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Polar librarian

William Mills

AGE: 47 SALARY: 21,000 [pounds sterling]

OCCUPATION: Keeper and Librarian at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge

Route to the job: I've been here now for ten years but to begin with I graduated in geography from the University of Cambridge. I was then a teacher for a few years and worked with disturbed kids for one year. Finally I started working in a library; in the School of Geography at Oxford University. I'd never really thought of working in a library before, although I love books. I thought it would be an exquisite form of torture to have a job watching people read books but not being able to read them myself.

Typical day: I come in at eight o'clock in the morning, get onto the email and there's always a great flood of enquiries from all over the world. The flavour of the year is Ernest Shackleton. Yesterday I had an enquiry from the New York Times wanting to know if he had brought anything back from Elephant Island. I was able to say that, although he only brought back papers, one expedition member, JM Wordie, brought back a spar from Endurance. This is hanging in our Shackleton Memorial Library. We get more enquiries on Shackleton and Scott than any other. But we cover the Arctic as well as Antarctica so I also get enquiries about different Inuit words for `snow' and how to build an igloo.

Highs and lows: The greatest high, unquestionably, is the travel. It's very unusual in a library job to travel -- usually it's the librarian's job to be chained to the desk while everyone goes round the world. In my case I tend to go abroad at least twice a year, usually to attend conferences or meetings. I've been to North America, Alaska, Canada and Finland. The best high of all was this January when I was invited to lecture in Antarctica. That makes it sound as though I get a high whenever I get away from work, but that's not exactly true. On the whole it's a lovely job. You get very interesting people coming into the library from such places as Alaska and Siberia. They come from the ends of earth and they go to the ends of the earth. If there is a low it's the tremendous workload. If I go away for a couple of weeks I can barely get into my office because of the piles of paper in my in tray and all over the floor.

Ambitions: There are relatively few specialist geographical libraries and as far as I'm concerned I've got the best job. It took me six years to get it and I've loved it ever since. I think if I wanted to move on I would have to work in a more conventional library in a more administrative job. But I'm not terribly interested in that.

Time Out: I like the arts and visiting places and I play the lute. I give occasional concerts but it's more for private pleasure. A lot of the music I play is virtually unplayed by anyone else.


Dr John Smellie

AGE: 46 SALARY: 30,000 [pounds sterling]

OCCUPATION: senior volcanologist in the geoscience division of British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge

Route to job: I graduated when I was 21 and my first job was at British Antarctic Survey. I worked here on volcanic rocks for five years, then left for five years, then came back to develop the volcanology section.

Typical day: There are two completely different sides to my working life. First there's the fieldwork, which involves living in a tent for between two and three months every year. In the field, the most important event of the day is sticking your head out of the tent at seven o' clock and deciding whether the weather will let you work. That might sound funny but sometimes the weather's been so bad I've been stuck in my tent for two weeks. If the weather's good I get out and work until about six or seven at night. Geology is an observational science. The bulk of the work is walking, observing, sketching, taking notes, photographing and sampling. Then you have to analyse this data.

Which brings us to life back in the office. Increasingly there's a huge amount of bureaucracy. We have to put up project proposals for funding which takes time. There's a lot of reading involved. The literature is burgeoning year on year. Then there are other mundane things. We have to crush and analyse our rocks and manipulate the data they yield on computer.

Highs and lows: I'd say 80 per cent of the job is just hard graft. It can be quite boring at times, particularly if you're manipulating data. But the highs are when you make a discovery; how one unit relates to another one; how it might have formed. My very first paper was published in Nature. It was the only thing I ever managed to get into that blasted journal -- they've turned me down many times since.

The best times of my life have been in Antarctica but so have almost all the worst times.

Ambitions: I've done a lot of work on volcanos that have erupted underneath ice. I now want to look into the terrible floods that can be associated with these eruptions. I think I can predict if flooding will occur, and when during an eruption it will occur. I'm really quite proud of that. I think I've made quite a big step forward.

Time out: I've got an house that's about 170 years old that my wife and I rebuilt. But I guess my hobby is motorbikes. I have old motorbikes and new motorbikes and I spend a lot of time taking them to bits.
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Date:Jun 1, 1999
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