by Sarah Marten
Katharine Reedy works as a Learning and Teaching Librarian in the Academic and Student Services department at the Open University, based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. The Open University is well-known as the UK's leading provider of distance learning courses in Higher Education. The courses keep pace with the latest technologies and teaching methods and make use of a variety of formats including CDs, DVDs, podcasts, as well as online resources and web 2.0 tools.
What does your job involve?
My main role is to work with course teams to help our students access the best possible sources of information during their studies with the Open University (OU). This is done in close collaboration with the OU academic and administrative staff responsible for producing OU courses. It can involve writing information-based activities using Library online information sources, providing advice on information skills and resources to go into course materials, and liaising with technical and media colleagues to develop course websites.
I work with the Faculty of Arts, which includes subjects such as History, English Literature, Art History and Music. Many of our courses are now delivered online, and all courses have a website in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). My work is all about helping students to develop their skills in finding and using OU online resources, which in turn enables them to become independent learners. I have a key part to play within the OU in supporting teaching and learning.
How do you help the students to become independent learners?
Until fairly recently students taking OU courses would receive everything they needed ready packaged "in the box"! With the advent of the internet and online learning this has changed dramatically. In collaboration with colleagues I aim to teach students the skills they will need to make the best use of all the available online resources, so that they can find, evaluate and use the information that exists for their subject.
What contact do you have with students?
We do not usually see students face-to-face. Contact is either via the telephone, via email or using live web chat. I also contribute to some of the online discussion forums for particular courses. Each week I spend a couple of hours working on the OU library helpdesk where we take student enquiries, for example, on how to start researching information on a subject or tracking down a particular journal article or book. Sometimes I might need to do some research myself before answering their question. We use an OU-wide system for recording enquiries, which allows us to see what other contact students and tutors have had with the university.
Sometimes students cannot access OU Library online resources because of technical reasons. We help to diagnose problems where students bring these to our attention, perhaps when a link is not working or the full text of a journal we subscribe to is proving inaccessible. If I cannot solve the problem myself, I pass it on to specialist colleagues for rectification. OU students and tutors are based all over the UK, so we advise them about other university libraries they can use near to their homes.
What else do you do?
From time to time I deliver training sessions to tutors and students face to face. We are now also using an online web conferencing system to offer more training opportunities and this is proving popular. It means people can participate in training sessions using their PC at home or at work, without having to travel.
I contribute to the development and maintenance of the OU Library website, and am a member of the website editorial board. I have also presented papers about the OU Library's work at a number of conferences, for example the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC). Attending conferences is a good way of keeping my skills and professional awareness up-to-date.
At present I am working together with other colleagues to look at student satisfaction, as part of our response to the National Student Survey. This includes evaluating our work, gathering feedback and ultimately making improvements to what we do.
Who do you work with?
Within my team there are the equivalent of four full-time library staff and one library assistant, all reporting directly to the team leader. There are four similar teams encompassing all the OU faculties and we work alongside one another in a large open-plan office. There is a good atmosphere, and we all share ideas and support one another.
What are your working hours and how does this affect your work-life balance?
I work three days a week on a part-time basis, for a total of 22.5 hours. This involves working two days from 9am-5pm and two mornings from 9am to 1 or 2 pm. These hours enable me to balance my job with family responsibilities and other interests such as further study and playing the violin in an orchestra.
What are the facilities like?
The OU library is situated in a large new purpose-built library which is bright and airy. The staff facilities are good.
What attracted you to this type of work?
The career development possibilities within librarianship really appealed to me, and I gained very varied experience before joining the OU. The job offers me the ideal blend of working with people and problem-solving.
What training have you had?
Alongside my full-time professional training I have also had extensive on-the-job training and I am fortunate in that the OU supports staff in this way. At present one element of our professional development is to look at social networking tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, and investigate how these could be incorporated into our work. Some of my colleagues are also looking at how mobile technology, such as phones, PDAs and IPods can help us to deliver and support learning.
Another recent course I attended involved theories of learning and learning styles. At present the OU is supporting me to study the Post-Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice, which is aimed at those supporting learning and teaching in Higher Education. This course lasts two years part-time, and will give me an in-depth understanding of educational theory, teaching and learning. Ultimately, much of my IT knowledge has been gained whilst working on the job.
What skills and personal qualities are important?
Good written and verbal communication skills are essential. You also need to be a confident user of IT, including online databases and Microsoft packages. It is important to be flexible and to have good team-working skills. The ability to work accurately under pressure is also required, alongside good presentation and training skills. There are times when you need to use skills in negotiation, persuasion and influencing, both with academic staff and students.
What do you enjoy about your job?
I love the variety and the challenge, and the opportunity to keep abreast of the latest technologies. The contact with academic staff and students is very rewarding, and I enjoy working within such a supportive staff team. Library and information work is always changing and developing.
This job can involve a lot of time working in front of a screen and you rarely see the students in person. However, the other aspects of the job more than make up for that.
What ambitions do you have?
One option would be to look for a management role. However, I am really happy within my present job, where I am able to pursue other interests. The OU has given me lots of opportunities for career development, such as presenting papers at conferences and writing for publication. I have also been able to gain experience working with colleagues in different parts of the Library.
I also mentor librarians working towards chartership, which involves regular meetings to support and guide them in their work. I have a strong interest in learning, teaching and information literacy, and may like to move to a more teaching-based role in the future.
What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
Librarianship offers a much more varied and interesting career than the image lets on, and you will work with some great people. You may never make your fortune but you will have an interesting life!
What advice have you got for people interested in this career?
Librarianship in the 21st century is less about books and more about facilitating access to information. The skills you develop in this job are applicable to many areas of life, and extend beyond the world of work. You will also have the opportunity to support your own lifelong learning. It is important to gain relevant work experience. A master's qualification is a great advantage in the academic world. If you train as an information professional, you can specialise in many different areas, and you are certain to find something that you enjoy.
If you weren't in this job what do you think you would be doing?
It would have to be a job working with people - perhaps teaching. I have also considered working in a Citizen's Advice Bureau or as a Careers Adviser.
Katharine Reedy has worked for the OU as a librarian for the last eight years. She graduated from Bristol University with a BA degree in Modern Languages and decided on a career in library work during her final year. After a year's work experience in the library of the University of Exeter, Katharine completed a one year full-time Diploma/MA postgraduate course in Library and Information Studies. She then proceeded to develop a varied and interesting career, gaining experience in information units within specialist organisations and in academic libraries. A number of these jobs have also made use of her first degree in languages.
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