Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #07d: Across Library Sectors – Public, Law and Local Government Department

For this month’s topic, Across Library Sectors, we are bringing you a week of blog posts in which people share their experiences of working in different library sectors. Our third post of the week is from Clare, whose career has taken her across the library universe from public libraries, to law, to a local government department, and then law again.

Thanks to Clare for writing for us. Join us on Tuesday 9 July between 6.30 & 8.30pm UK time for the #uklibchat. (you can add your questions to the agenda here).

Public to Law to Local Government Department and Back to Law Again

Before my library degree, I spent a couple of years in public libraries. The manager knew of my career interest and was keen for me to get experience in all departments. Over that period I was placed in local history/reference sections, branch libraries, children’s and schools services, mobile, bibliographic services as well as on the general enquiry and issue desk. This invaluable pre-University experience demonstrated quickly that personality mattered as much as acquired library skills.

For me the fundamental requirement is to please the customer: from reassuring a worried member of the public about the loss of a book; or resolving a frustrated caller’s problem in tracking down the right person; to understanding the urgency of a commercial query. No matter what sector you’re in, the customer should remain the primary focus and how you serve them is most important.

My career in legal librarianship I see as two parts; pre and post local government. Given that I was one of those rare people who chartered whilst in law, it felt like I’d made a real choice. Therefore before 2005 I assumed I was only ‘fit’ for commercial law roles so I’d never really considered moving out. Also my interest lay primarily in research, writing guides, being a ‘fee earner’ and helping clients directly so I appreciated such a ‘hands on’, non-managerial post in a public or university library would not pay well. Part of your career development is learning where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and previous practical and theoretical experience had taught me I am not a manager of people or of ‘overarching themes’. I am most happy getting on with the practical work either ‘alone’ or within a small library.

After 10 years in London law firms, a quirk of timing and fate led me to the role of Information Officer for the Department for Children & Young People in South Gloucestershire. Before the move, I was aiming for a more familiar role in legal but surprisingly the local council were keen to make use of my skills. The remit was very much ‘getting the information out there’ to teachers, youth, health, nursery workers and all the people involved with local children and young people.

The key problems I faced were primarily:

  • A diverse and mostly offsite workforce, most with no computer access
  • No central information repository
  • No consistent way of sending out information
  • Lack of trust

In law firms I found that visibility and face to face communications are the best way to engage users and build trust so I spent a lot of time meeting people in the community, asking a lot of questions and talking about what I had planned. Asking people what they want isn’t enough, you need to have ideas, detailed plans and get feedback. My plan was simple and successful:

  • Set up an easily searchable online public access database of grey material
  • Provide daily current awareness to all users, in many formats
  • Be on call to answer queries and find anything users required
  • Make use of existing technologies to communicate; newsletters, intranet, internet, talks, sign language, video
  • Simplify all documents from central office with keywords, abstracts etc
  • Let all users know that we were listening in central office, and be visible
  • Network and make contact with useful people in other council departments

I was there in the wake of Every Child Matters where the government department concerned was sending out crucial material on a regular, almost daily basis. It was a time of change with emphasis on joined up thinking amongst all the department’s sections. Therefore when senior people were going out to brief teams, they needed to be up to date and aware of policies and initiatives in related areas. As far as I was concerned this was no different from ensuring lawyers are briefed about industry matters that affect a particular client or group of clients.

My approachability and determination to assist users in their difficult work were appreciated, and as a result I was popular in not only my department but in the council’s legal and housing services too. However as is the case in law firms, sometimes other support services see you as competition or a threat to the status quo. On occasions I questioned the efficiency of certain ways of working and was told ‘that is the way it has always been done’. I was fortunate because I reported directly to head of section and was supported. She recognised my commercial experience and customer focus was a breath of fresh air in a local council environment.

I returned to London and legal librarianship due to changes in circumstance, basically the countryside wasn’t for me. This post-local government information experience gave me a different perspective on my role. The two law firms I’ve been at since 2007 benefitted from my time away from the law for a number of reasons:

  • Resources – I’m far more appreciative of the resources available to commercial firms and the support that we get from publishers
  • Costs – the economic turndown finally hit law firm budgets in 2008-10 and it has taken a while to recover but I was already in a ‘savings mind set’ because I’d already experienced savings mania whilst in local government
  • Challenges – what I was doing in local government was quite unprecedented and I was feeling my way every day. This was both liberating and terrifying but I made many friends in that sector

The legal sector is entering a time of exciting change but the confidence I have in my proven flexibility and different sector experience ensures that I am ready for anything.  I would not hesitate to recommend that information workers step outside their sectors and embrace any opportunities given.

Clare Brown



About spoontragedy

Former public library Children's Librarian, now working as a Careers Information Officer in a London university. Nearly finished being an #aberils student.

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