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Career Strategies for Librarians
From Temporary to Permanent – Making the Best of Your Time as a Temp
by Rachel Bridgewater

Many new librarians get a first shot at a professional position through temporary appointments,
especially in the academic environment.  Temporary positions are created for any number of reasons.  
Libraries will often hire a temporary librarian while going through the lengthy process of recruiting for a
permanent position.  Sometimes these positions are created when a permanent employee goes on
extended leave – parental leave, sabbatical, or other leave of absence.  A position might be created in
association with a grant or other large project.  Whether or not there is an obvious permanent position on
the horizon, it is best to treat the temporary position as if a permanent one will be opening up.  After all,
that permanent employee out on parental leave may choose to stay home with his baby, or the university
might add a new program and get funding to hire a librarian.  A number of things could happen and you
want to be poised to make the most of your time in that temporary position.

I recently went through the process of moving from a temporary to a permanent position.  The process
had its challenges, from the limbo of being temporary to the awkwardness of interviewing with my co-
workers.  As with many challenges, this was a learning experience for me.  This article is my effort to
share the lessons I learned from that experience.

Making the Most of Your Time as a Temp

Obviously, working as a temporary employee is an excellent way to show what you’re capable of doing.  
You also get a wonderful chance to assess the library and determine if it’s a good match for you.   

Fact-finding

Spend time learning about your library and how it fits into any larger organizations, such as the university
or the city government.  Read up on policies.  Learn the basic facts and figures – FTE, collection size,
etc.  Find out about the history of the place.  Read and ask questions about strategic planning
documents, the mission statement, and other important documents.  If possible, find out how the
temporary position will differ from the permanent one and work on the skills you’ll need for the
permanent position.   

Get to know your co-workers

There can be a reluctance to put a lot of energy into the social aspects of the workplace if you assume
that you won’t be there in a few months.  However, spending some energy getting to know your co-
workers will not only help you should you become a candidate for a permanent position in the future, it
will also make your day-to-day work more pleasant!  Keep in mind that these people will be wonderful
references for you when it is time for you to move on.

Shine… but do the job you were hired to do

Don’t be afraid to show what you’re capable of accomplishing. For example, I took the opportunity to
submit presentation proposals for several local conferences.  These were accepted and I was able to
add a couple of presentations to my CV before making my application for a professional position.    

Be careful not to overstep any limitations that are placed on you by your temporary status.  For example,
make sure temporary employees are permitted to serve on committees before volunteering to serve on
one.  Remember that you were hired to perform the tasks associated with the temporary position – never
let your desire to “show ‘em what you’ve got” trump that basic fact.

Say “yes”

This is a great time to challenge yourself and work on a variety of projects.  As a temporary employee,
you’ll often have more “bandwidth” to pick up extra duties than your permanent colleagues.  If you find
yourself with time, see if you can help anyone with anything.  I knew that my lack of teaching experience
would be a real problem for me as I applied for permanent academic positions, so I let my colleagues
know that I was ready, willing, and able to teach any and all bibliographic instruction sessions that came
up.  My colleagues often welcomed the break in their heavy instruction schedules, and I gained
invaluable teaching experience.   

A word of caution

Madness can set in if you get caught in the trap of thinking of your temporary position as one long job
interview.  Of course, in some important ways, it really is one long job interview, but the only way to cope
with that is to focus your energy on doing the best job you can.  Take the work as seriously as you would
if you were in a permanent position.  I found it helpful to talk to other people who were working, or had
worked, in temporary positions.  It helped me to see that my feelings of anxiety were pretty normal!   

Coping with the Search Process

At last, after all of that waiting and wondering, the hiring process begins for that permanent position you’
ve been wanting.  Even under the best of circumstances, there will probably come a time during the
search process where you feel very awkward.  Co-workers will be meeting in closed rooms to discuss
the position and, if you are an applicant, you!  You will undoubtedly read too much into every small
comment your coworkers make.  Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this except recognize
that it’s inevitable and will be over soon.  Sometimes it‘s helpful to remember that it can be awkward for
the search committee, too.

Finally, depending on the size of the library and the nature of your position, you will probably be in a
position to get “privileged” information (beyond the privilege of simply knowing your coworkers and
library).  For example, all-staff emails will probably go out inviting people to attend the presentations and
interviews.  Resumes could inadvertently be routed to you.  You may overhear people talking; you may
even have a coworker involved in the search process who wants to share information with you.  Some of
this is innocuous and some starts you down a slippery slope.  Err on the side of scrupulousness.  This
may include telling a coworker, “I’d rather not hear anything about the other candidates.”   You may be
sorely tempted to try to find some information about “the competition,” but I would advise you strongly
against using your position to obtain it!   

Making the Most of the Interview

Having worked in a library as a temporary employee – especially in the same position for which you are
now interviewing – can be a huge advantage.  Just being familiar with the layout of the building and the
rooms in which you will be presenting will be a great help.  Thanks to your diligent fact-finding during
your temporary appointment, you also have an awareness of the library including collections, services,
staffing, and other resources.  You know something about the goals of the library and your division within
the library and are aware of current and ongoing projects.  You have some knowledge of the
personalities involved and the workplace culture.  You probably also have some sense of political or “hot
button” issues to avoid or tread upon lightly.

As with so many things in life, these advantages have their flipsides.  Your knowledge of the culture can
limit your vision.  Depending upon how long you have been a temporary employee, your ability to offer
innovative solutions to problems will necessarily be curbed by your knowledge of the “situation on the
ground.”  Your partial understanding of the personalities and politics involved can prevent you from
offering ideas that may actually be quite welcome.  Finally, you can forget to sell yourself or discuss an
experience or strength because you believe that the search committee is already aware of it.

Strategies during the interview

Always describe your experiences fully, including the experiences you’ve had in the organization.  The
search committee might not be aware of the full range of your activities or, importantly, what you took
away from those activities.  In fact, members of the search committee may not even understand how
those activities relate to the permanent position unless you tell them.
Try to receive the same treatment as the other candidates.  The hiring committee may give you the
choice of skipping the campus tour, a coffee break, or some other event that external candidates are
expected to attend.  Resist the temptation to shorten your interview by skipping these activities.  Take
advantage of these opportunities to increase your knowledge and to socialize with the search committee
in a less formal environment.
Use the fact that you already know the answers to all the basic questions to your advantage – you now
have time to ask more detailed, informed questions.
Remember, the interview is an opportunity for you to talk about why you want to be there and your vision
for what the position could be.  I comforted myself throughout my long interview day by saying, “Wow, a
whole day where everyone has to listen to my ideas!”
Use the interview, as much as possible, to complete your understanding of the expectations of the new
position – you can use the opportunity to ask those questions you really felt you “should” already know.
Establishing Your New Identity

Congratulations, you got the permanent job!  It’s all smooth sailing now, right?  Not completely.  Though
in many cases you will be performing exactly the same tasks, sitting at the same desk, working the
same hours, the simple fact is you are working a different job.  Maybe there are obvious new
responsibilities, like those that come with a tenure-track position; maybe there are none.  Even when
there are no obvious changes in your position, take advantage of this opportunity to “start again.”  

If you are lucky, your place of employment will mark your first day in the “new” job in some way, such as a
small celebration or a meeting with your supervisor.  This will mark a new beginning for everyone.  If your
supervisor doesn’t arrange such a meeting, it might be a good idea to ask if there’s a good time for the
two of you to get together to discuss your new position.   

Reflect on the interview process.  What did you learn about yourself that will help you in your job?  What
did you learn about your library that changed your perspective on the work that you do?   

Be prepared to take on more responsibilities and, crucially, to work more independently.  When you were
a temporary employee, you probably had significantly less latitude to make independent decisions than
you do now.  If you’re not sure how much new responsibility and independence to take on, ask!
Remember, you are a new employee, and while you might not need as much training as someone
completely new to the organization, you still need guidance in your new position.

Be realistic about expectations – ask for clarification if you need it.

Finally…

Getting a temporary position in a library is no guarantee that you’ll be offered a permanent position if and
when one opens.  Even if you follow all of the steps I’ve described, there is always a chance that a more
qualified applicant will be offered the position.  Many talented librarians are not offered permanent
positions when their temporary positions end.  However, if you approach your temporary position
thoughtfully and intentionally, as I’ve described, your experience will be richer and more meaningful to
you professionally, whether or not it results in a permanent position at that institution.

About the Author:

Rachel Bridgewater is a reference librarian at Washington State University Vancouver, where she
worked as a temporary librarian for 9 months before joining the library faculty in July 2005.  She received
her MLS from Emporia State University in 2004.  Before WSU Vancouver, Rachel was the Assistant
Circulation Services Manager at Vancouver (Washington) Community Library.

Article published Nov 2005

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