Imagine: life as a librarian

Imagine: life as a librarian
Meet three librarians whose jobs involve far more than shelving books!
30 April 2015

Have you ever wondered what life might be like behind the scenes in a library? In conjunction with the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA)’s Library and Information Week, I visited the reading rooms, archives and offices of the National Library to see what our people really get up to on a typical day here in Australia’s largest library.

The National Library is a beautiful neo-classical building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. When you visit as a member of the public, the main entry leads from a marble foyer through to the Main Reading Room. Like most libraries, the National Library provides space and facilities for private study, group discussions, and delving deep into the books and journals in the Library’s collection. From 4 May 2015, this ground floor public space expands around the corner into a dedicated zone for reading newspapers—old and new—and researching family histories.

At the Newspapers and Family History desk a friendly face greets me and begins to ask about my research. Shannon is a full-time staff member in the area, spending a large part of his working week answering questions about the Library’s newspaper and microform collection, and family history. In the Newspapers area, readers can access everything from today’s major national, state and regional newspapers in print form, to early nineteenth-century publications digitised and available through Trove. Some of the intervening period is covered by pre-digital copying methods such as microfilm and microfiche. As Shannon says:

“Newspapers in particular fascinate me because they’re a murky, tabloid tinted window to the past. There’s nothing like leafing page by page through a newspaper from 60 years ago to get a glimpse of the scandals, concerns and attitudes of that particular time period. Agony aunt/uncle columns of bygone eras are a particularly enlightening guilty pleasure.”


Shannon Sutton, reference librarian, deep in the newspapers stack area.

Family History is another bustling hub of activity this morning, as enthusiastic ‘genies’ (or genealogists) spend hours patiently tracing the lives and times of their ancestors, using birth, death and marriage listings, parish registers, shipping and emigration lists, logs and diaries, and electoral rolls. When Shannon finishes his shift of face-time in the reading room, he will retreat back his desk to answer emails from family historians all over the country, referring researchers to their state libraries and archives, or even our copying service, where they are not able to visit the Library in person.

Wandering deeper into the building, I take the lift to the Pictures and Manuscripts branch on level two. Forming a major component of the Library’s ‘special collections’, these collections include a diverse range of paintings, photographs, etchings, and other objects, as well as the unpublished papers of individuals and organisations who have played a major role in Australian life. Here in the Manuscripts team I meet Karen, who is responsible for acquiring and processing new collections. An exciting part of her work involves visits to the homes of donors who are often quite renowned—she mentions a favourite visit to the studio of the surrealist painter James Gleeson, where she sat amidst the vast canvases lining the wall with the smell of oil paint strong in the air. 

Once material has been donated to the Library, the process of sorting, listing and describing the papers begins in earnest. As Karen says:

“Accessioning work can provide the opportunity for hands-on work with some truly amazing collections and the chance to dip into people’s often extraordinary lives as I arrange and describe their papers.  It can be exciting to come across material that has what we call the ‘tingle factor’ because it gives you a shiver down your spine.  This was the case when I came across the note received in the WWI battlefield by Major-General Brudenall White advising him that fighting was to cease at 11 am on the morning of 11 November 1918.”

Karen Johnson, archivist, working on the papers of Elyne Mitchell, author of The Silver Brumby, now available at the National Library of Australia, MS 9633.

Finally, a visit to the top floor leads me to Gareth, who has a unique role in the Digital Preservation team. As a custodian of Australian literary and cultural heritage, one might expect the Library to have a team of conservators taking care of physical objects, but as the Library’s digital collection grows, care must also be taken to manage the various complexities and risks that are inherent in working with digital objects. Gareth is currently working on a project which he says is both pioneering and exciting, which he hopes will not only help the Library manage its vast collection of digital objects, but also inspire the digital preservation community at large. He is compiling a knowledge base that maps various relationships between file formats, software applications, operating systems and computer hardware in order to help the Library answer fundamental questions about its digital objects, such as:

  • What do we know about the file formats of these digital objects?

  • Which software applications can render, edit and/or save the content of these file formats?

  • Which operating systems and other dependencies are needed to run the software applications?

  • Which computer hardware or virtual environments are needed to run the operating systems?

As Gareth says:

“In some instances, it feels like I’m a digital archaeologist, delving into the depths of software applications decades old and long-forgotten on operating systems that have shared the same fate and resurrecting them so that they can become tools for the Digital Preservation team to wield against format, software and hardware obsolescence that threatens every digital object.”

Gareth Kay, Digital Preservation Officer, with assorted prehistoric software and hardware.

Returning to my own desk, adjacent to the Library’s wonderful Maps Collection, I am struck not only by the diversity of the work we do here, but also the incredible array of stories our staff have to tell, both from their work here, and also from previous careers in the public and private sectors, academia, the arts, and even the armed forces.

Keen to learn more about working at the National Library? Check out our opportunities to volunteer, apply for an internship or keep abreast of current vacancies and the Library's Indigenous employment program. To seek help with your research, or to ask about a particular collection, simply ask a librarian.



My dream job would b to work at NLA. Family history is my favourite past time & I assist patrons at my workplace. I would also love to learn preservation skills. Thanks for sharing NLA staff experiences with us.
Brudenell White not Brudenall White, just a small correction :) no need to publish this