Q1: I am a new graduate living in Canada. I was confident that I could locate a professional job in an academic library or public library with my MLIS and Doctorate degree of Philosophy in Chinese History. I have been searching for jobs for seven months, but I have only had one in-person interview and one telephone interview. I am not a native English speaker, and I admit that I have an accent; however, I am confident that I can communicate very well in English. Also, I do not have much experience working in libraries. I did work-study while I was in library school and I volunteered in a public children’s library. What can I do to get a job?
Q2: How does age figure into a beginning library career? I’m almost 60 years old and obtained my MLS in 2002, but have been traveling with my husband since then. When I settle, I’d still like to work in a library, even as a part-time librarian. I know age discrimination should not factor in, but in reality it does. Which do you think are my most severe stumbling blocks, my age or lack of experience? What is the best way to gain experience at my age?
TA and SM: Both of these questions come from recent graduates concerned about possible discrimination by potential employers. In an effort to address both of these questions, we thought we would provide some advice and information for recent library school graduates and librarians who might find themselves in similar situations. At the same time, we hope to provide some insight for library managers and administrators who might be dealing with difficult decisions as they seek to hire the most qualified candidate for a given position.
Discrimination, in Libraries?
Discrimination exists in many different forms, in most professions, in most cultures, and in every part of the world. Sometimes it is deliberate, and sometimes it is unintentional. Ultimately, it is hurtful and discouraging for anyone trying to move forward with her or his career. One definition states that: “To discriminate is to make a distinction between people on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit. Examples include social, racial, religious, sexual, disability, ethnic and age-related discrimination.”
Many of us, at one point or another, may have experienced some form of discrimination in our jobs or in the job hunt process. Whether we like to admit it or not, this does happen in libraries. This profession, often viewed as diverse, liberal, laid-back, progressive, and mainly female, can still be very competitive, political, and unfortunately discriminatory.
Age discrimination is a concern for a growing number of library school graduates who have chosen to change careers or enter the workforce later in life. In the most recent placement and salaries survey (of 2004 graduates), more than half of the 1,611 graduates who responded to questions about their career aspirations said they were seeking a second or third career as a librarian. Likewise, the number of minority librarians is growing, with 16% of all 2004 graduates claiming minority status. And men, who are minorities in libraries, made up only 19% of all 2004 graduates.
How to Prepare Yourself While Looking for a Job
The fact that discrimination exists in the workplace (or in society) is really very sad. And, it’s wrong. At some point in your life, no matter how hard you fight against it, you, or someone you know, may be the victim of an act of discrimination. Nonetheless, you should work hard up front to prepare yourself for these situations. You need to present yourself as the perfect applicant, and your first chance to do this is often through your cover letter and resume.
The Cover Letter and Resume
Your application materials (your cover letter and resume) are your introduction to a potential employer. How you present yourself and your education and experience, in your resume and cover letter will determine whether or not you receive consideration for a position. If you’re a non-native English speaker, have someone proofread your application materials. We advise all applicants to use a proofreader, but this is especially important for non-native speakers, because, in addition to catching common typos and misspellings, a proofreader may also catch errors in grammar and syntax.
If you are an older applicant who is just now applying for your first library job, there are a few ways to approach your cover letter and resume. If you are making a career change, look for transferable skills from previous positions, and, whenever possible, draw direct parallels to those skills in your cover letter. If you were an accountant for 20 years in a large firm, for example, and are now applying for a branch librarian position, talk about your subject knowledge and how you worked with external customers, supervised employees and managed a budget. Look for ways to draw upon your previous experience and tie those experiences to your current pursuits.
If you are an older applicant who is just now applying for your first job ever, your approach might be a little different. Without the “traditional” use of transferable skills (from a previous career), you’ll need to look at the work you’ve done outside the home and draw on those experiences. For example, use volunteer work with community organizations, in the school system, or internships and field experiences while in library school to round out your experience. Again, in your cover letter and resume, tie these experiences (and the skills you developed) directly to the position for which you are applying.
This brings us back around to the recurring theme throughout most of our columns: EXPERIENCE. The short answer: get it, now! In whatever way possible (work before school, work while in school, intern, volunteer) get some real-life experience that you can draw on when applying for positions. If you’re still in library school, listen up. Take a student assistant position, volunteer at the public library, do a field experience for course credit, do whatever you can to try your hand at different library work.
We know. Life is busy, with classes, and papers, and lectures, and exams. We know. We’ve been there. But just realize that what you do now (like sacrificing sleep for work experience…) will pay off dramatically when you’re applying for a job. Instead of being among the masses of newly minted MLS grads with minimal or no experience, your perfectly-written cover letter and resume, with directly-drawn parallels between your experience and a library’s requirements, will pay off in gold.
In all of these scenarios, you need to stay current with technology. Take advantage of classes offered at the public library, through your library school, or at your local community college. Or, take an online course and join a few e-mail lists to stay abreast of current topics in your areas of interest. By showing a potential employer that you are aware of the latest “chatter” in librarianship (IM versus library virtual reference software; digitization: preservation or access?; electronic resource management systems, etc.), you are conveying a level of interest and engagement that will not only impress your interviewer, but provide fodder for discussion.
Remember, self-confidence goes a long way in an interview, and even in a cover letter. Rather than focus on your differences, or your weaknesses, focus on your strong points. Play up your uniqueness: your language skills, your experience in other professions, your communication skills, your worldly knowledge, your commitment to education, your enthusiasm to learn and to succeed, and convince yourself and potential employers that you can do the job.
So, You Did Not Get the Job
Experience is more important than you may think when you are applying for a job. The reason you did not get a certain job probably has more to do with your lack of experience than with your age or inability to speak without an accent. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to prove actual discrimination. One (not uncommon) thing you can do, after interviewing for a position and learning that you did not get the job, is to contact the person who interviewed you (generally a casual email, attached with a “thank you” works best) and ask her or him why you did not get the job. Ask for specifics and advice. You just might get some very useful information that you can apply the next time you interview. Hopefully, you will get a little peace of mind, and learn that discrimination did not play into the decision.
Let’s face it, employers desire job candidates who have computer experience, candidates who have enthusiasm, and candidates who can help bridge generation gaps within both staff and clientele. As technology continues to confound and surpass many of us, we naturally look to the young to teach us, and perhaps this leads to discrimination against others, who are older or not as computer savvy. As unfortunate as it is, discrimination will probably not go away anytime soon. In addition to looking for a workplace that fosters diversity and supports individuals who are different from us, we need to keep ourselves current, get experience, and make ourselves indispensable in our roles as unique professionals in the workplace.
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA): This act protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. Including, but not limited to, hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training.
- Maatta, Stephanie. “Closing the Gap – Placements and Salaries 2004.” Library Journal, October 15, 2005.
- Owens, Irene. “Maintaining Diversity in Information Agencies: Accountability, Professionalism, Job Performance, Policies and Standards.” ASIS Bulletin, April/May 2000:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (amended in 1991): Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
- Topper, Elisa F. “Fighting Age Discrimination.” American Libraries, November 2004.