Monday, 3 October 2011

Thoughts on military librarianship

The British Army's Prince Consort's Library
EDITED: 14/10/11

My time as Assistant Librarian at the Army College is coming to an end and so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on a little-known niche of librarianship: military librarianship. There isn't much information available about military librarianship and, due to security issues, precious little communication between military librarians (unfortunately there is no 'Secret Covenant of Army Librarians'). Here is some of what I've learned and what I've thought during my year and a half working as a librarian for the British Army.


Army libraries use a unique military classification system which is functionally distinct from Dewey or Library of Congress. Our copy of the scheme is from 1985. I have never come across it anywhere else and I can find virtually no reference to it online other than in Tidworth Library's Army Stock catalogue. Basically it divides all military books into Military Biography (MB), Military Equipment (ME), Military Forces (MF), Military Warfare (MW) (which is basically military history), and Regimental History (RH). These categories are then divided using Dewey-like numbers and auxiliaries relating to geography and history. So, for example, books on the Iraq War are MW.365.67-67; books about the War in Afghanistan are MW.365.81; books about nuclear weapons are ME.47 subdivided into ME.471 for bombs, ME.472 for missiles, and ME.473 for nuclear artillery. Military Biography just uses the first three letters of the biography subject's surname eg. Saddam Hussein is under MB.HUS. The scheme also allows you to divide books on World War I and World War II from the Military Warfare division using a separate classification schedule: for example, books on the D-Day landings are WW2: 251.61.

Working with restrictions 

Librarianship is all about making information available. Military security requires that information not be made available. This basic conflict is a challenge for any military librarian who can be restricted by the Army, Navy, or Air Force’s security protocols. 

I’ve written before about how narrow access to the Web affects the soldiers’ ability to retrieve verifiably true information. This applies equally to library staff. During my time at the college, the restricted Web access on the college’s computers has made it difficult to do so many things: to get Creative Commons material for displays, newsletters, posters; to find ideas for literacy development, library promotion, and inductions; to ask for advice from colleagues on social networks; and, most importantly, to find up-to-date information on military campaigns such as Operation Moshtarak and Operation Panther’s Claw. As well as the difficulty of accessing Web materials, the use of USB sticks is restricted which makes what should be simple – the transferring of files – extremely difficult. 

These restrictions are challenging – particularly for someone like me who focused his career on electronic resources, the Web, and ebooks. Learning to do without these resources has been frustrating but good for my development: it makes military librarians more resourceful, more willing to use different technologies, and less reliant on the Google-Wikipedia crutch.

Army culture 

I can’t speak for the other Armed Forces but the British Army has a very distinct (and in some ways unusual) culture with its own norms, values, and etiquette. In the civilian world, it may be unacceptable to take your dog into the office with you everyday but in the Army, it’s perfectly fine. Every library is heavily influenced by its users and so the culture of the Army massively impacts Army librarians’ day-to-day work. Military librarians need to be more active in their assistance. More than anywhere else I’ve worked, I look for users struggling instead of waiting for them to come to me. This often leads to the problem, how do you help someone who doesn’t tell you what they’re looking for?

Reading and learning 

The single biggest challenge of providing the military with reading material is that the military by and large don’t want reading material. There will always be people who don’t want to read but the incidence of non-readers among soldiers is higher than in the general population.

Some soldiers need no encouragement to read.

In general, a soldier only reads The Sun, Soldier magazine, or books that they have to read – because they are ordered to by a superior officer or because they’re doing some kind of further/higher education course. A lot of the soldiers only use the library during their free time to access Facebook. Military librarians need to encourage the few soldiers who read for pleasure. During my time at the College, partly inspired by Patrick Hennessey’s book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, I’ve tried to encourage reading by representing it as a refuge, as a therapy, and as a way to pass the time during the periods of waiting and inaction that punctuate a soldier’s life. 

It’s rare but in some soldiers there is a genuine desire to learn and, whatever else I may think about the British Army, it’s admirable how much emphasis they put on education and learning – especially at the Army Foundation College. One afternoon in the library, I overheard a discussion between a Captain and a Junior Soldier: they intelligently discussed the Taliban, the false conflict between Islam and Christianity, and the human cost of war. I hope that when that Junior Soldier gets to Afghanistan, he will remember that discussion he had in the library and hopefully make the right decisions. 

A soldier once told me that soldiers fight for peace, not for war. The military librarian’s job is to support soldiers’ learning in order to make sure that when they have to fight, they do it intelligently and humanly. I hope that I’ve done that in my time at the college and I hope that other military librarians continue to do the same.


Jo Alcock said...

Great post, really interesting to hear about the different experiences due to a very unique user group.

Good luck in the new job! :)

Anonymous said...

What a great blog post. As an ex-soldier, now a full-time librarian, I have seriously considered becoming a military librarian, but there is nothing near to where I live. My husband's still in the army, and I've encouraged him to use ALIX, and he regularly phones the Prince's Consort library in Aldershot. He believes that my inside knowledge has helped him to get ahead with the research that is required for his particular role.

Jenni said...

This is a great post, it's so interesting to read more about your role. I find the idea of becoming a military librarian once I finish this degree pretty appealing though unfortunately there are no options near where I'm planning to relocate to.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks for the kind words. I've wanted to write something about military librarianship for a while but was reluctant to do so while I was in the job (for security reasons and Official Secrets Act reasons).

I think it's a really interesting example of a tailored library service heavily influenced by the users and it's kind of a shame that there isn't more promotion or publication about it.

Jenni and Anonymous - I wish I could give some advice on becoming a military librarian but I sort of fell into it after my MA. Just keep an eye on job listings, I suppose.

thewikiman said...

Blimey. I don't know you that well, but this sounds like it must be quite a relief to go and do something else now? I don't think I'd've coped well in your job, certainly. You did well to make a success of it!

Very interesting parallels with special librarianship (or rather business librarianship - I think military librarianship classes as special) in that helping people is tricky if they don't want to be helped or to be in the 'weak' position of asking for help.

Here's a copy and paste from the notes I took at a session on marketing at SLA2011, which this post brought to mind - similarish problem in completely different circumstances, do you reckon?

"You're dealing with highly intelligent adults, don't like to admit they don't know stuff. So they ask questions as instructions - and the challenge is to 'answer' without embarassing them."

michael said...

This is an excellent post on a subject with which I'm entirely unfamiliar. It's thought-provoking and beautifully written.

Simon Barron said...

To be honest, Ned, I think it's probably been the most difficult job I'll ever do. Simply because it was so far out of my comfort zone and so different to anything I'd done before. Some days have been a real challenge. In all seriousness, I sometimes found it difficult to play the 'enthusiastic lighthearted librarian' when I'm serving people who, in a year's time, will be going to Afghanistan into an actual war.

That's an interesting quote. I'd never thought of it in those terms: like a game you have to play. The soldiers definitely respond better to unprompted help than if they have to ask.

thatblackbook said...

Thank you so much for sharing that. I had no idea that such a thing as military librarianship even existed before I read your post. It sounds like a really tough job, so kudos to you.

Cotham said...

Very interesting blog post, thank you for sharing.

Phil said...

Really enjoyable read.

Laura said...

Really interesting post - thank you for sharing. For all its difficulties it sounds like a worthwhile role and your comprehension of the soldiers' attitudes to information is really quite wonderful. It must have been hard to leave for those reasons, but those are eminently transferable skills. Onwards and upwards!

Jenny said...

This is a great post! I can really identify with a lot of your thoughts as I currently run a library at a Royal Air Force base and it can be challenging at times! Communication between different libraries is a definite issue. Fortunately, myself and a few other MoD librarians have started chatting quite a lot via email and are arranging various visits in the coming months. This will be really useful, as sometimes it can feel as if you're on your own. Another problem is that we all seem to use different Library Management Systems (or are on different versions of the same system), and many of us are at different stages with the move to DII (Defence Information Infrastructure).

I think communication is so important to ensuring that we continue to offer a great service to our users. It's hard to get things done sometimes though - we're still awaiting the installation of two OPACs for the library - approximately 2 years after the project was okayed by security! It does get frustrating at times, but it can also be very rewarding, so I'd urge any librarian to give it a go. It's a completely different environment to any other! Having come from an academic library background in a large university, it's been strange getting my head around the lack of eresources and new technologies. I'm hoping to move forward with some new ideas once we've got our move to DII out of the way - let's see what happens!

tinalpool said...

Great post, sounded like a real challenge. Hope the new place goes ok,

Jill Hazard said...

A really interesting and insightful post. It was great to hear about a little known area of the profession and your experiences in your job.

Sandra said...

I really enjoyed your post and can't disagree with anything you said on the subject. There are certainly many challenges to be faced, particularly in dealing sensitively with this user group. The difficulties faced in everyday use of I.T. is also very frustrating especially as it was easier, quicker and more enjoyable to do the job 5 years ago than it is today. However I honestly believe that the skills acquired in overcoming these obstacles is very useful in our overall professional development. Finding solutions, negotiating, engaging are all transferable skills in whichever information sector we end up in. Admittedly I have always thought of myself as an Educational Librarian rather than military one but your blog has given me food for thought. Thank you for that. and good luck on your new position!

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Sandra. Your comment means a lot.

'Education Librarian' is a good way to think about it and more accurately captures the essence of what the library does for the JS. I'd also agree that the struggles of access and IT in that environment helped to develop me and make me a better information worker - less reliant on technology, more willing to pursue different lines of enquiry. "Whatever doesn't kill us only makes us stronger."

Tixylix said...

Just wanted to echo many of the comments above really - a fascinating insight into an environment I knew nothing about.

Thomas Brevik said...

Great post. It is very close to my own experience as head librarian at the Norwegian Naval Academy library, altough it sounds like I was working in a more open and "civilian" facility than you did. Libraries and the Military certainly have their zones of conflict, but my experience is that there is much to learn from each other and improve. My own experience was that the greatest challenge was to understand the military culture/mindset and language. Once you can talk and understand the acronyms and imagery you usually get better communication. I loved to use expressions like "maneuver librarianship" or "information warfare training" (good old library instruction)
I think the one thing that makes working in a military library so unique is that you are challenged in other areas than in most libraries.

Roger Goult said...

Roger Goult, MCLIP, Learning Resource Centre Manager (Job Share) Welbeck 6th Form Defence College, Woodhouse, Nr. Loughborough Leics.
Came across your post whilst researching for Military Librarianship. We prepare 16-18 yr olds for 'A-Levels' though the Armed Services DTUS scheme leading to a University place and subsequently to one of the Armed Services officer training colleges. Would be grateful to hear from other librarians in MIlitary establishments to make contact and share good practice etc.E-mail address: