My Summer as a Librarian for a Canadian Elections Agency
by Ciara O’Shea
Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.
Last summer, I worked in the library at Elections Canada. I got the job through FSWEP, the Federal Student Work Experience Program, which allows college students in Canada to get paid work experience through short contracts in the Federal Government of Canada. It works on a lottery system, and you end up in a smaller pool of applicants if you have specialized skills, or you are willing to work somewhere not many people are willing to go. I had just finished my first year of my Masters of Library and Information Studies, which gave me some fancy skills, so many of my classmates and I ended up moving to Ottawa for the summer. I ended up moving back in with my parents to save money, but I did help friends find cheap, clean and safe places to live. My parents also offered a room to a good friend of mine, but her workplace in Gatineau was too much trouble to get to from where they lived.
I started at Elections a few days after the last federal election. Unfortunately, it meant that there wasn’t a lot of work for me to do during the first month. Everyone was finishing up their projects, and making reports about the past election, so they really didn’t need anything at the library. I catalogued just a few books and magazines. I worked on one bibliography, and, to be honest, it was really slow. I started creating small tasks for myself to keep busy. I went through the shelves and made notes of where the library had four copies of a book that was out of date so I would have proof that there needed to be some weeding. I started to make a list of websites to help Anglophones improve their French, and Francophones improve their English (I thought that I would make a pathfinder or annotated list of resources for both groups).
After about a month and a half, my supervisor/co-worker changed. Originally, I was supposed to run the library by myself for the rest of the summer, which is doable since the library is so small. However, Elections hired someone who had previously worked in the library, and that was when my summer job got really busy. I loved it, because restarted a lot of projects that had been forgotten. She also made sure that I had interesting work to do, and that I was getting a range of experiences. She put me in charge of interlibrary loans and reference.
After the elections were finally put to rest, people started to have questions again, and I ended up doing lots of really fun and really interesting research. I regularly laughed at work when I would be searching through Hansard (the official record of what was said in Parliament that day), because politicians can be really mean to each other (and they can be really funny, too). I found out what every political science and sociology professor in Canada says they are researching, just in case their interests might fit the parameters of a specific project. I went inside two branches of the Library of Parliament — the more modern one on Sparks Street, and the amazingly beautiful one on Parliament Hill — to finish off some research. I solved multiple small mysteries, including where someone found a specific chart, why the wording of multiple bills changed slightly between readings, and my own question of why Elections Canada keeps reminding people to not eat their ballots (Answer: Because in 1999, at least three people publicly ate their ballots, including one person who brought a blender to make a ballot smoothie).
I helped a fellow student working on his thesis find out why they law has not officially changed regarding prisoners and their voting rights even though the law has been struck down in the Supreme Court. It took some digging, but, essentially, it wouldn’t look good for the government if they changed the actual law to allow prisoners to vote, so the Chief Electoral Officer uses his special powers at every election to make things right. I chose some new books for the library, and I learned all about the electoral system in Malaysia, because they had representatives visiting Canada. Finally, all that make-work that I did at the beginning was worth it — we ended up weeding out some items, and I created a few different pathfinders on languages and research materials to help the staff.
Everyone at Elections was amazingly friendly, especially in my department. All of the summer students had their photos taken and appeared in the monthly newsletter. I mentioned that I was trying to read and review a book a week in a blurb below my photo, and people emailed me suggestions of new books to read. My section went out for lunch a few times to celebrate major milestones, like a coworker finishing his master’s degree. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with.
I also made mistakes — bureaucracy can be really confusing if you aren’t used to it. I emailed someone important directly when I should have gone through his manager. I had to ask native French speakers to look over my French before I would send out the library’s monthly newsletter. I didn’t figure out until after I completed the program that I could have taken some time off, as long as I didn’t mind losing out on the money from those days. If I had known this, I probably would have looked at my finances to figure out if I had the money to go to my cousin’s wedding in Ireland.
Here’s what I learned: I found out that it is very possible to never see people at an office job, especially if your office/library is isolated from other departments. I realized that I need to see people regularly to stay sane. Most importantly, I found out that I had made the right choice in choosing to become a librarian. I really loved my job, and I found it interesting and challenging. I hope that everyone who does an internship can at least figure out if they truly enjoy the field they want to pursue.
Ciara O’Shea just recently became a full-fledged librarian. She is finding out this fall if she is meant for small town library life. Obvious disclaimer: Ciara doesn’t represent FSWEP or Elections Canada. Photo: Elections Canada