Jackie Oliver, Teesside University, Middlesbrough

Jackie Oliver

Jackie Oliver is a Customer Services Manager at Teesside University Library.

How did you first get into the information and library profession? My first experience in library work came as a work experience week at secondary school way back in the 1980’s in a local public library. I decided at that point that I would like to work in libraries with a very romanticised notion of how it would be at that point. I left sixth form college in the late 1980’s and began employment in retail, working largely in customer services environments before an opportunity came up to work in an academic library at what was then my local polytechnic (pre 1992!). Lucky for me on the day, I was successfully appointed as a library assistant and since then have continued to develop myself both personally and professionally.

What qualifications did you take? From my first day working as a library assistant I knew that I had made the right choice and that I was working within an environment that I loved. I very quickly engaged with my assistant role and I was able to progress steadily both in time and with support from my home institution. Because I was proactive and engaged, I was able to take up opportunities that became available. I completed a City & Guilds qualification in library & Information Management which very much whetted my appetite for more. I was one of the first candidates in the north east of England to complete a level 4 NVQ in Library Management which I found challenging because of its portfolio based nature, very different to a standard academic programme of study. Then I was able to enrol onto a BSC in Information & Communication Management. This gave me an excellent, albeit largely theoretical grounding for the library profession and what I might be expected to do as a professional librarian. I later completed an MBA programme which I found challenging but rewarding. It covered the areas that related more to the management role a professional librarian may have to engage with, for example, dealing with HR issues or how to effectively market a service. I completed all qualifications whilst working full time but I was extremely lucky to have the full support of my employer.

On reflection and when thinking about the current economic climate, I realise what a privileged position many libraries have been in with regard to being able to offer their employees support to develop themselves and what a lucky place I was in at the time to benefit from it. When I graduated I was already in full time employment. I was able to combine my qualification with other development programmes and activities in order to move myself forward for possible promotion. For example, I became involved with the local CILIP branch and participated on one of the CILIP special interest group committees. This experience was fantastic. It allowed me to work with colleagues across the region to discuss topical issues and to arrange CPD events for library professionals working in the north-east of England as well as developing my own professional network.

I have also taken part in development programmes to further develop myself both personally and professionally.   Within my own organisation there is a training & development programme for managers and leaders which really built on the strengths of the more academic MBA programme. It offered me practical solutions to many of the challenges that I found myself facing as a new manager. I also participated on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s Future Leaders Programme. This was an excellent programme. It really pushed me beyond my comfort zone and really forced me to re-examine myself as an individual, my beliefs and my values. It was also a superb networking opportunity that I have used quite extensively since the programme ended.

What is your current job title? My current role title is Library Customer Services Manager. My job involves managing Teesside University Library’s front of house services and also virtual library services. I manage a team of almost 23 FTE which is actually approximately 38 roles supported by a further 4.15 FTE student worker team, which is usually between 20-25 bodies each academic year. The Customer Services Team is a mixture of full time and part time staff with a wide range of working patterns across the week, including evenings and weekends.

What does your job involve?  This can be extremely challenging to ensure that the team are delivering a consistent customer service experience and that they have the support that they need to be able to carry out their roles. My role can involve management of day to day operations to ensure that front of house activities and services continue to run efficiently and effectively. I deal with day to day staffing issues, for example managing annual leave requests and sickness absence reporting. I also get involved with more strategic work, such as the design and implementation of new services through project work as well as at a department level inputting into planning for the longer term development of the Library.

Can you describe a typical day? A typical day can be very varied for me. It usually begins with checking emails to pick up anything that might have been sent to me the night before and that I need to action urgently. Then I check my calendar to make sure that I’m set up for the day’s meetings, double check that I don’t have any clashes in case anything has dropped into my calendar that I hadn’t been aware of and that I have everything that I need. At this point I tend to identify any “free” slots in my day so that I can schedule in work or time to catch up with myself during the day.

I am often involved in a variety of meetings in a typical day. For example, it could be a regular 1-2-1 with a direct report, a briefing with a group of my team, delivery of a training session for a specific group of staff, a project meeting for a project either I’m leading on or that I’m involved with or a meeting with my line manager to discuss more strategic issues that are impacting on the team or its work. At the moment, I’m involved with both leading a project as well as attending meetings as a representative on another project team. I also meet regularly with key staff from other university departments to ensure that we are all kept up to date with issues that affect our work areas. This may involve me attending meetings outside of the library so that I’m away from my desk. I am currently involved with a collaborative venture to share access to a Virtual Enquiry Service across a range of universities in the north of England. This has involved me with assisting other organisations with set-up and supporting them through initial implementation. A typical day may involve me talking through issues with an operational lead at a specific organisation either by email or via the telephone.

I am also a CILIP mentor and have a number of mentees currently working towards chartership or certification. A typical day may involve me having a telephone meeting with them to discuss progress and to talk through any issues they may be having with regards to collecting evidence, presenting it or reflecting on it. As well as the scheduled meetings in a typical day, quite often something will come up that demands my immediate attention. This can often be challenging as I may already be involved with something else and so need to quickly prioritise and decide how to approach the issue. This could be a difficulty with a process for example that is causing a problem and needs to be resolved quickly, a difficult customer issue that needs immediate attention or a staffing issue that needs to be resolved. I have found that I need to be extremely flexible in order to be able to quickly adapt to a new situation and to be able to react as required and that I need to rely heavily on the expertise of my team to be able to assist in order to move things forward.

 What skills do you think are most important for today’s information and library professional?  I have gained more experience, knowledge and skills in my current role, I believe that a library professional needs to be well organised. They need to be able to re-prioritise at a moment’s notice and to have a process in place that allows them to go back to re-visit what they were working on. I have found that this fast becomes a fact of life as you advance into a management role. You need to have a flexible approach to work and workload and as you progress into management and you need to find a way that that works for you that helps you to organise yourself and your workload. I have also realised that you need to be less precious about workload and tasks. I have found that when I was in more junior roles it was definitely more about me learning more and more and then applying it and becoming an “expert” in a given area / areas.

Now that I’m in a management role, it is definitely more about sharing that knowledge and those skills so that you’re helping to equip the next generation of library professionals and library managers. This is a really difficult transition to make and there aren’t any instructions that tell you how to do this! For me personally this was a challenge as I suddenly didn’t have the time to be the “expert” any more. I had a whole new remit! I then needed to find time to make sure that I could cascade my knowledge in specific areas to my team and also make sure that I was providing my team with the same opportunities that were offered to me.

I have also learned that you have to find a way to not take work personally. I don’t mean not to take work seriously and to treat it unprofessionally. What I mean is not to take any constructive criticism personally. Think about it as a development opportunity. No-one can be the expert in all things and for many of us life is a never ending journey of learning and discovery. I have learned that you need to take input from your team and more importantly invite that input and discussion, even if they are criticising what you are trying to achieve or the way you are trying to achieve it. Just because you’re the manager, it doesn’t mean that what you’re suggesting to implement is right or will necessarily work. You have to be prepared to have someone take your suggestion apart. Stand back and let this happen – your team need to have the opportunity to learn themselves and to get to where they need to be through the process of reasoning and logic.

If something doesn’t work out as planned, then allow the time to step in and try to get them to focus on why something hasn’t worked so that they learn for next time, painful though this might be. And I have to say that I have found this really difficult to do, although I am getting better! When I first began my current role I used to find myself getting worked up about the feedback someone had given me or about a comment relating to a service I was managing. I used to feel that it was a personal reflection on my own skills, ability and knowledge and I used to worry about what impact it would have on my reputation.

On reflection, I used to waste so much energy on this!!   With a lot of effort on my part, I have slowly learned not to waste critical energy on worrying about that or worrying about how it might be seen etc. and have instead learned to step back, calm down and then take a more objective look at what has happened and what can be done about it. It is amazing what difference a day makes when reacting to feedback that might be upsetting, or even a couple of hours & a breath of fresh air. If someone has taken the time to offer you feedback, then you should treat it with the value that it deserves, no matter that it might be difficult to taste. That feedback is often critical to personal development and should be treated as a good thing. I’ve found that when looking at something that has happened with the emotion removed from that situation, I can see where the comment / feedback came from and that quite often it was right and needed to be pointed out in order for me to make an improvement I would not have seen otherwise.  I have found that it really helps when trying to work out how to resolve something or when reflecting on an approach that hasn’t worked, how I might improve next time.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in Information Management? For anyone considering a career in Information Management, I’d say go for it. The work can be so rewarding as well as interesting and exhilarating (and sometimes quite knackering!). The fast pace of technological change means that nothing ever stays still. To me, the sector is full of innovations and innovators and it is a fabulous environment to work in. For my specific role within an academic library setting, I gain so much satisfaction from knowing that I have contributed in some way to giving our students a fabulous student experience, no matter how small. My advice would be to look closely at our professional organisation, CILIP, to see what they can do for you, be it via membership on a specific committee or group or to further develop yourself through a qualification to become chartered. There is so much to be said for being able to prove to an employer that you are a reflective practitioner who continues to develop themselves and who can learn from what they are doing.

If anyone would like any more details about my own personal development journey you can email me at j.oliver@tees.ac.uk or follow me on twitter @jackoliver40.

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