Career Strategies for Librarians
A Substitute Librarian's Survival Guide
by Laura Miller

I have been a substitute librarian since February 2007 and find my work very rewarding.  I love the variety
of working at different libraries and seeing the different ways libraries do things. Some libraries I’ve
worked in are very large, urban libraries; others are small rural ones. The libraries have different patron
demographics and collection strengths. Regardless of where I work, it’s always an interesting and
educational experience, and I get to meet lots of wonderful people.

Each library has its own layout, policies, patron demographics and atmosphere. It can be a challenge to
keep all of this information straight. When subbing at a certain library branch for the first time or if you are
new to subbing, how can you avoid getting overwhelmed? I will share some tips that have worked well
for me.

Learn Where Things Are Located

One of the challenges of subbing in multiple libraries is learning where things are located. If possible, I
recommend visiting the library before you are scheduled to work there. When visiting, do a thorough
examination of the library’s layout. I find that a checklist template works well for me. The template lists
things that are common to each library. I print a separate copy of the template for each branch and take
notes as to the locations of things. This works particularly well for libraries that I only work at on a very
occasional basis. I find that if several months pass by between library visits, I may forget where things
are located. The notes help refresh my memory from my last visit.

What kinds of things should you look for when visiting a library?  I recommend paying attention to where
the different parts of the library collection are located. Where are the fiction, nonfiction, large print, new
books, audio books, videos, music CDs, magazines and newspapers? In the children’s area, look for
the juvenile fiction, picture books, easy readers, board books, magazines, videos and audio books. In
the young adult area, look for the fiction, nonfiction, magazines, audio books, graphic novels and
manga.  What foreign languages does the library have? What formats are the foreign language
materials available in and for what age groups?  Take note of the library’s reference collection. Learn the
locations of commonly used reference sources such as the encyclopedias (also the circulating set),
dictionary, almanac, atlases, NADA guides, consumer reports, phone books, etc.

Some libraries may shelve items differently. For example, some may place paperbacks separate from
hardcover books while others file them all together. Some libraries may interfile juvenile nonfiction with
adult nonfiction, others may keep them separate. Genre fiction may be shelved differently between
libraries. There may be separate sections for genres such as mystery, romance, science fiction or
westerns. In the children’s area, some libraries may have a section of books that part of a series (e.g.
American Girl, Captain Underpants, etc.). Different libraries may have their own special sections. For
example, there may be a travel section, local history section, holiday books section or a jobs and careers
section. Pay attention to anything that’s unique about the way the library shelves its materials.
In every work location, patrons ask me several times a day if they can borrow certain desk supplies.
When you arrive at the library, study the layout of the information desk area and learn where the
commonly asked for supplies are. If your workstation is out of something, do you know where the library’
s storage room to get more supplies?

Patrons frequently ask for giveaways such as tax forms, bus schedules, driving manuals, lists of
upcoming library events and classes, library card information, library hours, etc. Learn where these are

Also study the layout of the library’s computers. Where are the catalog stations and Internet stations
located? How are the computers numbered? Does the library use computer reservation software? If so,
where is the reservation station? What types of software are available on the library’s computers? Are
there separate computers for children, teens and adults?

Where are the printer and photocopier? How much is the charge for printing or photocopying? Do
patrons put money in a coin box or do they pay staff members at the service desk? Where is extra paper
stored?  Do you know the basics of using the machine?  

Does the library have a FAX machine?  If so, how is it operated and what is the cost?  If not, where is the
nearest FAX machine located?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, where are the restrooms?

Learn the Policies

Even though the library you are subbing in may be part of a multi-branch county or city system, it may still
have its own unique policies. If you are subbing in a library for the first time, it’s good to ask what these
are. If it’s been awhile since you’ve subbed at that library, you should also ask if there have been recent
changes in policy. For example, some libraries may have age restrictions on usage of certain computers
or may hold the patron’s ID or library card for heavily used items such as today’s newspaper.   What are
the policies for computer access for patrons live outside of the area or who forget to bring their library
card?  What is the policy regarding meeting room or study room reservations?

Learn the "Feel" of Each Workplace

Chances are each library you sub in will have a different ‘feel’ to it. If subbing for the first time, it’s a good
idea to visit the library in advance and talk to the staff members to get a sense of what it’s really like to
work there and what to expect. Some libraries may be busier and others quieter. When are the library’s
peak periods of activity?

Patron demographics also vary between libraries. For example, one of the branches I often sub at has a
large number of teenagers who come in after school to use the computers. Another branch is very close
to senior housing, so the library has a large number of senior patrons. I’ve subbed in libraries where
there are a large number of recent immigrants, so common requests are for foreign language, English
language learning or adult basic education materials. Socioeconomic factors can also affect patron
needs. For example, if the library is located in a poorer section of town, the patrons are less likely own a
computer and may depend on the library for computer usage. What are the demographics of the patrons
in the library? How will this affect what the most common patron needs are? In addition, the
personalities of the library staff will be different depending on the library, which may also affect the ‘feel’
of working there.

Learn the Daily Procedures

If you are scheduled to open the library, know how to access the building before it opens. Some library
systems may issue keys that will work for multiple branches. With others, you may not have access to a
key, so you will need to ring the doorbell or knock on the door at the staff entrance to be let in.

If it’s your first visit to the library, you should be shown where to put your coat/bag/purse/etc. Many
libraries will have lockers available for you to use. Some come with a padlock. If so, what’s the
combination? Also, you should be shown where the break room is. Most break rooms will have a
refrigerator and microwave. Some may also have toasters and coffee makers. Some libraries may
charge a small fee if you wish to have coffee.

It’s good to arrive at your workstation several minutes before your shift begins -- earlier if it’s your first
time, so you can get your questions answered before the patrons arrive. If there is more than one
workstation, ask which one you will be stationed at. Make sure you can login to your library’s workstation
and the ILS (integrated library system). If there are special passwords to log on, know where they are
stored in case you forget.

Make sure the phone at your workstation is working. In some library systems, you may have to “log on” to
the phone. Become familiar enough with the library’s phone system so you can put a caller on hold or
transfer as needed. In case you need to transfer the caller to another staff member, be sure to have a list
of the library’s phone extensions nearby.

If your shift is several hours or more, you should get a break. Find out when your break is, how long it
lasts, and if it is paid or unpaid.

Don’t forget to enter the time that you have worked! Different library systems handle this differently. Some
literally have you punch in and out, some will have you fill out paper time cards, and others will have you
submit your time electronically.

A Few More Things to Learn

  • The library’s hours, address, and phone number
  • Who will you be subbing for? What’s the reason for the librarian’s absence? When will that
    librarian be returning? (if known)
  • Who is the branch manager?  Who is the circulation supervisor?
  • Who will be the librarian in charge when you are working? (This may or may not be the same as
    the branch manager.)
  • Names of other staff members you will be working with
  • Who is in charge of library volunteers? I frequently get asked about volunteering and it’s good to
    know who to direct the patron to.
  • Will there be volunteers coming in today? Who are they and what will they be doing?
  • Where is the staff schedule posted? (I frequently get asked when a certain employee will be
  • Are there any special events or programs occurring in the library today or in the near future? What
    time? What room? Is registration required?
  • If you are scheduled to open or close the library, what is to be done?
  • Any other library news I should be aware of?

Setting Work Schedules & Hours

The irregularity and limited number of work hours may pose another challenge with subbing. While
some subs may regularly work part-time and sub every now and then to earn additional hours, many
other librarians work only as substitutes. They are not permanently assigned to any branch and have no
set work hours. The number of work hours can vary widely from week to week. Since there is no
guarantee on the number of hours, library subs are typically not eligible for benefits. In addition, library
systems may limit the amount of hours a substitute can work in a given week or year.

Depending on the library system and the state of the economy, a substitute librarian may or may not feel
comfortable with subbing as the sole source of income. Some substitutes may find that they need to
take on an additional job to feel comfortable financially. Substitutes are often needed during weekends,
before and after holidays, and during major library conferences. Substitutes who are available and
willing to work during these times have the greatest likelihood of getting more hours, as do those who
are willing to fill last-minute vacancies.

Depending on the library system, you may be notified of shifts via email, phone, or via an online
scheduling system such as AESOP or a combination of these. One of the library systems I sub in uses
AESOP for posting substitute vacancies. The first person to accept the shift gets it. It’s good to check your
email, phone messages or online scheduling system frequently for potential shifts.

Hiring depends on the library system and that not all library systems hire substitutes.  Of those that do,
most commonly substitute positions are posted like permanent jobs are.  Some systems only take
applications when there are openings available while some will always accept applications.  The
prospective applicant should contact the HR department of the respective library system regarding
application policies.  Some library systems hire substitutes for a particular department or library while
others expect substitutes to work in multiple departments or libraries.

About the Author

Laura Miller received her MLIS from Dominican University in 2006 and has worked as a substitute
librarian since February 2007.  She currently works in the Hennepin County and Carver County library
systems and has previously worked for Anoka County library.  Her blog is at

Article published  March 2012

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.