I had two jobs before I started my first academic library position. Going through library school I was thinking special libraries. I never really thought much about academic librarianship as a career option. The prospects of working on more in depth research projects for others appealed to me. One of the special library jobs was in a nonprofit, but the other was corporate. Both were good jobs where I learned lots of useful skills, and worked with exactly no other librarians – but many other interesting colleagues with diverse professional backgrounds.
As I became more professionally active in local associations I got to know a few academic librarians. I really liked the ideas they were sharing and the work they were doing. It became more clear in my mind that working in a one-person library setting was inhibiting my professional growth – I wasn’t learning from library colleagues nor was there any advancement opportunity. The possibilities of being engaged in the teaching and learning process began to carry greater appeal than performing the research for other professionals, however challenging it was. I started applying for academic library positions, and was frequently rejected. I had absolutely no experience working in an academic library. Eventually, thanks to the business research skills I developed in my corporate special library job, I was able to make the transition to a business library at a research university. I’ve never looked back.
What about going in the opposite direction? I actually cannot recall even a single academic librarian who has left academia to transition to a position in a corporate library. I’m sure it happens more often than we know. An academic librarian could get burnt out on dealing with students and faculty. He or she might decide to get off the tenure track, or tire of dealing with library co-workers. A forced relocation may take someone to a town where the only opportunity is in the corporate sector. And yes, corporate/special library positions often have higher salaries. There are any number of reasons why an academic librarian might want to go corporate.
That was the topic of a thread at the BUSLIB-L discussion list where there are many corporate and academic librarians exchanging information and advice. The conversation was started by an academic librarian who inquired about the possibilities for going corporate. Wondering whether it was time to pursue opportunities outside of higher education, this academic librarian asked others to share the pros and cons of their jobs in academic or corporate libraries. The conversation generated quite a few responses, and here is a summarized list of the pros and cons for each type of library position:
PROS – Corporate Librarianship
* Less of the committee work that often comes with academic librarianship, and less need to juggle multiple opinions and multiple constituencies, so to speak
* More opportunities to be an independent operator; self-starters would find the corporate environment stimulating
* No publishing requirements
* Focused, directed work process aimed at a specific outcome; less of the “fuzzy” goals that sometimes characterize academia
* research and analysis-driven, rather than teaching-oriented
PROS – Academic Librarianship
* Work in a highly collaborative environment
* Persons around to back you up and mentor you if/when needed
* Opportunities to teach and nurture students and library patrons
* You show people how to research, rather than doing all the research yourself
* A more laid-back environment than corporate; can wear jeans to work
CONS: Corporate Librarianship
* A driven, hectic pace; work must be completed speedily and efficiently with little space for lengthy rumination; “pressure cooker” environment
* Corporate librarians are often solo operators; no-one to back you up when you’re sick or need to take time away from work
* Constant need to reaffirm your worth to the corporation (that’s worth in monetary terms); corporate librarians are easily laid off in bad economies
* Must constantly network and liaise with persons within and without the company
CONS: Academic Librarianship
- The requirement to solicit and consider opinions from many persons and many different bailiwicks prior to making decisions; the collaborative environment is not always the most efficient
- “Publish or perish;” tenure/continuing status pressures
- Generally lower salaries
As with most lists of pros and cons, someone’s “pro” is another person’s “con”. I don’t see the need to publish as a drawback in academic librarianship. If you like to research and write, share your ideas, enjoy the rewards of publications, etc., it’s great to be in an environment that supports and potentially expects you to publish (bear in mind that approximately half of all academic libraries have no tenure or publishing requirements, so if you don’t like the publish or perish environment it can be avoided). The work environment also comes up here. Do you like to work with other librarians or would you rather be a one-person librarian? No one mentioned the potential advantages of working with a group of non-librarians. I always learned a great deal from the social workers, fundraisers, planners, marketers, tech wizards and other non-librarians I worked with – and in academic librarianship we get to work with many non-librarian colleagues in student services, residential life or administrative services.
What would I add? For me a pro of academic librarianship is tuition remission and access to further education. I would never have earned my doctorate had I stayed in the corporate world. Not only did I have access to a program right on my own campus, but the bulk of the tuition was covered. Corporate librarians could counter that by suggesting one doesn’t necessarily need advanced degrees in their world (although a business librarian in the corporate sector can certainly appreciate having an MBA). And let’s not forget tuition benefits for children and other family members. With the cost of college today, tuition support for family members is a fantastic benefit, and almost worth putting up with any “con” of academic librarianship. I am aware that many corporations do offer tuition reimbursement to their employees, but I suspect the number that help pay for dependents’ education is quite small.
Although this conversation focused primarily on going from academia to the corporate world, I’d suggest that academic librarians seeking to transition out of higher education think of it as academic versus special. Most of the “pros” for corporate librarianship apply to nonprofit sector special library positions. This is a good option for those who might want a one-person library position that doesn’t require going corporate – or the need for business librarianship skills. Of course, I hope academic librarians will always seek to stay committed to a career in higher education, but personal goals change and sometimes life’s circumstances require us to shift career paths when we least expect it.
So what pro or con would you add to these lists? And just for the record – I have never worn jeans to work.