Real-Life Returners: The challenges of returning to work in the library and information sector
by Susan Mends, founder of libraryreturners.com
I started out my career in public libraries, and qualified as a librarian. I then joined the academic department where I completed my Masters degree in Aberystwyth, west Wales, to develop a new distance learning masters degree in information and library studies.
I enjoyed the work and I was passionate about the subject. I particularly loved engaging with library students from the four corners of the globe. However, after eight years in the role I started a family, and the tension between work-life and home-life began, especially around childcare.
Living in a rural area made things even more difficult. My child was being looked after in one town, I worked in another, with a long commute on top. When my second child arrived, I made the difficult decision to relocate and make a fresh start.
My experiences of being a library returner
Ten years ago, I moved to live in a far more urban location. Since then, my career has gone in various directions. I’ve worked from home for my former workplace, had a period of maternity leave (with my third child) and taken on additional caring responsibilities (a period of full-time eldercare). I’ve also taken a complete career break, as well as working part-time locally.
When I was ready to return, I didn’t expect to find a carbon-copy Learning and Development (L&D) role in my new location. Rather, I needed to convince would-be employers of my potential, in what has become a rather difficult job market. To say that this was tough is an understatement. Few library or L&D jobs were being publicised (the majority of permanent job vacancies in my local authority are still being advertised amongst existing employees only). Even when jobs were advertised publicly, it was hard to shake off the feeling that candidates who were not currently or recently employed were seen as less relevant.
After interviewing a few times, it became clear that I would not get a post at all without some fresh experience. The options were to take a position that may be perceived as being below my capabilities in order to gain that experience, or find some other opportunities (such as work shadowing, or working in a voluntary capacity), to improve my prospects. During this time, flexible hours continued to be a personal priority.
Setting up libraryreturners.com – creating a community for other returners
Very little information exists about librarians who have taken breaks and their prospects after they’ve returned. An article written by Alice Crawford* had comforted me during my early days. Yet as time went on, I sought somewhere else to turn to – for information, to see if I could get some work experience, to seek resources, find some tips, and to read about experiences just like mine. I was sure I wasn’t the only one who had had to leave the profession for personal reasons and then tried to return at a later date.
Yet, at the time, all the career development information available was aimed at those new to the profession. There wasn’t a website dedicated to those re-joining.
Nonetheless I really needed to read some stories – not necessarily ‘success stories,’ but real-life accounts about the people who had left and who, more importantly, had come back. I was keen to learn hear about their experience of coming back, and what they were doing now. I wanted to know whether taking a career gap had affected their earning-power (returning to work at a reduced level of pay or in a less senior role seems to be a common experience for returners.) I was also interested to find out whether they had good support from their previous employer or had secured a place on a ‘return to work’ programme in order to get their foot in the door.
I really needed to read some stories – not necessarily ‘success stories,’ but real-life accounts about the people who had left and who, more importantly, had come back.
I also wanted to explore more general feelings about returning after a career break. I needed to know if there were others out there who found the career break strange at times, a mixture of highs and lows. Or were some returners entirely comfortable with it all? Were other returners adept at frugal living or making income through a side hustle? Did they miss their professional lives and network, or had they found a new outlet or platform? Were there people out there who really wanted to return to their library careers but didn’t know how? Or perhaps others who didn’t want to return to the library world – but had found something else to do with their qualifications, experience and those oh-so-transferable skills.
Above all, I hoped to bring together other returners to connect with each other. Simply by reading Alice Crawford’s article I had become motivated and developed my own ideas, so what might be possible with a whole community of career-break librarians?
I didn’t expect to find a completely homogenous group – perhaps not everyone has lost confidence, for example – but at the same time I knew we might share common experiences, stories, feelings. Other career-break librarians may be familiar with being underemployed, doing a job that doesn’t use our qualifications, or being told we don’t have enough relevant experience. They might empathise with the impression that there is no longer a place for us in the workplace because we have been out of it for ‘too long’ and that ‘things have changed’. This is likely to be quite different from the experience of mid-career librarians who have not taken a career break and who may be looking to expand their professional horizons through taking on senior leadership and managerial roles.
Unlike some other professional careers, there are no returnship opportunities in information and librarianship. So, to date, it’s not possible to apply to a library role with a programme of assisted training to help you transition back to the workplace. Yet it would be wonderful if information and library employers could consider returner programmes – from all accounts they’re an excellent opportunity for people to return to work in a supportive way.
I have been managing the Library Returners site for around two years now. I post a mixture of articles that I write myself, alongside articles written by librarians working in the field with experience of career breaks or from industry experts offering career advice. There is a growing readership from people taking a break from the workplace for a variety of reasons and finding ways to return and the site is now read all over the world, particularly the UK, US, Canada, China, India, Australia, France, Belgium, Ireland and the Philippines. I’m so glad that I developed the blog, as it enables me to engage with library professionals from a variety of sectors working in a number of different countries all over the world. I occasionally receive email messages from people who visit the site or via the comments left on the site itself and I particularly enjoy this contact with the wider profession, because it reminds me of my days in Aberystwyth working with the distance learning students.
I was delighted also when CILIP, the UK association for Information and Library Professionals, highlighted the blog for containing ‘a wealth of information and advice for anyone looking to return to a career in libraries after a break of any kind.’ CILIP now links to the blog via the career break section of its website.
Susan’s tips for library and information-sector returners:
Seek out networking opportunities
- There are national and international conferences, as well as events focusing on library and information specialisms. Conferences can be prohibitively expensive to both returners and library staff: even free events means spending money on travel and hotels. But recent events has seen a rise in online events and webinars, which has opened up opportunities for library returners to stay connected and continue their professional development.
- There are travel grants and bursaries available from CILIP and other professional groups: Grants and Bursaries – CILIP: the library and information association
- Make use of both the library and returner communities for networking and support.
- For more networking ideas, check out the post coming up on the libraryreturners.com website in February, ‘Networking in the New Normal,’ by Job Search and Career Adviser and Job Info Resource Librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s Business & Career Center, Ellen Mehling.
Keep your skills and profile up-to-date
- Maintain your Linkedin profile.
- Update your skills. [Tip from myworkhive: continuing professional development doesn’t have to involve expensive courses: in most sectors there are great blogs, webinars, books, journals and videos to learn from as well.]
- Try to find relevant library work experience.
Maintain your professional association links
- Stay in touch with CILIP, including regional groups such as CILIP East (@cilipeoe)
- Connect with special interest groups relevant to you.
Look after yourself and connect with sources of support
- Returning after a career gap can be a challenging journey with plenty of ups and downs. Returner and other online communities can be a vital source of support.
- Visit libraryreturners.com to connect directly with me and for more resources and tips from other returners. There are a number of popular posts on the site that offer tips for someone looking to return to information and library work. To get started, try the following articles: Staying Upbeat – How library returners can job search in the age of COVID-19 Five actions to help with job search when there is a lack of library experience Getting back into the game – how to restart your library career after a break
Overall, it’s been a challenging journey at times, but taking a career break has definitely led me in new directions, such as setting up the Library Returners site. I hope that the site will continue to build into a useful resource for anyone looking to return to the Information and Libraries sector. Most importantly, I hope that other returners will find information, support and a supportive community to help them on their own returner journey.
* Crawford, Alice, ‘Getting Back In: Returning to Libraries after a Career Break’, in Impact (Journal of the CILIP Career Development Group), December (2007), 73-75
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