Q: I’m interested in working in a library environment, but hold no previous experience. The only thing I hold is a great passion for literature. I would like to work within this educational environment, but do not know what to do. Most places need some sort of experience, but I do not know if my work and life experience will do?
TA: Well, I am certainly glad that you are considering librarianship as a profession, but I would add a word of caution: most librarians I know don’t sit around and read, so a “passion for literature” needs to be supplemented with a passion for library work. I hear in your question a love of books and a fondness for the campus lifestyle, but I do not hear any enthusiasm for library work. I may have misinterpreted your question, or, perhaps having not worked in a library, you are unsure about the work and so cannot express enthusiasm for those possibilities. You need to know what goes on in a library (from the service point of view) before you can decide if you would like to make a commitment to the profession. You can do this in a number of ways:
- Schedule informational interviews Make an appointment with an individual working in a position that you may be considering. Ask general questions about the work, the environment, and how they got to this point in their career. Do not stay longer than 15 minutes unless invited to do so. And be sure to send a thank you note after your visit to express your gratitude for their time and for freely sharing information about their position and career in librarianship. For a quick article on informational interviewing, check out Carole Martin’s article “Informational Interviewing: The Neglected Job Search Tool” at http://interview.monster.com/articles/informational/ .
- Volunteer By volunteering to shelve books at your public library or assisting with a Friends of the Library book sale, you will make invaluable contacts and gather information that will help you determine if this is work you really enjoy.
- Research careers in libraries Take a look at ALA’s Human Resource Development and Recruitment site to learn about opportunities in librarianship. You will also find other general resources for researching careers in libraries.
When you are ready to pursue a career in a library, start researching job opportunities in your area (or elsewhere, if you are geographically mobile). In most cases, unless you possess a Masters in Library Science or a Masters in a comparable field, you will not be eligible for a librarian position. You may want to consider researching and applying for library support staff positions. If you are interested in an educational environment, look at your local college or university library for possible opportunities. Also consider school libraries, large public libraries and special libraries.
Read vacancy announcements to determine the qualifications of a position and look for transferable skills. Transferable skills (see previous columns) are skills learned in one context that easily transfer to another. For example, if you managed a video store and supervised ten employees, you may have gained valuable experience in the areas of supervision, managing a budget, and/or facilities operation. These experiences would all translate well into another setting, whether it’s a university library, a public library – or another video store.
If you enjoy working in a library, you may want to eventually consider returning to school for an MLS. You can find ALA-accredited programs in your area online.
SM: I agree with all of Tiffany’s suggestions. You definitely need to do a little research and find out what is involved in working in a library before you start looking for a job in one. And, just to reiterate, you will need more than a “passion for literature” to work in libraries. Sadly, we do very little reading on the job. The only librarians I know who do quite a bit of reading are children’s librarians, and most children’s books, as interesting as they can be, are not what you’re likely referring to as “literature.”
Librarianship is a very difficult profession to define. People generally have no idea what librarians do, other than help patrons find resources and information. This is partly because our profession is so diverse; we do very different things in very different places. The best way to figure out if you will really like working in libraries is to actually work in one, in your case, most likely as support staff. All libraries depend greatly on their support staff. These positions can be exceptional learning opportunities for those expecting to pursue their MLS, or wonderful careers in themselves.
Getting library experience, of any kind, will help you decide if a career in libraries is right for you. Also start thinking about what kind of library you want to work in, and in what capacity. The three main areas of libraries are public services, technical services, and administration. If you really want to work with people in an educational capacity, you may want to find a position in public services. I have worked in a variety of library positions over the years, in professional and non-professional roles, both part-time and full-time, in public libraries, a government library, a theater library, a theology library, and both large and small academic libraries. The experience I gained along the way has been invaluable in shaping and charting my career as a librarian. There is nothing like working in a library to help you figure out if you truly want to be a librarian – how do you know until you try it? Good luck!
For more information on the profession and the different roles within libraries, take a look at the Occupational Outlook Handbook entries on Librarians, Library Assistants, and Library Technicians; and the Getting Started section of Lisjobs.com.