Posted on January 18, 2016.
Can anyone change their lifestyle, career and country at the same time? And do so almost half way through their working life?
My answer is an emphatic yes! Though I say this while still only a fraction of the way through my own transition. This time last year, I was an editor at a UK publishing house, now I am training to be a librarian in Vancouver. I am writing this piece to give you an idea of the changes and similarities I have seen as I make my way through this new stage in my personal and professional life.
The original spark
Before I came to Canada, I enjoyed a comfortable life in the UK with my own apartment and a steady editorial role at a large academic publishing house. Then, one evening in summer 2014, I was out walking with a mate when he suggested that we both leave our jobs to take a working holiday in Canada and, from that, gain employment. I liked the sound of the change of scene that working in Canada would bring BUT THEN the old self-preservation kicked in: the idea of leaving my job with its good salary, with nothing foreseeable to jump to, seemed like a bridge too far. But I went home and thought on it more. Rather than restrict my ambitions to a single industry, why not broaden them to forge a new career?
So I chose librarianship. I spoke to an old work colleague who had already made his move to Canada and I asked him whether he had prearranged a job beforehand. He replied that he just went there “on a wing and a prayer”! Well, I could have attempted the same casual approach but… I am the type that likes to plan things in advance. That autumn, I applied for a postgraduate degree in library and information studies at UBC, Vancouver. I will call it “the iSchool” from now on: it’s much shorter!
In this internationally-recognised degree, I saw a great opportunity to learn and find new contacts outside of my native UK. I even paid a visit to Vancouver in January 2015 (nine months before I was due to start the course) just to see for myself what the city was like and to take the opportunity to see UBC. I had heard nothing but great things about Vancouver and UBC alike… what I saw on that visit made me all the more excited to come. What fears I had of letting go of my publishing job just evaporated!
Why librarianship, why Canada, why now?
Ever since the internet came along, I had been acting as my own librarian. I had always enjoyed doing my own research and also helping friends and family out with their information needs. At the publishing house, I discovered a passion for working with data. In my browsing at home, I came to value internet privacy and became interested in the various ways in which libraries and organizations can keep their information secure. More recently, I noticed how librarianship had become synonymous with information management (this view depends on where you look at it… as I am coming in from outside the traditional reference librarian route, the coupling of librarianship and knowledge/information management is easier for me to make). The work of the librarian professional had spread across not just public libraries and academia but also into industry. From my perspective, this was great to hear as I was longing to do more with my professional life than just commission books but also to reserve the option to return to industry.
I chose to come to Canada for my training as a librarian rather than stay in my native UK as I had heard so many positive opinions of the country. And, of course, so that I could see some more of the world. Having lived in Vancouver since August 2015, I am so glad I made the jump! Vancouver has many facets to it and offers such a wide range of things to do.
I chose now because, at 42 years of age, I came to believe that this will be my last chance to effect a career change through further study. I judged that UBC’s librarianship program offered a better combination of knowledge training and professional training that will turn out to be a stronger variable for possible employers than the fact that I am halfway through my working life.
One postscript I would like to mention that wraps up my three spurs. Shortly after I arrived in Vancouver, in a cafe just off West Broadway, I got chatting to a local filmmaker who said to me that the three most important things for a meaningful life are Time, Place, and Purpose. Without knowing it, I had been framing my own plans around those lines. Maybe it’s just that librarianship awakens the nerd in me that publishing did not quite do.
Similarities in topics
Back in my old professional life in the UK, I ran a publishing program that repurposed special issue journals into print-first research monographs. So, I had one foot in books, another foot in journals. Libraries made up most of the market for the type of products I was publishing. So I came across initiatives such as the open access movement, new purchasing models such as patron-driven acquisition (PDA), and legal considerations such as copyright. It is so interesting to see the relationships between publishers and librarians from both camps.
Patron-driven acquisition (PDA) – as a publisher
I had heard about this form of library acquisition through my marketing colleagues where libraries acquire titles on the advice of the end users, such as Faculty and the students. It all sounded very positive. Fast forwarding to the near-present, I interviewed two UBC-based librarians at Woodward Library. They gave me some illuminating facts about how PDA models are part of a growing tension between libraries and publishers. The libraries wish to develop a wide-ranging collection that enjoys maximum usage for the lowest spend; however, the publishers wish to maximize their revenue. They explained to me how the publishers had been raising their per-use fee to compensate for the falling frequency of purchases that had been the result of Woodward’s successful demand-driven acquisition program. ‘Successful’ in that it enabled Woodward to acquire its collection by borrowing titles to see whether the usage would justify a purchase rather than making an immediate purchase. I learned of other PDA initiatives such as inter-library lending and syndicalism through consortia but I wonder how libraries can escape the turbulence from their attempts to deal with publishers’ rapidly-ballooning price models.
Open access (OA)
Dealing with OA material was not an integral part of my role at the publishing house because the OA publishing protocols concerned only the electronic editions of either a book or a journal. The position of Taylor & Francis on this was accepting of the surge in academic demand for OA, though most of the concern was about how T&F would maintain its revenue model. Publishers preferred the ‘gold’ route so that they would, at least, maintain control over the housing of the OA repository. From what I have learned at the iSchool so far, OA encompasses much more than just book and journal publishing. According to the professional literature coming from the library sector, it is a response to the rapid increases in journal subscriptions. Looking at the OASIS website (Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook), much of the drive for OA has come from librarians and for self-archiving i.e. through the institutional repository, or ‘green’ route.
While publishing my journals-to-books, we had been taking a different approach to copyright from the subject editors’ dealings with it. For them, it was about making sure the authors sought permission from the third parties to reproduce material that not only was visibly under copyright but, also, any material that looked external to the author’s manuscript, such as tables and figures from other academic works. With the journals-to-books program, that element had already been taken care of by our journals colleagues and we were free to suppose that the guest editors of those journal issues had cleared the permissions. In my last year on that job, we were asked to make our own checks with the authors/editors and we were introduced to the concept of “fair usage”. At the iSchool, my understanding has expanded beyond corporate publishing and into any sectors that hold copyrighted collections, such as education, broadcasting and music. It has also brought to life the tensions between producers of professional content and those of user-generated content through issues such as users’ rights, technological neutrality and fair dealing.
New things that I have discovered about librarianship
Those are the similarities between publishing and librarianship that I have come across but what about my own personal responses to it? Much of what I have learned has come from the iSchool. Having just finished my first term, I have learned in greater detail about the different cataloguing systems, search techniques and issues that libraries face such as privacy, copyright and censorship. I have developed four firm(ish) ideas on where I wish to go with this qualification. Though I have two years with which to explore those ideas, I know that those two years will pass very quickly.
I strongly recommend that you take any opportunity to go out into the field and listen to what librarians have to say as they are the ones applying the principles that we have been taught at the iSchool. And to do this even during your first term. By talking to people both at the iSchool and to practitioners, you get a feel for what topic area can work for you as a future research interest or career. Even better if you spot a problem and you have a good idea on how to address it. There are external seminars, conferences, working groups that you can join, you can even participate in organizing a discussion panel as I have been doing for UBC’s chapter of the SLA… anything that gets you rubbing shoulders with librarians. You will find not just librarians from different library types but also those with specialisms in wider areas such as tech, data visualization, records, social media, and internet legislation.
Ask a question and you may generate a very useful conversation… exactly that happened when I attended a workshop on privacy at Simon Fraser University in that my answer came not from one of the panellists but from a tech specialist sitting behind me. Networking is an essential component especially in the Canadian job market where so many opportunities are not advertised. Many people feel averse to networking because they imagine that it is something that is mainly done in cold blood. But interacting in the way that I had (quite serendipitously), I understood that networking can be a natural outcome from asking questions in these settings.
This might sound like a tautology but the best thing I have learned is that there are so many avenues through which you can learn further… and you learn far more nuances from talking to people than you would by mining the web.
Is this possible for all to do?
Back to my original thesis: a resounding yes!
Even by making a small personal change or a series of changes on a small scale… it doesn’t have to be changing your career, life ethos or emigrating. You’re not too old… society is more fluid than it ever has been, at least in modern times. Many ageing ‘Generation X’ers are finding new opportunities just by rethinking on what they can expect from the rest of their lives. But Identifying what you want from life and work, also being clear with yourself about what you wish to change and why, will help you to focus on your project as long as you believe it is achievable.
Steve Thomson was born in the UK and lived there until August 2015. His professional background is academic publishing where he worked as an editor on both journals and books. He is currently studying for a Master’s degree in library, information and archival studies and will be working at the British Columbia Institute of Technology on their new article repository.