Career Strategies for Librarians
Working Overseas: Opportunities and Challenges
by Fritz Herrick
If you are mobile and ambitious, you may wish to spend part of your career living and working in another
country. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing so, but if you are unsatisfied with the
opportunities open to you in your own country, looking beyond its borders could open up the opportunity
of a lifetime.
It is easy for librarians to find and apply for international employment opportunities. At LIScareer.com you
can read about Dallas Long’s experiences working in Europe, Nancy Fawley’s job in the Middle East,
and Robin Kear’s experience in Africa. Dozens of links to opportunities can be found in these three
articles. If you are inspired, as I have been, by the experience of librarians like these, I recommend these
articles as a starting point to launch your international career.
Why Search for Employment Outside One's Own Country?
Economics and Career Opportunities
Troubled times hit libraries hard, but hard times are often limited to specific countries. You can sidestep
an economic downturn in your own country and keep your career on track by gaining experience in a
more prosperous country until the economy recovers. One recent example: shifts in the US economy
after 9/11 affected the financial stability of US libraries. As the federal government shifted the burden of
essential services onto state and local governments, public libraries suddenly found themselves
competing with police and fire departments for funds. American public libraries implemented hiring
freezes and generally put the brakes on new projects and new spending. But the economies of other
countries were largely unaffected by 9/11.
An international mindset is one of the hallmarks of an educated adult. Students often spend a semester
abroad in order to gain exposure to a different language and culture. Visiting a foreign country as a
tourist or student will expose you to its culture on a somewhat superficial level. Working in another
culture will expose you to both its positive and negative aspects, thus providing you with a much deeper
understanding of that culture.
Overseas employment will give your language skills a workout. Your language skills will improve
through exposure and any classes you may take. It’s great if you are already fluent in the local language,
but don't assume you need to be. Organizations that employ internationally will often use a common
"working language" (frequently English).
Are your parents from other countries? Were you born in another country? Have you married a foreigner?
Do you have a grandparent from another country? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions you
might explore the possibility of claiming more than one nationality.
The more passports you have, the larger the pool of jobs you are eligible for. Dual citizenship is also a
valuable gift you can give to your children as it will increase their chances of finding a good job.
Many people are protective of their jobs, and HR professionals may not have enough influence to
overcome protectionist feelings in their organizations. Foreigners are also vulnerable in the workplace;
when budgets and positions are cut, the fact that you are a foreigner may informally factor into
termination decisions. Discrimination based on nationality is almost never in the interest of the
organization. It could even be illegal, particularly under free trade agreements which trump national law
in almost all cases. But discrimination against foreigners still happens. Instead of giving legal reasons
to discriminate against foreigners, organizations will cite internal policy as a reason to exclude a
Adjusting to Diverse Workplaces
Adjusting to an international workplace can be challenging. Workers have been shaped by their own
cultures, so they each have different expectations, goals, and ideas even about basic concepts.
Communication is more difficult in multicultural workplaces, but it is the key to the successful functioning
of the organization.
Colleagues and Library Users from Developing Countries
One or more of your coworkers may be from a developing country, and his or her route to the developed
world may have been a long and difficult one. Nationals of developing countries face many more
obstacles than those of us from developed countries. Their jobs may be critically important to them as
families and communities could be dependent on the remittances they send back home. They could
have a lot more to lose if they lose their job and are sent back to their country of origin. It is very important
to respect these differences.
It is likely that you will encounter library users from developing countries as well. Poor countries need big
solutions to solve big problems, and to do that, they need information. In my experience nationals of
developing countries are make heavy use of library resources in their quests to solve the problems of
Having good references is critical to the success of your career. If you work abroad, your references will
be foreigners. I have encountered some HR professionals who are reluctant to contact references in
other countries. The HR department where you are applying may need a little extra encouragement to
make that international call to your references overseas.
There's one big opportunity not mentioned by previous LIScareer.com authors: crossing the 49th
parallel. The North American Free Trade Agreement permits North American librarians to work in the US
or Canada under a special visa agreement. NAFTA makes it easier to fill temporary shortages of skilled
professionals. There is no obvious shortage or surplus of librarians in either country, but the law
remains in place so librarians can (and do) cross the border both ways: American librarians work in
Canada and Canadian librarians work in the US. Bringing a new hire across the border under NAFTA
requires remarkably little paperwork from the employer, and is a simple and quick process for the
employee. Show your job offer and master’s degree to an immigration official at the border, pay a small
fee, and you'll be issued a work permit or visa on the spot. A more detailed description of this process
can be found in Amanda Ross-White's article.
The Transnational Capitalist Class
Wealthy global citizens are moving money and goods around the globe, and they need our services.
Known as the "transnational capitalist class," this new group of individuals is a ripe market for
information professionals. Transnational capitalists consume a lot of information. They need market
research, legal documents, statistics, government documents, DIALOG searches, Factiva alerts, and
other information resources we can sell to them. Their children, dubbed "third culture kids," have unique
information needs as well. Third culture kids grow up straddling two cultures and need information
When you return home, your international experience will be valuable. It will prove that you have
overcome obstacles, are internationally minded, and have met information needs in a diverse
environment. Inexpensive travel is making our world more and more international. On your next visit to a
nearby city, look at the faces of the people around you. It is likely that you will see the faces of a global
village. Each of these individuals has information needs. At home or abroad, it is our job to provide a
world of citizens with a world of information.
Fawley, Nancy. Taking Your MLIS Overseas. LIScareer.com. October 2005.
Kear, Robin. International Librarianship: Getting There From Here. LIScareer.com. June 2004.
Long, Dallas. See The World - Be a Librarian! LIScareer.com. January 2005.
Ross-White, Amanda. Have MLS, Will Travel: NAFTA TN Visas and the Job Market. Journal of Hospital
Librarianship, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2006: 59-64.
About the Author:
Fritz Herrick has worked as a librarian in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.
He is always searching the globe for problems we can solve by applying the principles of library and
Article published Sept 2007
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.