Q: Hello! I’m in my first semester of LIS school. I like almost all of my classes so far, and, of course, want to enjoy the job I get after graduation, but I also need to make enough money to pay off loans. How do I choose the right specialty for me?
SM: This is a question that many soon-to-be librarians struggle with during school. Not only do you want to be happy and fulfilled in your future profession, you want to make a decent living once you get a job. So, how does a student choose a specialty? Since you are in your first semester, you have time to learn about different types of jobs and explore the various paths of librarianship. My advice to you is to get experience, talk to people in the profession, do some reading, look at job ads, and ask yourself some personal, but important questions.
It is difficult to know if you will really enjoy working in a specific area (e.g., cataloging, reference, instruction) or environment (e.g., public, academic, special) without actually spending some time in that area or environment. If feasible, get a job or volunteer in order to gain some hands-on experience in an area (or areas) that interest you. If working or volunteering is not possible, the next-best thing is to talk with librarians working in different types of libraries and in different roles, and find out what they do. Also, utilize your library school’s career services center; talk to a career advisor and see what kinds of resources and tools she recommends to assist you in choosing a specialty. Some schools have mentoring programs. These match students with a librarian who is working in their area of interest and encourage them to learn about library operations, discuss professional issues and topics, and collaborate with on-the-job librarians.
If you haven’t yet, search out library-related journals, web sites, and blogs that cover different areas of the profession. This is a great way to learn about new research, tools, resources, and technology. Also, keep an eye on the job ads. Read the job descriptions closely to find out what types of jobs are available, what skills and qualifications the positions require, and the pay different institutions offer for various positions.
Finally, ask yourself, what environment do you see yourself in: academic, public, school, special, or other (non-library)? How much does environment matter to you? Within these environments, the specialties are too numerous to name. Also note that a systems librarian at an academic library may be very similar to a systems librarian at a special library, or at a public library. Do you like working with children, with a diverse population, with graduate students? Are you analytical or extroverted, do you have a passion for music, or a second masters in Italian or mathematics? There are so many different factors you need to consider when trying to figure out what type of librarian you would like to be. Not to sound too obvious, but chances are you already have many assets and strengths that favor a specific area of librarianship – you just need to figure out what they might be.
Librarianship is a very diverse profession, and today’s constantly- changing library landscape compels librarians to take on many roles and wear many hats. This is the main reason why I love this profession. I must admit that I have myself changed my mind several times, while in school and after, and I’ve held a variety of roles and titles in all different kinds of libraries. Remember that, no matter what specialty you ultimately choose, you can always change your outlook and try something else. With that in mind, don’t feel too much pressure to decide on a specific specialty just yet. For now, have fun exploring your options!
Check out these sites for more information on specialties and salaries:
The ABC’s of library specialties
ALA’s Careers in Libraries
ARL Salary Survey
LIScareer.com Career Planning Section (includes articles, links, and a listing of print resources)
Lisjobs.com Advice Section – Specialties Within the Profession
Placements and Salaries 2003: Jobs! (Eventually)
(Be sure to look at the tables accompanying the article, especially “Salaries of Reporting Professionals by Area of Job Assignment.”)