Beth Tapster, University of Sheffield

IMG_1589My name is Beth Tapster, I currently work at both the University of Leeds Library, as a Customer Service Assistant, and Leeds Beckett University Library, as a Principal Information Assistant. Since September I’ve also been studying part time for my MA.

You can follow Beth on Twitter @btapster

How did you first get into the information and library profession?

By chance really-I was a single mum of a 4 year old, looking for a job that fitted into school hours and wasn’t completely soul destroying. I was lucky enough to get a part time assistant position in my local public library (5 minutes walk from school!). I worked there for just under 4 years and absolutely loved it, despite the many challenges. It showed me that working with people to meet their information needs and develop their information skills is a hugely important and satisfying job, and that it really fits with my personal skills and interests. I moved out of public libraries and into HE about a year ago, and this allowed me to start thinking about pursuing the qualification.


What qualifications are you taking?

I’m doing Sheffield University’s new distance learning course, MA Library and Information Services Management. I started in September and will be doing it part time over 3 years.


What else are you doing alongside your qualification?

I have two part time jobs, and I also have two children, aged 8 and 2, who tend to consume any remaining time and energy I have after working and studying! I try and do as much extra CPD type stuff as I can, whilst attempting to conserve a bit of a family life too-it’s a tricky balance. I go to conferences, training, and visits whenever I can, follow and participate in professional discussions on Twitter, and attempt to read as much of the vast amounts of interesting and relevant library related material online as I possibly can. I also have a long list of MOOCs that I’ve signed up for in the hope that I will have a chance to do them over the summer!

I feel a bit guilty about not doing more, especially not being on any committees etc. but I think that may have to wait until I’ve finished the course as I’d say I’m pretty much at capacity already… In non library world, I also help to run a gardening club at my daughter’s school, look after our ridiculous number of animals, and occasionally like to go out for a bit of a dance with friends!


If working – What does your job involve?

My two jobs are fairly different, and the two universities have quite different cultures, student demographics and histories, which is very interesting. One role is as a weekend customer services assistant, with supervisory responsibilities. This involves answering student queries in person and by email, dealing with stock, drawing up staff rotas, training new staff and making sure users are observing our behaviour guidelines (which, it pains me to admit, does occasionally involve actual ‘shushing’…). My other role is as a senior assistant in Collections and Acquisitions. It is a lot more office based, taking responsibility for checking and ordering books and e books from suppliers, liaising with academic librarians, inputting reading lists and doing a fair bit of fiddling with Excel spreadsheets. I also spend some time working on the library help desk in this role too, which is nice as I do really enjoy the ‘helping people’ aspect of library work. In both jobs I also try to get involved with as many different projects and activities as possible, helping with pop up library and freshers fair stalls, attending development events and training sessions, and shadowing members of staff to find out what other teams are up. When you’re a library assistant in a large organisation, your role often has a very narrow focus and it can be easy to get quite trapped in that. I think it’s quite important to try and create as many opportunities as possible to broaden your experience if you’re wanting to pursue a library career, although this can be tricky to balance with your own job. However, the advantage of being part of a big library team is that there are lots of people to talk to, with a wide range of experience and expertise.


Can you describe a “typical week”?

Generally a bit of a hectic blur! Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning I work in my collections role, prioritising and dealing with the order requests we’ve received, then working through my other tasks and doing my help desk shifts. I try to do a bit of studying in the evenings but often find that after a day of work followed by childcare pick ups/swimming lessons/tea time rigmarole and bedtimes I’m not in a great state for it. Wednesday afternoons and evenings I don’t work but do have childcare and my partner does all the pick ups etc., so I put in solid stretch of studying at one of the university libraries (I find it impossible to work at home-too many distractions). Thursdays I’m on childcare duty all day and with a 2 year old this doesn’t allow for much else, so I tend to try to ignore libraries altogether-apart from when we go to our local story time! Tellingly, Thursday evenings are usually my least productive as chasing my toddler is generally far more tiring than library work… Friday mornings I work in my customer service role, then the afternoon I have for studying again. I work alternate weekends, which are either hectic or quite quiet, depending on where we are in the academic year. My non-work weekends have also been quite hectic recently, especially around coursework deadlines as I have really needed this extra time to get my work done. I’m already looking forward to having a bit of a break in the summer!


What advice would you give to anyone starting their studies?

Definitely be as sure as you can be that this is the career you want to pursue-get as much experience working in libraries as possible before starting the course. Talk to people who have done the course that you are considering, find out how it was for them and whether they would recommend it. There seems to be quite a lot of variation in the material covered by the different universities-find out everything you can about the course before you enroll, speak to the staff and students, make sure it covers the topics that are important to you for your future career and the things that you are interested in and care about. The MA is a huge investment in terms of time, energy and money, and I honestly don’t think I would be able to manage it if I didn’t feel a tingle of excitement when I look at the content of each module (sad I know!). Get to know other library students, either in person or online, especially if you’re on a distance course-it’s good to have that support network and have people to rant to when things get tough.


What skills do you think are most important for today’s information and library professionals?

In terms of specific skills, I think a lot very much depends on the sector you want to pursue. I find it really interesting how wide a range of roles can be covered by the job title ‘librarian’-from the emphasis on community engagement in public libraries, to the technicalities of research support roles in the academic sector. Digital skills, or at least a willingness to learn and try new things, are obviously going to be important throughout. People skills and communication, whether it’s dealing with ‘the community’ in all its many and varied forms, supporting students, or engaging with researchers, are vital. Personally, I also think that belief in and commitment to the ethics and values that underpin librarianship are very important. The profession is facing a lot of challenges across all sectors, and there will obviously be a huge amount of changes throughout our working lives. A clear sense of purpose, and understanding of what library and information professionals can contribute to society as a whole, seems like an important foundation for getting through all that the next decades may throw at us!


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