Already in my library career I have worked across 3 different library sectors, starting out in public libraries, migrating over to academic libraries and currently in the health library sector. Within those separate sectors I also had the opportunity to work across many different library sites, and always saw the benefit in being able to cross over my knowledge gained from one library to another. For me, having worked in several different library sectors already, it has become second nature to cross ideas over from each library background and to follow and new and interesting developments in my old sectors to gain inspiration for my current projects.
In my current role however I discovered that this was not the case with many people, and whilst library staff were extremely competent at following their own sector developments and looking to their peers for guidance and innovation, they were failing to explore any other library sectors. In such challenging and changing times for libraries this is an ideal time for library staff to cross the boundaries of library sectors to create new and exciting services and projects and truly collaborate with each other.
When I initially sat down to take note of all the different sectors and organisations open to library professionals, it was truly incredible to note the sheer variety. I myself can hold my hand up and admit that I have never explored some sectors feeling that they probably had nothing of interest to offer me in the development of my own service as they would be worlds apart, yet for the purpose of this exploration into collaborative working I decided to contact current library professionals working in environments I had no experience in and to explore these sectors myself to essentially discover:
- What happens in different library environments?
- What similarities are there?
- What collaborative projects are already taking place between library sectors?
Exploring the sectors
Prison or Public?
Prison libraries are a challenging environment to work in, for all the obvious security reasons as well as having an audience that have been placed in an environment they don’t want to be in. In my explorations into this sector however I found several remarkable similarities between prison and public library work, where collaboration between the two environments, and the sharing of information would be a great strength.
Literacy is a large focus in prison libraries, as highlighted by Sue Wilkinson, Chair of the CILIP Prison Libraries Group who I contacted for a deeper insight: “Many prisoners have low literacy levels, and even those who don’t are often not engaged with libraries and reading for pleasure. There is a real challenge for the prison librarian to get their users involved.” Public libraries often have many members of the community entering who have no other means to literacy skills, who do not want to study and it is here where both public and prison library environments both help users to gain reading skills. In prison libraries this also merges into helping prisoners gain employment skills for their futures, a role which public libraries can also play a crucial part in.
Reading schemes are also prevalent in many prison libraries, becoming a fantastic tool not only to boost literacy skills and prisoner involvement but also to act as a communication tool between prisoners and their families. Schemes such as the Six Book Challenge and Reading Champions have really taken off with prison audiences, and from my own experience and contact with other colleagues, had done far better than places that had run these schemes outside of prisons; it seems clear there could be much to learn from this environment. Other schemes such as Story-Time Dads, where prisoners are encouraged to read books, which are then recorded and sent home to their children, really stood out as being something that public libraries could also learn from. Engaging parents, particularly fathers, has been a key topic in public library work for years.
This highlighted that there were many similarities between these two library sectors, both in their schemes and their aims and objectives overall. There is also scope for them to collaborate; the work that goes on in prison libraries such as gaining reading skills and learning to read with their families to engage with their own children, could be continued in public libraries.
School Libraries: A lesson for us all
As part of my aim to gain a better understanding of work done in school libraries, I contacted Carol Webb, SLA School Librarian of the Year. She describes the work of the school librarian as: “One brings the knowledge of: the student; their need or task; of the curriculum; the skill required; the available information sources; the potential of technology, and blends them to provide a tailored recipe for action.” When exploring this sector, I found that, in some school environments, there was already an element of collaboration between libraries. Pupils were directed to public library homework clubs to enhance their studies and further work on the skills gained in their own school library environment. It was also interesting to see that school librarians not only taught many important study skills but also encouraged a passion for books; not just encouraging reading but creating a real interest in literature, something which many libraries could collaborate on.
It also made me think about schools without libraries and the aid of a librarian; this seemed another possible opening for local public libraries. While public libraries do work with schools on projects such as the Summer Reading Challenge, was there an opening for public libraries to offer academic services and skills, collaborating with school librarians to learn of their schemes and skills? School library experiences can often shape the future use of libraries in future academic settings for pupils, which I also found to be of interest; was this another opportunity for library collaboration between academic libraries to help encourage school users to continue on in new library environments?
Rare books and special collections: over land and sea
This was an area I was always interested to read about but had never really investigated, I decided that an ideal place to explore this sector was Cambridge University. Dr Emily Dourish, Rare Books Specialist, summed up brilliantly some of the main aspects of the job, while shattering some preconceptions about the rare book and special collection sector.Rather than being about static collections, preservation over use and a prevalence of white gloves, she shared that the job involved:
- Collaborative international information sharing
- Enabling access for everyone
- Using new technologies
It was interesting to see the outreach work that went on in the library, with many items being digitised and promoted as electronic resources, enabling parts of the collection to be viewed worldwide. With such strong movements and discussions about the digitisation of library services in all sectors, much can be learned from a sector that aims to preserve its collections by using this process. I also found it fantastic to hear about visits and collaboration between schools and the local community to really promote the collections. This was also mirrored in another special collection I explored, the library and archive services at the Brunel Institute, part of the SS Great Britain Trust.
As a current Bristol resident, I couldn’t resist exploring such a collection on a personal level, but also felt it highlighted the types of unique places that library work can be found and all the places to consider exploring when embarking on projects within your own sector. Eleni Papavasileiou, curator of library and archives was my guide to the work that goes on here. I was fascinated and more than a little surprised to hear about the collection discovering that:
The 67,000 items housed in the Brunel Institute make up one of the world’s leading maritime collections. It is comprehensive and diverse, from its oldest item, a 1703 book of naval tracts, to original sketches by a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
I was particularly impressed to hear of the Archive in Five project run by the Institute which showcases a single object from the collection to the general public:
… the doors to the Institute are propped open, and anyone can come in free of charge to see the one wonderful object which has been got out of store.
This event attracts 60-100 visitors per hour. Other projects involving conservation techniques were also extremely successful and the events have really helped public awareness of the collections. There are also a large number of volunteers employed in the institute, another issue that is becoming an interesting aspect of library and archive work in recent debates. These fantastic schemes and the work of these special and rare book collections were really insightful to learn about and gave me great inspiration that could be used in other library sectors.
Collaborative working: RUH Academy Library & Bath Public Library
In my current role in the Royal United Hospital Academy Library, myself and Susan Wray, Assistant Librarian, decided to run the Six Book Challenge for the first time within the hospital. When initially planning the scheme we needed a way to expand our own fiction collection; with no funding for leisure books we relied on donations from staff members. We decided to approach Bath Public Library to see if there was a way to borrow some of their collection to help boost our own offerings as part of the scheme, and to offer new material to encourage users to sign up to the challenge.
Not only did they allow us to borrow from their wide range of fiction stock on a monthly rotation, they also offered to help us set up a reading group to continue the promotion of reading for leisure within the hospital. As part of the challenge, we decided to set up our own ‘mobile library’ by taking the stock out into the hospital for staff to choose, rather than expecting them to come to the library, which can be difficult for busy hospital staff. This proved to be very successful and is something that can be continued in future ventures to promote a different side of reading, rather than always promoting medical and learning materials.
We initially hoped that Bath Public Library would offer to share some of their collection, but they offered so much more that collaboration with them has now made way for new schemes within the hospital. Feasibility studies have already been conducted into public and health libraries working together for public health information purposes and it would be great to be able to see two very different kinds of collaboration; with public libraries offering reading materials and schemes designed around leisure and hobbies for staff and even possibly patients, rather than completely medical, while health libraries can offer help with public health information needs using their knowledge base.
Benefits of cross-sector networking
Currently library professionals have multiple options to network with others, yet often stay within their own sector. Mailing lists, Twitter accounts and professional groups to name but a few, are all fantastic ways to network with others in specific library sectors, yet it can be easy to forget the other library sectors that are out there. The people that have so kindly contributed to my understanding of different library sectors in this article responded with so much useful information I could have written several articles, showing that just by contacting people outside your sector you can gain great insight. I believe as a professional group we are so adept at networking discussing new products and ideas and gaining feedback and guidance from our colleagues to create a stronger working environment, and this needs to be expanded even more across all library sectors, as highlighted by the 2012 CDG conference title– together we are stronger.
The purpose of this article was to highlight some of the similarities that can occur in different library sectors, and how much is to be learned by looking outside our own sector occasionally. By exploring these different library sectors I was able to expand my own knowledge, but also see how collaborations between libraries crossing different sectors could not improve our own library practices and create new and exciting projects, but can also have a strong and positive impact on our library customers across all sectors, which is ultimately an aim all libraries wish to achieve no matter what sector they are to be found.
Many thanks for their insights and contributions go to:
- Eleni Papavasileiou, curator of library and archives, Brunel Institute
- Dr Emily Dourish, rare books specialist, Cambridge University
- Carol Webb, SLA School Librarian of the Year 2011
- Sue Wilkinson, Chair of CILIP Prison Libraries Group
Senior Library Assistant
Royal United Hospital Academy Library, Bath