Career Strategies for Librarians
Librarians in the Information Age: Alternative Uses of MLS Degrees
by Darwin McGuire
When I met with my academic advisor just before beginning my studies in library science, he asked what
setting I wanted to work in when finished. Not knowing what was available, I told him that I want to keep
my options open, and to have a well-rounded experience at Wayne State University.
Afterward I decided to explore how an MLS degree can be used outside of traditional libraries. This is a
mid-life career change for me, and I have broad experience in the workplace. I know that information is
used in just about every field. And I recognize that I don’t have the time to sit around waiting for my
dream job to open up. The years are starting to fly by, so I need to get back in the work force soon after
graduation. For me, “image” is not everything--flexibility is everything.
A common theme when listening to librarians is to expect the unexpected, to be prepared for job
changes, and to be flexible. They often train for one area of librarianship and end up in another, or their
careers consist of many jobs in many fields, some less related to libraries than others.
The 21st century has been described as the information age, and if so, then it is the age of the librarian.
Wherever information is gathered, processed or used, it must be organized. That is the province of
The Search for Answers
A good way to start researching “alternative” careers is to identify traditional careers. I found eight of
them, all in libraries: reference librarian, researcher, children’s librarian, collection development
librarian, technical services (cataloger), public services (circulation), administrator and archivist. Of
course, this list could be debated, but it covers stereotype rather well.
My search for information on alternative careers began with a review of the monographs available from
the Kresge Library at Wayne State University. Two books were selected, one from 1997 and one from
1980. Sure, the 1980 book has very little content on the technology revolution that has so dramatically
affected librarianship, but it is still useful in exploring the many employment opportunities for librarians.
The search continued with on-line searching of articles and databases through the WSU library. Two
short lists of terms were determined before the search, with the intent of combining terms from each list
and searching on the resulting combinations. Terms in list one were “librarian”, “library”, and
“information.” Terms in list two were “jobs” and “careers.” During the search, it became necessary to
include the Boolean operator “not” with the term “paraprofessional” in order to improve the quality of the
Most of the articles found in the database were not useful for exploring alternative careers. Rather, they
typically were reports of some university library cutting ten librarian positions, or tips for starting a library
career in a law library. It was difficult to find articles on alternative careers using the search terms I had.
That is a symptom of what I discovered: librarianship is a broad, interdisciplinary field that weaves its
way through the fabric or our society, known by different names at different times in different settings.
Librarianship is a stealth profession!
As a result of the research, 36 distinct positions for librarians were identified. (See Fig. 1) These
positions include approximately 8 that might be considered mainstream librarian jobs, and about 28 that
The definition of traditional librarian jobs should be changing, since technology has changed the way
knowledge is stored and disseminated. In turn, that has caused a change in the way that corporations
conduct business, opening new opportunities for people with library training in the corporate world.
Library jobs are often merged positions. Even in traditional settings, one librarian can have several
duties. With the advent of electronic technology, there are more combinations of duties. Jennifer Walz
(in Dolan & Schumacher, 1997) states that she “really could be making a great deal more money if [she]
wasn’t a librarian and instead chose to be a NetWare administrator, computer consultant or a
webmaster alone. Instead, [she does] all of those as part of a library job. But it has not increased [her]
Titles for positions in which library training is useful are many and varied. Often, there is nothing in the
title referring to librarianship. A humorous menu for creating these job titles is included in Fig. 2. Humor
aside, it can be difficult to identify those non-traditional positions in which library training could be used.
It may be up to the librarian job searcher to identify those positions and then to make the case to the
prospective employer that library skills are needed.
The 36 job titles that I have found can be divided into at least six categories: libraries, corporate,
freelance, technology, government, and “way-out-there.”
Are these the only six possible categories? Of course not! This is the information age, and any activity
that requires information requires the skills of a librarian. But librarians are “classifiers” by definition, so
let’s use these six classifications.
Libraries, including public, academic, corporate, medical and others, have transformed to include
functions not commonly found 25 years ago. The technology services function has become vital to the
operation of computer workstations that are the soul of libraries. Internet librarians are the conduits for
patron access to information on the Web.
Libraries are also placing a premium on experts from other disciplines who earn MLS degrees. “There
aren’t enough people who know an industry and have the librarian qualifications, so those who have
both are paid very well. This entices a lot of people to add the MLS to their other degrees.” Those other
professions include attorneys, businesspeople, nursing and medical specialists. (Gates, 2001)
The business world has discovered librarians in a big way. In addition to traditional corporate libraries,
businesses need people to help them gather, organize, store and access information about their
businesses. For example, headhunting firms gather information about their client firms and their
candidates. The president of a New York recruiting firm stated that “[w]ith more information about
industries and positions, search firms have a better chance of luring the best candidates for jobs, so
librarians are being paid well for their services.” (Gates, 2001)
Freelance positions or positions with firms that provide contractual information services provide flexible
jobs for librarians. An example is freelance indexing. Mary Tomaselli is involved in that profession. She
says she decided to go into indexing because of future security, since indexes are so important. “I
decided to go into librarianship, and indexing in particular. …I never really made a decision to become a
free-lancer. I just found, after tackling several independent projects and seeing them through to their
successful conclusion, that I was one.” (Sellen, 1980, p. 138)
The growth of technology has led to an increase in librarian jobs outside of libraries. Webmasters
design, program and maintain web sites. Database specialists organize, update and store data.
Systems analysts and network administrators keep information flowing within and between
Library administrators sometimes become government administrators. Liz Rodriguez Miller is one of
those people, an assistant city manager in Tucson, AZ. “The way I approached my job as library director
is that, not only was I a library professional, I was a professional city administrator working in partnership
with other city departments. The city manager asked me to continue doing that at the next level.”
Library skills can lead to way-out jobs that nobody could expect. Megan Butcher used her MLS degree to
become the manager of a store that sells sex toys. She says the reference interview is directly
applicable, just relating to different information. She also has a collection management responsibility,
including toy reviews and customer interests. She says, “I’m trying my best to make ‘librarian’ and ‘sex’
go together, one toy at a time.” (Butcher, 2001)
Clearly, opportunities for librarians are endless. Nearly every human endeavor uses information, and
librarians are masters of information. There are more opportunities than those listed here. What about
records management, or oral history? Both fields use the skills of librarians, and both are practiced in
libraries, corporations, and elsewhere.
The task for a librarian who wants to work in a setting other than a traditional library is to identify an area
and then convince somebody that they need a librarian -- an information professional! Perhaps the term
“librarian” would not even appear in the job solicitation, but rather some combination of the terms in Fig.
Few professional jobs of the 21st century can be done successfully without the ability to seek out,
organize, and apply information. Librarians may yet rule the world!
Fig. 1: Distinct Jobs and Job Types Requiring Librarian Training
Assistant City Manager
Chief Information Officer
Executive Recruitment Librarian
Customer Satisfaction Manager
Broadcast Media Librarian
Internet Auction Site Manager
Reference For Hire
Data Network Coordinator
Sex Toy Store Manager
Fig. 2: Menu of Job Titles for Information Professionals--Abbreviated (Dolan, 1997)
Instructions: Choose a term from C, or combine with A and/or B. Examples: Executive Email Analyst,
Associate Databases Engineer
Column A Column B Column C
RANK FUNCTION TITLE
Bjorner, Suzanne (1995, February/March). Who are these independent information brokers? Bulletin of
the American Society for Information Science, 12-13.
Braun, Linda W. (2002). New roles: A librarian by any name. Library Journal 127(2), 46-49. Retrieved
August 2, 2003 from http://firstsearch.oclc.org
Butcher, Megan (2001). Sex toys? You bet! Librarians in non-traditional positions. Feliciter, 47(6), 302-
303. Retrieved August 3, 2003 from http://FirstSearch.oclc.org
Crosby, Olivia (2000). Information experts in the information age. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, winter
Cunningham, Cindy (1998). Career alternatives: How to expand your library skills. PNLA Quarterly, 63(1),
9-11. Retrieved August 2, 2003 from http://www.lib.wayne.edu:2060/hww/results/results_single.jhtml?
Dolan, Donna R. & Schumacher, John (1997). New jobs emerging in and around libraries and
librarianship. Online, 21, 68-72. Retrieved August 2, 2003 from http://www.lib.wayne.edu:
Fagerheim, Britt (1999). Moving outside the library: MLIS graduates in non-traditional careers. Alki, 15(1),
17. Retrieved August 2, 2003 from http://www.lib.wayne.edu:2060/hww/results/results_single.jhtml?
Foster, Janet (1999, January/February). Jobs on the net for librarians. Public Libraries, 27-29.
Gates, Kelly (2001). Librarians are finding endless opportunities. Career Journal. Retrieved February 13,
2001 from http://www.careerjournal.com
McCook, Kathleen de la Pena & Myers, Margaret (1997). Opportunities in Library and Information Science
Careers. Chicago: VGM Career Horizons.
Rubin, Richard E. (2000). Foundations of library and information science. New York: Neal-Schuman
Sellen, Betty-Carol (Ed.) (1980). What else you can do with a library science degree. Syracuse, NY:
Gaylord Professional Publications.
Spaulding, Helen H. (1998). Only change is constant: Three librarians consider what their jobs will be
like in five years. College & Research Libraries News, 59(8), 601-603. Retrieved August 2, 2003 from
Wallace, Linda K. (2002). Places an MLS can take you. American Libraries, 33(3), 44-48. Retrieved
August 2, 2003 from http://www.lib.wayne.edu:2060/hww/results/results_single.jhtml?nn=5
About the Author:
Darwin McGuire is a student in the Library and Information Science Program at Wayne State University in
Detroit. When professional challenges became scarce after nineteen years directing a Meals-on-
Wheels program, he succumbed to the urgings of his wife (a school media specialist) and returned to
school full time. He expects to complete his studies and enter the job market in 2004.
Article published Dec 2003
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.