Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Gold Watch - Reflections on 20 Years as a Real Public Librarian

Last week our local government was abolished - amalgamated with four other local councils. Essentially I Lost My Job. Long standing staff members were presented with gifts usually reserved for retirement - and, yes, it was the "gold watch" moment (literally - it's a very nice watch) for me and nearly 20 other council colleagues. An opportunity to reflect on the 20 very happy years I had spent serving my adopted community.

I have told and retold the "potted" history of how I ended up being a Public Librarian in this lovely part of the world. During my teens, I had always vaguely thought I would like to work in a library someday. After leaving high school and attending university full-time for ONE WEEK (I couldn't wait another 3 years to start earning money), I took a job in a huge bank branch in central Brisbane. I stuck out one year of cheque batching and counting money, before loathing for the job luckily motivated me to apply for a job (any job) at the State Library of Queensland. After weeks of not hearing anything I was called in for an interview, and employed soon after as a Library Assistant for the Public Libraries Service. My first boss was the indefatigable Desi Lyons, a tiny little woman who walked flawlessly in the highest of heels, was always impeccably dressed, coiffed and made up, and who never stopped smiling. My love affair with libraries had begun.

My first jobs included checking for requested items in the vast card catalog; and pulling them off the shelves; as well as preparing bulk loans for the eighty or so small libraries throughout Queensland that were supplied directly by the State Library of Queensland. I also did overtime on the weekends on the Reference desk of the regular State Library - practically every weekend for 8 or 9 years. After an excruciatingly boring but very useful stint in cataloguing (I was part of the team that marked up all of the old catalog cards into Marc format for conversion to the automated system), I took on the post of "Senior Field Officer" (by this time I was qualified via part-time study) which entailed driving all over Queensland to advise local councils about improvements to their library services, and in many cases project managing those improvements, which I did for about 2 years. About a quarter of my life at that time was spent literally on the road.

Around 1984 I think, 2 things happened that sort of converged into one thing. One was that I attended an inter-university sports function with my husband in Rockhampton. We stayed for a few days at the nearby resort town of Yeppoon, which I remember thinking back then would be a pretty nice place to live in. The other was an invitation from the Mayor of Livingstone Shire Council (of which Yeppoon is the main town) to the State Library to "send someone" to suggest improvements to its library services after some complaints had been received about it. Thus I had several more opportunities to suss out Yeppoon as a potential "sea change". Then one weekend my husband and I drove up to Yeppoon with the express purpose of going around the real estate agents. Pretty soon after that we bought a block of nearly beachside land for the eye watering sum of $28,000 - all of which we had to borrow at, wait for it, 18% interest! So now the hunt was on in earnest for a job in either Yeppoon or the larger city of Rockhampton, which is about 40 minutes' drive away.

That job came along in the form of the College Librarian at the local technical college (TAFE) where I worked for 2 years. At first I didn't much like it, but towards the end a motivating principal of the college had given me a bit more prestige and hope for the future. I knew that the librarian at Livingstone was due to retire, but I wasn't actively looking for a job elsewhere. Imagine my surprise, when at 10 past 5 on a Friday afternoon (I officially should have knocked off at 5), the Livingstone Librarian phones me to inform me that the Shire Clerk was wondering why I hadn't applied for her job (she was retiring). I replied blithely that I was quite happy at the College and wouldn't be applying. Well anyway, she said, applications close this Monday. Thanks, I answered.

I'm ashamed to say that what made me reconsider the job was the commuting time - the College was 40 minutes' drive each way, the job at Yeppoon was 5 minutes from home! For the same wage, that's a big lifestyle gain! So I dragged out my old CV, hand wrote the last 2 years' worth of experience on it, and dropped it directly into the Council letterbox on Monday morning, before heading off to work. At approximately 9.30 am the same day the Shire Clerk phoned me for an interview, and the rest is history - 20 years of history to be exact!

I must also admit that the first day I started at Yeppoon Library, which was in a pokey little room in the front of the Town Hall, I was silently repeating to myself the panic mantra "what have I done what have I done!". I had gone from the prestige of College Librarian, on the College Executive, to a weird little backwater library with furniture out of the ark, a hierarchy where the library was firmly at the bottom (after roads, rates and rubbish), and a card catalog. To compensate however, the staff were fantastic (and still are) - I had 2 full-time and one part time library assistants, who were cheerful and eager - and the customers, who were on the whole loyal and appreciative. I really had a dream run, even the most ordinary improvements I made were seen to be hugely innovative, because we were starting from such a low base. The Council literally never denied a request for new furniture, lighting, air conditioning, and automation, and a coincidental change in the State Library's formula for funding independent libraries resulted in a windfall increase in subsidy for improving the collection quickly and decisively. So of course the customers thought I was pretty good.

Over the years my job title has changed a few times: from Chief Librarian (sounds quaint now doesn't it?), to Manager of Cultural Services, and lastly to Co-ordinator of Library and Arts Services. My pay and prestige didn't actually move all that much in 20 years, but I have to say that is by choice - I passed up potential opportunities for advancement both within the organisation (to more generalist management positions) and within the profession, which would have required me to move away from my discovered "paradise" where I live and work 5 minutes from the most beautiful and clean beaches...but I digress. But the job has paid me handsomely in terms of non-financial rewards. Here are some of the highlights of being a Public Librarian for 20 years:

  • High recognition and expressed appreciation from my own community
  • Wonderful fun times with work colleagues - laughing every day
  • A stable job, close to home, that allowed me to have a family and an enviable lifestyle without any interruption to my working life
  • An environment in which I have been able to achieve and grow professionally
  • Many many opportunities for professional learning and fellowship by attending conferences and workshops - do not underestimate the regenerative (dare I say "holiday like") powers of the stimulating conference! (My most recent Director called me the "Conference Queen"). I also completed a highly useful Grad Dip in Local Government Management.
Two trips really stand out for me - in 1995 I was part of a Rotary Group Study Exchange to Oklahoma (it's a long story), where I visited an amazingly diverse range of US libraries; and in 2004 a bus trip with colleagues visiting New Zealand libraries with John Stanley was very motivational.

And most recently, recognition for an innovation I can truly claim a substantial stake in, the Youth Library/Youth Lounge model verbYL (let's hope that one doesn't come back to bite me!)

So, I Lost My Job. So did a lot of other Public Librarians in amalgamating councils. And in deference to all those in the same situation, I'm actually feeling a bit guilty that I got another one - straight away. I've been appointed as Manager Library Services for the new amalgamated Council. But it's an interim and temporary position until the newly elected Council decides what it wants to do. As long as I can meet the challenge with honesty and integrity, I'm happy, even if in the long run I don't retain this position. But I'm optimistic - our family has reached the point where a change of locale would not be catastrophic - it could even be a welcome change - so whatever happens, it's all good.

Je ne regrette rien.