Career Strategies for Librarians
And Now For Something Completely Different: Moving From One Library to A Very Different One
by Laura Schimming
For four years, I worked as a certified library media specialist in a public elementary school. I read
stories and made crafts with kindergartners, supported first graders as they learned to read, and helped
older students with research projects. I planned book fairs, school poetry nights, and tutored in after
Now I am a medical reference librarian at an academic medical center. I support the information needs
of physicians and research scientists, design instruction for medical students, and participate in
evidence-based medicine workshops. I also teach classes, create websites, and attend clinical rounds
with medical residents.
The Itch to Switch
How did I move from one library to a very different library? It all started when I relocated to a new city,
started looking for school jobs, and was unsatisfied with what I found. I interviewed at one school where
the library was the size of a closet; another school wanted to hire a librarian for the sole purpose of
covering teacher prep periods; yet another already employed two very unfriendly librarians. Perhaps my
standards were too high, but I remember thinking, “How could I ever work in these places?” After a few
months of sporadic interviews at school libraries, I knew it was time to cast a wider net.
Being selective has its drawbacks: your job search is longer, financial resources become scarce, and
you may pass up a reasonable opportunity because you are waiting for a non-existent perfect job. But,
knowingly taking a step backwards by accepting a job where you cannot develop your skills or use your
talents is not a good idea. I was determined not to work (if I could help it) in a library where it seemed
very difficult to get along with the staff, to make changes, or to develop a good library
When It’s Time to Change, You’ve Got to Rearrange
Although I knew it was time to make a career move, I seriously doubted that non - school employers
would be interested in my application. After all, my experience was almost entirely in elementary
education. I knew how to work with kindergartners – but not businesspeople, scientists, or academics!
I realize now that I had forgotten one of the main qualities that had attracted me to librarianship in the first
place – the versatility of the profession. Librarians have the opportunity to develop skill sets that often
move easily into other settings. Librarians in all fields organize information and connect users with
materials. The challenge is to accentuate the similarities between your experience and the job to which
you are applying.
Rewriting your resume for each advertised position is time consuming - but necessary. Emphasizing
transferable skills like reference, teaching, collection development, cataloging, and not the institutions
(in my case: elementary schools) makes an application more attractive to potential employers. Keep in
mind that if you do not have the exact experience necessary for a job, you may have similar skills that
employers will recognize as preparation for a new job. For example, customer service experience is
excellent training for working in access services and reference. Learning the specific details of the job
will come later.
If it Feels Right…
So, forget about the employer for a minute…how do you know when a job in a very different library will be
a good match for you?
Before and after your interview, ask yourself lots of questions: Could I work well with the other librarians
and staff members? Could I grow professionally in this position? Am I interested in the subject matter?
Am I capable of performing well in this position with my present skills - or would I be in over my head?
Get a feel for the job’s daily responsibilities, and try to determine if they suit your abilities and
When I interviewed at the medical library, I certainly did not feel confident about fitting in. But, during the
interview, it did not take long for me to realize that the medical library would be a good match for me. My
interviewers seemed to share my attitudes toward information literacy, instruction, and the future of
libraries. It became clear that they were looking for someone who felt comfortable teaching classes and
designing instruction. The fact that I had virtually no medical or scientific background did not seem that
A Totally Different World – or Maybe Not
So what did I learn by moving to a very different library? Above all else, I learned that libraries are
When I started my new job I was surprised to find that many of my responsibilities were not very different
from my old ones. Yes – the institutions, students, curriculum, and information needs were vastly
different - but many of the enjoyable aspects and the challenges were the same. Supporting an
institution's goals, coordinating with faculty members, planning and providing instruction to students,
and organizing resources were all exactly the same.
Designing library/research instruction for medical students turned out to be very similar in many ways to
planning instruction for K-5 students. The content is different but the challenges are the same: What do
students need to know? How should instruction be provided and assessed? And when during the
curriculum should the instruction take place?
I also discovered that helping medical professionals at the reference desk was comparable to helping
teachers and principals find information. Patrons from both groups frequently have limited or basic
computer skills and need someone to patiently explain how they can access and synthesize
information. Despite my original qualms, my new position did not seem that different after all.
Better yet, working in a new institution provided opportunities to learn new skills and meet new people. In
my first year as a medical librarian, I attended national conferences and training workshops, learned to
use biomedical databases and design web-based courses (among many other things), and met
several excellent colleagues. None of the above had been possible when I was a solo elementary
The Bottom Line
Changing to a new library is not as difficult as it may seem. Candidates who know how to organize
information, serve users effectively, and are willing to learn new skills will always be attractive to
employers. If you’ve always wanted to work in a new type of library, don’t be intimidated. You may be
surprised to find that you already know more than you think!
About the Author:
Laura Schimming is a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York
City. Previously, she was the library media specialist at Fulton Elementary School in Lancaster, PA.
Article published July 2004
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