Career Strategies for Librarians
From Baby Librarian to Tenured Faculty: Strategizing for Success
by Ann Snoeyenbos
Institutions across the United States differ in their promotion and tenure practices. The norms are often
established locally, but with an eye to performance criteria and standard competencies applicable
across the profession. Wherever you are and whatever the process, one needs to keep firmly in mind
that the option to apply for permanent employment is a privilege, not a right. You are not entitled to a job
for life from your employer, and (from their perspective) they don’t owe you anything. You need to
remember that your goal in preparing the dossier is to convince the employer that you have current value,
and that you will be a valuable employee for many years to come. You need to demonstrate a strong
commitment to your employer before your employer will demonstrate any commitment to you.
How do you demonstrate that commitment? By writing, speaking, teaching, mentoring, facilitating,
creating, and just plain working hard.
I believe that a serious professional will be willing to pay the price of permanent employment. That price
may be paid in time, money, energy, and attention. One should be prepared to do more than a 9am-
5pm job in exchange for the security of permanent employment. There are many people who cannot
make this type of commitment, or who chose not to for a variety of reasons, and there is nothing wrong
with that. Each person has to weigh their own circumstances to come up with the best equation for their
There are times when this commitment will require tough decisions about the relative merits of the
activities on your to-do list. At times you will need to let daily duties slide in order to cultivate grander
professional projects. Don’t assume your supervisors will help you make those decisions. Their
primary concern is the performance of the department(s) they oversee, not an individual’s portfolio. You
need a mentor or advisor on the outside (but within the profession) who can help you make the best
choices for your career trajectory. The theme to keep in mind is that strategic short-term sacrifice brings
Once you make the decision to work toward tenure, then you must overcome the inertia that exists for
anybody embarking on a new career. Even if you worked in libraries for a long time before attaining the
professional degree (MLS or equivalent), you will need to reposition yourself as a professional. Having
once broken through this inertia, you’ll need to pursue opportunities as they come along and work hard
to make sure that they do. Contacts and opportunities lead to additional contacts and opportunities. As
Groucho Marx once said, “The harder I work the luckier I am.”
Start Slowly and Let the Momentum Build
A good promotion/tenure dossier will demonstrate a career trajectory that moves from the beginner
stages, in which one would expect to see relatively little involvement outside the job-specific
environment, to more and more advanced stages in which the candidate’s circle of influence expands
into different parts of the home institution (library committee work, college/university committee work and
cooperative projects) and then out into the profession at the local, regional, and national levels.
It is important to plan in advance to nurture your professional momentum. You should consider the
strategic impact of specific activities before accepting new appointments. If you over-commit early in
your career and aren’t able to sustain the momentum, then you risk both professional burnout and a
poor reputation in the field. You will also have a hard time convincing your employer that you are capable
of making significant contributions to your field over the long term.
It takes time to find out what you’re best at and where you can make the most valuable contributions to
the profession. There are many options, ranging from events planning to scholarly research and writing
to teaching to editing. Consider the first stage of your career to be a sort of apprenticeship. Start with
involvement on committees for which the work is not too demanding, or where you will be closely
supervised and/or mentored. An example of this might be a committee that puts on a function at a
conference. Organizing an orientation program or putting together a social event can be useful
experience for a new librarian because it puts you in direct contact with a lot of different people
representing different aspects of the organization (members, speakers, officers, financial planners,
If writing is your interest, then practice writing shorter, lighter pieces before embarking on a peer-
reviewed scholarly article. Working on a departmental, association, or organizational newsletters
provides exposure to editors, publishers, and other writers. Focused and finite writing projects, such as
book reviews, bibliographic essays, short opinion pieces and the like, can help move you past feelings
of shyness or inadequacy and teach you how to write for discrete audiences. The good thing about our
current media-rich society is that all these publications and programs need material; in fact they are
often desperate for ideas and new writers.
Say Yes More Often Than You Say No
An important part of building professional momentum is demonstrating that you’re willing to work hard
for the cause, no matter what job you’re offered. Keep in mind that signing on to a project for which you
do not have the time or appropriate skills is disrespectful; however, when an opportunity does comes
along consider whether you can afford to pass it up. The connections you make through one activity is
likely to build upon itself and lead to better things later on. You might be offered a less glamorous
assignment just to keep you involved in the group until a plum assignment is available. In association
work committee appointments are made just once each year, so if you turn something down now you
might not be considered again until the following year, or the year after that.
Momentum Carries You Past Tenure
The professional momentum you create in your pursuit of permanent employment keeps you involved in
the profession long after you’ve succeeded. Many professionals have found that they are more
productive once they achieve tenure than they were when they were working so hard to prove their
abilities. The things you do to get tenure are really just the fundamentals of becoming an active,
Arguments can be made for and against faculty status for librarians, and the academic tenure system,
but I believe these structures enforce a quality of engagement that serves the profession. The demands
of a librarian’s day-to-day job seem to expand to fill all available time. However, individuals making a
commitment to local, regional, and/or national involvement are vital to the health of any profession.
Where would the profession be if we each tended our own workday without sharing any of the fruits of
that labor with others?
Monitor Your Own Progress
Keep a log of your activities, and maintain a file of notes and ideas. Save every letter and message of
praise (I have a file marked “kudos” that never fails to restore my confidence). Keep every review by your
boss, letters from the Dean and/or University President. Keep a copy of every piece of official
correspondence between you and your employer. Your resume should be current to within one month.
You can use your resume as a sort of logbook to serve multiple purposes: you can submit applications
(for awards, travel grants, additional responsibilities, etc) in a timely fashion with much less effort, and it
will be easier to reconstruct your year when annual review time comes around.
Practice the Art of Self-Promotion
By this I don’t mean to encourage conceit, but rather to encourage you to talk up your experience so it’s
more likely you connect with projects that are interesting to you. It is useful to practice communicating
with others about your projects, your goals, and your interests. Some people cultivate only those
connections that they feel will help them in the moment, without considering the high degree of mobility
in the profession. Consider where a person could be in three to five years and keep in mind that
opportunities often arise in unexpected places. The more people there are who know about your work
the more likely you are to be given consideration down the line. One way to do this is to send a query or
a request for assistance to an electronic discussion list, or talk it up at a meeting during casual
conversation. You might even discover a colleague in your own institution who shares that interest.
When appropriate, don’t be shy about sharing your experience with others who are trying to do similar
work. This is a way of letting people know that you can make connections among ideas, and it might
foster new collaborations.
You can’t win all the time, and you shouldn’t expect to. So always be polite, express thanks to the
sponsoring organization, and then mark your calendar to apply again the following year. When people
take the time to help you, let them know that their assistance was valuable to you, and in what specific
ways. From the mentor’s perspective mentoring can sometimes feel like meddling, so let people know
how they can be helpful to you.
About the Author:
Ann Snoeyenbos is the reference and collection development librarian for West European Social
Science at New York University.
Article submitted Mar 2003
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.