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Career Stories: Katy Snell Pt 1 “You must really like books…”

I’ve been working in the library and information sector for over 20 years (if you count my Saturday job). While these days my job title is Knowledge Systems and Information Manager I still very much identify as a ‘librarian’. When you tell people that’s your job people frequently comment: ‘you must really like books’, but that’s a common misconception and what I really like is solving problems as that’s at the heart of what I do and the reason I enjoy my role.

When I went to university, I didn’t have a clear idea of what career I wanted to go into, and truth be told didn’t really think of librarianship as a career. Like most people I thought of anybody serving in the library as a ‘librarian’ and had no idea that to hold that title formally you had a qualification (usually at the time a first degree or Masters in Information Studies). When I was 16 I started working at my local public library in Enfield and I continued to do so while I attended university in Central London. Towards the end of my degree I moved from working in the main library on a Saturday and instead did my shift in what was called ‘First Stop Information’. Essentially this gave me my first insights at mastering the art of reference enquiries and researching relevant answers for customers. My manager there suggested I could do the qualification to become a professional librarian and everything followed from there.

In order to get a place on the Masters course in Library and Information Studies at UCL I was required to have a year’s experience in a real library. Various organisations offer these short-term Graduate Library Trainee roles with a view you to going on to do a CILIP recognised course (https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/Graduate_traineeship). When it came to applying for these, I didn’t have strong views about a sector, but I also had an idea that I wanted to work for a well-known organisation. For context I was the first in my immediate family to go to university and didn’t really know many people working in the ‘professions’ (law, medicine etc.). I found myself applying to work at the Law Commission as I thought that sounded interesting and ‘prestigious’ for want of a better word. That was my first step into the legal sector and I think my good experience there and subsequently at the Ministry of Justice is what led me back when I joined my current firm.

“Your background shouldn’t put you off a career in law (legal tech or otherwise)”

I don’t think I was particularly nervous of dealing with lawyers or the Judiciary as I just saw them as the figures of authority in the organisation and I had of course been used to being managed in my casual job. Luckily for the most part I didn’t face much snobbery and I found that people of all levels were kind and mostly grateful for the help our service provided. A few things early in my career do stick in my mind though. I was once asked where I came from and when I said North London they replied, ‘oh I can hear that but you’ve tried to posh it up’. That wasn’t a particular choice on my part, but I would reflect we all have an ‘office voice’ to some degree and it probably said more about the person who made the comment.

I think I wasn’t that worried about class as a concept before I joined the Civil Service but certainly earlier in my career, when I wasn’t so well paid, differences around experience of travel and school/university could sometimes make me self-conscious. I still laugh at the occasion we were taken out by a vendor and they ordered two different bottles of white wine. In my world at the time the choice would have been as basic as red or white whereas everyone else at the table seemed to have a more discerning palate. These days I would know better or at least I wouldn’t look so naively bemused, but I do try and think about these things when I speak to junior staff and don’t presume everyone will have been exposed to certain experiences that others take as the norm.

Your background shouldn’t put you off a career in law (legaltech or otherwise). I look back at those occasional incidents as learning experiences. I think coming from a different perspective has also often helped my role which, as I said at the beginning, is mostly about solving problems. To come up with the best solutions you often need to look at things from different angles and you can only do that with a diverse workforce.

In the second part of this blog Katy will share how she moved from traditional librarianship towards knowledge management.

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