My name is Kate Parr, and I’m currently the Archives & Local Studies Supervisor for the South West Heritage Trust, which means I manage the local studies library and also the public search room. I came to Local Studies kind of by accident, because in my old job nobody wanted to do it, so being bloody-minded I thought I’d give it a go! My current job involves quite a bit of archival knowledge but my background is in libraries: I started as a Saturday Assistant in Exeter, tried going to university full time but it didn’t really work for me, so I came home and went back to work. I’ve done a bit of everything: children’s, performing arts, academic, bibliographic and support services, and I managed a small branch library for a few years. After an immense learning curve trying to get all the local studies knowledge into my head, we moved to the Somerset Heritage Centre where we run a combined archives & local studies service, and I feel like my feet haven’t touched the ground since!
How did you first get into the information and library profession?
I knew when I was 12 years old that libraries were the perfect place for me. I probably couldn’t have said why at the time: now I think it’s because there was order, and a ‘right answer’, and for someone like me with Asperger’s Syndrome, that was a blessed relief from people, where there was very often not a right answer, or one that I understood. At 16 I got a part time job in a big central library, and the routines and order acted as a kind of safety net while I worked out how to handle customers. I find now that the customer service element, where what we do can look like magic to those uninitiated into the mysteries of Dewey, is very satisfying, and my favourite part of the job.
What qualifications are you taking?
I have just completed my BA (Hons) in Humanities with a specialism in Religious Studies with the Open University. As of September I’ve been working on an MSc in Information and Library Studies with Robert Gordon, Aberdeen. Once I complete the second year I’m hoping to work towards chartership with CILIP.
What else are you doing alongside your qualification?
In terms of pastimes, I’m a keen geocacher, though my enthusiasm is often greater than my skill! I’m an avid film and TV fan, particularly sci-fi. Almost inevitably I love reading, and as well as reading some of the books on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list I give over my break times at work to read books from my own library: I just finished Draining of the Somerset Levels and am now on The Early Years of the Ordnance Survey.
In terms of work, I sit on the SWRLS Local Studies group which meets bi-annually and I find is a fantastic way of networking with other librarians, which is just a fancy word for friendship and support, but also sharing best practice and organising training: we’re running a session on copyright for local studies librarians in the Spring which should be very useful.
What does your job involve?
My job is sort of split in two: I have my library, and I also manage the public search room. Our search room contains about the best third of the Somerset Studies Library, and we’re open to the public five days a week. I would say a good half of our customers have never visited before, so a lot of my job is hosting, helping overcome their shyness or their lack of confidence, and acting as a mediator between them and the archive and local studies documents. As manager of the library I hold the library budget and am responsible for maintenance, binding, stock-checking…all the usual things you do in a library but with a specific focus on the historic county of Somerset.
I have also developed a crack team of volunteers: in the heritage sector volunteers don’t work on core activities, they perform added value tasks like the listing of very large collections that we could never get to. My team are working on about 5 different projects, including creating a place-name index of Somerset newspapers, listing our ephemera files and digitising a collection of 40,000 35mm negatives. They’re a dedicated bunch and we’d be lost without them!
Can you describe a “typical week”?
Out of my five working days, typically three of those will be in the search room helping customers and answering personal, email or telephone enquiries. We all have background tasks, and one of mine at the moment is cataloguing our vast collection of aerial photographs. The fourth day will often be spent doing archive accessions. That leaves the fifth day for the library! That’s when I get all my new book processing done, can answer any longer enquiries, and crucially attend any meetings, either in the Centre or at other sites. Because of everyone’s different commitments no two weeks are ever the same, and even my three search room days can be wildly different depending on the visitors’ needs.
What advice would you give to anyone starting their studies?
Ask for help. My managers have been wonderful supporting me through my studies, they recognise the worth of having someone professionally trained, and if you don’t ask, because you’re afraid or feel like you’re being a bit cheeky, you’ll never get anything.
Don’t get freaked out by a) the other students, some of whom will want to spend all their time extolling their own academic virtues and b) the materials, which may seem so complicated and irrelevant to your day to day work. For the former, do your own thing, join in discussions when you’re comfortable and stick to the side-lines when you’re not, your tutor is there to guide and support you, be open about what is right for you. And for the latter, I have found that so much of the course is based on a typical academic library, and while mine can be loosely termed a research library, some of what they’re talking about will just never happen. That’s OK, just go with it.
What skills do you think are most important for today’s information and library professionals?
The world of libraries is changing so fast. I honestly think library schools should be looking at core transferable skills, and I was delighted to see that customer service skills, reading your customer and supporting them fully was the first thing we covered. Library services just can’t afford to have teams of professional cataloguers and stock librarians, so much is being cascaded down to operational staff. I think that good communication skills are so important, both so that professional staff can communicate with their staff, but also so they can get out from behind their desk and communicate with users. These days you have to be able to do everything, to be everything. Willingness to both accept and pre-empt change. Libraries must adapt or they will die out, and the heart of libraries are the staff.