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Career Strategies for Librarians
The Other Academic Library: Librarianship at the Community College
by Jennifer Arnold

Community college librarianship represents an excellent opportunity for new MLS-holders interested in a
career in academic librarianship.  Community and junior colleges pride themselves on being “open-
door” institutions, providing higher education and job training to all who apply.  In many ways, community
college libraries (often referred to as Learning Resource Centers) are open-door institutions for new
librarians, frequently offering opportunities to explore a wide range of library roles and positions, from
circulation to reference, or you might say, “soup to nuts.”

The Community College Library

While in library school, I worked in the reference department at the library for a large, doctoral-granting
research university.  Even if I had had access to my library’s circulation system, I would not have known
how to check out a book.  At the community college library in which I now work, I do both reference and
circulation.  My other responsibilities include (here comes that soup-to-nuts thing I was talking about)
collection development, instruction, virtual reference, serials, and electronic resources.  The boundaries
between departments within community college libraries are far more fluid than at a four-year institution.  
Even though I work a large, urban community college (around 55,000 students), I spend most of my time
at a branch campus library in which I am generally a solo librarian. In a typical day, I answer reference
questions, help students log in and use our computers, handle student printing, check out books, collect
fines, assist faculty with equipment, teach a class – the list could go on and on.

As a new librarian, I have found this wide range of experience to be a remarkably helpful introduction to
the profession of librarianship. In my paraprofessional position, my job included both public services
and technical services elements, and as I applied for my first professional position, I was hoping for the
same.  However, in many (though not all) university libraries, public services and technical services
rarely overlap.  The jobs are very distinct, and you don’t often see a serials librarian, for instance, working
hours at the reference desk.  At the community college, however, I am a serials librarian who works at
the reference desk – regularly.  The opportunity to move fluidly between the different departments that
comprise the typical academic library provides new librarians with the time to explore and figure out
which area they want to focus on or specialize in as their careers progress.  Or, like me, they will figure
out that they want to spend the rest of their careers doing a little bit of everything.

Two-year vs. Four-Year: What’s the Difference?

What makes the community college such a breeding ground for opportunity? While the community
college shares many attributes with four-year colleges and universities, the two-year college really is its
own unique entity, with different challenges and opportunities in providing library services to faculty, staff,
and students.  For example, the types of programs offered at the community college differ from university
programs.  While many students are completing their first two years of college with plans to transfer to a
four-year school, community colleges also offer students a wide variety of two-year technical degrees
(welding, HVAC, culinary, horticulture, etc.), GED and high school completion programs, English as a
Second Language programs, and corporate/continuing education.  Faculty focus is on teaching rather
than research (community college instructors often teach six classes per semester).  With unique
programs, and a significant amount of corporate/continuing education, students also tend to flow in and
out of the community college.  For example, many students take a few classes to upgrade a particular
job skill, and do not intend to complete a degree, diploma, or certificate.

In terms of issues like contracts and tenure, community colleges again differ from their four-year
counterparts.  Because of the focus on teaching rather than research, the system of tenure does not
apply at the community college.  However, many community colleges have a system that might best be
described as “tenure light.”  After a period of employment ranging from 3 to 5 years, a community college
employee can move from a yearly, conditional contract to an extendible contract, which protects the
employee against the termination of his or her contract outside of an act of gross misconduct, as defined
by the college.  Typically, this move requires a certain level of performance as recorded on an evaluation,
as well as a certain status.  Such contracts are available to librarians with faculty status or an equivalent
to faculty status (sometimes called professional, which might also include other positions with direct
student contact, such as counselor or advisor).  If you apply for a community college position, I
recommend confirming with the human resources department what status librarians hold at that
particular institution.

As teaching institutions, publishing and presenting are certainly a supported and respected activity at the
community college, but they are not absolutely required as they often are at a four-year school.  For new
librarians anxious about the publishing or presenting requirements at an academic library, starting out at
the community college level allows you to explore such opportunities at your own pace, without the
immediate pressure of expectation that often comes with tenure or promotion at a four-year institution.  
On the other hand, a community college librarian might not have access to the same level of travel
support or funds to attend conferences.  However, there are scholarships and grants provided by
organizations like ALA, ACRL, and state library organizations that often provide generous scholarships to
attend annual conferences.

Outreach: Getting Students in the Door

What do these differences mean for the community college librarian?  In short, they mean that you will
experience variety in your work life.  Community college libraries generally have smaller staffs
(professional and paraprofessional), which leads to the blurring of job distinctions.  Also, the community
college setting requires outreach efforts to reach the college community.  Typically, faculty won’t be
coming into the campus library to work on their own research.  Many students will be in degree
programs that are not library intensive.  As a community college librarian, you’ll need to develop good
working relationships with faculty in order to collaborate on creating library assignments and designing
instruction classes.  What’s worked for me?  Offering to attend faculty meetings, sending out emails and
newsletters – in other words, taking every opportunity to talk to instructors about how the library can help
their students succeed.

In terms of working with students, community college librarianship represents some challenges for
librarians.  Getting community college students to use the library is only half the battle.  Designing library
programs and instruction sessions for two-year students can be difficult.  While you will see students
from English and Communications courses in the library, it is more of a challenge to attract students
from applied and technical programs that are not traditionally library intensive.  As a librarian for a
campus with a concentration in applied technologies, I have to work at finding ways to make the library
relevant to my student population.

Personally, I have found that a great way to get students in the door is by making the library an attractive
place for them to use computers, study, or read the newspaper.  I have introduced students to the library
resources available to them by creating displays of materials related to the courses being taught that
semester at my campus.  This can create opportunities to talk to students about the range of library
services available to them.  Simply being approachable is also critical to developing relationships with
community college students.  A significant number of community college students are first generation
college students who need help navigating the often confusing waters of higher education.  A
willingness to be friendly and answer a lot of non-library related questions goes a long way towards
building a rapport with students.  Such approachability will pay off in the long run – once students get
comfortable in the library and with the librarian, they generally start asking questions about library
services.

Consider the Community College Library

I have certainly come to see that while both university and community college libraries are academic
libraries, the librarians in these institutions play different roles and can have unique career paths.  
Community colleges are dynamic institutions in which librarians can make huge differences in students’
learning outcomes.  Personally, I have developed a strong commitment to the open-door mission of the
community college during my 18 months as a community college librarian.  Do I do a lot of “non-
librarian” tasks?  Absolutely, but I think the payoff of connecting with community college students is worth
the time I spend on those tasks.  At heart, community college librarianship is a different brand of
academic librarianship and offers great opportunities for new librarians to grow in their first post-MLS
position.  If you’re interested in academic librarianship, I encourage you to consider community colleges
as you prepare to apply for jobs.

Recommended Reading

Is your interest in community colleges piqued?  Below, I’ve listed some informative articles and books
with great information about community colleges and community college librarianship.  For general
information on two-year schools, I also recommend the website of the League for Innovation in the
Community College, http://www.league.org/welcome.htm, and the special supplement on the community
college from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bell, Carmine J. “A Passion for Connection: Community Colleges Fulfill The Promise of Cultural
Institutions.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 43.3 (Spring 2004): 206-212.

Clewis, Beth.  “Scholarship and the Community College Librarian.”  Journal of Academic Librarianship
17.4 (Sept. 1991): 220-222.

Donohue, Mary. “The Autobiography of a Modern Community College Librarian.”  Computers in Libraries
21.10 (Nov./Dec. 2001): 44-46.

Kalick, Rosanne. Community College Libraries: Centers for Lifelong Learning. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow
Press, 1992.

Katz, Bill. Community College Reference Services: A Working Guide for and by Librarians. Metuchen, NJ:
Scarecrow Press, 1992.

About the Author:

Jennifer Arnold is the manager of the Harper Campus Library of Central Piedmont Community College
in Charlotte, NC.  She obtained her MLS from the University of South Florida in 2003.  Prior to her
position as a community college librarian, she worked as a paraprofessional in the reference
department of a large university library.  

Article published May 2005

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.