From Public to Academic: Reflections on a Transition

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Raymond Pun, Research and Reference Services Librarian at New York University, Shanghai, China. Tweet him anything @oboro85 (yes, he can tweet in China!).

As this spring semester is coming to an end, I finally have the opportunity to reflect on my first year working as an academic librarian. This is a unique position, because I also work abroad: New York University Shanghai, a portal campus that is affiliated with New York University. I joined the team on September 2013 and started working in Shanghai on November 2013.


In the past I worked as a librarian in a public library for three years: The New York Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I worked in NYPL for a total of six years or so. It seems very fitting for me to write about my transition from public to academic in this post.

For the most part, I see some very strong connections in terms of similar service philosophies and standards, yet I also see the contrast of the work cultures and expectations. But it’s also true that I worked in two very uniquely situated institutions: a major public research library and a new academic university in China. It isn’t like I am comparing a branch library experience to a state university library one. However, I do want to share some of these insights despite the unique arrangements, to see how both worlds share a deeper affinity than they think.

During the interview process for my current academic position, I was asked about my background as a public librarian and how that background can translate into academic librarianship. It would be very difficult for someone to explain why he/she decided to move into academic librarianship if he/she had only been involved in the public library world. But then again, why apply for an academic library position?

In my case, I argued that I was very active in professional associations such as ALA, ACRL, ACRL-NYC, and I frequently wrote and presented my research. I provided reference services to scholars, students, grad students, and anyone working on a research project in NYPL. I’ve worked with Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Geniuses, HBO documentary filmmakers, New York Times journalists, U.N ambassadors, New Yorker writers, curators from the Huntington Library in California to the American Finance Museum in New York, and of course, undergraduates. I’ve had the opportunity to “embed” myself in academic courses as well, specifically in St. John’s University’s history departments, working along with Dr. Elaine Carey on various grant-funded projects on historical research for undergraduates.

So I felt comfortable with my experiences in NYPL to work in an academic library. However, I soon discovered that there are still many new things to learn once I got into the academic world. But after a while, it wasn’t all that difficult since my public library background did prepare me for this transition too.

First, the patron: the patron comes first. Of course, you want to show the patron how to find the items by him/herself so any teachable moment is an opportunity for any librarian to seize. NYPL and NYU definitely encouraged this behavior. Also if an item is not available, always offer alternative resources or suggestions. I learned that at NYPL: use ILL, METRO passes or any kind of open access resource that can substitute the item for the patron if possible. And finally, follow ups, which are nice either in person or by email. Public or academic patrons love librarians that care about their research progress. This is a sure way to develop rapport with the patron. From an academic side, this person may come back to use the library and may want to ask the librarian to teach their class. For the public side, this person may come back and also write an advocacy letter on behalf of the library when it goes through major budget cuts.

Second, service goals and committees: I think it largely depends on where you work and have worked. I see that my current institution fosters and emphasizes service and personal goals, which can be very useful to measure your progress and development. In the public library world, I had informal conversations about my projects and goals but never anything official. It was different there: I still accomplished a lot as a public librarian but I wasn’t being evaluated based on these service goals, and I was self-motivated to achieve them as well. As for committees, I served and am serving on various committees and I enjoy committee work because it lets me work with new people to collaborate and come up with creative or innovative solutions. Both emphasized collaboration and teamwork to support the library in various ways.

Third, schedules: this is obvious. Academic librarians will have busy moments during the semester such as midterm and finals week but they also have downtime or periods of recess where there are no students or faculty around. Unfortunately public librarians don’t have that luxury and every day is busy but different. For me, sometimes I like that rushed feeling where there’s always something to work on and something new to try, but now I also enjoy these periodic breaks: spring, winter, and summer breaks where I get to plan, reflect and think about new projects, ideas or solutions to work on. I get a chance to utilize that other side of my brain to think of better ways to improve user experiences. In the public library, I had to think on my feet and if there were opportunities for service changes, I reported them right away. There was not as much time to really reflect.

Forth, community partnerships: public libraries are engaged with their communities for the most part. I think academic libraries have the potential to partner with their communities outside the institution and I know some are already doing that. For obvious reasons, the public library needs to foster these community partnerships with schools, prisons, senior centers, etc., but academic libraries don’t really need to. In my current position, I feel like I am doing “community partnerships” where I am closely working with the Career Development Center, Public Affairs, Office of Student Life, Academic Resource Center, and Development. The people that work in these departments are staff of the university, however, they typically aren’t the library’s clientele. I collaborate with these different groups so that I can learn more about their roles in the university and they learn more about the library and most importantly, we learn to enhance our services and support to the students and faculty.

I definitely enjoy my work as an academic librarian now and I also feel grateful that I had the opportunity to work as a public librarian, to share my knowledge with the public and anyone who needed help. The transition wasn’t all that bad after all but I also happen to be an optimistic person when it comes to change! If you have also made the transition from public to academic or from academic to public, I would love to read your comments about your transitioning experiences or insights!

4 thoughts on “From Public to Academic: Reflections on a Transition”

  1. About 3 years ago, I left a position in the academic library/archives world for a much better funded job in a medium sized regional public library system. I am basically a generalist here, but work on all types of projects, specifically related to library technology, digitization, and am also able to do quite a bit of professional writing.

    Our emphasis is on service here–something my former institution could definitely learn from–and also innovative community partnerships. I also make a much better living here than I did in my previous position. Although I’d have to say the transition was difficult the first year, I feel like I’ve learned amazing skills that I might some day be able to bring back to the academy or archives world. Or, I may stay in public for the rest of my career!

    It also appears to me that more and more people have migrated over to public from academic, and then back again. Or vice versa. Not sure if this is because of funding related issues, or not, but I would love to hear from other folks who have made a similar transition, and how they like it, what their experiences have been.

  2. Thanks for writing. I am looking around for information on how to ease the transition from public library work to academic library work. I transferred over because I was relocating to a new city. Well before the move I applied to both public libraries (3) and academic libraries (2). I was offered a few interviews, but I ended up only accepting the academic interviews since they offered virtual (Skype) interviews and (when the time came for in-person) reimbursement for travel costs associated with interviewing. Of the three public libraries who contacted me for an interview, none offered a virtual interview nor reimbursement (though I would’ve traveled several hundred miles to attend). Thus… I now work in an academic library after having worked in public libraries for about 2 years.

    My experience now is what Mr. Pun mentions here: in an academic library, I can feel myself breathe. I worked as both a reference librarian and a library manager in the public world. It was incredibly easy in public libraries to quickly get a list of 20+ projects, tasks, updates, reports to do. I did relish it: I enjoyed tackling new projects, generating new ideas, doing a little bit of all kinds of library work. Now, I get to an academic library and the division of labor is all here: a team works on acquisitions, a team works on deselection, a team works on databases, a team works on circulation, a team works on reference. In the public world, I was doing all of those jobs, pretty much every day (especially as a manager).

    I don’t have a wide range of experiences, and I only just started in academics, but I feel like academic libraries have a better division of library (maybe tied to funding, maybe just the culture), and you have a better chance of catching your breath, analyzing what is really happening, researching methods/approaches, and having a chance to implement true changes to workflows.

    Incidentally, since the writing of this blog post, have you come across any other comments on transitioning to or from public/academic libraries? Would like to continue reading on this subject.

  3. Justin–I have to admit that all the things you mentioned have been some of the hardest to adjust to in transferring over to public libraries. There is very little time to catch one’s breath here, and sometimes I do feel like I’m doing EVERYTHING!

    I would love to discuss this more, please email me if you have a chance:

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