Career Strategies for Librarians
by Lisa Ennis
If you have read “Your First Year on the Tenure Track: Temperamental Advice for Junior Faculty in Toxic
Work Environments” by Michael Matthews and “In Search of an Emotionally Healthy Library” by Nancy
Cunningham, then you are already armed with a good bit of knowledge on how to recognize and cope
with a toxic work environment. That is good because chances are you’ll find yourself in an unhealthy
work situation at some point in your career. You may inadvertently accept a position at a dysfunctional
library or the dysfunction may come to you. For instance, changes in library and school personnel can
change the entire direction and feel of the library, especially if the changes are in high-level positions. No
matter how you end up in a bad spot, you are going to have to decide whether to ride out the storm or
abandon ship. If you decide to move on to greener pastures, make sure you take the necessary steps to
ensure a positive and smooth transition.
Realize that you are under a tremendous amount of pressure, are frustrated and angry, and probably
aren’t thinking clearly. So don’t do anything rash like just quit without a plan. The first thing you have to do
is get a grip on your emotions because they are probably running really high. In order to make a positive
and well thought out move you will need to take the time to calm down. Spend a good deal of time taking
a good hard long look at the situation and yourself. Think about what you could have done differently to
prevent the situation from escalating. I’ve always been told that a good dose of self reflection is a good
thing. Realize that everyone made mistakes along the way including you. This isn’t to assign blame, but
to get perspective on the situation. Taking the time to sort things out in your own head gives you the
strength and patience to make careful, thoughtful decisions.
An important part of the reflection process is deciding what kind of environment you wish to move to.
Make sure you are not being run off or pushed out of your current library. You have a job that pays the
bills, so there is no reason to apply for every position open. This is reckless and a waste of energy. Take
the time to search for positions and libraries that really interest you. Your goal should be to move on to a
better place that will be good for you and your career, not to simply escape where you are now.
Investigate the schools and libraries that have open positions that appeal to you. The library community
is small; take the time to ask around. This is enormously important because, while there are certainly
better libraries to work at, there are most definitely libraries that could be worse. By spending your time
and energy focusing on those positions and libraries that have the most potential, you will make better
and more informed decisions.
The interview can be especially stressful when you are coming from a toxic environment. My best advice
for answering the dreaded “Why are you looking to leave your current position?” question is honesty. If
you’ve spent time reflecting and really researching the positions you’ve applied for, then you have already
begun being really honest with yourself. Further, as you discover all the different opportunities that exist
for librarians today, you’ll be moving from an emotionally negative place to one that is much more
positive. This is important because being honest does NOT mean harping on every little thing that was
or is wrong with your current position. You can be positive about negative things. Talk about what you
have learned from the various challenges you’ve experienced and explain how you’ve grown and
For instance, if the issue is a new director that is changing the mission and priorities of the library in a
way that you disagree with, you might respond by saying that the new director is taking the library in a
direction that you have already been in or do not wish to go in because you want a position that offers an
opportunity for more growth and responsibility. The issue could be an atmosphere where you feel the
administration doesn’t respect or appreciate the staff and faculty. So saying you want an environment
where the administration, faculty and staff work together for the betterment of library in a positive and
nurturing environment is an honest and positive statement. Don’t talk about how Director X has
overridden or dissolved committees; instead talk about how important you feel committee work and
shared governance are and how everyone has something to offer. In short, don’t talk about all the
negative things you’ve seen; instead, learn from those things and talk about how you would do things in
an ideal situation.
Secondly, make sure you interview your potential employer. You want to make sure you move into the
right position and environment for you. Pretending to be someone you aren’t will only hurt you in the long
run. If you like an environment where things are decided by committee, then ask about the committee
structure and how you get to serve on committees. If you are interested in publishing, then ask what
support is available. Ask the director what has been his or her greatest challenge at the library. Ask
about promotion and tenure. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions! Remember that while you may
want to run screaming from your present position, long-term success means being patient and waiting
for a good match. Sincerity and honesty shows through, no matter which side of the interview you are on.
There are very few things as precious as a fresh start in a great new place. All you have to do now is
keep from messing it up! Everyone has emotional baggage, and coming from a negative or even toxic
environment, you will definitely have plenty of junk in the trunk. The best thing you can do is acknowledge
that you have that baggage and work toward leaving it on the doorstep when you walk out on that last
day. However, as much as we try to leave things behind, a few bits and pieces always slip in when we
aren’t looking. Keep in mind that all your time in a negative environment has conditioned you to have
certain behaviors and reactions. Remind yourself every day that this is a new place with new people and
you need to develop new behaviors to adjust to a normal – and hopefully healthy – work environment. Be
patient with yourself and be proud of yourself for taking charge of your career and life!
About the Author:
Lisa A. Ennis is the Reference Librarian at UAB Lister Hill Library in Birmingham, AL. She received her M.
S. in Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee in 1997 and her M.A. in history from Georgia
College & State University in 1994.
Article published Nov 2005
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