Career Strategies for Librarians
Collecting Experiences for Your Future Career
by Elizabeth Nelson
One of the first questions that newly minted librarians and library school students are asked is what type
of library they want to work in. Most have some idea, but it is easy to get locked into a particular path early
in your education or career. Even though you do have to make choices along with way, including which
classes to take or where to get your first professional job, keeping your options open is a good strategy.
After all, when you are first starting out, do you really know what you want to do with your entire career? I
would venture to say probably not. As you progress through your career, opportunities may emerge in
another type of library than you had originally planned. While there are some barriers to transferring
between library types, they can be overcome by keeping a few things in mind.
Many people choose the field of librarianship because it can offer flexibility. There is full-time and part-
time work; you can work with children, teens, adults, or all of the above; you can work days, evenings, or
weekends – and as your needs change, so can your career. But in order to take advantage of that
flexibility, you have to be able to leverage what you already know. To do this most effectively, you have to
have a wide range of experiences. While you are a student, take a wide variety of courses, but also do
internships and take temporary positions to get a feel for different jobs and libraries. Working in a job
isn't anything like taking a class about it, and you never know where your explorations will lead.
The Development of Libraries
To find some common ground, let’s look at the different types of libraries and their missions. In
Foundations of Library and Information Science, Rubin describes each library type.
Public libraries are perhaps the most familiar type. These libraries serve the communities in which they
are located by providing resources – print, media, and online – and programming targeted to their users.
Rubin states that these services come from the “historic missions of libraries in the past to: (1) support
the education and socialization needs of society, (2) meet the informational needs of a broad spectrum
of citizens, (3) promote self-education, and (4) satisfy the popular tastes of the public” (Rubin 297-298).
Academic and school libraries developed at different times in history to fill a similar need, mainly to
support the goals of educational institutions, ranging from elementary schools to colleges or
universities. The method in which these aims are achieved differs with the educational level of the
student, but both of these types of libraries support the curriculum and research needs of the students
(Rubin 278, 293).
Special libraries are probably the least familiar of the four library types. Libraries that don’t fit into the
other three categories are grouped together under this catchall designation. The term “special library”
often refers to corporate libraries, but there are other libraries that use this term as well, including
museum libraries, medical libraries, and law libraries. These libraries put an “emphasis on providing
reference services to the organization” (Rubin 278).
Historically, each type of library evolved to serve the needs of its specific community, be that a traditional
community served by a public library, a community of learners served by a school or academic library, or
a business community served by a special library. The common thread is the service that the library
provides to its community. From this perspective, all types of libraries are alike, providing resources in
many different forms, reference to help users find what they need, and education in how to better use the
tools that the library offers. The depth of the resources may differ, but a school librarian helping a third
grader with a science fair project needs a very similar skill set as a librarian working with scientists
researching their next innovation.
Moving between different types of libraries is a good way to find the environment that’s most interesting
to you, and it’s also a good way to collect experiences if you’re not sure where your future will take you.
Just as you always customize your cover letter to reflect the skills desired in a vacancy announcement, it
is equally important to customize your experience-gathering process so that your collect skills that apply
to any position you’re interested in.
Whether you’re a newly minted librarian or an industry veteran looking for a change, in order to prepare
successfully, start by looking at job postings for the next step in your career path. Look at the skills that
are required/preferred and collect experiences that match them. I use “collect experiences” to
encompass both those professional experiences that you gain by working as well as other things you do
to strengthen your résumé.
The goal of collecting experiences is to demonstrate your enthusiasm for a particular type of library work,
even if that is not what you are currently doing professionally. Most hiring managers look for candidates
who have taken the initiative to show how their skills and interests match the job requirements. They are
also often willing to consider alternate experiences that may bring a fresh and valuable perspective to
the position even if they are not specifically mentioned in the job posting. Seeking out opportunities to
enhance your skill set by working in a specific library type may also show a hiring manager that you are
truly interested in that type of library or in that particular position.
Experiences can be collected anywhere, as long as you are open to them. Many librarians enter the field
as a second career, bringing a wealth of experience from their previous careers. Expertise in managing
people, projects, budgets, and deadlines is transferable from industry to industry. Within the library
profession, experiences can come from paraprofessional positions, internships, temporary positions,
volunteer work, classes, and continuing education workshops.
Additionally, you can make your hobbies work for you. If you like to read or listen to audiobooks, consider
becoming a reviewer or forming a book group; if you enjoy writing, publish an article in one of the many
journals in the library field. Researching a topic related to your future career pathnot only helps you learn
more about current issues but also gets your name out there as an expert in that topic; both things are
valuable in the eyes of employers.
Being involved in local and national professional organizations keeps your finger on the pulse of library
trends. Joining groups that fit your current and future career goals builds your network and provides
additional learning opportunities and experiences. Beyond these larger organizations, there are also
groups devoted to specific topics. If your career path is leading you into a new set of skills (for example,
switching from technical services to public services) there are many discussion lists that can serve as a
valuable resource. The experts available to you in this way are also a good source of information on
topics that are important to your future field of interest.
Making Your Move
Whether you want to start collecting experiences as a new librarian or to shift your existing career path to
a different type of library, consider your audience and frame your experiences to match the desired
qualifications of the position. You already have a head start because you know the interviewer is going to
ask how your prior experiences are applicable to this new role. Being successful at any type of library
requires a very similar skill set. When serving your community is the end goal, the paths that each library
takes is not as important as the service they provide. Focusing on these similarities not only helps you
transfer your skills to another position, it also strengthens our profession as one group working toward
common goals.Collect experiences that help you reach your goals. Build on the similarities between
your collected experiences and your future goals. After all, when the interviewer asks you if you have the
experience they are looking for, don’t you want to answer with a resounding yes?
Rubin, Richard E. Foundations of Library and Information Science. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2004.
About the Author
Elizabeth Nelson practices what she preaches, having worked in special, public, and academic libraries.
She currently holds a knowledge management position at UOP, a Honeywell Company.
Article published February 2010
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.