20. Joanna – information consultant

Joanna Ptolomey

Joanna Ptolomey

Joanna Ptolomey is a self-employed librarian and information consultant.

My commute to work is minimal – literally seconds. I work from home, unusual for a librarian. I am also self-employed – again unusual. Neither of them planned, yet happy coincidences.

My professional work-life started in the construction industry as a planning engineer in the mid-1980s. I was 20, working in London during a UK construction boom, mainly in the City and Canary Wharf. I had no idea by the end of my 20s that my life would have taken a complete U-turn.

It took a few different iterations and jobs, but I realised I enjoyed managing information that was required for decision-making. The postgrad at Strathclyde University was the stepping stone to really changing my career.

Graduating, I suffered the same issues as most – getting a job. I eventually got an NHS librarian post. The NHS experience offers a good grounding for all librarian and information science work, but after a couple of years I left to broaden my experience and joined the major global consultancy group DTZ as an information specialist. It allowed me to put my health information specialism into a much broader context such as housing, economics, regeneration, education and social mobility.

But I yearned to be back solely in health, and a few years later an unexpected event presented itself. Not in a post, but on a self-employed project contract. I accepted and the rest is history. I have now been self-employed for about 14 years.

Most of my work is from the health improvement angle. In the early days, I spent a lot of time training librarians and health/clinical professionals to access and use the evidence base, searching for evidence not only from gold standard clinical silos but also from hard to find case studies. I developed my own skills to offer not just search expertise, but evidence portfolios and literature reviews to support policy and decision-making as well.

In recent years, I have been involved in the asset-based approaches for health improvement. When someone tells you that what keeps them healthy is to have fun, how do you turn that into metadata and make it not just findable but shareable? This has led into areas that I had not considered before, such as the development of technical platforms, metadata issues and search optimisation work. The user experience angle is also quite important and harks back to my training days.

I started sharing my librarian experiences quite a few years ago by writing for publication. I have done everything from opinion pieces, to peer review and to complex product reviews. I have also written and contributed to two books. I was a contributing editor for Freepint Publications for about 5 years and that was brilliant – I really cut my writers teeth there. I currently have a column in a US based librarian and publishing magazine called Against the Grain. I have truly benefited from the reflective process of writing which helps me make sense of what have I been doing, what others are doing and where this places my work.

Home Office

Home Office

I have no set pattern and workload. I can work from 2-5 days per week depending on what I take on. But I set up my work pattern like anyone else. I start work by 9:15am – well it would be 9am but I need to make that important morning first cuppa. I always have my lunch at midday and allow myself 30 minutes to watch TV. I work through till 3pm and then pick up my kids from school. I do have meetings outside and often take my passport for trips to Edinburgh, London and sometimes even further.

I had a rough start in librarianship. Many people got jobs before I did, and my years in another industry did not initially seem to help me or interest employers. I think the workplace has now changed and employers are more interested in a broader range of skills. I believe that social media has also helped open up the profession too.

I started in a sector I had never considered and in the early years tried a few different jobs. In retrospect it all helped in the long run. It also helped me formulate what I enjoyed and what I truly disliked. Lets just say that Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS libraries have some really bad cataloguing thanks to me.

I have had to make an effort to stay connected to my industry over the years, as I don’t sit in a service and very rarely work with other librarians. I volunteered on the Scottish Health Information Network committee and eventually became Chair – all for the crazy experience. Since being self-employed I have had 2 children, and that certainly focuses the mind.

Here are some of the things I have taken with me through my career.

  • Take all the experiences you can get – even if they don’t initially present themselves as gifts.
  • Try different types of work – don’t get locked into a sector or type of job too early. Be flexible – you never know what experiences or people you will meet.
  • Get cheesed off with the profession and lobby for changes, but don’t let that affect your daily enjoyment.
  • If you are really unhappy in work – then leave. Don’t waste your time or anyone else’s.
  • Get experiences from other places such as committees and volunteering – btw I am the most un-committee like person.
  • Enjoy what you do, and tell yourself and others it makes a difference. If I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the health of the nation then some days I would be in my onesie watching Homes under the hammer with a family sized packet of Jammy Dodgers close by.
  • Don’t always say yes to everything immediately. My default setting, though I very rarely voice it, is to say no.
  • Have another life. Put as much energy into home and social life.
  • Social networking is great, but it doesn’t substitute getting out and about meeting real people.

Thanks to Joanna – some very useful tips there. If you would like to know more about either health information or working for yourself, leave a comment below and Joanna will get back to you. You can also find her on Twitter @chibbie.


2 responses to “20. Joanna – information consultant

  1. Hi Joana,

    I just read your article. Enjoyed it. I wondered how it would work today with a private institution.

    Do you still offer library support? I would be interested in discovering if there was such a thing as a librarian offering support to online students as a self employed librarian without having to go into an office.


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