Career Strategies for Librarians
Working Overseas in a School or University Library
by Joan Petit
For two years, my family and I lived in Cairo, Egypt, while I worked at the American University in Cairo as
an Instruction and Reference Librarian. It was a fantastic experience, and I get questions almost weekly
from students and librarians interested in the same kind of job, either in Egypt or elsewhere.
There are several other LIScareer.com articles about working overseas, such as Nancy Fawley’s
excellent resource list for potential job seekers. This article will discuss jobs in academic and school
libraries, including tips on finding and attaining these positions. This article focuses on jobs for expats
(or potential expats) rather than jobs where an American is hired instead of a local.
Based on conversations with expat librarians and the job postings I see, my impression is that most
academic libraries looking to hire American librarians are in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia,
especially Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Singapore. I’ve also seen listings for jobs in the
Caribbean and South Pacific. Typically these universities hold US accreditation (and may even be
branches of US universities), but make sure to investigate, because the American University of Pandora
may be “American” in name only. It can be difficult for American librarians to find jobs in Europe because
universities there often only hire people who already have European Union work permits. In contrast,
hiring institutions in other parts of the world will often process your paperwork so you can live and work
in their country.
You don’t have to rule out non-US-accredited universities as potential employers, of course, but you
should know the institution’s status. You may also find universities accredited in Europe or Canada who
want to hire Americans.
Institutions looking to hire Americans typically post jobs in the same places as American-based
colleges and universities: in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the ALA JobList, LISjobs.com, and Inside
Higher Ed. You should also check websites for specific universities. Resources for finding American
universities overseas include the American International Consortium of Academic Libraries (AMICAL)
and Education City in Doha, Qatar.
The application process is similar to the process in the United States: you write a letter and send it off
with your resume. Typically a committee will review the applications and select some candidates for
phone interviews. Don’t count on being flown overseas for an on-campus interview, though. Some
libraries may conduct interviews in the US at a partner/home institution or at an ALA conference. Or, as is
typically the case with the American University in Cairo, the phone interview may be the only interview. I
do know of one librarian who was flown, with his fiancée, to Singapore, for an academic librarian
position, but this is uncommon. (I’ve often wondered if applications to positions overseas would drop if
people knew they wouldn’t get flown there for an interview!)
Academic jobs usually offer an expat package that includes benefits like health insurance and paid
vacation and may include furnished housing, airfare from the US to the new country, a baggage or
shipping allowance, several weeks of vacation and airfare back to the US each summer, and private
schooling for your dependent children. Legal spouses (though usually not unmarried straight or gay
partners) and children typically are included in housing and airfare benefits. Salaries vary, but shouldn’t
be too much lower than a comparable job in the United States. American expats in the host country are
the best source of information on the cost of living.
If you are not offered an expat benefit package, you should research the institution carefully and make
sure they’re a legitimate organization who can support you overseas.
The United States has embassies in almost every country in the world, and in almost all of those
embassies, you’ll find US State Department employees with kids who need to go to school. International
corporations also send Americans and their families all over the world. So in just about capital city
throughout the world, and in many large non-capital cities, you’ll find English-language American and
international schools. The larger the expat population, the more schools there are. Typically, these are
private schools with curriculums based on US, Canadian, or European standards.
While American kids usually go to American schools, and French and Francophone kids usually go to
French schools, most will have an international flavor. For example, when I lived in Cairo, my son’s
classmates at K-12 Cairo American College included Americans, Egyptians, Turks, Israelis, and
others-- some bilingual (or multilingual) with dual citizenship. First graders had typical American-style
lessons, but also weekly specialized classes in Egyptian culture and Arabic language. The library was
well-stocked and well-staffed. Indeed, high tuition (often paid for by parents’ employers) supports
excellent academic and recreational facilities, including very good libraries, at many international
The best way for an American librarian to find a K-12 job overseas is to attend a job fair in the United
States, where many of these schools do their hiring. Job fairs are scheduled in large American cities
during the late winter and spring, with hiring for the next fall. Expect to have to register and pay to attend
these job fairs, and perhaps be screened first by a hiring organization. Many teachers and librarians
leave these job fairs employed for the next fall.
Not all international schools hire through job fairs, however. You can also search websites of different
schools and apply directly. If you are interested in a particular country or part of the world, try to find
schools there through Google, Wikipedia, or the US Department of State Office of Overseas Schools.
When you apply directly, you may be interviewed by email, phone, or in person, though, again, it’s unlikely
you’ll be flown to the campus.
As with colleges and universities overseas, check the school’s accreditation. The English School of
Atlantis may offer instruction in English but be accredited locally only and employ mostly local staff—and
may not really be in a position to support an expatriate.
In general, you should expect these schools to offer an expat package with housing (or a housing
allowance), airfare and shipment of personal items to and from the host country, a generous summer
leave with airfare back to the United States, tuition for your school-aged children at the school, and health
insurance and retirement benefits comparable to American jobs.
Notes on the Job Search Process
The overseas job search will be different from looking for a job in the United States. The hiring institution,
for example, may ask if you are married and have kids, because spouses often go on the job market
together overseas (and if your partner is a teacher, this can be a real advantage when looking for a job
Both K-12 and higher ed schools are likely to hire on an academic year calendar. Contracts may be as
short as a year or two in length (two to three years seems typical). Overseas jobs seem to have higher
turnover. Indeed, at K-12 schools, some teachers and librarians, especially those without kids, move
schools and countries every few years.
Again, make sure you research the school thoroughly. Institutions hiring American librarians typically
require ALA-accredited MLS degrees because of an accreditation requirement in the United States.
Countries that train their own librarians typically don’t need the services of Americans except in unusual
circumstances. You may be able to find work in those countries, but they may not offer expat packages.
I turned down job possibilities in the Caribbean and Mozambique because neither institution offered a
package that would support my family and me, nor was there any guarantee my husband would be able
to find work. The Mozambique position at least provided housing for all of us, and schooling for my kids,
but the administrator was quite direct in noting that the position paid enough to support a single person
or dual-hire couple, but not a family of four. The position in the Caribbean sounded dreamy until I
realized I’d have to pay for housing and schooling for my kids, and it was unlikely my husband could get
a work permit.
You don’t necessarily have to speak the language of the host institution’s country. The most important
requirement is a sense of adventure. I had never set foot in Egypt when I accepted the job offer that
brought my family (including two young children) to Cairo. But I never regretted my decision, either.
Ultimately, when people ask me if they should apply for a job overseas, I encourage them. Even the
people I knew who didn’t love Egypt were glad to have had the experience. And I’ve never met an expat
who wished they had traveled less or stayed home more.
Fawley, Nancy. Taking Your MLIS Overseas. LIScareer.com. October 2005.
Kear, Robin. International Librarianship: Getting There From Here. LIScareer.com. June 2004.
Long, Dallas. See The World - Be a Librarian! LIScareer.com. January 2005.
US State Department Office of Overseas Schools http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/
UNI Overseas Placement Service for Educators http://www.uni.edu/placement/overseas/
International Schools Services http://www.iss.edu/index.asp
The International Educator http://www.tieonline.com/default.cfm
American International Consortium of Academic Libraries (AMICAL) http://www.amicalnet.org/
Education City in Doha, Qatar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_City
About the Author
Joan Petit serves as Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at Portland State University in Oregon.
She is delighted to be back in the United States after an adventurous two years in Cairo, Egypt. Joan
holds an MSLS and undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well
as an MA in English from Western Carolina University.
Article published April 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.