New Interview Series – LIS people you never knew existed!

As 2014 promises fresh starts and turning of new and innovative pages, The ALIA New Graduates Group has gone underground to interview Library and Info people in the community you might not of heard of, are doing wonderful work and undertaking projects that make working in our industry all that more exciting around Australia and abroad. 

Our first instalment takes a deep look into the life of Yan a Educational Nurse turned Public Librarian. She talks about her passion for books and multicultural communities and the reason why we need to be working for our communities throughout the incredible technological changes. 

Name: Yan

Current position: Information Access Librarian

Have you always been a librarian? What was your first profession?
No, I wasn’t a librarian from the start. My first professional job was an educational nurse in a health department in Shanghai. My main job was to promote information and public education for children and women’s health. Later on I moved to a management role which provided me great opportunities in developing organisational and thinking skills.

Why did you choose librarianship?
Language, or rather, my mother tongue used to be my utmost strength and it enabled me to work as a qualified journalist and an editor in charge before coming to Australia. Then ironically it became the biggest problem for me. To overcome this challenge, I had to start everything from scratch.

I went to my local public library a lot at the time – to find learning materials and also to borrow books to read. Some librarians there were very friendly. I loved reading ever since I was a child. So when my language skills improved in time, naturally I began thinking of becoming a librarian. But I wasn’t confident.  I enrolled myself into a TAFE course for a start while doing my first post graduate studies at Sydney Uni. Fortunately enough I was offered a job at a public library at the same time that  gave me confidence to develop various new skills. When I finished my second post graduate studies – Information and Library Management, I’d already worked in a library for many years and had enough experience and knowledge to move on.

The other motivation for working in a public library was that I wanted to know more about Australia and its culture. A public library was like a big window for me to see through and also it was like an entry to an unknown world where I could explore. Meanwhile I could use my literature knowledge and skills to enhance my professional learning. At the beginning of my new professional career certain things were challenging. However I like challenging myself to a certain degree so that I could develop more confidence. I felt that life would be more interesting if I had to push myself a little hard.

What types of “traditional” librarian skills do you rely on and how do you apply them to your workplace?
It was almost 15 years ago that I’ve started working in a public library. Since then I’ve worked in four different public libraries, small and large. I have seen and experienced a lot of changes in the industry. Some changes happened gradually and some dramatically.

I think so called ‘traditional’ skills you can take customer service for example.  It doesn’t matter what has happened to the library industry, we still serve and interact with people  just like our predecessors in the old days. The differences are the tools and systems we use. In addition, now we are seeing a much larger multicultural community emerge in Australia, which requires stronger cultural knowledge as well as sophisticated customer service skills.

The other skill is about reading and books. Regardless of what kinds of technological formats we’ve developed, reading and books are still needed in public libraries. Parramatta City Library carried out  a user survey last year. People actually ticked the library collection needs as the 1st priority when asking which  type of services they needed. Therefore skills that enable us to identify information needs, to select and retrieve information/books are very  relevant in today’s services. You don’t need to memorise entire Dewey Numbers or other cataloguing methods, but surely you need to know your collection and know where to find them, whether onsite or online.

Also broad knowledge of what’s going on in the world and knowledge of literature are equally helpful for library services. 

How do you connect with others in your profession? – twitter, social meet ups, other?
There are a lot of ways to connect with others – professional conferences, twitter, blogs, working group meetings, etc.  I have used most of those means to connect with others. I started blogging in the early days and was hands on with most of the popular social media tools. Also I have subscribed to some journals or mailing lists online, such as Library Link of the Day and other mailing lists from the State Library of NSW.

What advice would you give others who are studying and never worked within a Library before?
I could only suggest from my personal experience:

You can go to  different types of libraries, public, academic and special, and  observe the working environment. This will help you to understand what’s happening out there and what type of library that you’re more interested in. Working with passion and enthusiasm is always better than just working for a career.

Then you can talk with staff there and find out about  the opportunities and challenges. I call this is a preparatory process. Knowing a place is always better than blind entry. Developing professional skills, including those we regard as traditional ones as I’ve mentioned earlier on, and also realise the inevitable changes around us, especially technological changes.

Also one needs to be aware of changes in scales bigger than the library world. For examples, generational changing of reading habits, changes to information accessibility, and other competitive aspects of information retrieval.

Also you might have to start your career from a junior point  and it is perhaps not what you expected. But this will enable you to get your foot into the door and  it will provide substantial experience and skills. There is no such thing as a bad job, every job builds up your confidence, skills and resilience.

People skills are of the utmost importance in any workplace, in the library industry in particular. It’s all about customers, and their needs.

It’s also about teamwork. Therefore, effective communication, whether with others, professionals or otherwise, will enable you to build realistic perspectives towards people. You can overcome disappointment and stay positive, even in the worst situations.

What is the most challenging aspect of your current position and how do you handle that? What is your advice for others in the same situation?
As a library professional, we have been facing a lot of challenges for a long time already, e.g. change reading habits, rapid development of technologies, things such as mobile technology changes the way we access information. I personally think the biggest challenge is the ever changing information landscape that causes anxiety and uncertainty in the industry. It has affected the direction of the future. It seems to me that we’re more reactive and trying to catch up with everything that is out there, instead on a leading role as we used to. All I can suggest is to keep an open mind and continue lifelong learning, and update our skills for future adaptation.

At Parramatta City Library we have programs on author talks, health talks, but we also have a lot classes and drop in sessions for technology, from social media, to APPs, to mobile techs, to skype, to digital TV and radio, to online business  all of which is run by the library staff. We also  have  exhibitions. The Library also has established  partnership programs with organizations such as Sydney Architecture Festival, the local Migrant Resources Centre, social enterprises, as well as other council departments. All those programs need different types of skills, such as  organizing, planning, managing and implementation.

Moreover we need future leaders for the industry. If you have ambition, ideas, and management skills, should have a vision for the future.

Do you anticipate any big changes in the industry over the coming years, how will this impact on your role?
I think the changes have already been happening since the invention of internet, google search and social media. It doesn’t matter whether we love them or not, we basically have no choice but to adapt to those changes.

The industry adapts slowly. For example we’ve just started RDA from AACR2. However we’ve seen more and more libraries open themselves up to  social media, and to catch up with technologies that can help us survive.

All those changes have great impact on all of us, to name only few  – outsourcing, restructuring, developing new programs for the community, and using social media for instant communication, and recently the bouncing backwards and forwards of ebook lending issues. Should we toss all of our print books out and wait for ebooks to takeover, it is still arguable. However books will always be there, in various formats. I truly believe print books will coexist with eformats, based on human reading behaviour.

Regarding myself, I’m not afraid of any changes. On the contrary I like change and like new ideas. It is fun and interesting that we can learn different things, and develop new skills, much better than  doing the same thing, over and over again, for your entire life.

In the past few years, my position hasn’t changed but the practice has moved from static tasks such as selection, readers advisory promotion by making bookmarks, brochures, and reading lists to a much wider range of programs, eg, developing programs to cater for community lifelong learning, and developing social media sites to providing multi platforms for user information access. Also I’ve developed strategies to engage  local communities with other organizations. There have been two more information Access positions created in last few years, because information access is no longer a one person job any more. Now we have a team of staff working closely with all other teams in developing new ideas, programs and outreach to the community as well.

What would you like to see Libraries doing in the future?
I’d like to see libraries do not only catch up waves but be in the front, on top of waves, and to drive waves. I’d like to see libraries being creative and inventive.

Also I’d like to see libraries keep some ‘traditional’ ways for people with diverse needs, for examples, to have spaces for people who want to read real books, to stay quiet to contemplate surrounded by books, as well as to have a chance to meet others. I’d like to see libraries evolve but not become something else that is completely outside of the concept of the ‘library’.

If you have any questions for Yan about anything that she has mentioned post a comment here or sent a tweet @ALIANGG.

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