Monday, December 26, 2011

Working 9 to 5: Keeping Your Options Open, by John Kirriemuir

Keeping your options open. Having many irons in the fire. Having a quiver full of arrows. Not putting all your eggs in one basket. All of these are cliches, but in the trauma of the economy of the 2010s they highlight the inescapable truth: job security is a rarity, or even an illusion, and it’s best to have several potential (or even better, actual) income sources.

After several years in the early 1990s as a researcher in a library school, I landed the job of information officer at UKOLN. In a hugely lucky break, the first project I was handed was to develop a web magazine called Ariadne for the library sector. Inevitably, this meant dealing with lots of people in the library sector: contributers, academics, librarians, readers, and funders.

And it’s those people who formed my early contact network, that became crucial when I decided to quit working for university library research units in 2001 (the tipping point was being forced to listen to irrelevant all-morning presentations on information granularity), and go full-time self-employed. That network gave me multiple sources of income as a self-employed information professional, which I’ve used for over a decade.

What exactly is a self-employed information professional? Probably whatever you want it to be - “information professional” covers a very, very wide array of consultancy, advisory and research possibilities, in the public and private sectors. For me, the job title gets tailored to something more specific depending on the work I am pursuing or doing. This could be researching the use of digital games in libraries, or looking at unconventional methods of raising funding for public libraries, or justifying on cost/benefit grounds the continued funding of such a resource. But that’s just three of hundreds, if not thousands, of tasks carried out by people who are not salaried library staff.

Tempted by the lifestyle of the self-employed? It’s not glamorous. Yes, I’ve travelled a lot (60 times abroad, including 10 visits to the US of A), and that’s mostly funded out of my own pocket, not that of an employer. You have to be committed to the work; if you don’t work, then you don’t eat. And you have to be committed to making periods of time when you don’t work; otherwise, the madness of no down-time descends.

But the key thing, even if you are happy in your current job and it appears to be secure, is never to rule out working for yourself. Your employment circumstances may change. You, yourself, may change over the years, in what you are happy spending those brief waking hours doing. The library and information sector may change. No, wait ... ebooks, funding, digitisation, the Internet, massive book chains such as Borders - it *is* changing, and rapidly. At the very least, keeping your options open is a sensible and prudent strategy.

Two key things, from experience and watching others make “the leap”. First, don’t start thinking about doing self-employed work in the library sector the day you stop doing your “regular” job. It’s a bit late then. Start at least three months, preferably six months, before. That’s the time to start asking yourself important questions like: what are you good at, and what do you like doing (these may not be the same things)? Which organisations will pay you to do these things? Who will you need to contact? What is your online and personal profile like i.e. how will you convince the people who authorise funding to give you some, to work for them?

Second. Be considerate to everyone, no matter how junior they are, throughout your employed and self-employed career. One day you may find that the intern, or undergraduate, or junior researcher, is now an informatics programme funding manager, and you’re an informatics consultant. People have good memories, and long memories, and you’ll never know in what context you will meet, or need, them again. The information sector is also highly intermeshed; bad tempered people are known, and a negative reputation is difficult to shake off. Be a good person; not just for your career and future income, but just ... well, so you’re a good person.

Above all, keep your income options open. And, even though self-employed people generally make their own fortune, good luck in your endeavors.

John Kirriemuir is a researcher (Silversprite), a blogger (, and Twitterer (@wordshore).

1 comment:

  1. Keeping your options open seem to be the "only option" these days. Thanks for the advice!