Career Strategies for Librarians
See the World - Be a Librarian!
by Dallas Long
Have you ever wanted to work overseas as a librarian? There is a wealth of opportunities abroad, as you
can use your MLS degree and skills in ways that may not be possible at home. If you have aspirations to
teach, you can offer American or western perspectives to European library schools, particularly those in
Central and Eastern Europe. Consulting is a great way to go, with money now available thanks to the
European Union, and libraries can certainly use advice on everything from building outreach programs to
teaching librarians how to search electronic databases.
Western-educated librarians bring a variety of skills to Central and Eastern European libraries. We’re
trained in the latest technologies; we design web pages and digital libraries; we’re unafraid of search
engines, electronic databases, OCLC, and barcode readers; we understand the complexities of
consortia. A lot of those things are new to many Central and Eastern European libraries, for which
electricity and a supply of books may have been a more pressing problem in the not too distant past than
accurate circulation statistics. They definitely have a need for people to help teach them how to build
these skills or even help point out issues and concerns that they may not have thought about yet.
“Soft skills” are our strongest asset. Public service is ingrained into our psyche – we leave library school
with a strong customer service orientation and the willingness to listen to people, identify their needs,
and offer services to meet those needs.
The Eastern European model of librarianship is remarkably different than the American or Western
European model. Most libraries under Soviet control were little more than depositories of government
documents and cultural artifacts. Librarians were trained as catalogers but unable to offer much
assistance in regards to reference services. Now, users are taking more control of their information
needs and librarians are adapting to the sudden pleas for help from their patrons.
My Experiences in Europe
When I graduated from the University of Illinois as a newly-minted librarian, I wanted to fulfill a lifelong
dream of spending a year in Europe. I asked my professors to send letters to colleagues in Europe
asking if they could use the skills of an American librarian for one year. I received two good responses –
one from Warsaw University, who required an English-speaking librarian to edit their English language
library journal, and one from a small college in Hungary who was impressed by my experience working
in public services. Ultimately, I accepted the Hungarian offer because Hungary’s visa requirements
weren’t as stringent as Poland’s.
The Hungarian college offered many opportunities to sharpen my skills. Almost immediately, I found
myself teaching in their library science program. In most of Europe, library science degrees are offered
at the undergraduate level and many instructors have only the MLS. Thus, I found myself suddenly
qualified to teach! I was asked to teach “Digital Libraries” for no reason other than I must have had more
exposure to digital libraries than any of their faculty. I was also asked to teach American Studies, which
was a challenging but fascinating experience too.
If English is your native tongue, then you’re in great shape for working in Eastern Europe. A Hungarian
library professor asked me to co-teach a continuing education program for librarians on “Special English
for Librarians and Information Managers.” We assembled several class sections of librarians from
public, academic, and special libraries from all over Hungary and improved their knowledge of English
as it related to libraries and library issues. The ultimate goal was to develop their library-related
vocabulary so they could communicate with vendors and develop contacts among western libraries. We
also discussed trends in American and Hungarian librarianship and talked about technology, social
problems, and improving services to under-served populations, like Romanies (Gypsies), the physically
disabled, or the elderly.
Word got out fast that a western librarian was in town! I assisted the academic librarians with collection
development on behalf of their English Language and Literature department and trained librarians and
students how to search English language databases and search engines in the college libraries. I
gave a lecture to a chamber of commerce on how librarians can assist entrepreneurs and small
business owners with their information needs. I helped public libraries identify automation systems that
could meet their circulation and cataloging needs.
Soon, I had opportunities outside of Hungary. In Slovenia, I helped librarians improve their reference
skills by videotaping their practice reference interviews and having them observe their techniques. In
Croatia, a university librarian complained to me that her librarians didn’t believe their students required
much assistance because they never approached the staff. I helped her design a study to observe
students’ behavior at the Online Public Access Catalog terminals and proved to the staff that students
merely walked away empty-handed when they couldn’t easily locate the information they needed in the
OPAC. Staff soon learned to approach students and question them about their information needs.
By the end of my year, I had traveled throughout Hungary and to Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia,
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Spain, Czech Republic, and North Africa. Not everyone I met or worked
with spoke fluent English! I frequently relied on the help of a colleague who translated for me, or I
practiced my very rusty German. But don’t let the language barrier scare you off – more and more people
around the world are learning English, and a native speaker is highly prized in non-English speaking
nations. Be sure to learn some of the local languages. You’ll impress a lot of people, and now I can
order meals or ask directions to the bathroom in about a half dozen different languages.
Finding Jobs in Europe
Clearly there’s a lot you can do as a librarian in Europe. But how do you find work? Writing to libraries is
a good place to start. The national libraries in each country can be very helpful. EUROLIB and the
International Federation of Library Associations can also provide contacts with local library
communities. In the U.S., the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs is a great resource
for providing contacts with Central and Eastern European library schools. Professional organizations
offer a lot of contact with overseas libraries too. Join ALA’s roundtable for international affairs and learn
about the plights libraries face in undeveloped and underdeveloped regions. SLA has international
connections too; for example, an Australia & New Zealand chapter was recently founded, providing
excellent connections to our colleagues in far-flung corners of the globe.
…And Outside Europe?
You’d be surprised by the number of opportunities around the world. International organizations invest a
lot of money in aid to undeveloped nations. Many of the recipients, such as the Afghan Information
Resource Center, can offer temporary assignments with wages derived from foreign assistance. A
number of embassies, cultural centers and military installations advertise for librarians on their
websites. Recently, the US Embassy in Israel advertised for an US citizen with an MLS to manage their
library. Similarly, the US Army advertises for civilian librarians at www.usajobs.gov.
But They Can’t Pay My Way!
What if a library has responded and wants you, but they can’t pay? Money is always a problem for every
library, no matter where it’s located, right? Not necessarily. The European Union has a mandate to
provide funding for the development and improvement of libraries in its new member states; libraries
can request grant money to pay for your time and expenses. The amount of money they offer you may
not sound like much at first, but be aware that the cost of living in Central and Eastern Europe is far
below western standards! A reasonably sized, fully furnished and modernized flat in Budapest cost less
than 300 USD per month. If the library can’t secure funds, you can still get there – the State Department’
s Fulbright Program and the Institute of International Education have special grants reserved for
librarians and library science students to pursue research and study opportunities in some countries,
particularly Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Don’t Forget Your Passport!
There are a lot of opportunities in international librarianship. National libraries, professional
organizations, and government agencies are a good place to start your job search. Be patient because
you might have to wait a while to secure funding. Don’t be discouraged, however. Working overseas
can be one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of your life.
About the Author:
Dallas Long is an Instructor at the Department of Library & Information Science, Berzsenyi Daniel
College, in Szombathely, Hungary. His experience in Europe has resulted in similar opportunities with
libraries in Tonga, the Caribbean, and Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at
Article published Jan 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.