by Megan Wiley
Since August 2009 I have been an Information Specialist in the University of Bristol Careers Service. I have chosen this topic because as a newly qualified librarian working outside a library for the first time, I was struck by the need to market my team’s services and professionalism to our immediate colleagues in the careers service. Students and graduates use careers services in a very different way to an academic library, with many being unaware the service exists at all, let alone understanding the help an information team could offer. Information resources will probably never be the key draw for our users, which makes it even more essential that our colleagues, particularly careers advisers, recognise our worth and can promote us to both users and management.
I work alongside some people who have no conception of what a librarian is or does – a very different situation to when I worked in university libraries. Indeed, I completed my MSc nine months after I started working in the careers services and – despite often talking about my dissertation – found that some of my colleagues had no idea what I was studying or that it had any relevance to my role. To some extent, they do not need to know this, but it did make me realise how different my own perception of my role might be to theirs. This could be an advantage as it means I cannot assume others in the team are aware of my work and skills, as I might do if I worked in a more traditional setting. This raises a question of relevance to all information workers, qualified or unqualified, in any sector: are you communicating your value as clearly as you could be? From my own perspective, many Higher Education (HE) careers services do not employ qualified librarians and several are making cuts, so this issue seems more pertinent than ever.
HE careers services and AGCAS
UK HE careers services vary greatly in terms of staff numbers and responsibilities. Whereas my own service has around 30 full time equivalent staff, I have met people who are the sole employee in their careers service and some services are much larger. As such, generalisations are difficult, but services tend to focus upon the key areas of employer liaison (which might include attendance at careers fairs, other events and vacancy listings), advice and guidance (often including one-to-one meetings with careers advisers and workshops) and some information provision, although this can range from a website to a relatively large collection of print resources, depending on service priorities and staffing levels. Careers services also usually collect data from graduates for the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. Most cater not only for current students but also graduates, although levels of support vary.
We also field a number of questions from prospective students, attend University events such as open days, and provide a limited service for graduates from other universities too.
The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) is the professional association for HE careers practitioners. Similarly to CILIP, they provide training and relevant qualifications for staff, hold events and opportunities for networking, accredit services and represent the industry. Information is embedded within this with an active Careers Information Specialists Group (CISG), careers information officer mailing list and a specialised qualification in careers information. I utilised this network myself to send out a survey asking for information about different services, including: the number of staff both overall and within the information team; whether anyone in the team had a CILIP-accredited qualification; attitudes towards CILIP membership; how valued they feel by their colleagues; what they do to actively promote their team’s work to colleagues; how they perceive their role within their service and their work with immediate colleagues outside the information team. I received 50 responses which have helped to clarify, confirm and challenge my own perspective.
What do careers information staff do?
As with careers services in general, there is no typical information team. Responses to my survey demonstrate that information workers have varied roles and, as some of their job titles indicate, many have responsibility not just for resources but other areas including employer liaison, vacancy listings and the DLHE survey. The variety of responsibilities and division of labour described by my respondents confirmed that there is no single approach.
I have identified several key differences between my current role and what I perceive to be more traditional librarianship roles in academic libraries. The main one is that I am nearly always front-facing and so spend a lot of time helping with reception-type queries such as basic questions about event bookings or the service in general. Many careers services do not have library management system and instead use Web 2.0 technologies such as tagging and social bookmarking. The website is often the key resource and physical stock is often relatively sparse or even non-existent. One reason for this is the fact that the majority of students will never come into the building and graduates tend to live further afield. Another is that our stock has to be reviewed and updated very regularly, since careers information quickly become obsolete, so the need for weeding and new acquisitions is near constant. I attend regular cross-team meetings such as the Publicity Group and Employer Group to ensure we are working well across our teams and promoting our services effectively, and most of the respondents to my survey talked about similar working practices. We also have a lot of contact with our Employer Services Team, including the provision of regular tours for visiting employers – a commercial aspect to our role. In our service the relationship with careers advisers is a key one, as they refer students to see us and have input into our stock development. Although we also do ‘traditional’ work such as basic cataloguing and classification, handling complex enquiries and delivering information literacy training, it can be difficult to unpick the information within our roles and focus on this, as many of my respondents agreed.
Are we seen as admin?
I think the issue of being perceived as admin is a common concern for many librarians and information staff. However it is arguably a particular issue in careers services, since if your colleagues perceive you in this way it can have an effect on the work you are given, or feel able to prioritise.
Several respondents expressed frustration that their role was not fully understood or that they were seen by colleagues as “a generic admin role”, “receptionists”, were “treated like secretaries”, or expected to deal with “mundane, trivial matters and tasks” such as broken photocopiers. Some of this is due to the range of the role and the necessity to undertake a variety of tasks, not just information-specific ones. This is not always imposed from outside, as one respondent talked about information staff feeling “unhappy at being asked to take on an information role as they were originally employed as admin staff”. Another person described the difficulty of proving value to colleagues without the support of the entire information team.
I asked people how valued they felt they were by their immediate colleagues outside the information team and of those who answered this question the responses were: very highly (10); quite highly (17); unsure (4), not very (3). Whilst some people feel they are already doing all they can to raise their profile, this mixed response suggests that there is more we could be doing to demonstrate our worth.
Online developments: pros and cons
One area described by many of my respondents as their key focus is the updating and development of their website. As in most library services, I have already noted that online information is increasingly central to careers work. Another reason for this is lack of staff time to update and develop both print and online resources, particularly in services where only one person is looking after information or people have many other responsibilities too. Some respondents to my survey feel that this has enabled them to raise their profile within their services, whereas others expressed concern that the increasing predominance of online information might reduce the need for information staff or threaten our existence.
One of my respondents described how much “information research has disappeared from the role” due to the availability of information online, whereas I would argue that this has actually increased the need for information staff to help organise and navigate an overwhelming amount of information. This is a point commonly made by librarians but it often needs reemphasising. I have been asked directly more than once by students “what can you tell me that I can’t find online?” and it has been important than I can articulate this. Similarly, some of our careers advisers are confident using the Internet and may not come to us for help if they don’t think we will offer anything further.
Are careers services all about advice and guidance?
In my service, as in many others, much of our more detailed enquiry work comes to us through careers advisers after they have met with students. This is perhaps one reason why information staff can suffer from what one respondent labels “status anxiety”. My survey results confirmed a common concern that advice and guidance may enjoy a higher profile. As I have outlined, it is what most students associate with careers and anyone working in a careers service will be able to tell you about students insistent that they need to see an adviser when their query is “can I have a list of dental surgeries in Kent?”. From my own experience, information teams do tend to be smaller than their advice counterparts and directors of services are themselves often advisers by training. Information staff are also generally paid less, as more than one respondent mentioned. Perhaps for all these reasons information work can sometimes be seen as a stepping stone to advice work rather than a career in its own right. One respondent spoke of “the idea that the main career aspiration should be to become a careers adviser – it’s definitely not in my case!”. It is also probably more common for careers advisers to be professionally qualified than their information counterparts and this may add to a perception that they have higher status. However I also had many positive responses about teams who disputed that this was an issue and I think that the responsibility for redressing any imbalance lies with information staff, who need to be clear about their own value.
Professional qualifications and CILIP membership
I feel that there is an obvious overlap between ‘traditional’ librarianship skills and careers information work. I believe that our ability to organise information and present it in the most appropriate form is a specialist skill shared by all information professionals. So although it is rare for careers services to be utilising cataloguing standards, for example, this is because they have adapted the essential skills of the profession for their own environment. Yet a number of the respondents to my survey who do not have a professional qualification stressed that they do not identify as librarians and could see no relation between the two areas of work. I suspect that this has more to do with misperceptions of librarianship than anything else, but it does raise the issue of how ‘professional’ careers information roles are in general.
Of the 50 responses I had to my survey, 17 people said they work in services where none of the information staff are professionally qualified. The majority of these were from post-1992 universities (10 of 17 respondents), whereas only 3 of the 19 respondents from Russell Group institutions said the same. 41 people answered the second part of my survey and of these only 11 were CILIP members. Some had been members and left and many feel that it is not relevant to their current role and that the support offered by AGCAS is enough. Whilst the strength of the AGCAS network is evident from the number of responses I gained to my survey, I believe that CILIP could be doing more to engage this group of information workers and that it does offer something additional.
The fact that a professional qualification is not a given and many people are not CILIP members could be another reason why information staff in careers services sometimes struggle to maintain focus on the ‘information’ element of their role. Whilst I do not believe that professionally qualified staff are inherently better at their jobs, I do think that being part of a professional information organisation provides you with a wider perspective of information work, whilst helping you to recognise your specialist skills and how best to promote them. So, although much of the work I do is not obviously ‘professional’, I feel that my membership of CILIP and networking with other information professionals help to remind me of the importance of identifying the information aspects of my role and to keep these in the foreground. As my qualification was an essential requirement of my role, I perhaps have more scope than others to focus on this. It is important to remember though that the management of my service, or the wider University, could decide at any point to review the necessity for a professional qualification, just as a couple of respondents to my survey are doing themselves.
Why pay a professional?
Whilst I think that being qualified and a CILIP member are advantageous to me, why would any service bother to pay a professional librarian in a sector where so many people do not have that background? I would argue that the wider professional knowledge that I gained from my course is also of benefit to my organisation, as it means I am aware of a context to my work beyond the immediate one. Collection development and management are skills that are definitely enhanced by a library qualification. Even if your course, like mine, does not include a significant practical element, it still provides you with an appreciation of the key principles behind this kind of work. Your ability to apply these to your own setting is key, yet this is exactly the sort of work that may not be noticed or understood by non-library colleagues.
However, what I consider to be misperceptions about traditional librarians expressed by some careers information staff are potentially damaging not only for them but for the wider information profession. For example, one of my respondents felt that their employer would be likely to remove the need for a professional qualification for the role in the future and a manager described their reluctance to hire qualified staff who they imagined might view the Internet with “trepidation”. New professionals have a key role to play here in articulating the value they could bring to a service and challenging stereotypes. In careers services, as in many special library settings, managers (and even information managers) are not necessarily professionally qualified themselves and so may not see the point in hiring someone who is. It is also essential that those of us already working in this environment recognise and demonstrate our unique skills as information professionals.
As I have outlined, many of my respondents talked enthusiastically about the variety of their roles but also expressed concern about this. The generic skills we offer are important and without our ability to contribute to different tasks and teams outside our information work we would not be contributing effectively to our services. Nonetheless, we need to make sure that we understand what we offer as information staff that nobody else can. Many of my respondents expressed concern about cuts and staff losses, either impending or already happening, and there is a danger that if we cannot articulate our value we will be seen as dispensable or replaceable by someone on a lower pay grade.
Keeping in touch with colleagues
It is up to us to make sure our colleagues recognise the work we do (whether we are qualified or not) and value it, by telling them about it. However, this is not as straightforward as it perhaps sounds. I am fortunate to work in a service where my professional qualification is recognised, my manager and colleague are also qualified, and I am being encouraged to get involved with professional development opportunities such as Chartership. My wider team are supportive and appreciative of the work I do yet, even in this fortunate situation, it is not necessarily the case that they understand what I spend all day doing. I can identify with one respondent to my survey, who said: “I feel that my skills are valued but unsure whether these are identified as being part of my ‘information’ skills”.
We try to regularly communicate our activities to our colleagues and we always provide new staff with an induction, just as many other careers services describe. Yet the difference with a traditional library setting is well illustrated by an exchange with a colleague a few months ago, who revealed they did not know what I was talking about when I mentioned our library management system, as they had forgotten that we had an online catalogue at all. As someone who adds or amends records on there almost daily, this was unthinkable to me, yet why should a member of staff working exclusively with employers be expected to remember? Much information work can be invisible and the majority of respondents to my survey recognised this and described using meetings, newsletters, demos and email to inform their colleagues about what they do. I agree that these are all important activities but I suspect that we need to go further to try to help our colleagues understand more about the nature of our work and its value.
Some of my respondents were extremely positive about their status in their respective services. However, of these, many were members of small teams who felt that everyone knew what they were doing anyway – an assumption I would challenge. Of the others, one person had introduced an enquiry form to professionalise their research process and raise its profile amongst the careers advisers. We have done this in my own service and have found that it has increased usage of our team by colleagues who had not previously realised the level of research we could offer. We are also now using a Word template to respond to users and we copy our emails to the relevant careers adviser, as well as keeping records of the sort of enquiries we have tackled. One respondent’s service sends out a weekly summary of research to all advisers, not just the one who requested help, which is an interesting model. Volumes of email are high in most work environments now, but I can see the advantage of circulating this type of information.
One of the other key areas of our work is keeping resources current. This is perhaps also one of the most difficult elements to explain to our colleagues. Although they are quick to notice if a link is broken or a folder contains outdated information, it is rarely practical to describe the process of identifying, acquiring, describing and placing a new resource to someone who is not involved in the process. Yet drawing attention to new resources and updated information is definitely important and many services are making use of social media to do this, often ostensibly for the benefit of users but with the added bonus that colleagues will also notice. One example from my survey that I thought went some way to addressing this was a service who have held a ‘day in the life’ event at a staff training day to demonstrate to colleagues exactly how they approach their work and what is involved in information work. This potentially both demystifies and elevates the work of the team. It is obviously impractical to repeat such exercises regularly, and they depend on the interest of the wider team – and management buy-in – but opportunities like this should be seized and remind us not to make assumptions about our colleagues’ understanding.
Relevance to other information services
In summary, it is important for all information professionals to recognise their value, actively demonstrate and articulate this to colleagues and fully utilise the professional networks available to them. Even if you work in a library environment surrounded by qualified colleagues you cannot assume that they understand what you are doing if you have never told them. Plus just as my colleague forgot that we had a library catalogue, your colleagues cannot be expected to remember what you do on a day-to-day basis. As the careers service example demonstrates it is important to consider what you are articulating and how, so that your colleagues feel involved and hopefully appreciate your work but also have the opportunity to give you feedback. It’s something that we still have not got right in my own team but that we continue to work on. In a time of cuts the support of your colleagues is a key first step to ensuring that your organisation recognises your worth.
If your attitude to your work is that it is ‘for your eyes only’, then you may be failing to demonstrate your worth. In any sector or working environment, I would argue that puts you at risk and reduces the chance of you working most effectively with your colleagues.
Information Specialist – Careers Service, University of Bristol