Career Strategies for Librarians
Experience Needed: Using Non-Librarian Skill Sets in a Library Environment
by Elizabeth Burns
Employers want experience. Everyone has an opinion or advice on how to get that experience:
Volunteer. Take an internship. Take any job at a library. Pay your dues.
That advice sounds good, but what about the person making a career change? For example, I decided
to get my MLIS after I had been a corporate attorney for nearly ten years. I had bills to pay – student
loans, mortgage, car insurance. I was making a sacrifice going back to school and changing careers; I
couldn't sacrifice further by quitting my job to become an intern. Didn’t my years as an attorney count for
anything? Hadn't I paid my dues?
I wasn't alone in my dilemma; MLIS graduates often have "prior life" careers. If you look at your prior
career, you will realize that you do have experience that is applicable to library environments. All you
need to do is recognize how that prior experience fits into the library world, and let your future employer
know about this experience in cover letters, resumes, and interviews. Your future employer knows about
libraries – not your old career. Employers want experience because it is easier for them; it means that
they don't have to train someone about the library environment. It's up to you to explain what your prior job
involved and how the experience you gained on that job will benefit the library.
Library experience consists of universal elements, whether the setting is academic, public, or
specialized. These elements are customers, communication, research, training, and organization. To
varying degrees, many non-library careers involve these rudiments. You just need to look at your prior
job and view what you did from a library perspective. Think about your day-to-day job experience and try
to think of concrete examples that demonstrate applicable experience.
Libraries are all about the customers, whether it’s the general public, students, or employees. Your prior
job probably involved working with people – and customers are just people who have a need that you
have to respond to. It doesn't matter whether you called them patrons, clients, or customers.
Think about your interactions with people, whether they were face-to-face, over the telephone, or on the
Internet. Consider the big picture of what you did; maybe the people you worked with were also working
inside your company or office. You may not have worked with "the public," but these interactions still
involved working with people, meeting a demand, handling personalities, and being polite.
When I was interviewing, I discussed my experience working with clients – the clients of the corporation I
worked for. Did it involve the general public? No, but it did involve interacting with people, handling
different personality types, and satisfying the client.
Communication in a library is about not only working with customers and responding appropriately to
what they need and want, but also about working with support staff, librarians, management, or a library
board. Whether you are answering a customer's question or preparing a report for a library director,
strong verbal and written skills are critical.
Communicating with the public involves providing an answer and helping people understand
something. Did your job involve explaining things to people? Helping them understand things?
Providing information in a clear fashion?
Think about any written documents that you had to prepare or assist in preparing. Did you prepare
quarterly reports? Write up reviews? Draft press releases? Maybe you prepared the company
newsletter or worked on a help desk. These are all things that are also done in libraries.
Research is the library term for looking up information. Sometimes it’s simple – say, finding a phone
number; other times it’s not – i.e., looking up the history of a house. Many non-library jobs involve
looking up information.
When I was an attorney, research was a significant part of my day. But many careers also involve
research, and that process involves communicating to find out what exactly a person wants and
reporting back to them with the results. If you're in an MLIS program, your interviewer will know you had
to do research for school. You will also want to prepare some examples of how, in a real life situation,
you handled research. Be prepared to explain how you went that extra, inventive mile, or even how you
handled the real life back and forth of trying to determine exactly what a person wanted. How did you
handle getting additional details from someone?
Librarians train patrons in using library resources and often also train staff. Sometimes it is as informal
as showing a customer how to use the newest version of the online catalog, or it may be a formal class
in Computer Basics. Or maybe it's providing training to professors on electronic databases, or training
to the library staff on effective communication skills.
Some non-library jobs involve training or holding seminars, and this may be an easy one for you. You
may think that you have never trained anyone in your career if you've never formally stood up in front of a
group of people. Before you decide you have no experience in this element, think about what training is
– it is explaining something to someone or helping them to do something on their own.
Were you involved with new hires, showing them the ropes of the office? Explaining how inventory was
taken? When the company upgraded systems, did you write up the "tip sheet" that everyone used? You
may not be able to say you did "formal training" with flip charts and Power Point, but chances are you will
be able to give examples of informal, one-on-one training.
Every library organization has a structure to it; some are small, others large. What is the structure of the
library you want to work in – is it part of a larger entity, like an academic library? Is it a small public library
that is a single building? Is it a large system with many branches? These represent three very different
organizations, with different ways of doing things – what many companies call "corporate culture."
Look at your old job to see if there are similarities between your old corporate culture and the one you
want to join. Then you can discuss in a job interview why you'll fit into the library's culture. My "prior life"
involved working for a corporation with a headquarters and many branches; my current job is with a
library with a main office and many branches. During my interview, I could talk about how this type of
structure impacts employees and the way staff needs to communicate with each other; I let the library
know that I understood the balance in this type of environment between doing things the system way and
having branch level independence.
Resumes, Cover Letters and Interviews
You know you have experience that is applicable to the library. Now it is up to you, through resumes,
cover letters and interviews, to let people know what that prior experience is and how it fits in with the job
In addition to general skills like communication and customer service, each type of library job has its
own specific requirements, so research the position you want and determine which particular skills it
calls for. Brainstorm; go over your typical days in your prior career with the library skills in mind to
discover where there is overlap.
Be prepared to provide solid, concrete examples. The people sitting in the interviewers’ seats were not
part of your prior career; they will not know about it until you tell them. It's not enough to say, "I have
excellent writing skills.” Give an example that would be applicable to the job you want to have. "I
prepared the press releases for my office"; "I wrote monthly status reports for our corporate
headquarters"; or "I created the training guide for our sales software system."
What about specific experience that cannot be substituted? Accept that there will be some experience
you simply do not have. Don't overestimate your skills and experience in those areas. Recognizing
existing skills and experience is just that: realizing that, in fact, you do have experience that is applicable
to a library setting. This is not about making things up or exaggerating; a potential employer will
recognize if you are trying to do this.
At this point, you've shown the prospective employer that you have the education and some experience.
Employers realize that applicants won't have everything on the "experience needed" list they've created.
It's a dream list; not a must-have list. Don't underestimate the value of the skills you do have.
As someone making a career change you are starting over, but you're starting over with five, ten, or fifteen
years of work experience. You have paid your dues, and employers will recognize that – once you let
them know it.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Burns was a corporate attorney for almost ten years. She is currently a Teen Services
Librarian with the Toms River Branch of the Ocean County Library, Toms River, New Jersey.
Article published April 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.