Wendy Kirk is Librarian at Glasgow Women’s Library, which recently moved from temporary premises in the Mitchell to a permanent home in Bridgeton. The Library is also an archive and accredited museum.
I started out fresh from library school in 2003 with a spring in my step and a feeling that libraries could change the world! Throughout my course, I’d been working in Glasgow public libraries as a casual library assistant, and loved it, and felt quite strongly that I wanted to work in the public library sector. But alas, my quest for a full-time job in public libraries wasn’t to be, and I ended up with a job as an Information Officer in a private sector firm. Whilst this gave me a great grounding in library work, and the ‘security blanket’ of having the back-up of a team of experienced Information Officers to seek advice and support from, it didn’t really set my world alight. It was office-based and I had no face-to-face contact with the library users. And clichéd as it sounds, I didn’t feel like I was getting the chance to make much difference directly to people’s lives – the main reason I’d decided to become a librarian.
After 3 years, I decided it was time for a change and couldn’t quite believe it when I got offered a job at Glasgow Women’s Library as their first ever paid Librarian. When I started there, I felt like I’d won the lottery. It was the exact opposite of my previous job: vibrant, endlessly varied and lots of contact with people – perfect!
Glasgow Women’s Library is a unique library, both in terms of its collections and the work it does. One thing I love about working here is the fact that we have no typical user. We work with women from all walks of life, from academics, to women who are taking that first step on their reading journey and coming to improve their reading and writing skills. This makes each day different and brings both challenges and wonderful rewards. One of the most important things at the library is making sure people feel really welcomed, so tea, biscuits and a general hubbub of noise help to create a friendly atmosphere. This is great for our library users, but also makes for a really nice workplace for staff.
Since it is in essence a specialist library, I have had to investigate different ways of managing the collection. Like many women’s libraries, I use an in-house classification scheme, tailored to suit the needs of our collection and our users, and a specialist European Women’s Thesaurus for cataloguing. I feel really lucky that the collection I work with is so interesting, covering subject such as women’s fiction and poetry, women’s history, feminism and women artists. I think I would find it more difficult to feel quite so passionately about my job if I was working with a collection that didn’t interest or inspire me. I receive lots of research enquiries and facilitate lots of group visits to the library, including schools, colleges and local history groups.
What I particularly love about my job is that I’m very active in reader development activities – which is, in my opinion, the best thing about being a Librarian! I’m involved in our weekly Read, Relax, Recharge read-aloud group, which is a fantastic way to support women to come together to enjoy reading for pleasure. I also encourage library users to review and recommend books for our website. I run a Reading for Wellbeing group for staff and volunteers, which is a chance for people to get together to share what they’ve been reading, and read a bit aloud if they like. This has been a great way for me to gather new book recommendations, which I can then pass onto my library users.
I try to take part in as many national initiatives as possible, such as World Book Night, National Libraries Day and so on. Last year, I ran a Poetry in the Park event (thankfully it didn’t rain) and a Banned Books Week reading event with Scottish PEN, and helped my colleague run creative writing workshops for National Poetry Day and National Short Story Day. Events take a lot of hard work and organisation, and it can be really disappointing if you don’t get a good turnout, so I would recommend lots of marketing beforehand. Partnership working is key for events organisation, and the library is lucky to have a huge network of partnerships to draw on.
When the library was set up, it was run solely by volunteers and they remain a vital part of what we do. Like most of my colleagues, I work a lot with volunteers, all of whom make a huge contribution to the running of the library. They support me particularly with cataloguing, processing donations and stock development (all of our stock is donated) and events organisation / running outreach stalls and pop-up libraries. Finding time for training volunteers can initially be a challenge, but it is really worth the investment. Since I’m a solo librarian, working with volunteers who are qualified librarians or library school students gives me some peer support which is really invaluable, otherwise I think I would find it a bit lonely at times. It’s great to be able to discuss ‘librarian issues’ such as cataloguing rules with someone who understands what you’re on about (and doesn’t find it deathly boring).
As much as I love my job, it’s not without difficulties or frustrations. The library was running for many years with no formal classification or cataloguing, so I have a huge back log that I have to try hard not to feel overwhelmed by…
I have no book budget whatsoever, so I do get a bit envious of other Librarians when they’re ordering lots of shiny new books. To get newly published stock, my volunteers have to write off to publishers for review copies. Whilst it’s great that publishers are so supportive, it is pretty time-consuming. Working in the voluntary sector, you are often reliant on grant funding and sadly, given the current economic situation, vulnerable to funding cuts. To minimise the effect of this and to promote our sustainability, we’re working more and more towards income generation through social enterprise activities. We’re doing really well at this and recently won the Enterprising Museum of the Year Award!
Working in a special library is wonderful. There is a sense of freedom to try new ways of working, participate in innovative projects and manage a specialist collection, and no two days are ever the same. After 11 years of being a Librarian, I do still believe that libraries are life-changing places, and I feel very lucky to work in one.
As one of Wendy’s volunteers, I can vouch for the warmth and vibrancy of GWL which comes across in this piece. If you have comments or questions for Wendy, please leave them in the box below. She is happy to follow them up by email or in person, or catch her on Twitter @WendyKirkGWL.