Career Strategies for Librarians
Taking Your MLIS Overseas
by Nancy Fawley
A master’s degree in library and information science can prepare you for a career in libraries; it can also
open the door for you to work overseas. A job-specific degree like an MLIS can make it much easier to
find a position in a foreign country.
There is much more, of course, to becoming an expatriate (ex-pat) or international librarian than having
an MLIS. The desire to live in a new country and experience new cultures is important. The ability to
adapt easily to different, and sometimes frustrating, situations will help you transition more easily to your
new job and home.
Finding the Job
Just as in the United States (or your own home country), there are different paths one can follow in a
career as an international librarian. Positions for school media librarians at international schools are
the most widely available. According to The International Educator (TIE) Online, there are over 900
American, English and international schools abroad.
Many of these positions can be found at recruiting fairs sponsored by placement services. The
International Schools Services (ISS) places educators in over 300 independent international schools.
The University of Northern Iowa also has a well-established Overseas Recruiting Fair. Their 2006 fair
will be held at their campus in Waterloo, Iowa on February 3-5. These organizations primarily place
teachers, but there are librarian positions available as well. In most cases, you will need the proper
certification; however, for positions in hard to fill locations certification requirements may be waived. TIE
Online also offers a subscription service with job advertisements and a newsletter on working overseas.
Another option for school media librarians is to work for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools
(DoDDS). These are schools for children of military service persons stationed overseas. Additionally,
the military hires librarians for their base libraries which are very similar to public libraries in the U.S.
There are also a few specialized libraries overseas such as the library for the George C. Marshall
European Center for Security Studies in Germany. Some of these positions, however, are limited to
United States citizens or those who are already a federal employee. Read the job descriptions carefully.
USAJOBS and Civilian Human Resources Agency European Region list these positions.
Academic library positions for overseas jobs can be found in many of the same places you look for
employment in your home country. HigherEdJobs.com and the International Federation of Library
Associations (IFLA) listserv LIBJOBS are two places that commonly list overseas librarian positions. My
position, reference librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar, was
advertised in American Libraries, the publication for the American Library Association.
If you are interested in working in a particular part of the globe, research the universities in the area.
English language universities are becoming increasingly common, especially in the Middle East. In
Doha, Qatar there are branch campuses of Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A & M, Carnegie Mellon and
Georgetown Universities, as well as Weill Cornell Medical College. There are also the British University
in Egypt, the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, and Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, just to
name a few. Occasional checks to the employment sections of these schools’ websites can alert you to
an open library position.
Is It For Me?
Living abroad is not the same as traveling abroad. Traveling, regardless of whether or not it is for
vacation or business, is temporary. Things might not go as planned, but you know at some point you will
be returning home to a familiar setting. When you live in a foreign country, you are already home.
If you have done a bit of traveling, it may help to lessen the shock of the new. I have met individuals,
however, who have never left their home country before moving overseas and had no problems
adapting. The key, I believe, is to be open-minded and adaptable. Do not arrive in a new country
expecting things to operate in the same manner as your home country. They will not; and if they did you
would be missing out on an important overseas experience. Expect that laws, social customs, food and
dress will be different. And different does not mean better or worse, just different.
It is important to remember that you are a guest in your host country. You will be required to observe
their laws and expected to respect their customs. This will vary, of course, from country to country. In
Germany, that meant equipping my bicycle with a bell and front and rear lights. In Qatar, it means
dressing conservatively and wearing clothes that cover the collarbone, elbows and knees, regardless of
Familiarity with the local language is helpful but not necessary. These schools are English language
institutions, so a second language is not needed to perform your job. Making an effort, however, to learn
at least a few phrases is always welcomed and looked upon favorably. You may be surprised how far
you can get with a smile and a few words of the local language.
The experience of living in another country and getting to know its people, culture and customs is the
biggest benefit of working overseas. Not only do you get to know the people of your host country, but in
many instances your colleagues and students will be a multicultural mix. These differences can be
frustrating, especially at first, but if you are open-minded and flexible, they can provide insight and
understanding of other cultures.
There are tangible benefits as well. Compensation packages will differ of course, but many employers
offer subsidized housing and annual roundtrip airfare to your home of record. An off-shore allowance, an
additional percentage of your annual salary, may also be provided. For individuals with children,
schooling for dependents (in most cases up to two) will be paid for. Health insurance, a stipend for
electricity, and a car allowance are some of the other perks that may or may not be included. Depending
on the tax laws of your home country, all or a portion of your foreign income may be tax free.
Relocating to another part of the world also opens up new possibilities for travel. Take advantage of
formerly far-off destinations that are now only a short plane ride away. From my base in Qatar, it is now
a quick trip to Oman, Syria and Lebanon. Visiting other countries in the region, especially with an
understanding of your new country, allows you to experience your destination from another viewpoint.
There can be a general feeling of frustration when you are new to a country and unfamiliar with its laws
and customs. Everyday chores, such as food shopping and buying petrol, can seem overwhelming.
Arranging utilities and phone service can be complicated and time consuming. This should pass as you
become accustomed to your new home.
In some instances, employees may be required to live in the same complex or compound as their
colleagues. When you live and work with the same individuals, it is helpful to establish boundaries
between your professional and personal life and make an effort to meet others outside of your place of
Some parts of the world are safer than others, and you have to be honest with yourself about how
comfortable you are with living with the threat of terrorism. Does your potential employer have an
evacuation plan in place? You may find you need to vary your routes to work and be vigilant about your
surroundings. Regardless of where you move to, it is a good idea to register with your local embassy.
The same frustrations that can affect your personal life can affect the library as well. Inconsistent mail
delivery can affect timely and reliable delivery of periodicals. In some countries, censorship may be a
problem. Supplies, especially library-specific ones, may be unavailable in your part of the world. These
items can be ordered from abroad, but you will have costly shipping expenses. Policies and
procedures, such as those related to privacy, may be standard in libraries of your home country but will
be different or nonexistent in your new country.
There may be very few other librarians at your school or in the area to interact with. However, regional
chapters of professional associations may exist and will offer the opportunity to meet others in the
business. The Special Libraries Association has Arabian Gulf and Sub-Saharan Africa chapters, while
IFLA’s regional sections include Latin America and Asia and Oceana. Regional conferences are best for
networking; for professional development you are better served by attending the annual conference of a
major library association.
Leaving friends and family and moving across the globe is difficult. For those willing and able to make
such a move, the experience can be life-changing.
International Schools Services (ISS) http://www.iss.edu/index.html
The International Educator (TIE) Online http://www.tieonline.com/default.cfm
University of Northern Iowa Overseas Placement Service for Educators http://www.uni.
Department of Defense Education Activity (includes DoDDS) http://www.dodea.edu/offices/hr/default.htm
Civilian Human Resources Agency European Region http://www.chra.eur.army.mil/
International Federation of Library Associations LIBJOBS listserv http://infoserv.inist.fr/wwsympa.
About the Author:
Nancy Fawley is the Reference Librarian for Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in
Article published Oct 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.