Career Strategies for Librarians
Making Non-Library Experience Work for You
by Jen Stevens

I subscribe to a listserv for new librarians and students and recent
graduates who are looking for their first "new" librarian job. A couple
of weeks ago, someone asked if she should mention her "non" library work
experience. My answer was immediate - by all means!

Why? First, because it shows that you have a work history that extends
before library school. Many of us who enter librarianship do so as a
second, third, or even fourth career. Our prospective employers need to
know if we have extensive work experience from else when. Second,
because the skills and  knowledge that you bring from those other jobs can be
very useful and relevant to the library jobs that you are applying for.

Show Your Skills

When I was looking for my first position, I listed my work as a
technical writer on my vita and resume. I hadn't done technical writing for very
long, and it was mostly in the year between deciding to apply to
library school and actually doing so. But I learned a lot in that year. I
learned how to write documentation, help files, and persuading Word to format
documents correctly. My technical writing experience is directly
connected to my current position. As a librarian, I produce handouts and web
pages that help my users better use the library. Just as the employees at my
technical writing job needed to know what procedures to use on the
assembly line, so do my library users need to know what procedures to
use to get the information that they needed. Similarly, customer service
positions can demonstrate your ability to work with the public, which
is very important for public service librarians.

Use What you Know

Another way that a "non-library" job can relate to (hopefully) future
library position is subject knowledge. If you've worked as a technician
in a microbiology laboratory, you probably know a lot about biology and
chemistry. That knowledge could be very useful to you as a science
librarian. Moreover, you would probably have a very good idea of the
types of information resources that microbiology researchers need. In turn,
those with business backgrounds may bring a considerable depth of knowledge
to business reference librarian positions.

But What about that Tutoring Job?

Don't limit yourself to full time jobs. Include jobs you held as a
student. That teaching assistant position that you held in library
school could demonstrate your ability to teach students, which in turn,
connects very well with both library instruction classes and the informal
teaching that reference librarians do all the time at the reference desk.
Consider volunteer work as well. For instance, serving as the chair of a
committee that organized and ran a benefit event for a local group can
demonstrate considerable organizational and "people" skills. In turn, volunteering
at a local historical society may give you subject knowledge in  history.

Should I Include Everything?

Some non-library jobs are more relevant than others, or more relevant
for one library position than another. List the positions that are most
suited for a given library job. Tailor your resume or vita for that particular
job. That biology technician position might be great to list for a
science library job, and less useful for a cataloging position. You only have
so much room on a resume (no more than two pages), and even vitas should
be no longer than necessary. However, if you worked twenty years at a given firm before library
school, I would advise that you always list it, because again, those twenty
years provide a substantial work history.

Explain Why it's There

Finally, if you do include a given non-library job on your resume or
vita, explain why it's relevant both in the job description and in your cover
letter. Don't make a search committee guess why you included it.
Another place to list skills and knowledge that you gained from non-library
positions can be a "Skills" section. In mine, I listed all the
different software programs that I had used during my various jobs, including
Word! Don't forget to include a foreign languages section either. Even a
passing familiarity with a foreign language can be helpful to your library

Librarians are famous for being polyglots who have diverse skills and
interests. Make that work for you and you may find that hunting for
that first library job isn't quite so intimidating after all.

About the Author:
Jen Stevens is a Humanities Liaison Librarian at George Mason University.
Her own non-library jobs include technical writing, teaching
freshman writing classes, temping, campus food services, and reorganizing
a faculty member's files.  She has been on both sides of the search committee process.  

Article published August 2003

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