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.

Author: Lindsay O'Neill

I'm a shiny new Instructional Design Librarian at California State University, Fullerton. I'm a bike commuter, triathlete and compulsive reader trying to figure out this whole tenure-track librarian thing. Tweet me: I'm @lindsayontherun.

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