Career Strategies for Librarians
Geography 101: See the World, Get a Job
by Richard A. Murray
There’s a lot of talk in our profession these days about the job prospects for new librarians. Many
libraries report that they can’t find qualified candidates to fill their positions; some recent graduates
report that they can’t find a job. I’ve had new librarians tell me “I think I’d like to be a cataloger, but I heard
that there aren’t going to be any cataloging jobs, so I guess I’ll have to be something else.” At the same
time, I hear library administrators at ALA meetings in a panic: “All our catalogers (children’s librarians,
etc.) are retiring and there’s nobody to replace them!”
As much debate as there seems to be about so many aspects of library employment, there’s one fact
that everybody agrees with: being geographically mobile makes a job search much easier.
Wait – before you say, “Well, there’s no point in my reading this, because I can’t possibly relocate,” stay
with me for a minute.
There are jobs out there – they just may not be exactly where you want them. If you live in an area with
one or more library schools, things will be especially difficult. Recent graduates frequently don’t want to
relocate, which means that employers definitely have the upper hand in places like Madison, Austin, and
Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill (where there are actually three library schools within spitting distance
churning out graduates). Even if there’s not a library school in the area in which you’re hoping to work,
the market may be tight for new graduates. This is especially true in metropolitan areas that are
perceived to be nice or fun or trendy places to live.
There’s no doubt about it: finding your first professional position out of library school can be difficult.
Many people complain about this catch-22: “Nobody will hire me because I don’t have any experience,
but how am I supposed to get experience so somebody will hire me?”
Geographic mobility may be the key. It’s much easier to get your first job if you don’t limit your search to a
particular city or area. Broadening your search gives you more positions to choose from, and that allows
you to be more specific about what you want. Do you want to concentrate on materials in a specific
language or from a particular part of the world? Do you want to serve particular kinds of populations? It’
ll be much easier to hone in on what you want if you’re not limiting yourself to City X.
Okay, for those of you who are still saying, “I told you that this doesn’t apply to me because I can’t
relocate,” here we go: Are you sure you can’t relocate, or do you just think you can’t? Is there really
anything tying you to your present location other than inertia? Let me share my personal experience.
When I finished my MLS in 1999, I wanted to stay in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North
Carolina. It’s where I grew up, where all my family was, and where I had always lived. I liked it there, and
it never occurred to me that I would ever live anyplace else. Then when the reality of the job market set in
– remember, there are three library schools in the area – I had to rethink. I couldn’t afford to stay in the
paraprofessional position I had while I was going to library school, and besides that, I didn’t want to feel
that all the pain and suffering of library school was for nothing. But there just weren’t any entry-level
positions in the area, much less any entry-level positions that were even tangentially related to what I
wanted to be doing. Then I remembered what one of my professors told me once: “All my students say
they want to get a job around here when they graduate. I tell them, ‘Go get a job someplace else and get
a couple of years’ experience, then make the libraries here hire you back for more money.’”
So I decided to start perusing job postings elsewhere, just for the heck of it. I saw a vacancy that was
exactly what I was looking for: cataloging Latin American materials at a university library. The problem
was that it was 500 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, a city I had never set foot in. I didn’t know
anybody there. Initially I wrote it off, but then kept thinking about it. Why couldn’t I relocate for a couple of
years? While I loved the college I attended and couldn’t have asked for a better experience, part of me
always wished I had taken the chance to go to school someplace exotic, or at least different. I didn’t
have a spouse or kids, didn’t own a house, didn’t need to take care of elderly parents…. When I thought
about it, there was really no legitimate reason I couldn’t relocate.
To make a long story short, I applied for the job, they flew me out for an interview, and I was offered the
position. It turned out to be the best thing I could have possibly done at the time, both professionally and
personally. I loved my job, really loved the people I worked with, and Nashville turned out to be a pretty
entertaining place to hang out for two and a half years. I felt like an exchange student, which was fun.
That said, there were times when it was hard, and I felt lonely at first. However – and this is the
important thing – I never, ever regretted my decision or thought I made a bad choice. Not once in almost
three years. It’s hard to be too unhappy when you love your job and the people you work with. Another
advantage was that my institution was very big on professional development opportunities and had a
pretty generous travel budget, so I got to go to conferences in fun places like San Antonio and San
Francisco and become involved in national associations like ALA (which definitely looked good on my CV
when I started job hunting again).
After a couple of years, the perfect job was posted back home in North Carolina. I applied for it and got
it. Surprisingly, it turned out to be really hard to leave Nashville because I’d grown so fond of it.
My exchange student experience was over, and I’m completely glad that I did it. In retrospect, it was
really a good thing that I had to relocate for my first professional position, even though it didn’t seem like
it at the time. Now it’s fun to go back for long weekends to visit my friends there, and it’s kind of cool to
be able to start stories with, “I remember once when I was living in Nashville….”
It’s true that there are some people who truly cannot relocate because of family commitments or other
reasons. For those of you, all I can say is to try to keep a positive attitude and keep looking. For the rest
of you, check out the job postings in other areas just for fun. See if there are any jobs that really appeal
to you; bonus points if they’re located in places that you think might be an interesting place to live. Here
are some other things to consider:
How much would it cost to fly back home for holidays and visits? Low-cost airlines like Southwest are
your friend. I was frequently able to make weekend excursions back home to Raleigh for less than $100
round-trip, and we won’t even talk about the frequent flyer miles I racked up. Similarly, how much would
it cost for your friends and family to come visit you?
How much vacation time would you have? How many holidays would you get? Would you have to use
all your vacation to go home for Thanksgiving, etc.?
What’s it really like to live in the city you’re thinking about? Use those skills from your reference class to
check out sources like the Places Rated Almanac. Surf the web for bulletin boards and other sites
related to the city you’re looking at. Ask around – one of your friends probably knows somebody who
lives there and could put you in touch with him or her.
If you do your research and the city still seems like a possibility, apply for the job! Many libraries,
especially academic ones, will pay your travel expenses for the interview. If it’s a city you’re not familiar
with, see if you can get them to schedule an extra day there so you can rent a car and drive around to get
a feel for the area. Frequently they’ll be happy to do this because the airfare they save by having you stay
over a Saturday night more than pays for an extra night’s hotel.
All this said, however, don’t apply for a job that you have no intention of taking. If you know that you
wouldn’t take the job no matter how great it was because of where it’s located, don’t waste their time (or
yours) by applying. Don’t think of this as a vacation.
I can’t guarantee you that you’ll have as great an experience if you choose to relocate as I did. What I can
guarantee you, though, is that many of you who are reading this are a lot more mobile than you think you
Get out that atlas and start looking.
About the Author:
Richard A. Murray is Catalog Librarian for Spanish & Portuguese Languages at Duke University.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.