Jul 01 2003

Taking the Scenic Route: Following a Varied Library Career Path

Published by rachel at 1:23 pm under careers

by Priscilla Shontz

I “happened” into librarianship through student employment in a university library while earning my undergraduate degree. For three years, I worked as a student clerk in the circulation department. When I graduated, I applied for a staff position in a new branch library at the university while pursuing postgraduate work there. Because of my experience, I was hired as the circulation supervisor. After two years, I decided to earn an MLS, and continued working at the branch library during my first year in library school. During my second year, I decided to attend school full-time and work part- time, so took a temporary position in the main library’s cataloging department. I also volunteered at the central library’s reference desk.

When I graduated in 1993, the job market was fairly tight. I mailed out 100 resumes (all over the U.S.) and got two phone interviews and one in-person interview. Fortunately, I was offered a position about two weeks before I graduated, and started work about one week after graduation.

My Path as a Librarian

My first job was as the librarian at a small rural community college. After two years, I moved, in order to manage access services in a private university. While there, I also volunteered a few times at a local public library. After another three years, my new husband and I moved again, and I took a job as a hospital librarian while he returned to school. In this job, I worked at both a medical library in a children’s hospital and at a university library.

When my husband finished school, we moved again for his job, and I became a public library branch manager. This high-stress job compounded some stress in my personal life, so I soon chose to look for a new job that would allow me to work on a book and other projects. I took a part-time position managing a virtual library for distance education students at four universities. Just after starting that job, though, I learned I was expecting our first child. I now stay home with our baby while working on professional projects.

Are You Experienced?

If there is one thing I cannot stress enough, it’s that any pre-MLS library experience you get will give you an edge when competing for that first librarian position. In the tight job market I faced, my seven years of varied library experience netted me only one job offer. Any library experience, even volunteer work, moves your resume higher in the pile.

If you can, work in a library before or during library school. This will help you discover whether you like librarianship, and what type of work you like. It also makes your classes more relevant and practical.

Think Small

While it’s not an option for everyone, I highly recommend working in a small library early in your career. Smaller libraries provide wonderful learning environments, because you are able to learn about almost every area and responsibility! For example, in my first position I was THE reference librarian in a library with a staff of five. I was “on the desk” 40 hours a week and was involved in almost every aspect of library operations. This allowed me to learn about responsibilities as diverse as library instruction, electronic resources, collection development, PR, interlibrary loan, cataloging, management, and budgeting.

Try It - You Might Like It

Try out different types of work or various types of libraries or organizations. Varied experience gives you a chance to see whether you like a particular type of work or environment, what you’re good at, and what you like and dislike. It also helps you develop a broader circle of contacts in different areas of librarianship. Whether you like a job or not, you always learn something that will help you. Getting varied experience early in your career provides you a broad foundation that allows you to move in many directions later; it can prevent you from getting “pigeonholed” into one particular career path.

Never Say Never

We’re constantly evolving, so don’t rule out a particular type of work or organization forever. For example, when I was in a tenure- track position, I thought I could never meet the publishing requirements. Later, while in a position that didn’t require writing at all, I wrote a book - and am now working on another one. Don’t close any doors if you can help it, because you never know what might interest you in a few years.

Job-Hopping is Not a Dirty Word

Some people will advise you not to change jobs too often or too quickly. Some people will recommend that you choose one area of specialization while you’re in school and stick with that throughout your career. While it’s important not to move through too many jobs in an extremely short period of time, don’t be afraid to move around. Particularly in the first few years of a library career, it’s quite common and acceptable for you to change positions every few years.

The key is being able to explain your job changes in a positive manner. Switching jobs often can help you move up to higher-level positions more quickly, if that is your goal. Moving around between types of positions or organizations can give you wider knowledge of the field and help you relate to various co-workers and customers. For example, working in cataloging helped me understand what technical services librarians do, which helps me be a more well-rounded public services librarian. Job changes can help you learn what you really enjoy or dislike. New jobs can present new challenges and experiences that help prevent burnout and help you develop new skills.

Listen - Is that Opportunity Knocking?

Be open to opportunity. Get a variety of experience. Take side paths if they interest you. Don’t be afraid of change. Let each experience keep you fresh and encourage you to grow in new directions. Enjoy the ride!

Priscilla K. Shontz is a web designer and freelance writer and has worked in university, community college, medical and public libraries. She is author of Jump Start Your Career in Library & Information Science (Scarecrow Press, 2002) and is a past president of the ALA New Members Round Table. She is currently staying home with her daughter while working on a new book for Scarecrow Press, maintaining LIScareer.com and serving on ALA and NASIG committees. For a list of her various jobs, see her resume. Contact Priscilla at pshontz@liscareer.com.

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