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Jo Webb

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I didn't really choose library work: it chose me.

What I knew about libraries
Like most of us, I can remember using the public library from when I was very small. My mother was a Senior Library Assistant until I was born, but she never managed to get back into libraries afterwards and stayed in secretarial work (her original occupation) after my father died. I always knew that there were library assistants and librarians, that library work was a reasonable career option and that working in the public sector was a good thing. At this stage all I knew I wanted to do was go to university and then see where that took me. I had some vague ideas about careers, and was at this stage particularly interested in academia and the Civil Service.

Student daze
I read Modern History at Oxford and for some reason, probably linked to being a reasonably good student, haunter of libraries and rather less well-off than the majority of my peers, I was also a very part-time student library assistant, or 'library scholar'. As far as I can remember, my tutor asked me if I would like to do some library work when a major project was taking place during the summer vacation, and I started then and would do a couple of hours every week checking orders, shelving, shelf-tidying etc.

I spent the beginning of my final year in hospital and didn't do the Milk Round like my peers, deciding to defer career choices for a year. I thought about going into general management, but wanted to stay in the public sector, especially higher education. But librarianship was still stretching out to me. When I was in hospital, the very first bouquet of flowers and get well card came from the library I most often used: I was their favourite user.

Choices
After graduating I hung around Oxford until I started as a term-time only library assistant at the History Faculty Library. I was strongly encouraged to apply by the staff there, was interviewed and appointed. I don't know if anyone else even applied for the post. During the vacations it was easy enough to find work in the city, my most memorable post being a summer working in a bookshop that sold new, second hand and antiquarian titles in Broad Street. Bookselling was a relevation. I absolutely loved the social environment of the bookshop: like living in a novel filled with exotic characters, both colleagues and customers. I liked the scent of the new books, pouring over The Bookseller, business gossip, the strange passions of bibliophiles and the seedy world of the professional bookdealers. Yet I also realised despite the seductions of bookselling that I liked library work a lot more, and that I never woke up on my library days with that slightly queasy reluctance to get up and go to work.

And so I applied to library school, deeply unprepared for the interviews - Oxford libraries back then were idiosyncratic places, detached from the rest of the world (all the libraries I used had in-house classification schemes) and I didn't really realise what the courses would be like. Luckily and quite late I was awarded a funded bursary at Aberystwyth, the very last year it was the College of Librarianship Wales and started the course in 1988.

By the seaside
I loved Aber. I was genuinely interested in the course and was impressed by the way it was designed with module guides, structured reading lists, seminars and lectures weaving around each other to develop and complement your knowledge. I appreciated the way the course mixed theory and research with critical professional reflection.

We spent January doing work experience and then wrote reports on different aspects of the places we visited. I went to Sheffield University and can remember writing about how building design influences service delivery, something about reference and enquiry support and presumably something about the organization of knowledge (the other core module).

I did well on the course, graduating with a distinction and the Dawson prize as top student. I enjoyed the town and that part of Wales too, especially as my boyfriend was around and had a car so we could get out and about. We went to places like Strata Florida Abbey, Ynys Las, saw lambs gambolling on the hills, sun seting into the sea and regular lock-ins at the Black Lion.

'Gis a job'
It took me a while to get my first professional post. I could get interviews for most of the jobs I applied for, but didn't get offered the job in the end. In retrospect, of course I cast my net too widely, pitched myself too low and was lousy at interviews. I really wanted to work in university and research libraries in a subject specialist role and I should have just focused on that. In the end I got probably the best post I had applied for, an academic-related assistant librarian at the Management Library at Cranfield Institute of Technology, now Cranfield University. The time spent job-hunting wasn't all bad, I revised one of my library school projects and won an essay prize, being rewarded with both money and a published article on paraprofessionalism.

The Aber course had equipped me well for that job. My knowledge of information retrieval equipped me really well to support our novice users of all the CD-ROM and dial-up databases we were buying, I had learnt sound reference and enquiry skills and a desire to develop the service, My role was interesting and diverse: liaison, enquiry work, user support, collection management, cataloguing and classification and a good amount of service innovation, including setting up user education classes (including research student training), being in the project group for the new library development and establishing a special service for part-time students. Cranfield was at the leading edge of lots of developments, and perhaps because it was small with a demanding postgraduate and research user base you were always been challenged to reflect on your practice and develop your skills.

Worst bit was the location: I was carless and based half-way between Milton Keynes and Bedford. It got easier when I got a car and moved to Northampton, but by this stage I was bored and ready to move on.

Next steps
I started at De Montfort University in Leicester as an Academic Librarian and subject team leader, responsible initially for Business & Law and later Humanities. In 2005 I was appointed as Head of Academic Services and I became Director of Library and Learning Services in 2013.

Aber and the work I did about paraprofessionalism made me think very closely about the nature of the profession and professionalism and I’ve been professionally active ever since, as a member of groups (including times as Chair of what is now called the Business Librarians Association and UC&R), In CILIP more generally, in writing (three books so far and some chapters and articles) and in working with NVQs. I've gained a lot from professional engagement: and I have also benefitted from it, in tangible as well as intangible terms. The most obvious example of this was being awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2005: not many LIS people have been recognized in this way so far.

Learning and development doesn't stop. After Aber and Chartership I studied for a part-time MBA, joined the Higher Education Academy and did my CILIP Fellowship.

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