Career Strategies for Librarians
How Working in Retail Made Me a Better Librarian
by Sian Brannon
Before completing my library science degree, I worked at a variety of major retail chain stores to
supplement my income as a teacher. I consider the lessons learned at the mall more valuable than the
library practicum/internship I was required to complete to earn my degree. In fact, I propose that every
person wanting to become a public services librarian work in retail at least once. You will learn a thing
If you have never worked in retail, consider this: You are at the beck and call of every person who walks
through the door. You will spend most of the day on your feet. You will dress nicely, but get dirty opening
boxes and restocking shelves. You will deal with customers who yell at you because they are having a
bad day. However, you handle it all with grace and a smile on your face because the number one
concept in retail is customer service. Wonderful customer service increases customer satisfaction,
which in turn makes them come back to the store and buy more. Being nice to customers also makes
certain they don’t tell their friends how horrible your store is, thus causing you to lose a few more
Customer service is also the number one priority in libraries. From the clerks at the circulation desk to
the top administrator, everyone should be as friendly and accommodating as possible. In public
libraries, some patrons think that they can order you around because “they pay your salary.” This is
aggravating, but in a way it’s true, so be nice. You were hired to serve the public. Be fair, courteous, and
cooperative (but don’t take any abuse!). Library patrons will remember the clerk that went out of his or
her way to put 25 items on hold for them. Likewise, they will remember the librarian that treated them
like they were two-year-olds. Keep them coming back.
The Reference Interview
Sometimes people don’t know what they want. They might have an idea, but they aren’t sure how to
pinpoint the right thing. In a retail store, especially in the clothing department, employees are trained to
ask questions to focus the search for the perfect outfit or gift. The employee must ask what the customer
is looking for, narrow down the purpose of the item, determine the timeframe for obtaining the item, and
evaluate what inventory they have to satisfy the need. Employees are also trained to check back with
customers to make sure they have the right item, size, or color.
This is not unlike the reference interview. In both retail and library settings, open-ended questions are
best. Repeating what the customer has said to demonstrate you understand is absolutely necessary.
Going back to check on a patron to get feedback and make sure they understand will help you determine
if you are on the right track. Learning to do reference interviews well will help you handle more than one
customer at a time.
Get Those Numbers Up
When you work for a profit-driven business, you are strongly encouraged to “add on” items to a
purchase. An example would be to suggest accessories to complement an outfit. Another is to remind
the customer to check out the sale area hidden in the back of the store for more bargains. This
(sometimes not-so-) gentle encouragement brings the bottom dollar of the store up, which is the goal.
One goal of the library is to increase circulation, in-house use, database usage, and other statistics.
Workers at the circulation desk could ask customers if they have seen the new arrivals by the front door.
Reference staff can recommend databases on related subjects when they see people browsing in
nonfiction. Staff who are shelving can pull out additional items for patrons who might not have noticed
them on their own. All staff can put up tables of related books and media during special programs.
There are lots of these opportunities in the library to “add on” to what a customer has already selected.
Branding/Value of Libraries
Retail stores, particularly chain stores such as The Body Shop, The Gap, or Victoria’s Secret, want to be
known for their product. This is called “branding.” They want to be the go-to place for whatever it is that a
customer is looking for. Is a customer going to try Victoria’s Secret for coffee? Most likely not. Will that
customer go to GapKids for undergarments? Let’s hope not. These stores provide a specific type of
product, build their identity around that product, and then educate consumers on the superiority and
availability of their product. This is done through advertising, public relations, their website, and their
Public libraries should also try to be known for their product…but what is that product? First, they
incorporate all of their services – providing information, adult and children’s programming, computers,
and more – into one unique concept to promote to the public, perhaps the “library as place.” Then,
through a campaign including word of mouth, print advertising, and excellent service, the library
effectively makes it known that they are the go-to place for the community’s informational, recreational
and computer needs.
Almost all other professions are closely related to library jobs, be they retail, service, labor, or something
else. Not only did working in retail prepare me for various on-the-job situations in the library where I
currently work, but it also gave me lots of hands-on stories to use during interviews for my first library
job. (Given the salary levels in public libraries right now, perhaps I can use my library experience to
interview for a retail job on the side!)
About the Author:
Sian Brannon is a former Gap addict who worked in various retail establishments to put herself through
library school. Currently she helps the public shop for information at the Denton Public Library.
Article published Feb 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.