Interview with Stephen Read

One might think Stephen Read crazy or brave – or both – to go to school for a new career in his mid-fifties.  But after emigrating from England and switching vocations several times, he was no stranger to change.  In fact, he never pictured having one lifelong career.

While growing up Stephen was a voracious reader and enjoyed the big libraries and museums London offered.  However he didn’t see many career options for a working-class youth, so Stephen moved to Canada in his twenties.  Here he has worked as a machinist, musician, storyteller, healer/bodywork practitioner, and in retail.

While working in retail Stephen realized he was good at spotting organizational patterns and enjoyed working with technology, like creating databases and building computers.  He considered technical writing but settled on library work; perhaps being married to a librarian helped to sway him.  Career counselling suggested Stephen take a two-year program because of his age and lack of a Bachelor’s degree, so he chose the Library Technician diploma.

Before choosing a program Stephen did a lot of informational interviews and continued interviewing while at school.  These helped him gain confidence and contacts in the field as well as gauge whether there would be openings in interesting libraries.  This was inspired by Dick Bolles’ What Color is your Parachute? He suggests starting with interviews for pleasure, which lead to informational and later employment interviews.

Stephen’s advice for older adults considering a return to school is to pursue a subject you are passionate about.  Do lots of interviews to see if there are jobs available, especially with people in the type of organization you want to work for or position you want to hold.  Also try to be sure that the program is necessary for your career change.  And finally, once you start do not look back and do not quit.

Stephen completed the Library Technician program at Langara College in 2008 and feels that it prepared him well.  Program areas that have been useful in his career include catalogue structure, information sources, time management, how to contact other organizations, and processing.  Above all, report writing has been the most valuable skill he learned.

About 3 months after completing the Library Technician program Stephen was hired by the Crane Library at UBC.  This service provides course materials to UBC students with learning and visual disabilities.  Its formats include Braille, large print, audio cassettes, and CDs.  Format change is a big issue there.  For example, cassettes have become redundant and will be phased out over the next five years.  The preferred format is now MP3 files due to their compact storage and speedy reproduction.  Most new items are either audio files narrated by volunteers from the print version, or electronic text read aloud by the user’s computer.  The latter is also known as etext, and can be in Word or PDF format.

Photo of Stephen ReadAs Alternate Format Collections Coordinator Stephen’s duties include liaising with students, requesting and tracking production orders to fill student requests, database building, data entry, collection maintenance, cataloguing, and keeping statistics on the library’s services.  Crane Library personnel consist of three production staff and Stephen.  He is the only worker in the library itself, though one of the production staff sometimes helps with special projects.  There are also about one hundred volunteer narrators to record audio books, and thirty student assistants to produce most of the electronic texts.  Braille is outsourced to a vendor.  Staffing changed shortly after he arrived, so setting up library-oriented systems and procedures for documentation and control of production have been challenges.

Another challenge has been communicating difficult information, especially when a student’s request cannot be filled.  This requires empathy, patience, good listening, and flexibility to figure out how one can help.  Stephen is taking peer counselling training to further develop his skills in communication and dealing with special needs.

One of Stephen’s major projects has been building a database for production and catalogue information. He enjoyed the challenge of building and customizing a database from the ground up to consolidate many small files.  Another aspect of the project was researching and choosing a database program within budget constraints.  Stephen chose FileMaker and has been very happy with it, especially the way one can work in different levels of detail from basic to advanced.  He also likes that it can accommodate automation and script triggers.  Stephen is now training to become a FileMaker Certified Developer.

Regarding choosing new software, he suggests evaluating whether you really need it and by what criteria; using trial software to its full capacity and time limit then reassessing the program; and making a “How To” document that any person taking over your position could understand.

Stephen plans to work full-time for a number of years and then cut back to part-time work particularly focusing on databases.  In his leisure time he enjoys music of all kinds, especially opera.  He also enjoys reading, learning how to be a better person, playing guitar, and singing.  Stephen plans to start a career club and blog for the library and information field using his favourite mentors’ teachings.  If he won a free trip anywhere in the world, he would go to Pablo Casal’s home in Spain to see where he lived and learned to play cello.  Appropriately for a library person, this was inspired by a book on the Bach cello suites.

At the time of our interview Stephen was reading two books:

  • The Places that Scare You, “a lovely description of Tibetan Buddhist practice on dealing with fear, my greatest challenge.”
  • The Movie Club, “a wonderful true story of a father’s love for a son and the journey they take together over three years as the son matures along with the father.”

He suggests these books for library staff:

  • What Color is your Parachute, “great advice and very inspiring to career changers especially.”
  • Creating the Work you Love, “a little bit new age.  Uses spiritual principles to guide the career process.”
  • Am I the Only Sane One Working Here?, “a great primer on how to mature in attitude and learn to grow and change in an office environment.”  Coming to office politics from a trades environment, Stephen found this book especially useful.

When asked for suggestions for people considering a career in the library and information field, Stephen said he believes that the term “library” may not be relevant for job hunting soon since the field is changing so much.  As an example, he cites the recent Special Libraries Association vote on changing their name to exclude the word.  The field is becoming more information access-based as resources and work move online.  Regarding job hunting, figure out which skills you like then choose a field you love where you can use those skills.  Look for an employer that interests you, not just who is hiring the most.  While prospective employers interview you, you should be interviewing them as well to be sure the organization is a good fit.  Furthermore, note that the majority of jobs are not advertised but are found through networking.

As for general advice to library staff Stephen warns that change is the only constant so we must get used to it, especially to the disappearance of traditional libraries.  We must become more skilled and experienced with software, including open source.  We also need to train our patrons so they can connect with information online.  We must get used to electronic media and its limitations; indeed Stephen is concerned about digitization and short-lived formats.  And finally, libraries will always have to do more with less: staff, money, and space.


5 thoughts on “Interview with Stephen Read

  1. Excellent interview, Heather! Mr. Read sure has had an amazing career so far 🙂

    And some excellent advice for choosing a new career.

  2. Thank you Heather,

    Such a great interview with insight into the field and advice for choosing this career path. Such a rich amount of information here, I will enjoy mulling it over for some time. Thanks again,
    Johanna Sawer

  3. I also returned to school in my late 40s after achieving a degree many years before. I attended Seneca College in Toronto with an accelerated program (two years in one) Library Technician. I was concerned my mature age would be problematic but I found employment. It has been difficult to find permanent full time. I have relocated to Vancouver hoping to find a position here. Discussion with other library workers who have returned to school later in life is very informative.
    Thankyou for this.

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