Cataloging Leader – Interview with Claire Sewell

black and white photo of Claire Sewell

Claire Sewell, Senior Cataloguer at Cambridge University Library

Claire Sewell (@ces43) is a Senior Cataloguer at Cambridge University Library in the UK. We connected through the International Librarians Network – a program for setting up librarian pen pal pairs across borders. Claire talked to us about library leadership, peer development, UK library credentials, and the future of cataloging – for more, check out her blog on library development resources at Librarian in Training.

Tell me about your career path. Is it typical for your area?

I started working in an academic library as a temporary job after I graduated university twelve years ago and I never left! I never had a clear career plan growing up but as soon as I started working at the library I realised that it was something I wanted to pursue. My first job was dealing with a project to convert a paper catalogue to an online catalogue – no mean feat in a library with eight million items! After that I worked on a project dealing with rare book material and then I moved to the main English Cataloguing Department. Some people look at my career history and see someone who has just worked in the same sector but the range of skills that I’ve developed is as varied as the material I’ve worked on. For example in my current role I still catalogue material but I also have a supervisory responsibility which involves teaching others.

Personally I see myself as slightly atypical as although I’ve worked in libraries for twelve years now I still consider myself a new professional. Due to family commitments I didn’t start my library degree until 2009 and I graduated in 2013 so I’ve only officially been a librarian for about a year. I don’t know if this makes me an old or new professional but I certainly still have a lot to learn! I think that today more people know that they want to work in the information profession at a younger age as there is more detail out there about it as a career option. Plenty of new library graduates will take a job in cataloguing as a way to get started as there is often a lot of short term project work. Hopefully they will enjoy it but even if they leave to pursue something else their cataloguing training will usually be in demand during their career.

Your blog is called Librarian in Training, reflecting a philosophy of continuing professional development for all librarians. What areas do you feel are most important to focus on developing?

The simple answer is the areas that are most important to you! The key to successful professional development is that it focuses on the individual and what they want to learn. As long as they are learning something that’s relevant to their career development in some way then it’s valid.

I think it’s important to keep updating your skills. Needs and interests change over time and we need to keep updating our skills to match. One thing I would say that professional development is really useful for is working on areas of interest which might be outside the scope of your current role. It’s always a good idea to learn more about what you currently do but be open to other areas as well. You never know which skills will come in handy in the future so it’s important to take any opportunities that you feel appropriate.

What is leadership like in cataloging in particular?

Cataloguing leaders have to be able to embrace change, something which I think goes against the industry perception of them. For example in the last eighteen months we’ve had the introduction of RDA, the new cataloguing standard. This was a huge change and has caused some departments to rethink entire workflows. Leaders not only need to keep on top of this change but calmy guide others through it. There will be many more changes in the future, not all of them positive, so being able to respond well to changing circumstances will become an ever more important skill for cataloguing leaders.

Tell us about your CILIP Chartership. Do most UK librarians go through the process?

CILIP Chartership is a professional qualification which has traditionally been completed after the library degree. One of the best explanations I’ve heard is that whilst the degree provides you with a solid grounding in theory, Chartership allows you to demonstrate your practical application of this theory in your work. It’s a voluntary qualification but it’s sometimes specified on job advertisements and in some sectors becoming Chartered can result in a pay increase. Candidates are asked to identify areas that they would like to improve on and then compile a portfolio demonstrating how they’ve done this. For me the process was a chance to develop some skills outside my current role as well as giving me a solid structure for future professional development.

Librarians can undertake Chartership at any point in their career and recently CILIP have abandoned the rule that you need a library degree first, opening it up to more people. As it’s voluntary not all librarians charter but I’ve seen it done across a variety of sectors and levels. I hope that with the recent changes which make the process both inclusive and straightforward more people will think about Chartership as it can be a very rewarding experience.

You host #chartership chats on Twitter to support others going through Chartership. What inspired you to do this? What results or impact have you seen from this?

I found the chats really helpful when I was going through Chartership so I was happy to help others by continuing them. It also helps me to learn what people new to the process are going through now. It can sometimes be difficult to find others who are going through Chartership and that can be an isolating experience. By participating in the chats people see that that they’re not alone and of course the hashtag is always available for questions or advice. I think that one of the best features of the chats is that people realise that they have the same questions as everyone else. Chartership is designed to reflect individual experiences so no two portfolios will look the same. There is no one right way to complete your portfolio and this can leave people thinking that their work is somehow wrong or not enough. Chartership chats reassure people that even the most accomplished professionals can have doubts and questions.

I’ve met a lot of people through the chats, both virtually and in real life. It’s given me a chance to develop my professional network, especially in other sectors. It’s given me a real insight into what other people do for professional development and I’ve learnt some new things to try that I might not have thought of. Hopefully the chats have demystified the Chartership process for people as well which means more of them will be encouraged to take it on in the future.

You and I talked a little about cultural differences in self-advocacy and negotiation – how do you feel about how those skills fit into leadership?

It’s very important to me to lead by example. I’ve seen too many people in authority with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude and I understand how frustrating this can be. To me your everyday behaviour is the most important form of self-advocacy. Leaders are not necessarily managers, anyone can develop into a leader and part of this is setting an example that you would like others to follow. Leaders also need to advocate for what they do. A lot of people are reluctant to undertake self-advocacy, myself included. We feel as if it’s boasting rather than advocacy but it’s important to realise that if you don’t shout about your skills no one else will do it for you. Leaders can help to instill this in others, again leading by example.

Negotiation is an important skill that can’t always be taught. Leaders need to be able to see the bigger picture and do what’s best for their team rather than what they would necessarily want. Learning to choose what to fight for and when is really important. You might not get everything your own way but negotiation is a two-way street and real leaders will know when they need to push for something important to the team.

What changes do you see coming for your librarianship specialization in the future?

I think that cataloguing will increasingly involve editing data in batches rather than looking at individual records Many libraries already do this but I can see the creation of original catalogue records becoming a rare skill. In some ways this is good as it means that you won’t have people spending time cataloguing the same thing but it would be a shame to lose the skills completely.

On the other hand it’s an exciting time for cataloguers with the introduction of RDA and Linked Data demonstrating the continuing need for the metadata skill set. As information is increasingly born digital there will be a role for those with metadata organisation skills to help navigate it. Cataloguers will be needed to help make sense of the wealth of digital information to avoid information overload for their students. I know a few people who say that cataloguing is dead but they’ve been saying the same thing about libraries for years and this is yet to be proven so I think we’ll be around in some form for a long time yet!

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