LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
Out in the Country: Making Rural Librarianship Your First Career Step
by Sam Eddington

Finding a first professional library job is a challenging prospect, and locating one that will give a new
librarian the chance to gain broad-based experience can be even harder. Such jobs exist, certainly, but
many of them are perhaps not in the first place that one might think to look. Indeed, some of the best
opportunities for new librarians are scattered in small towns and rural areas across the country, far from
the cities and suburbs that are often thought of as the “traditional” home of libraries.

There are, in fact, many jobs available in rural librarianship that offer a new librarian the opportunity to
obtain a great deal of varied experience. Unfortunately, new librarians are frequently unaware of these
positions and therefore do not apply for them. But for those willing to seek out these opportunities and
take advantage of them, rural librarianship offers a chance to gain simultaneous experience in fields as
diverse as reference, cataloging, and web design; to work in an environment in which the library really is
a central part of the community; and to have an immediate opportunity to gain and develop managerial
and administrative skills.

Finding a Rural Job

Rural libraries often have small advertising budgets that they need to maximize. They often concentrate
at least some attention on finding local candidates (although it’s perfectly possible to get a rural job in a
distant location – I moved from Connecticut to Nevada to take my current position), and the focus of their
advertising outside the community tends to be on a state level, or at most a regional one. As such,
position openings for rural libraries only sporadically appear in national online listings like ALA’s JobList
or in the employment sections of major library periodicals.

On the other hand, the employment sections of the various state and regional professional association
websites and newsletters are very fruitful places to look for rural opportunities. I found the
announcement for my current job while browsing the listings on the Nevada Library Association website.
Word of mouth is also a powerful factor to consider, especially if you are looking for a rural job in the
same general part of the country in which you currently live. If you have a mentor, or if there are other
professional librarians with whom you are in contact, ask them if they have heard of any rural openings
for which you might apply. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Building Experience

Most rural libraries have a very small staff, and often there is only one professional librarian per library.
The public library where I now work has a staff of three, which is fairly typical: one librarian and two
paraprofessionals (one of whom works part-time). This means that the responsibilities of rural
librarians are far-ranging indeed!

In my current position, I might answer a reference question about computers, select and purchase some
new books for the collection, assist one of the paraprofessionals with a cataloging issue, help a child
find a book, edit and post this month’s library board meeting agenda, work on an article for a
professional publication, crunch numbers for next year’s budget, and check materials out to patrons at
the circulation desk – all in the same day! Unlike librarians in many urban libraries, a rural librarian is not
either a reference librarian or a cataloger, does not work either in youth services or adult services, and is
not either an administrator or a “front-line” staff member; rather, he or she is a true generalist. Even
tasks that are often thought of as being “specialty” responsibilities, such as caring for archival
documents and photographs or updating the library’s website, fall under the rural librarian’s purview.  

Not only is this variety intellectually rewarding, but it also looks very good on a résumé. Imagine being
able to tell a prospective employer in the future that you have practical, on-the-job experience in
reference, acquisitions, collection development, and budgeting! Jobs that offer this breadth of experience
are rare in many settings, but they are essentially the norm in rural libraries.

This also means that if you are unsure about which aspect of librarianship you wish to pursue, a rural
library job is a great opportunity to discover what you love. You will be able to try everything, and see if
your passion lies in cataloging, or in reference, or even in administration. Taking a job in a rural library is
a good way to keep your options open as you explore different kinds of library work.

Community Connections

In many smaller communities and rural areas, the library occupies a much more central place in
everyday life for many people than it does in an average urban center. For example, there are no movie
theaters, bookstores, or record shops within a forty-mile radius of the town in which I live and work; if you
want entertainment or informational media, the library is essentially the only place to go. As such, the
library is a local hub in a very real way – for information, for socializing, and for news about the
community.

When I first took my current position, in fact, the town organized a potluck dinner in honor of my arrival –
the first and last party I ever expect to be thrown for me just because I showed up for a new job! But while
you may not necessarily get a party, you will certainly have an opportunity to interact with the public and
make a difference in their lives. Rural librarians are community leaders, and as a rural librarian, you will
have the chance to bring information resources to people in places where they might otherwise have a
hard time obtaining them. If helping historically underserved populations appeals to you, you may want
to seriously consider a career in rural libraries.  

Managing People and Making Professional Connections

If, as is frequently the case, you are the only professional librarian in your new library, you will likely
immediately be asked to take on a managerial role supervising paraprofessionals and volunteers. This
can be a good setting in which to learn management skills, particularly if you have little or no prior
experience. It is also a way to get management experience immediately, which is harder to do in an entry-
level job in larger public libraries.

Additionally, working in a rural library provides the opportunity to make many valuable professional
connections, even though you may not interact with other professional librarians on a daily basis. Being
in a supervisory role in your library, even if it is a small one, will often bring invitations to events at the
state and regional levels at which you can meet and interact with your area’s library leaders. I’ve been
very grateful for the chances I’ve had to get to know the other library directors in my state at such events;
all of them are more experienced than I am, but all of them have been graciously willing to share their
time and knowledge.  

Working in a rural library will also give you an interesting perspective on many issues and concerns
facing libraries today, which in turn gives you a unique angle from which to approach writing articles or
preparing conference presentations. The number of rural librarians who present at conferences or
publish on a regular basis is somewhat limited, and many topics in librarianship remain to be explored
from a rural point of view, which means that this is a good field to enter if you wish to do this kind of
“academic” work.

Conclusion

It is easy to overlook rural librarianship when stepping into a post-MLS career. But to do so is to miss
investigating positions that, in addition to being rewarding in and of themselves, can provide a great
professional boost. Working in a rural library is an exciting way to gain broad-based professional
experience, to provide valuable community service, and to find management and networking
opportunities. A rural library job may be one of the best ways for you to jump-start your library
employment experience.

About the Author:

Sam Eddington graduated with his MLS from Southern Connecticut State University in January 2007. He
is currently the director of the Amargosa Valley Library in Amargosa Valley, Nevada.

Article published May 2008

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