2. Karen – music librarianship and research



Karen McAulay is Music and Academic Services Librarian at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She combines this with being a post-doctoral researcher.

I’ve always loved libraries, having been a bookworm and frequent library-user as a child.  At school, my best subjects were English and music, and I studied music at Durham, harbouring a secret ambition to become a music critic; I realised later that few people earned a living that way.  After I graduated, I nearly attended an interview for an orchestral librarian post, but then was offered funding to do a PhD at Exeter. The pendulum between librarianship and research had begun.  However, I couldn’t visualise myself as a lecturer, and postgraduates in my department weren’t offered any teaching experience in any case, so I stuck to my original plan to become a librarian once I finished my postgraduate studies.

Four years later, with a Masters, an unfinished doctorate, and a year’s library graduate traineeship to my name, I went to the College of Librarianship Wales at Aberystwyth, to do my postgraduate librarianship diploma.  They didn’t offer a Masters at the time, but I already had one, so I didn’t see the need for another.

My first job was a temporary cataloguing job at the University of East Anglia, followed by a music librarian post in South Tyneside Central Library for three years. The doctorate went unfinished.  The discontinuity of changing disciplines at Aberystwyth hadn’t helped, and it was hard getting back into research once I was establishing a career as a librarian and working towards chartership.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get my head around obscure medieval polyphony in the evenings after handling Dire Straits, Madonna and Now That’s What I call Music albums all day!

I got my present job as Music Librarian at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in 1988.  I’ve always worked full-time, apart from three maternity leaves (three months was the norm then).  Our youngest son started school in 2003. By then, my interest in research had been rekindled by three old Scottish music manuscripts which surfaced during a library refurbishment, and I decided to have another go at doctoral studies – this time into historic Scottish song collections.  Still reeling from all those child-minder and nursery fees, I became a self-funded, part-time mature student in June 2004.  I’m living proof that it is possible to do a PhD part-time in five years whilst holding down a 9-5 job.

Sometimes I see advertisements telling prospective undergraduates that a degree will change their lives.  I’d entered my earlier university studies almost automatically, and it had never occurred to me that my life had changed as a result.  However, the PhD has made a significant difference.  I’ve written a lot of articles; given lectures at work and at conferences; and published my augmented thesis as a book; but most significantly, I am currently a part-time postdoctoral researcher on an AHRC-funded project with the University of Glasgow (2012-2015).  I work in the library three days a week, whilst my two research days are covered by a new professional librarian.  It’s the first time I’ve ever job-shared, and it’s working out well.  On the days when I shut myself away in a different room to do research, or head across town to a meeting at the University, it still feels strange to have whole days to plan for myself without fitting in a turn at the enquiry desk rota, or rigidly timetabled lunch-breaks!

I’ve seen quite a few changes in librarianship.  Automation was just coming in when I started my first cataloguing job, and it was introduced into South Tyneside whilst I was there.  At RSAMD, cataloguing was still done manually, with a typist copy-typing all our handwritten cards.  The first computer system was introduced during my first maternity leave, and we connected to the internet during my second.  For the first few years, I hardly ever downloaded a bibliographical record, because they were few and far between for printed music.  Things are very different now!

I’m a member of CILIP – I became a Fellow the year after I got my PhD – and of IAML (the International Association of Music Librarians).  I’ve attended a number of national IAML Annual Study Weekends and meetings, and I also edited the Branch Newsletter and Journal Reviews before we had a family. I’m currently convener of SALCTG, the Scottish Academic Libraries Cooperative Training Group, and am just beginning to convene a IAML (UK & Irl) group looking at the national branch’s website.  I’ve always considered it important to engage with the profession, but things get a bit hectic when I also find interesting events in connection with my research as well!

It’s hard to describe a typical “day in my life”.  I provide library training to students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, sometimes focusing on electronic resources, or bibliographical referencing and databases – and I take the lead on social media initiatives, authoring our blog, Whittakerlive.blogspot.com, and running the Twitter account @Whittakerlib; I encourage colleagues to share the tweeting if anything catches their interest.

Cataloguing and processing donations of music is an ongoing task, as is stock selection and revision, user education, producing library guides on various aspects of our collection, dealing with undergraduate reading lists, and handling enquiries.  My colleagues call me the “human catalogue”, because I know the collection so well – but after a quarter of a century, that’s not surprising!  The best part of the job is helping students find just what they need, in whatever format or medium, or being thanked for some help that you might have given weeks earlier, but which turned out to have been really useful to them.  Sometimes my own research background comes in very handy, whether for the subject matter or for a question of methodology – it’s always nice to think that I can offer added value in this way.

However, as in any library, you really never know what you’ll be asked next.  My strangest query was when a member of the public phoned asking me how he could ascertain what pitch his hedge-cutters were, so that he could choose the most appropriate ear protection!  I struggled to convince him that I could only give him the most basic information about how the harmonic series worked.  As I put the phone down after that call, I couldn’t help wondering whether it had been a genuine enquiry.  If it was a “mystery shopper” – well, they never owned up!

Thanks to Karen for this insight into how librarianship and research can complement each other. She is happy to answer questions by email or in person. In the first instance, please leave a comment below or tweet @karenmca.


10 responses to “2. Karen – music librarianship and research

  1. Karen, I started my PhD last year and I work Part time as an academic librarian. I have faced challenges from other librarians who are of the opinion that the profession doesn’t need or can accomodate a PhD. Strangely, this has actually motivated me rather than discouraged me. I am so inspired by your journey in both librarianship and research and indeed thrilled at how you have juggled both together. Thanks for this.


  2. That’s a lovely response, Josephine. Take courage in the knowledge that it’s not always easy being a trailblazer, but in time your new, finely-honed research skills WILL be recognised as an asset! Also, although I too felt as though I was unusual in my chosen path, librarians with PhDs aren’t as rare as you might think – as I was assured by an international colleague – so hold onto your dream, and hold your head up high!


  3. hi, Karenma, I’m Han-seock, park studying about library in university located in Daejeon, S. Korea. actually my professor introduced this blog in the class, and your post caught my interest. I want to be a person let others enjoy together with music. and I noticed library is good place and way to do that. but, sadly, the music library doesn’t exist in my country (well there are some similar libraries, but not the library I want to be part of) I know one by one is important. and I also know to that, more people who have similar ideas and (kind of) group are needed. anyway.
    So.. I want to talk more with you more;) could you send me email?(cause I could not find yours.)


  4. Hello, Han-seock. I too am delighted to hear that you found my blogpost, and I’d be happy to email you. Please send an email to our library, and it will be forwarded to my own email address. Our library is Library@rcs.ac.uk and your subject heading should just be, Question for Karen McAulay. I look forward to hearing from you, and best wishes with your librarianship studies.


  5. Pingback: Another Day of Reckoning – My 2014 Publication Record | Karen McAulay Teaching Artist·

  6. Pingback: Happy 2015! | 23 (more) Librarians·

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