Working: High School vs University Libraries

In my first year out of university, I worked in high school libraries. And for the last two years, I’ve been working in an academic library. For those who are just starting their career journey, and are interested in this type of library work, I thought I would write about what its like working in each of these environments.

I absolutely loved working in high schools. If you had a family, the school holidays and hours would be especially beneficial. I usually worked 3 or 4 days, from 8am-4pm. It wasn’t very flexible though, as there were only limited staff. Being sick or taking leave can be hard, because there is no-one to cover you. There was also lots of opportunity to get creative and do fun things in the library. Book displays, author talks, competitions, maker spaces etc. I loved getting to know the students and chatting to them about what they’re reading. the collection was fun to manage, with lots of young adult fiction. You also got to do a breadth of work, as there was only around 3 – 5 staff in the library. So I got to catalogue, process, order, build websites, run events, organise marketing and more. I learnt a lot of new skills. In addition, the library was quite autonomous. We had a good amount of freedom to do what we liked within the library without having to get approval for every little thing. We got to collaborate a little with teachers and help run some classes now and then too.

The main problems with high school libraries were that, at least in the public system where I worked, funding was very tight. We constantly had to justify ourselves and advocate for the library. The schools often tried to hire unqualified people in the library that they could pay less. There was little opportunity for professional development, unless it was free or in your own time. I was always on contracts, with no guarantee I would have a job in six months or a years time. I didn’t feel valued by the school (though my team and boss’ were always fantastic!).

The academic library is pretty different. I also love working here. I’m not on a contract for starters! One of the best things is that the library is so clearly valued by the University. They know the students need us and we have a good budget. They support professional development of staff and encourage going to conferences and learning new skills. There are a lot of staff and I feel supported here. There is always someone to learn from, ask questions and collaborate with. There are big projects to get involved with, and lots of room for growth. The library wants to be innovative and a leader in the field. I could see myself working here for years and years and not getting bored. The hours are flexible because we have more staff, so I can take a holiday or be sick without it causing chaos. I get to teach a lot here which I love, we go into lectures and teach research skills, and work with students for assignment help etc. Though I don’t get to know the students as well as I did at high schools, I’m glad I still get to make that connection.

The two most difficult things about working in an academic library are; first, that there is a lot of red tape. If you want to try something new, it needs to abide by so many policies and procedures, it needs to align with the library/University ‘brand’ and be approved by multiple levels of committees and individuals. There are lots of forms and often by the time the idea can happen, its changed so much you don’t recognise it! Second, there is less ‘fun’ and more of a serious academic focus. Lots of the funky things I loved to do in high schools can be viewed as too ‘juvenile’ or casual. I find that disappointing because I feel there can be a misalignment here between the type of image the library wants to present, and the actual needs and wants of students. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of working in a particularly academic faculty, and maybe working in something like Arts or Music would be different.

In the end, I loved working in both types of libraries, and I’m still keen to broaden my horizons and try more new types of work while I can. The skills I’ve developed were transferable across both places, and I can see how I could apply them in public libraries, special libraries and more. The most important thing is to be open to new experiences and try new things whenever you can!



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