Category Archives: library careers

How to Become an Academic Librarian

Becoming an academic librarian is like entering an amnesic whirlwind. I can hardly recall what came prior because my work life is now a frenetic series of emails, meetings, conference proposals, meetings, reference desk hours, and meetings. Sometimes I indulge in a short break to quietly cry under my desk (kidding). Slowly the academic life, with its attendant paperwork and politics, is becoming normal for me.

Being on the “other side” of job applications is still strange, though, and I want to reflect on how I received this privilege. I would like to say that my hard work and persistence got me here, but a lot of it was luck. However, prospective academic librarians have to lay the groundwork to even get lucky. So what follows is my two cents on laying the groundwork for luck.1

To preface: I follow the “I’ve gotta eat and pay my bills” model of career planning. My priority has been to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, so I pursued any opportunity that helped me meet these goals. I have two master’s degrees but I worked full-time while earning each of them. And if I may be sassy for a moment, I highly recommend setting yourself up for academic career success by being born into a family of academics or upper-middle class professionals (which I was not). These sorts of families tend to put their kids through school/offer financial support as well as invaluable education and career advice. However, with a little extra work and a whole lot of networking, blue-collar upstarts like me might still find a path into academia.2

Step 1: Work in a Library

Work in a library before you get your library degree. Or while you get your library degree.3 Discover if library work is right for you before committing to a degree program or getting into debt for it. Working as a page or a circulation clerk gives you an inside view to how libraries work and offers opportunities to befriend librarians and other employees that have or are considering pursuing library degrees. Getting paid library experience on your resume will also be a huge boost in your job hunt, because many academic library staff/librarian job postings require a specific amount of experience and the hiring committee will carefully calculate each month of experience that you have to see if you meet the minimum (volunteer and intern experience is worth half as much as paid, in my experience). For one of my staff jobs my library experience barely made the cut, even though I had a library degree and the job required a bachelor’s.

Step 2: Make a Plan for Your Career

If you can’t find a job in a library, and you still get a library degree, don’t go into extreme debt for it.4 Come up with a solid, and realistic, game plan for what you’re going to do after you graduate. I did not have a career plan when I graduated with my bachelor’s in English and I really regret it, because I had no idea what to do with myself. (And also I graduated right before the recession began. See also: How to accidentally end up working for several years in a national park). To help make a plan, scope out other librarians’ CVs and LinkedIn pages (my tweep, Dan, @512dot72, reminded me of this trick). Thanks to the internet, you can discover how many librarians got to where they are. Find someone that has the kind of job you’re interested in, and google them. Poof: instant inspiration!

Step 3: Network and Intern

My best piece of advice for those aspiring to be academic librarians is: network and intern. The seeds of my career were planted in the connections I made. My first library internship gave me a taste of working in an academic library. In library school, another student I met through peer mentoring helped me get a second, unofficial, internship at UC Riverside. A librarian at UC Riverside helped me get another unofficial internship at Arizona State. My internship supervisor at Arizona State introduced me to everyone at the library, and when a staff position opened in another department, I had already met the supervising librarian and was somewhat familiar with the collection involved. I got the job! Good internal references are a beautiful thing. In that job, I was able to take on a lot of librarian-type duties (and get a practically free second masters as a university employee) that helped me get my current job. I also got invaluable training and advice from wonderful mentors. I am so grateful for the help they’ve given me.

I recognize that being able to intern, to spend hundreds of hours working for free, is extreme privilege. Again, this is why I credit luck with getting to where I am. I spent years working in hospitality in a national park, where the low cost of living in employee housing enabled me to pay-as-I-went for library school and also to save enough money to support my later internships.

Step 4: Customize Each Cover Letter and CV to the Job Posting

In my second internship, an experienced librarian clued me into the academic librarian hiring process. An academic librarian search committee thoughtfully prepares a job posting and carefully compares each application received to the requirements and qualifications outlined in the posting. Many committees use a spreadsheet to assign applicants scores on how well each bullet point is met. Scores are compiled and applicants are ranked.

For every job application that I prepared, I copy and pasted the job posting into a word document and broke it down into a table. Next to each required/desired qualification in the posting, I made a note about how I addressed it in my cover letter or CV. This means that I wrote a custom cover letter and tweaked my CV for each and every job posting. This took a lot of time, but also ensured that my application would be seriously considered and not thrown out just because I didn’t include all relevant experience and skills. Librarians on search committees will never assume, or extrapolate, that you meet each listed qualification. You have to clearly show that you do in your materials.

Step 5: Remember that You’re More than Just a Librarian

Treat your job hunt as a learning opportunity and you won’t be disappointed.5 I prepped and traveled for multiple out-of-state interviews over several years before I finally received an offer. I now have really good interview skills. I met a lot of interesting people. I write good cover letters. I’m grateful now that I didn’t get offers from some of the places I interviewed because I wouldn’t have been happy at those places in the long run. My favorite blogger, Alison Green at Ask A Manager, frequently offers the advice to forget about your applications once you send them in. Any time spent wondering about those jobs is time that could be spent applying for new jobs. This holds especially true in academic job hunts, because the time from application to offer (or rejection letter, more like) is usually measured in months, and you could drive yourself crazy thinking about what you’ve applied for. Once I got a rejection letter for a university I didn’t remember applying to because I had applied ten months prior. You also may not receive rejections at all, or receive emails addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”6

Finally, have a life outside of libraries and outside of your library job hunt. Avoid (excessive) moping and complaining, especially in public online spaces where you are easily identified. Negative thoughts beget negative thoughts. Keep up with your friends, and spend time with your family, and indulge in hobbies that make you happy. I took up running because it’s relaxing and helps me feel like I have control of my life! After three and a half years of librarian job-hunting, I finally got an offer and I was delighted to accept it. My job makes use of all of my degrees (amazing!) and I’m close to family and friends and I love our students.

Best of luck in your search! And if you have additional advice or useful resources, please comment below!

 

1 Full disclaimer: I have served on a search committee to hire library staff, but not to hire librarians, so this is really truly just my two cents. No refunds!

2 Highly recommended reading for blue-collar academics: This Fine Place So Far From Home.

3 I did neither of these things, though I did intern, and it took me forever to find a library job, let alone a librarian job. My saving grace was avoiding student debt.

4 I realize it’s too late for many librarians, and hindsight is 20/20, and also the economy was/is horrible.

5 You’ll still be disappointed. But positive spin can make you feel better!

6 Which happened to me and did not feel good since I spent two hours on that application and they couldn’t even be bothered to use mail merge to address their rejection emails. But I digress.

Students Taking Back the Conversation: The 2015 LIS Symposium on Education

I wouldn’t normally use this space to discuss or promote upcoming professional development opportunities. However, as an LIS graduate student contributing to a national platform like ACRLog, I feel compelled to share LIS students’ current concerns and activities, especially if they affect the rest of the professional body.

LIS students have been discussing placement, pay inequality, a lack of diversity in the profession, and gaps in LIS school curriculum and pre-professional opportunities through informal means for at least the last decade. These conversations have taken place in white papers, blog posts, and even in ALA or ACRL newsletters. They range from new librarians calling for more transparent program and placement statistics to recent graduates expressing their bleak job search and why they regret going to library school to minority librarians expressing the difficulties they face during the transition to their first professional position. They are, unfortunately, often cries of outrage or despair from one practitioner’s personal experience within the field, sometimes corroborated with statistics or other sources that prove that the individual’s issue is part of a larger trend within librarianship. A quick Google search brings up titles like these:

(If you’re trying to better understand the issues recent graduates are facing, looking at the comments is very enlightening.)

Regardless of format or venue, all of these discussions are relevant and fundamental to any change taking place. Nevertheless, we often see these conversations become stagnant and fruitless. LIS colleagues might chime in with a few comments but that is usually the extent of the impact. Or worse, a commenter will suggest that complaints about LIS education and placement are unwarranted and that new graduates need to be more autonomous and creative, completely disregarding the structural issues at play and shutting down any change the conversation could have influenced.

To make matters more complicated, the LIS practitioners that care about these issues often have little or no voice in our profession because of their status. The minority LIS student or recent graduate that feels uncomfortable and undervalued in their position often has no means of revolutionizing the issue. The unemployed (or underemployed) LIS graduate can’t necessarily rely on their alma mater or even ALA for support and most of the time their only option for voicing their frustrations is to warn current LIS students about the challenges the job market presents. Even current LIS students have little to no voice in curriculum or administrative decisions (for a great example of this at Illinois, see one of my colleague’s recent posts through Hack Library School). As a result, it’s relatively easy to find LIS blog posts that are primarily a vehicle for voicing frustrations, often because there is no other avenue for tangible action.

Thus, it has become clear to many that a more formalized, holistic movement needs to happen in order to see any real change. Moreover, it is apparent that this change should be student-led and collaborative. Students and recent graduates are, of course, stakeholders for all of these issues and should have some authority on how they should be resolved. Borrowing from (and reframing) one of the basic tenants of second wave feminism, we have to believe that the personal is political. Library students’ experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The personal experience of being unemployed, undervalued, and underpaid, in addition to having a lack of access to pre-professional opportunities or coursework on an important topic or in an instructional mode that meshes with your learning style is part of a trend. Our experiences are often more than our own personal endeavors. They also help us realize when institutional change needs to happen and they help inform what exactly needs to be revolutionized.

For these reasons, a group of LIS students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education. The symposium is completely free to registrants and will take place on April 10 & 11 at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Champaign, Illinois. The event will have a virtual component for those that would like to participate but are unable to make it to GSLIS.

The symposium has similar goals to the innovative #critlib unconference to be held in Portland in March. We believe that experience informs real solutions and the theory and praxis needed to create them. We’d like to call on students to lead the change in LIS education and educational policy. Additionally, we hope that the symposium will provide a safe space to address these controversial issues in a collaborative and productive way.

Potential topics for proposals could include, but are not limited to:

  • Diversity
  • Advising and mentoring
  • Gaps in LIS curriculum: critical theory, technical competencies
  • Administrative transparency
  • Information ethics
  • Reflections on online education
  • Pre-professional experience and opportunities
  • Costs and funding
  • Required courses
  • Career placement
  • Dual degrees and specializations

If you are a current LIS student, recent graduate, or scholar of LIS education or diversity in LIS, we would be ecstatic to have you participate. One of the main objectives of the symposium is to simply have a centralized space to look at LIS education more critically. But it is also worth noting that a larger goal of the symposium is to facilitate the creation of a deliverable. While it isn’t clear what form the deliverable will take, we know it will be important to have a summative document or declaration from participants that informs LIS schools and ALA of what was discussed and how students are addressing these issues. We hope that this will only be the first conversation/ step in this imperative discussion for the future of librarianship.

*The ideas here are my own and do not formally represent the Symposium on LIS Education’s Planning Committee. Conversely, I can’t take credit for thinking of this innovative event. I’d like to thank Madison Sullivan for asking me to help bring her idea to life and for rounding up a group of dedicated and passionate LIS students to work with on the planning committee.

Apply Yourself

I have been thinking about the hiring process lately. Partly because I’ve so recently managed to get myself hired at the University of North Texas. I am also serving on a search committee for an open position here at UNT and so have spent some time reviewing applications, cover letters and curricula vitae. Finally, it’s on my mind because quite a few people I know were searching for jobs this year and I served as a reference (and occasional resume proofreader) for several former colleagues. And since the hiring process is on my mind that is is the topic I decided to write about today. In a future post it is very likely that I will be writing about the culmination of a successful application process – the dreaded and intense academic interview. But I will save that for another month.

Throughout my career I have had quite a bit of experience with hiring and so have spent a lots of hours reviewing resumes and applications. I’ve seen the difference between the application processes in corporate settings, secondary schools and now a university. While obviously the process varies it has been interesting to see that there are common mistakes made by applicants in each field. So here is some unsolicited but, I believe, critical advice for anyone looking to get hired into an academic library. It is a great field to get hired into, by the way, and I highly recommend it!

1. Update your Resume
Of course, if you are applying for academic positions your probably have a curriculum vitae instead of a resume but many institutions will accept either and resume is more generic so I’m going with that. Anyway, it seems that some people feel as though a standard one-size-fits-all resume is sufficient — but each position you apply for is different so you should highlight different skill sets and/or experience. If you are applying for a Reference & Instruction position highlight the time you spent staffing the desk during grad school. If you are applying for a position as the Electronic Resources Librarian highlight any experience you have working with vendors or maintaining a website. If you are applying at a non-tenure track institution you might only mention a few key past publications and presentations; for a tenure-track position you might go into more detail. It is unlikely that you have to create a totally new resume. Simply tweak the content so that it corresponds to each specific position you apply for and, obviously, make sure everything is up-to-date and includes your most recent work

2. Write a Cover Letter
Let me emphasize: write a cover letter. Don’t change the heading on a generic letter that you wrote during your final semester of grad school. Go further than simply changing the last paragraph to include a mention of the institution to which you are applying. In my opinion, originality in this portion of your application is even more important than the reworking you do to your resume. Use your cover letter as an opportunity to show that you understand the position you are applying for and that you are interested not just in any old job but in that job specifically. What drove you to apply for this position? Even more broadly, what drove you to become a librarian (hint: not the salary!)? Also use your cover letter to express what makes you an excellent candidate. Don’t be boring and restate your resume; look at the job posting to see what qualifications they are looking for and then write a paragraph or two stating the ways in which you fulfill those specific qualifications. Now just make sure to keep things brief and your cover letter will be golden!

3. Read the Instructions
Seriously, read the instructions. Then, once you have read them – read them again. If you have a hard time focusing on details and following nitpicky online instructions then get somebody else to read them out loud to you. It is truly amazing how many people miss what should be obvious when they are completing a resume. Are you supposed to list three professional and two personal references? Don’t provide contact information for your five favorite cousins. Are you being asked to provide a philosophical statement related to the job you are applying for? Don’t upload a copy of your transcripts. These are just a couple of the mistakes I’ve seen and it is certainly not just academic librarians making them – this kind of oversight was common in both the corporate and the secondary school environments. Missing a detail or two when completing an online application is an easy mistake to make. Luckily, if you are careful, it is also an easy mistake to avoid.

4. Follow Your Own Advice
Proofread! You are a librarian so I know that you know the power of careful editing. Chances are that you have provided some sort of proofreading advice or assistance to library users. So why do so many resumes contain misspelled words, run-on sentences, inconsistent verb tense and other errors that running a quick check in your document software should catch? In addition, check your formatting. Wouldn’t it be sad to know that your resume was set aside simply because you randomly and accidentally switched font sizes several times? One of the things that has become apparent to me over the years is that organizations miss out on interviewing – and potentially hiring – some great people simply because those candidates didn’t take the time to proofread. If you are seriously interested in a position take the time to check, double check, and then have someone else check your work.

5. Be Positive…
…but be honest. You might be the most amazing librarian on the planet, universally admired and highly successful but if you don’t market yourself that way in your application it won’t help you get a job. Not including as many of your excellent qualifications as you can fit in a resume is another easy-to-make mistake that might get your resume shuffled to the bottom of the pile. Even worse than being ignored for not tooting your own horn loudly enough, however, is dishonesty. Just don’t do it. In one job that I had in the past we flew in a candidate for an all-day interview – during which it became obvious that this candidate was totally unqualified and that their resume greatly exaggerated both their knowledge of and experience in the field. What a huge waste of time and money that was! A typical interview at a university is a grueling, one-or-even-two day process. If your reality doesn’t match your resume it will become evident and how embarrassing is that?!

Here at UNT we use a rubric to judge applications so that the process is as objective as possible. It would be really interesting to go back over my own applications from the past decade with a rubric to see how well I measure up to my own standards. I know for sure that I have made several of the mistakes mentioned in this post. I guess the best thing about being able to participate in hiring others is that it has helped me become a better applicant myself.

Transition: Making it as a librarian

When do you become a librarian? When you get your MLIS? When you start your first professional librarian job? Debates can rage over this, but I didn’t start calling myself a librarian until I started my current position.

I earned my MLIS in May 2011 and was hired into my first paid library staff position mid-2012. As a paraprofessional with an MLIS, I had a coworker refer to me periodically as a “librarian” but I didn’t see myself as such, especially when about half of the staff at that library held library degrees, and most MLIS-holders I knew were unemployed or underemployed.

Takes an MLIS to be library staff

Of course, without my MLIS I never would have been hired even as library staff. Too many library school graduates and too few librarian (and related) jobs equals a glut of library degree holders struggling to make a living. Ironically, even finding unpaid internships was difficult – in an era of library cutbacks it seemed like a lot of libraries just didn’t (don’t?) have the time to supervise interns. I did manage to find and serve three internships, though, and I credit those experiences and resulting networking for helping move my career forward. I am ever so grateful to the librarians that I met through my internships that continue to mentor me.

In my first library job as a staff person, I was delighted to finally hold a paid library job and to take on resume-building responsibilities that used to fall solely on librarians’ shoulders: reference, instruction, and outreach. I did reference for the specialized collection in which I worked: government documents. I also did a regular hour or two at the main library reference desk, a regular chat reference hour, scattered library instruction sessions for English classes, and I volunteered an occasional evening or Saturday to work the library table at a library or university special event. As an employee with a regular 8 to 5 schedule, I didn’t get paid for any work outside that schedule.  Nor did I get comp time. And as a library staff person, I was certainly not getting paid extra for MLIS-level work.

Anyone that works in a library knows how large the stacks of applications are for library pages and assistants, and how generally overqualified the applicants. I once drove 300 miles back to my home town to take one of those public service tests for a library assistant job only to discover a room filled with over a hundred people taking the same test, all applying for a single opening (I didn’t even make it into the interview pool!). I’m sure you’ve got horror stories, too!

For me to become a librarian, an actual librarian with title and salary, it took a couple hundred job applications, three internships, a second master’s degree, and a willingness to move (luckily back to my home state). Basically, the quest to become a librarian was like having a second job. Mid-2014: here I am at Cal State Fullerton, finally, a full-fledged librarian. Now I call myself a librarian.

Librarians: “Don’t complain, you’ve got it easy”

However, when I was a library staff-person, librarians (actual librarians) told me I should be grateful to be staff and work a regular 8 to 5 schedule, because being a salaried librarian meant that they worked some long days.

Little did they know, I have a history of working long days! I spent years loading trucks, waiting tables, and one extra wet winter shoveling snow. I spent years in the hospitality industry refining my customer service smile and people skills. There’s no exhaustion like when you sit down after being on your feet for ten to twelve hours and discover that standing up again just isn’t going to happen.

Three months into this job I’ve come in weekends and worked long days. I work hard and predict the work will get harder. But I will tell you now – I will work any number of long days for this salary, and for this job, and for the ability to come in late if I worked late the night before, because I am SO happy to be a librarian doing the work that I am.

Transition from staff to librarian

Of course being a librarian is certainly a big change from being a staff person. I was dubious how different it could be no matter how many librarians told me so – but it is quite and very different. As a new tenure-track librarian, my day-to-day schedule is now packed, and publish-or-perish is now a real threat. I was hired as an instructional design librarian, but I’ve got so much work besides, I feel like I hardly have time to design! Don’t even mention the professional development, the scholarly and creative activities, and the various categories of service I’m supposed to be performing. Oh, and I also have liaison duties with a few academic departments.

The biggest challenge for me when I started here was figuring out how the library worked and where I fit into it. And then, how the tenure process works (the six year clock is ticking!) and figuring out areas of research interest and how I can start writing articles to hopefully publish in peer-reviewed journals. Currently I’m still working on time and project management – I’ve got limited hours each week to work on instructional design and research projects – so I’ve got to make every minute count.

But this job is AWESOME. I’m independent – but collaborative projects abound. I get my own office (with a view!). I get to set my own schedule, and I get to be all kinds of creative. Since my position is also a brand new position, I get to shape what it’s going to be, and decide how I can best spend my time to contribute to my library and to the academic library community. I like the workplace culture at my library – there’s a lot of encouragement to come up with big ideas and go after them. This campus is diverse in just about every way and I feel like I fit right in. I love going to work every day!

The hustle of internships, volunteering, and endless job applications was the real preparation for becoming a librarian. My background in hospitality prepared me for working with colleagues with strong personalities, panicking grad students, and demanding faculty. Attending school for two master’s degrees while working full-time was my study in time management, essential to being a good librarian. The MLIS? Perhaps just a theoretical study in librarianship.

Handling It: Under New Management

I’ve recently moved into a new role at the college library where I work. Our former Chief Librarian retired, and I applied for the job and was appointed as the new Chief at the beginning of the semester. My new job is exciting and challenging — I’m fortunate to continue to work with my terrific colleagues in the library and at a college in which the faculty and administration view the library as a valued partner. While I miss the teaching I did as Instruction Coordinator, I hope to be able to add some instruction back into my days once I get more settled. As Steven has blogged here, it can be hard to move into an administrative position that affords fewer opportunities to work directly with students. I do have one reference shift this semester, and I’m also looking forward to more opportunities in my new role to make good use of what I’ve learned in my research on how students do their academic work.

Any new job comes with a learning curve, even one in the same institution you’ve worked at for a while. Some days I feel a little bit like Atta in this scene from the movie A Bug’s Life:

And other days I like to channel Manfried from Adventure Time:

Luckily there haven’t been any literal (or even metaphorical) grasshopper infestations or fires to extinguish (…yet?). But I’ve been a bit surprised by how busy I am. In other new jobs I’ve always had some breathing room as I learned the ropes, some down time in those first couple of weeks in which there wasn’t anything immediately pressing to do. But moving into a new job in the same place has kept me nearly constantly busy with meetings, planning, and other duties.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of books to read about academic leadership and library management, but with my time so short I haven’t been able to carve out a space for reading them yet. Instead, I’ve been collecting shorter reads — blog posts and articles — about library management and leadership in general. Here are some that I’ve found really helpful so far:

Jennifer Vinopal’s blog post My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well was published at the perfect time for me, right before I was interviewed for my new job, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. It pairs well with an article published in the May issue of C&RL News: Start by interviewing every librarian and staff member: A first step for the new director, by Scott Garrison and Jennifer Nutefall. Even though I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 6+ years, I’ve adapted these questions and am meeting with everyone one on one to learn more about their jobs and goals.

I’m also learning from several folks who’ve been doing this for longer than I have. At the end of last summer Karen Schneider posted her reflections on five years of being a library director, a post chock full of characteristically level-headed and wise advice. I’ve been reading Jenica Rogers’ blog Attempting Elegance for a while now too, even before the thought that maybe I would be interested in being a Chief Librarian entered my mind, and I’ve always appreciated her transparency about the large and small tasks that come with being a library director, and the highs and lows.

One of the things that’s been occupying my time this semester is working on hiring in two faculty and two staff positions. While I’ve been on search committees at my library in the past, this is the first time I’m acting as chair of these committees. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written post about orienting new staff by Megan Brooks — Hospitality and Your New Staff Member — on Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog last week. This post provides a great reminder about what to do (and the reverse, what not to do) when bringing new folks on board.

Do you have a favorite or recommended reading of the shorter-than-a-book variety for busy new library managers? Let me know in the comments!