Tracey Williams, Heritage and Local Studies Librarian for Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, reflects on the need for continual learning and self-development.
I completed my Masters’ course in Archive Administration with Aberystwyth University in 2012, 25 years after finishing my BA (Hons.) in Librarianship, and 20 years after first obtaining a post as a Local Studies Librarian, working in an archives and local studies service in a public library setting.
It’s slightly odd to be a new professional with so much experience, but it has helped to consolidate my knowledge and to enable me to reflect on what, looking back, I can see has been (and is still) a lifelong learning journey.
When I passed my driving test some 20 years ago, I remember my instructor saying to me “It doesn’t mean you’re now a good driver, it means we think you’re safe enough to carry on learning on your own”. I still feel that I’m continuing to learn to drive all these years later, and it does feel that my working life is following a similar pattern in terms of constant learning. I haven’t had a wishlist of skills and knowledge I want to acquire, but I have taken opportunities that have arisen, and taken advantage of on-the-job learning from a wide range of generous and inspirational colleagues.
After graduation, I resolved that I would only do further qualifications if I were passionate about the subject and wanted to learn something in particular, rather than wanting the qualification for its own sake. My first professional post was as Community Information Librarian, at a time when the library service was moving into the use of computers to create in-house information databases. It had also just absorbed a ground-breaking community-based Manpower Services Commission project to help the unemployed gain IT skills. These IT colleagues were generous in sharing their knowledge, and I was able to learn skills that enabled me to exploit technology in my daily work. One of the tutors then overheard me delivering a staff training session on databases (remember Cardbox, anyone?!) and promptly recruited me to the project’s team that taught evening classes in IT at the local college of adult education.
This was a revelation to me, and I discovered a latent love of teaching which has stayed with me ever since. Shortly after this, I obtained a post as Local Studies Librarian at Wolverhampton and, although I had to give up the teaching of IT classes owing to a clash of timetables, I began running archive-based sessions to explain to the public how to start researching their family history (this was pre-Internet, of course).
In the meantime, my eye had been caught by advertisements for a new one-year Open University course on family and community history which sounded interesting, and which was my first venture into distance learning. I enjoyed setting family history research into a broader context, and the course left me with an enduring interest in occupational variations on migration patterns, which I’d like to explore further in the future if I have more time for research.
In the late 1990s, the council employed a graphic designer, Dave, to develop its arts, museums, and archives web sites, and I was fortunate to share an office with him and benefit from his patience in answering questions, as well as his willingness to share skills. I had taught myself some HTML but, being artistically challenged, hadn’t ventured into graphic design at all. Dave was an inspiration and, in the spirit of my driving instructor, gave me a sufficiently solid foundation in Adobe Photoshop basics so that I could continue to learn on my own. I discovered that Photoshop provided a creative outlet that could produce stunning results without requiring conventional artistic skills.
In my current role, I have responsibility for curating exhibitions in our professional-grade Heritage Gallery, and I make considerable use of Photoshop to enhance the impact of visual content and to create eye-catching promotional images, for example, from creating blended then-and-now images to repurposing aerial photographs as 3D globes [examples below].
The self-directed learning I undertook to learn Photoshop also gave me the confidence to learn to edit digital video using Photoshop’s sister software, Adobe Premiere. With a similar interface, the learning curve wasn’t too steep, and I was grateful for the availability of step-by-step books (there are advantages to working in a library!). The skills I acquired enabled me to link with local history groups and school students to blend existing content – e.g., oral history reminiscences with still and moving images – to create something new that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, this short video about a local shop:
A colleague told me of a mantra repeated to her by a former colleague: “see one, do one, teach one”. I’ve found that it’s only when you try to pass your learning onto someone else that you truly come to understand and deepen your own knowledge.
I said earlier that teaching IT courses opened my eyes to a latent love of teaching. In 2000, encouraged by an archives assistant who was undertaking a course in teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages, I learned of the possibility of taking a City & Guilds Certificate in teaching adults in further education. It was quite tough to do the course whilst working full-time, especially as I changed jobs mid-course and found myself with a 70-mile daily commute on top of attending the weekly evening class, plus teaching an evening class in IT once a week. It has been worth it though, as the understanding I gained of different learning styles has been useful in developing staff training exercises as well as family history courses for the public, and in devising sessions for school groups as well as talks for professional organisations.
I would strongly recommend all new (and not-so-new) professionals always to look out for learning opportunities – not just formal qualifications – particularly those that can enhance the day job and any future career development. This is perhaps particularly important in the current climate, where employers often want flexible, adaptable staff with a keenness to learn.
For myself, I now can’t imagine doing my day job without utilising the IT and teaching skills I’ve developed, nor without having both library and archive qualifications, which I feel particularly complement each other in the creation of archive descriptions and finding aids. Initially, I did find it a challenge bringing together archive theory with the practical operation of CALM. However, I must give credit to Samantha Mager at Shropshire Archives who was instrumental in helping me make a breakthrough in understanding.
I am so grateful to colleagues and former colleagues who have been so willing to share their learning with me. I try, wherever possible, within the constraints of limited work capacity to “pay it forward” and to share my learning with others. As well as passing on teaching skills and sharing Photoshop/Premiere tips and training with staff, I am also supervising three volunteers gaining experience of archival description and utilising CALM.
Whatever the future holds, I hope I shall continue to acquire new skills, and that I’m able to share my learning, as others have so generously done with me.