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Career Strategies for Librarians
On Being an Experienced, Flexible Specialist: Finding Your First Professional Librarian Position
by Jessica Moran

I am not breaking new ground when I write that the job market is tough for new librarians. Finding your
first professional library position can be a long and challenging experience. Many new librarians,
especially those who follow the career conversations on popular discussion lists,  may get the
impression that prospects are pretty dim indeed -- that there are no jobs, few jobs, or only part-time jobs.
While I’m not here to present a rosy picture of the library world, I think that too much doom and gloom
does not serve us well. The road to a professional librarian position is not straight and narrow, nor is it
particularly glamorous -- at least not the road I took or observed my peers taking.  But stick with it and you
might find it ultimately rewarding.

Finding a librarian position will not be easy. Not only are there are a lot of libraries out there, but there are
many different kinds of libraries, and each has a different set of necessary qualifications. Much has been
written about the librarian job shortage or lack thereof. Regardless of where we stand on that issue, we
must accept that employers can and should choose the most suitable candidate for each position.  No
matter how good you or I might be, sometimes we are not the best fit for a particular position.  

Nevertheless, we have committed to this profession and we want to be librarians. The following are a
few ideas I have picked up along the way to librarianship. They are not rules or even guidelines, just a
few things I have observed. These tips are: get as much experience as possible before you get your
degree; have a good idea what you want to do with your degree and master the key concepts and skills
needed to achieve that goal; know your limitations; be flexible and a specialist; and don’t forget to
network.

Experience

We all come to MLS programs with different experiences and skill sets.  Many of us worked in libraries
as students or paraprofessionals, but some of us might have little or no library experience. Maybe
librarianship is a second career and we have years of experience in a different field. Regardless of
where you fit in the experience spectrum, the same advice applies -- get more experience.  

I went to get my eyes checked recently at the local university eye clinic, where graduate optometry
students perform exams, work in surgery, and assist in the eyewear clinic.  The student doing my exam
told me what a great program it was because they got so much practical and varied experience, and he
described how well the practical experience complemented their classroom instruction. The same
situation applies to librarians. Even if you have library experience, how many different kinds of libraries
have you worked in and what kinds of different problems and environments have you navigated? It can
be hard to work for free while you are in school, and it can be hard to find a paraprofessional job that
pays enough to keep a roof over your head and food on the table (especially if there are others you need
to provide for and who demand to keep eating even while you are in school). However, those practical
experiences are invaluable, and each one will give you new skills and tools to make you a better
librarian. So look for a volunteer opportunity, practicum, internship or graduate assistantship. Create
those opportunities even if they are not required or facilitated by your school.  

What Kind of Job Do You Want?

At the end of my first semester in my first library school class, the professor passed around several job
descriptions for various library positions. He had us look at public, school, special, academic, and
government library job descriptions, and then discuss them. We looked critically at what the employers
included in the descriptions: what did they say, what didn’t they say, and perhaps most importantly, what
did they want?  

If you are like me, you probably started looking at job descriptions before you even began a graduate
program, dreaming of your ideal future librarian job. For me, this was an eye-opening experience,
because entry-level positions listed a long list of qualifications and experience that I didn’t yet have. Ask
yourself: how do I get from here to there -- to be the perfect fit for my perfect job? Because no matter how
brilliant you think you are, there are many other brilliant people out there competing for jobs too.  Those
experiences you’ve been racking up, those classes you took to meet the qualifications for the job
description… that is the quantifiable evidence that attests to your excitement and commitment to the
field. Do you need teaching experience and another degree or credential to work as an academic or
school librarian? Then get it. Do you need processing experience, EAD, and XML knowledge to get that
archivist position you have been dreaming of? Then get them. Do you need reference and web design
experience to get the public librarian job you have always wanted? Then get it. This is all easier said
than done, I know, but if you do not have that experience and someone else does, whom do you think
makes a better candidate?

Know Your Limitations

There is more to your job search strategy than making yourself the most qualified candidate for the
position. You need to know what skills and experience you lack, but you also need to be realistic about
what other factors might keep you from getting that position. If your dream is to work at a major university
as an academic librarian, but you aren’t able or don’t want to move across the country, it might be time to
re-evaluate your career goals, or at least look at alternative ways of accomplishing them. If you want to be
a public librarian but do not particularly like talking to people, it might be time to rethink your career plans.
I’m joking, but I’m also being serious. If you have small children and cannot work weekends, it might be
hard to work in a public services position requiring non-standard hours. And even if you live in a large
urban area with more then two or three large universities, it can still be hard to land that first job in one of
their libraries, especially if you never worked, interned, or volunteered at any of them while you were
working on your degree. Be realistic about how, where, and when you can work and then adjust your
search accordingly.

Be a Flexible Specialist

It sounds contradictory, I know, but if there is one thing I discovered, it is that flexibility is a great asset but
specialized knowledge is a necessity.  What does this mean?  For me, it meant taking my limitations into
account, which allowed me to be flexible in imagining librarian positions I wanted to fill, instead of feeling
frustrated by the “perfect” jobs I couldn’t find or get. I took my specialized knowledge and circumstances
and used them to my advantage.  We all have things we have done which make us stand out -- courses
we took, skills we have mastered, subjects we are confident in, and experiences from previous jobs,
careers, internships, or volunteer activities that make us special.  Find ways to highlight these things.  
They are what make you special.  Explain what makes you an excellent fit for a particular position.  
Translate your skills to fit the job.  

Understand that, as a librarian, much of what you will do all day is use your skills to translate raw
information into something useful for your patrons. Most library work is not repetitive and constant.  
Librarianship is changing, is often project based, and requires flexibility. Illustrate your flexibility by
showing how your specialized knowledge in small libraries -- or art museums, or banking, or chemistry,
or customer service, or project management, or whatever -- makes you the ideal candidate for the
position.

Don’t Forget to Network

When I first started library school I hated hearing about networking. I could not imagine myself casually
making small talk and then asking a relative stranger for a job. I thought of myself as a little reserved,
maybe a bit awkward, and certainly not the kind of person who would use people to get ahead or to
simply to get a job.  I was just not that calculating. Perhaps I’ve been in the library world too long and
have joined the “dark side,” but I’ve found that “networking” is not really using people to get ahead; it is
being a professional colleague.  

What does that mean? It means that the longer you are part of the library world, the more people you will
know and will know you, and when they have an open position, they might even invite you to apply, or at
least recognize your name when they receive your application. Those friends you met in library school,
the ones you enjoyed working with: they are your colleagues. Those people who allowed you to volunteer
at their library: they are your mentors. The supervisors for whom you did such an excellent job: they are
your glowing references, both formally and informally. Those committee members you had such a
pleasant time working with: they are part of your network too. Networking means getting involved,
becoming excited by your chosen profession, and making a good impression on the people around you.
I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last to tell you -- the library world is small. Your specialization is even
smaller.  Use it to your advantage.

Keep Your Spirits Up

It can take time and hard work to find your first professional position; in fact, it might take more then a few
weeks or months to find work. Don’t let this get you down. Job hunting means dealing with rejection,
sometimes over and over. It does not necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you. Employers are
looking for the person who will best fit their organization and that cannot always be you. Keep going;
keep your spirits and your confidence up.  

In the meantime, don’t forget why you wanted to be a librarian in the first place. Maybe there is a
volunteer opportunity you can take. Maybe you can contact some of the temp agencies in your area and
get some more experience.  Maybe you will have to take one or more part-time jobs for a while before
you find a full time job.

Take those opportunities; they give you new skills and experience to add to your resume. I am not saying
that the steps you must take to get a professional position are easy, or that the current job market is a
good state of affairs, but, at least for the moment, it is reality. Good luck!

References:

Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana Job Resources http:
//www.lis.uiuc.edu/gslis/resources/jobs.html

The Networked Librarian: Job Search Guide, Employment Resources for Librarians http://pw2.netcom.
com/~feridun/nlintro.htm

San Jose State School of Library and Information Science, Alumni Association, Job Seekers Website
http://slisgroups.sjsu.edu/alumni/jobseekers/

About the Author:

Jessica Moran earned her MLIS with a concentration in Archival Management in 2002 and is currently
enrolled in an MA program in History. She is the Archives Project Director at the National Center for
Science Education in Oakland, CA. Prior to her current position, she was an Assistant Editor at the
Emma Goldman Papers at UC Berkeley. She has also held a number of unpaid internships and
volunteer positions to which she owes her current position and many of her skills.  

Article published May 2005

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