Q: How do I make the transition from one position to another, very different, one?

Q: I am currently in a special library setting, working on controlled vocabulary issues for a digital images company. My intention in going to library school was to get a position as a reference librarian at a university. How do I make the transition?

TA: What do they say – that the pathway to library school is paved with good intentions? In all seriousness, many of us go into library school with one career plan in mind, and come out with a job in something else. I work on a campus with a library school, and have worked closely with some of these graduates. I have first-hand experience with students who enter school wanting to be a reference librarian, but discover a passion for preservation, special collections, archives, or something else they stumbled across (in the classroom or a field experience). Once you have taken a job in one area and then decide to get back to your first love, though, how do you make that transition?

First, you need to assess your own skill set and think about how you can extend those skills to other situations. For example, in your current job, you may work with individuals from the digital images company. Think of these people as your “customers,” or “patrons,” and think of the work you do for them in terms of public service. Do you work with them to answer their questions? Do you consult reference materials? Do you perform a mini reference interview with your customers to gather more information about their requests? Some, or all, or none, of these may apply, but what I am trying to convey is the need to examine your skill set to find transferable skills. Transferable skills are those that you pick up in one context but that can carry over to new situations. Computer skills, customer service skills, budget, management and supervisory experience — these are all examples of transferable skills. Think about the skills you have and how they may fit into the new career opportunity you may be pursuing.

That leads us next into assessing the needs of the new position. Susanne will be touching on job searching and gaining relevant experience.

SM: Making the move from one type of position, or one type of library, to another can be a daunting prospect. I think many librarians either have a fear of being typecast or a fear of breaking out of their “safety zone.” If they are working in a public setting, how can they make the switch to medical or academic? If they have only worked in technical services, how can they switch to public services? This fear can lead to missed opportunities and can make perfectly hirable and motivated librarians afraid of looking for and accepting alternative roles and positions.

The good news is that times, and roles, are changing. Librarian roles are not what they used to be, and stereotypes, at least within the library world, are slowly dissolving. Librarians are overall becoming more and more diversified. Traditional positions are getting harder to find in today’s rapidly-changing environment, as librarians are obtaining a variety of skills and taking on multiple roles within their libraries. A reference librarian position can no longer be interpreted as just sitting behind a reference desk and waiting for patrons to ask questions. In today’s world, it can also mean answering and managing virtual reference transactions, keeping up with changing technology and troubleshooting technology issues, developing and teaching library instruction classes, creating marketing and outreach strategies, dealing with privacy and copyright issues, and selecting and reviewing library resources – to name just a few reference-related tasks. As library environments change, librarians who are in more traditional roles or who wish for a little more diversity need to take active roles in redefining their positions within the library.

Finding that “dream job” may be impossible, but finding a position that matches both your interests and your skills is very attainable. You can make the job-hunting process easier by having a willingness to relocate and keeping an open mind about positions and institutions that you might not normally consider.

Relocating will allow you to greatly expand your search and go where the job is. Whether or not this is realistic for you, and for some it is not possible, you will still need to be creative and comprehensive in your search – as well as patient.

Keeping an open mind about librarian roles and titles may open up more doors. If you are looking for an academic position, how about considering a job in a “special academic” library, such as one focusing on health sciences, law, or art? And, if you are looking for a reference position, think about considering a position that includes reference tasks such as desk hours as part, but not necessarily the majority, of its duties. Many positions, especially at universities, are becoming more diversified. You may find an electronic services position that includes regular reference desk hours, for example. But, be careful…don’t just apply for a job for the reference aspect of it, you should be interested in all aspects of the job. Also, reference positions typically go hand-in-hand with instruction, so be prepared to teach.

As you begin your job search, try to be as exhaustive and thorough as you can. Look at ads in journals, trade magazines, association web sites, e-mail job lists, and job-related web sites. Be sure to look closely at the descriptions, the qualifications, and the requirements for each position before applying. Titles can be deceptive, so do not rely on these alone to accurately or completely describe the position. Take the time to write a good and detailed cover letter that emphasizes your transferable skills and your experience as it relates to the position at hand. Reference librarians need good technology skills, as well as excellent communication skills, and the experience you have gained in your present position will only help to enhance your resume and entice potential employers.

Job sites and e-mail lists to utilize in your search include:

Another way to stay current and involved in what interests you is by joining and participating in associations. Two that you may want to look into are the Reference & User Services Association (RUSA) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).

To assist you in your job search, you may want to obtain more relevant experience and skills. This could include taking classes, finding a mentor, volunteering, or just doing some research. Related experience of any kind will add weight to your resume and show potential employers that you are motivated and willing to learn new things.

Continuing education classes, workshops, conferences, and symposia are always good ways to network, learn new skills, and keep up with technology. ACRL’s Professional Tools page has information on e-learning workshops. Its Office of Leadership and Management Services (ARL/OLMS) offers online classes and webcasts on a variety of topics. Also, local chapters of associations and state library associations typically offer classes or symposia for their members. For technology-related classes on topics like Dreamweaver, XML, or MS Access, look into local or online computer learning centers.

Volunteering is an excellent way to network with the library community and to learn about different types of positions and library systems. Many public library systems have volunteer programs that may allow you to get experience in teaching, reference, circulation, cataloging, or numerous other library tasks.

The experience you crave may be right under your nose. Find out what you can do at your current job to gain relevant experience. Is there someone who can mentor you? Can you spend time learning and performing reference duties? Some libraries even offer “exchange programs” between departments such as cataloging and reference, or acquisitions and archives. Talk to your supervisor and find out if this is possible. I know librarians who have switched jobs but stayed within the same institution by doing this.

At the very least, do your homework and research the ins and outs of the position. Find competencies, best practices, guidelines, and standards dealing with reference librarianship and/or academic librarianship. Read the current literature to stay informed of trends and initiatives going on in reference services, especially virtual reference and its many tools, and be prepared to use this information in your interview.

TA: And, speaking of the interview…You have assessed your experience and strengths, found an opportunity that matches both your interests and skills, and created a resume that expresses your skills and how they match the needs of the new position. Now, an institution has called you for an interview. This is your opportunity to once again express your enthusiasm for the position, and to reiterate how your skills closely match the institution’s needs. Think of your experience in terms of the needs of the position and be sure to convey how your skills will transfer from one context to another.

Inevitably, someone will ask why you are making the switch from a special library to an academic library. Be sure to have an answer prepared — and, you’ll need something more than “it’s what I went to library school for.” Again, speak in terms of the position. Hiring organizations want to hear that you want THEIR job, not just ANY job in an academic library. You can begin with something like: “I always thought I would work in a university library, but an excellent opportunity (the special library) came along. I decided it was something I wanted to pursue in order to gain valuable skills and experience.” Then, get more specific: “I recently saw this opportunity and it reinforced my desire to get back the university, working more directly with students and faculty. I like the challenges presented in the position and believe my experience in [X, Y and Z] closely match the needs of this position.” Bring your transferable skills into the conversation, and match them to the position’s required and preferred qualifications.

In any organization, people want to hire the best candidate, the one who most closely matches the needs of the position and the organization. It will be your job as that candidate to educate those making the hiring decision, showing that your skills, although gained in a different environment, will transfer to their organization and that they make you the best-qualified candidate. If you take the time to assess your skills, closely examine the qualifications of the position during your job search, and prepare to discuss how your skills closely match the needs of the organization, you will have the information you need for a successful interview. Good luck with your search!

[ed.: See also the May 2001 ICT on “changing careers” – scroll down to read.]

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