service (cataloguing, training, working with library users that really do not want to be in the library but have to be there).


One of the strangest quirks of the UK educational system I discovered when I became a School Librarian was that the decision whether or not to have a Librarian, or in some cases even a Library fell to individual schools, as School Library provision unlike Public Libraries are not currently required under law. The Great School Libraries Campaign run jointly by the SLA and CILIP's School Libraries Group and supported by CILIP was set up to emphasise the importance of School Librarians and Libraries in every school. This campaign has brought together professionals from across the spectrum of schools, libraries and beyond, to advocate for and secure a future for School Libraries and Librarians for all students.


Matt Imrie's article is the second in a series of personal career stories. We asked library and information professionals around the country to share their stories of how they've addressed a particular challenge in their professional lives.

You can find Kathryn Aylward's account of how she got started in health libraries after graduation here.

We have refreshed CILIP’s careers content to better reflect the challenges we face, whether it be starting out, rejoining the workforce, looking out for new opportunities or stepping up into leadership roles.

If you're not a CILIP member yet, now is a great time to join. Your membership gives you access to a broad range of career enhancing resources including online short courses, webinars, discounted events and chartership.



Contributor: Matt Imrie
Published:  18 February 2019


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