GETTING STARTED From broadcasting to rehabilitating convicts, there's much more to being a librarian then stacking shelves. Kate Hilpern reports
Library and information careers get a particularly raw deal when it comes to stereotyping. Almost without fail, Hollywood films portray librarians as dull, elderly spinsterish types wearing cardigans, with their hair in a neat bun. "If they're not shushing people to be quiet, they're being authoritarian about fines," adds Emma Sherriff, outreach support officer for Plymouth Libraries.
Sherriff's job could not be further from this description. A sprightly young woman without a bun in sight, her role is to engage young people aged 11 to 18 in library services. Among the activities she undertakes to achieve this include running a weekly show on hospital radio to promote books and reading - as well as all the other stock in the library, such as CDs and archives of local history - and working with socially excluded young people to get them into the library.
"I organise events at the library too - beauty evenings for girls and pizza and football nights for boys. We always link in some kind of promotion with them - something like, 'Borrow this book and get X, Y or Z.' It's all about getting people to appreciate the library and realise that there's nothing dull about it. In fact, all of us that work here have big personalities and are passionate about what we do."
Other exciting roles in the sector include web designer and manager, information officer, records manager, information technology expert, working for specialist libraries for organisations ranging from the NHS to law firms, and specialising in issues ranging from patenting to membership queries. You may not work in a library at all, but in an information or research centre. What's more, you can come from any background. Sherriff says she even benefited from studying units on crime and deviance in her degree at Bath University. "It helped because today I design and deliver programmes for young offenders."
It's not even essential to have a degree, points out Francis Muzzu, head of Infomatch, the recruitment agency for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). "Although most are graduates when they join the sector these days, others leave school with A-levels and perhaps go into a library where they work their way up. People often assume librarians are the people who know everything, but actually the role of a librarian or information officer is to be the conduit through which people get the information. That goes for whether you're a generalist in a public library or a specialist in a corporate or academic library," he says.
What you will need, however, are organisational and time management skills - to organise resources as well as your own time, excellent communication skills, a good memory, confidence and assertiveness, good teamworking and networking skills and a good grasp of IT.
For those who are ambitious, there's the chance to study postgraduate qualifications and to become chartered. There's no lack of opportunity for networking too. "Special interest groups exist for people who work in prison libraries through to those who work in the City," says Muzzu.
Among the rewards of working in this sector are being able to follow your passion, he says. "You might be particularly interested in cataloguing or database design or you might feel most at home in a legal or arts library. The joy is that there are so many opportunities - far more than I think most people realise."
The salaries aren't bad either, he adds. "They can go up to six figures." Then there's the fact that most career paths are structured, so people can see where they're heading. "People enjoy the customer service side too, and the sector is also good for people who like the idea of moving up into management. …