Librarian’s work brings contentment and reward

30 April 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 7 min.
Ingrid Thomson
Ingrid Thomson

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” This is a question almost every child is asked at some point. Some stumble as they respond, still unsure about the answer. And who can blame them – not everyone has it all figured out at age six. Those who’ve already given it some thought often answer confidently, but their responses differ vastly – from a fireman or a doctor to a pastry chef or a professional football player.

For Ingrid Thomson, it’s always been one of three professions: journalism, librarianship or archaeology. And she made it happen. Well, not in all three fields, but in two of them. She tried her hand at journalism and loved it. But after her retrenchment in 1982, she made the not-so-difficult decision and applied for a job as a librarian at a local community library. She has not looked back. Today, Thomson works as a senior librarian in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Hiddingh Hall Library and believes she is right where she’s meant to be.

“I always tell people that this is probably the best profession they could ever imagine. You can choose to work in public, academic, school or special libraries. You can be front and centre working closely with the public or be in the background cataloguing, working with metadata or programming if you’re an introverted personality. There’s so much to it,” she said. 

Ahead of Workers Day, celebrated annually in South Africa on 1 May, UCT News caught up with Thomson. She took us through a typical day at the office and shared what she loves most about being a librarian. This feature forms part of the newsroom’s Workers’ Day series and profiles several members of the campus community to showcase their work.

Life as a librarian

Thomson’s journey with UCT started in 1991 at the then Carlton Harrison Education Library on middle campus, and she’s worn a range of hats ever since. In 1996, she was appointed stock management librarian at the main library and later moved on to become acting head of circulation in 1998. In 2000, she made the shift to the Humanities Information Division (also in the main library) and remained there until her move to Hiddingh Hall in 2022, where she now works as a senior librarian for fine art and drama.


“It’s a mix bag of things, and no two days are the same.”

What does the job entail? Well, every day starts with a cup of coffee and things start getting real thereafter. Ensuring that the library runs like clockwork takes work, and she is front and centre of it, with the help of an excellent team, of course. Among a list of things, Thomson provides information services related to specific subject areas to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as academics. This, she said, involves finding, recommending and assisting them as they make use of the wide range of print and digital resources, and providing reference assistance when necessary. She also assists with the teaching and learning enterprise. This means that instructing, training, developing and updating guides and training material and providing training support for bibliographic software training programmes are also high on her to-do list. And let’s not forget the endless material and resource purchases for her subject areas, which keep her buzzing, but also ensures that she remains relevant and abreast of the plethora of new publications in those fields.

“It’s a mixed bag of things, and no two days are the same, which is why I always say it’s like asking: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ It changes all the time. But that’s what keeps me on my toes, and I love it,” she said.

An ever-changing environment

And as the modern technology-driven world evolves, Thomson said systems and processes in the library do too, which makes it an exciting environment to work in, to learn from, to explore and flourish, both personally and professionally.

Ensuring that the library runs like clockwork would be impossible without an excellent team. Ingrid Thomson (middle) pictured here with her team Bonga Siyothula, Marlene Adonis (left) and Leticia January (right).

But it’s the opportunity to work with students and to contribute to the success of their academic projects that bring her the most joy. And after more than three decades, it continues to be the most exciting part of her job. Thomson said there’s something special about using her skills to contribute meaningfully to a student’s task or assignment and to witness their gratitude and relief when she locates a resource they’ve long been searching for.

“I absolutely love working with students and I love assisting them – whether I’m answering a simple question for them, or guiding them through the literature gathering process for an assignment or a thesis. I’m always so happy when they come back to say they’ve done well. So, this is definitely a highlight,” she said.

Staying ahead of the curve

Over the many years, Thomson said, seeing and adapting to a changing environment, learning from colleagues, sharing her knowledge with others and staying ahead of the curve have contributed significantly to her success in the field.


“It’s not just a job; it’s been a true joy.”

“In 2004, a fellow librarian Steven Cohen said something wonderful: ‘Librarians have an obligation to be ahead of the curve, to know more than their patrons do about knowledge and to understand how their use could improve library services.’ I’ve taken that to heart since then – at times feeling like the meerkat on the hopie [meerkat on the heap], eagerly watching what is coming down the pike and alerting others,” she said.

Looking back, Thomson said, taking a leap of faith and making a career change in the 1990s has been a delight. A career as a librarian has brought with it contentment and reward, and for her work, in 2023, she was also named the joint winner of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA)-Sabinet Influential Library Leader Award – another career highlight.

“It’s not just a job; it’s been a true joy. And for those who think it’s about shushing noisy people in the library’s aisles, think again! It’s about a whole lot more. It’s also said to be the second oldest profession out there and that’s a treat,” she said. 

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