“These sort of men be those that do not lightly quit the field, but bide the brunt to the death.” (16th century account of the Galloglass)
The problems that LIS graduates face as they step onto the conveyor-belt of job-hunting – wherever it goes or ends up at, there’s nothing to do but stay on and keeping moving – can come down to the facts that (1) there are few employment opportunities in the LIS sector out there, and (2) of the ones that are, many are unpaid internships, volunteer opportunities, JobsBridge programmes, etc.
Unpaid opportunities may be essential these days to develop necessary experience but they are unpaid all the same and thus untenable unless you can already support yourself in some way, such as by living at home. One can hardly move to a new town for an unpaid internship, even if the alternative is more sitting-at-home.
These are common complaints amongst each new crop of LIS graduates. But this unhappy situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, with libraries and similar institutions too strapped for cash to take on employees on long-term contracts. We must either continue with the situation as it is and hope the conveyor-belt takes us to work we can or want to do, or look to alternative ways.
Among the latter could well be contracts that last for a matter of months, if not weeks. I speak from personal experience on the pros and cons of such an arrangement. While it has been rewarding, it has also been challenging (Translation: hard!), and I hope that my sharing of such experience will help others with any of their own, as well as raising its possibility to others who may not yet have considered such a thing.
In mid-July I was offered a temporary contract working as a cataloguer for the Higher Education Academy in York. The initial offer was for six weeks, then it was for five weeks – making it from the last week of July to the 1st of August – but the basic principle remained. While York is not a huge distance from my native Dublin, it was a city I had only visited once before years ago on a weekend and barely remembered it. It would be, for practical purposes, a strange city.
The shortness of the contract was also a matter of concern in terms of accommodation – as in, would I get any? After all, landlords prefer contracts for a lengthy period of time – more money and less hassle of having to find a new tenant all the time. For cities with a large student population like York, nine months is a standard length of contract offered by landlords to take into account semester times. A month-long contract falls far short of that norm.
I researched the Bed and Breakfast option but as these are intended for short stays, not long ones, my wages would have been fed directly into the rent. Student accommodation from the University of York – on whose campus the HEA is situated – ran into the same problems as the BnBs in being expensive and intended for short-term stays; as an example, it was impossible to book a room online for longer than a fortnight in one go. Adding pressure to the situation was that the contract was due to begin in a week, giving me little time to make a decision. In the end, I chose both accommodation options: I booked myself into a BnB of reasonable price for the first week of the contract to give myself a roof over my head while I looked for a flat for the remaining four weeks. What would hopefully work for me was how most of the students would be away at this time of year, leaving a dearth of occupied flats for me to take advantage of.
I took a flight from Dublin to Leeds Bradford Airport – no direct flights to York – and then a train to York, hoping to channel to spirit of the mercenary warriors of old, the “grim and redoubtable Galloglass with sharp, keen axes, terrible and ready for action.” After all, the legendary ‘Foreign Gael,’ of mixed Irish-Scottish heritage, were prepared to travel to wherever or whoever needed their services. With a Scottish surname like Murray, it seemed only proper to follow in the footsteps of such redoubtable go-getters, though perhaps without the keen axe. After the first week in the BnB, I was able get a flat for the month and just in time. A PhD student was looking for a sub-tenant for his room, and as no one had replied positively to my ad on SpareRoom.co.uk, it was an easy sell on my new tenant’s part.
The cataloguing work went well. So well that it was extended for another month, to the entirety of August. As my sub-landlord was due to return from his holidays, there was no possible extension on the flat and I was required to look again for another. I had more success this second time around, with several prospective flats to choose from by the end of my search. Once again the chosen flat was being sublet by a PhD student who was currently in Malaysia studying the noble dung-beetle. Shit happening was my opportunity, and a roof over my head was secured for another month.
As August went by, it was increasingly obvious that the workload would not be complete. Despite the workload being shared between a team of three, the original estimate of five weeks had proven to be a touch optimistic. As the dung-beetle aficionado was due to return by the end of the month, there was again no chance at an extension. What was less certain was whether there would be an extension at work. I had yet to hear back from my line-managers, and I was browsing through the cheap (ha!) options for Leeds Bradford-Dublin flights when I was told in the last week of work that there was to be an extension, after all – on a fortnightly basis this time, rather than a monthly one. It seemed budget was as much an issue here as it is everywhere else. I decided to assume that the new extension would amount in time to a month more all the same, and I would continue to flat-hunt on that basis. That is, if I could find one. Coming to work from a park-bench did not seem a tempting prospect, but a Galloglass librarian is one who does not lightly quit the field, instead biding the brunt onto death, so onwards again to SpareRoom.co.uk!
The flat-hunt this time was to prove the most gruelling so far. Students were starting to return for university that month, and there was little interest amongst landlords for anyone who could not commit to anything less than 6-9 months of tenancy. I haggled a couple of extra days in my current flat but after that I would be on my own. The countdown ticked away to the final weekend of August and still nothing…and then on the brink of Saturday afternoon, a flurry of available flats with less stringent contract demands appeared. I might have a chance, after all. After a Sunday of five flat-viewings in a row, I was able to move into a fresh flat for September. I do not know if the closeness to semester time had ‘encouraged’ the flats still without their student intake to open up – a discussion at one flat-viewing had revealed that the flat was now available to professionals due to an unexpected dearth of student takers that year. Were there fewer students in York than before, or more flats and more competition? Either way, the difficulty of Yorkist landlords had proved my opportunity.
Renewing a contract on such a monthly basis meant finding accommodation on the same basis. Again, this is a far shorter and less reliable timeframe than what most landlords are looking for in a tenant. I was fortunate in being in a city full of students with flats and in a time of year where students were away and looking to sublet these same flats. As a side issue, PhD students seem to lead a Galloglass lifestyle of their own, moving from flats and to countries to follow their research.
The disadvantages – or challenges – of short-term contract work are numerous. Moving to another place for however brief a time would also be far harder for someone with dependants and without some other arrangement in place. Short of adopting a Modest Proposal and eating said dependants, there is not much I can suggest about that.
Entering another country in the first place can be another challenge. Luckily for me here, Ireland and the UK have the Common Travel Area between them, meaning I could enter the former without problem, history having a certain cyclical nature given the number of Irish seasonal workers from Ireland in the 19th century Yorkshire agricultural industry (thank you, Yorkshire Museum!). With countries that enforce entry requirements such as the USA and Canada (the traditional retreats for the unemployed Irish in days gone past), such temporary contracts would be harder.
For how much longer my work at the HEA will continue I cannot say. It may be a matter of weeks more or longer. That uncertainty is something I cannot do much. Nonetheless, I have already gained from the whole experience, not just in wages – not to mention getting to walk to work on York’s medieval walls in the morning – but in working with Grails, an application framework I had previously been unacquainted with, and a new ‘sharp, keen axe’ I can now claim to know for future job applications.