Christopher W.

Visitor Services Assistant (part time) - NRM Library
Happy to mentor
Happy to be contacted

About me

Christopher W.
Politics, Economics and Philosophy
Politics, Economics and Philosophy
Undergraduate
Derwent
2010
United Kingdom

My employment

Visitor Services Assistant (part time) - NRM Library
National Railway Museum
United Kingdom
Library, museum and information services
2011
£9000
£9500

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A day in the life of a Visitor Services Assistant (part time) - NRM Library in the United Kingdom

What I do

The primary part of my job is to provide access to the archive and library collections in the Search Engine library at the National Railway Museum. Hence this is a heavily customer service focussed job, especially since the time I spend with each visitor can be quite long.

Learning and understanding the archive collections is obviously a key part of the job although this is primarily something that I learned on-the-job and it was clear that this wasn't something that was required of candidates for the role. Even with my voluntary experience it took me about a year to catch up with the understanding of the collection that my colleagues have. The same goes for having an interest in railways in general. Whilst I have always had a passing interest in railways and their history, most of my colleagues do not.

Writing and computer skills are also important as the next biggest part of the job is answering email enquiries, usually asking questions about railways or our collections. Obviously railway enthusiasts and modellers form a significant base of our users and they can ask some incredibly specific questions. However we also recieve a lot of enquiries from academics, students, journalists, authors, politicians and TV/Film researchers and even police detectives. For example we answered enquiries from Warner Brothers for the filming of Harry Potter and we regularly take questions from the makers of Downton Abbey (not that we're taking responsibility for any of their historical inaccuracies).

The next important part of the role is retrieving archives and library material. This is where adherence to procedure and rules is very important. Once something is lost in an archive as large as ours it is near impossible to find it again. There's also the need to ensure that visitors adhere to the rules as well so that the risk of theft or damage to the collection is kept to a minimum. Heavy lifting is a frequent requirement. A large ledger or roll of engineering drawings can easily be over 20kg.

My other duties include running our microfilm drawings copying service. This involves sending microfilm to an external business that supplies prints and scans, after which I forward these to our customers by post. I also occasionally conduct public tours of the archives. There's also some project work and limited amounts of cataloguing of the collections but these tasks are usually done by the archivist or volunteers.

Skills I use and how I developed them

A degree is not a pre-requisite for my current job and indeed several of my colleagues have not studied a degree. My subject (Economics and Politics) has had little bearing on my current job (although principles in economics can have surprisingly useful applications for understanding steam locomotive boiler management).

That said, the research element of my degree has certainly borne fruit in some elements of my current job and the voluntary work which helped me get my job.

Degree skills:
The research skills from my academic study have been very useful and there's the potential for these to become more important as my career progresses. Other important things I've gained from my degree were improved writing styles and enthusiasm.

Extracurricular skills:
The skills I developed outside of my degree were probably the most important part of my time at York. Firstly my voluntary role at the NRM has directly led to the job that I do now.

During my degree I became heavily involved with running student societies - I even founded one myself which is miraculously still going now - four years since my chairmanship ended. These activities allowed me to develop a lot of management and team skills as well as the self-reliance and enthusiasm to make projects succeed.

I also took part in a few public speaking activities, including being on the popular BBC4 quiz show Only Connect (look it up - it's a fantastic show) on which our team made it to the semi-finals. This experience gave me a new confidence - one that has got me through job interviews and tough days at work.

Finally, like most students I had to do some paid work whilst studying. This was a useful chance to pick up customer service skills which form an important part of my current job.

What I like most

The job satisfaction is enormous. I get to work in a job that I like and that interests me. I can explore the archives and get fantastic access to a nationally important collection that includes some 1 million engineering drawings, 40,000 posters, the second largest publicly owned art collection in Yorkshire and nearly 2 million photographs - many dating from the 19th century. Our visitors are generally very happy with the service that we provide and the work that we do to help them do their research.

The best part though is that I have trained to become a steam locomotive fireman working on the demonstration line. This is a fantastic job working with old steam trains, shovelling coal and making steam. Its also a tremendously skilled job and a skill that should be kept alive for future generations. I can also say that I've driven the Hogwarts Express which impresses a lot of people. All of this - and I get paid to do it!

What I like least

As with most jobs in the museum's sector the pay is poor. Although the job is salaried the effective wage is little over £7/hour. On top of that, because it's a national museum we're subject to the 1% wage limit the government has set on all public sector jobs so my real income is effectively falling. The role is only part time which means I have a second casual job as a guide at the York Museum Trust.



What would I change? The one thing I would change is the pay - everything else is fantastic.

How I found out about the job

Already worked there

The recruitment process

Having already been working as a volunteer and then as a casual staff member I was alerted to the vacancy internally when it became available. I still had to go through the same application process though which was with a CV and covering letter. The interview consisted of a series of traditional interview style questions and a short 5 minute presentation where I had to speak on something that interested me.

I did my presentation on clouds - specifically three types of rare and unusual clouds and the science that made them interesting. It was a strange topic to choose but interviewers wanted to see if I could make a topic sound interesting and exciting because part of the role involves giving tours of the archive to museum visitors. The feedback I had from the interview was that they were very impressed by the presentation - I was really able to engage the interviewers with the topic and even get a few laughs.

My career history

Even before I graduated I decided that I didn't want to leave York. My girlfriend (soon to be wife) had another year of her degree to complete and what work experience I had gained had told me that I wouldn't be happy in most of the traditional graduate jobs for my degree. For about a year I worked in different low skill jobs like coffee shops and takeaways. I usually had two jobs at a time, sometimes three.

I was during this time looking for a job in sales or recruitment as I had done a few of these types of things at uni and these seemed to be the most abundent graduate jobs around around in York and Leeds at the time.

Since midway through my third year of my degree I had been volunteering at the National Railway Museum as a volunteer researcher. I had started on a new project called Inreach. As a volunteer I answered enquiries from people who couldn't visit the museum in return for a donation to the library. Early on the project had come close to collapsing when several volunteers had to leave. However, I soldiered on, effectively taking the role of the team leader.

In the April of the year following my graduation, the NRM's library was suffering a staff crisis because of illness which resulted in me being asked to do some casual work as a Visitor Services Assistant. The work was very similar to what I did as a volunteer but involved contact with the public and working in the archives to retrieve items for viewing. In July a vacancy arose on the team and having worked as a casual leading up to this I was successful at interview and given the position.

Courses taken since graduation

Trained as Steam Locomotive Fireman

Where I hope to be in 5 years

Progression in the museums and library sectors is always difficult. There's a lot of competition for new posts. Most museums receive at least some kind of grant aid from national or local government so the austerity measures have made things worse. I'm currently cultivating as many possible routes as possible. For example I'm looking out for other roles I can do at the NRM or the York Museums Trust; I'm also continuing my voluntary work at the NRM as a researcher which could in the future open up roles in other sectors (e.g. media or politics) or as a freelance researcher. I'm also working on writing a book using the NRM's collections which could lead to other things.

However, at the moment I really enjoy my job and I'd like to try to stay at the NRM if I can.

My advice to students considering work

Your degree is important but unless you're doing something very vocational it is unlikely to be the most important thing an employer looks at when you have graduated. Make sure you use your free time to get lots of extra experience whether it's through the Careers Service, student societies, volunteering, internships or paid work.

Also, don't forget that university is an important time to develop yourself and your character. I arrived at York introverted and shy but left with confidence and friends and hopefully more likeable too. These are important things both at interview but also at building relationships in the workplace and forwarding your career.

Make sure that you leave university with plenty of good memories. If in five years time studying for your degree is your fondest memory of your time at York you won't realise just how much you've missed.
If you're looking for a job in the heritage, museums or library industries use your time now to do some voluntary work. Don't just do any voluntary work though. Look for roles that are similar to paid roles in that museum or others. Jobs are so competitive that voluntary experience is essential for many paid museum roles. Also don't forget that there is a big element of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. Volunteering is one of the best ways of getting these right.

Also use your time to get experience of the different types of roles available in museums and to decide what you like. The skill set and qualifications required for each type of role in museums varies significantly. Guiding and interpretation roles for example could require acting and public speaking type skills. You might be surprised by how little subject specific knowledge is required for many museum/gallery jobs so don't worry if you haven't taken a degree in a subject closely related to the museum or gallery type you're applying for. Indeed many museum roles don't require a degree but they do look for a lot of experience relevant to the role.

On the reverse side some museum roles like curating and archives require post-graduate level qualifications like a masters or PhD (in addition to lots of experience). Many of these degrees have their own pre-requisites. For example most distance learning masters courses in archives related subjects require that you are already working in an archive as a volunteer or in a paid capacity so that you can undertake project work. Therefore make sure that you do your research into these courses as early on as possible.

My advice about working in my industry

If you're looking for a job in the heritage, museums or library industries use your time now to do some voluntary work. Don't just do any voluntary work though. Look for roles that are similar to paid roles in that museum or others. Jobs are so competitive that voluntary experience is essential for many paid museum roles. Also don't forget that there is a big element of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. Volunteering is one of the best ways of getting these right.

Also use your time to get experience of the different types of roles available in museums and to decide what you like. The skill set and qualifications required for each type of role in museums varies significantly. Guiding and interpretation roles for example could require acting and public speaking type skills. You might be surprised by how little subject specific knowledge is required for many museum/gallery jobs so don't worry if you haven't taken a degree in a subject closely related to the museum or gallery type you're applying for. Indeed many museum roles don't require a degree but they do look for a lot of experience relevant to the role.

On the reverse side some museum roles like curating and archives require post-graduate level qualifications like a masters or PhD (in addition to lots of experience). Many of these degrees have their own pre-requisites. For example most distance learning masters courses in archives related subjects require that you are already working in an archive as a volunteer or in a paid capacity so that you can undertake project work. Therefore make sure that you do your research into these courses as early on as possible.

Next steps...

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