Starting Anew, but not Starting Over: Finding Academic Librarianship from Other Career Pathways

This guest post was provided by Deborah Cooper, Digital & Special Collections Librarian, Mann Library, Cornell University (dsc255@cornell.edu) and Hannah Gunderman, Research Data Management Consultant, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries (hgunderm@andrew.cmu.edu).

One of the oft-repeated clichés of librarianship is the variety of experiences that are welcomed into the profession, such as customer service in retail, teaching in schools or wrangling spreadsheets in business. It seems an accepted norm that library workers are people at all stages of life and with a variety of backgrounds. Yet, there has been little exploration into the experiences of colleagues who join libraries after previous careers.

The topic of second-career librarianship can initially seem like it may not offer up much in-depth avenues of inquiry. Surely, coming to librarianship with other experiences under your belt can only be a positive! “Transferable skills” are not only desirable but will set you ahead in a highly competitive job market! While this is often true, the experience of being a person who shifts from one, or even several previous career paths into librarianship is not always as linear and uneventful as one might think! In our personal experiences, this circuitous journey from previous career paths into the academic libraries environment has certainly had its share of surprises and unique challenges. 

Hannah and Deborah first began their collaboration through a professional network. As they began collaborating, they discovered several overlapping research interests. However, they soon also found another unexpected similarity: they both came to academic librarianship from different career paths. It became evident that their status as second-career librarians had influenced their experiences in their respective libraries.

Before entering graduate school for her MLIS, Deborah worked in the publishing industry as both a writer and editor for over a decade. She travelled quite a bit and became a parent. While not the oldest student in class, she definitely was not the youngest. All of these previous experiences informed her entry into the profession. At the same time, when she graduated in 2014, the upstate New York region was still in the grips of recession and there were few jobs in her chosen niche of youth librarianship. After several false starts she eventually landed at a NY State university library as an adjunct, working eight-hour reference shifts in the evenings and weekends. It wasn’t part of the plan but it was a solid place to land. 

Hannah found academic librarianship after working in a geography research setting for several years, under the impression that she would pursue becoming an Assistant Professor of Geography at a higher education institution or work as a geographer in industry. It wasn’t until partway through her Ph.D. program that she realized she did not want to pursue those career paths but wanted to remain in a setting where she could help others conduct research. She found the world of academic librarianship, and for the next several years took a circuitous route to land her job in an academic library. By that time, Hannah had amassed a set of skills that served her well in a geography environment, yet at times she felt her skills were not up to par for working in an academic library.

When we first began discussing our personal experiences it was striking to us that, even with our vastly different career paths, our experience of shifting from one career to another was similar in its positives and negatives. We began to wonder if this was something that more people experience throughout the profession but wasn’t spoken about more widely. And why isn’t this addressed? Is it just a coincidence that two random strangers found similarities in their struggles? Or, is this a conversation worth having? We have indeed struggled in both similar and different ways. We decided to put our personal experiences to paper to reflect on what these experiences have meant for us and our careers, and bring the discussion to a wider audience.

In this reflection piece, we offer the following tips for navigating a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career in academic librarianship:

  1. You are not starting from scratch! Leverage the skills you already have:

When entering a new career path, you may find yourself wanting to do all the things to prove your worth. For Hannah, especially coming from a domain-specific environment where she felt very comfortable in what she was doing and the skills needed to succeed in her role, being in a totally new work environment sometimes led her to feel as though she was starting from scratch. However, you are not starting from scratch when you find academic librarianship from another career path. Leverage your transferable skills! Even if you are new to librarianship, you absolutely have skills from your previous career to contribute. These are beneficial and can help bring new perspectives into your library. 

Wherever you were before, you have valid and real experiences that are going to help you in the library. As we mentioned in the introduction, any job involving interaction with the public is a great help, whether as a barista, working in retail or answering phones. And, if you just graduated with your MLIS, remember those awful group projects in grad school? Yes, a lot of the challenges you may have encountered with those are actually good preparation for all of the groups, committees and collaborative work you’ll encounter in all libraries. If you are headed for behind-the-scenes work, for example in technical services or collections, being able to juggle multiple competing projects, track budgets or creatively problem-solve are all excellent applicable skills. 

  1. From skillsets to mindsets: 

It is not only your skill-set that’s important but your entire mindset. Even if you are only switching environments within the library profession, eg, from public to academic, the culture and expectations can be vastly different. While you may have a set of clearly defined tasks and responsibilities that you will soon learn on the job, the subtle nuances of the specific department and the wider institution may take several months to make themselves known. First, allow yourself several months to absorb the variations. Academia has a language of its own. The names and ranks can be confusing and acronyms abound. (At Deborah’s institution there is a Wiki containing a glossary of acronyms!)

A big part of building your new mindset in an academic library is finding a community. We recommend inviting your new colleagues to coffee (or in our virtual world, a Zoom chat) to start to better understand the culture and identity of your library. Depending on a host of factors, this may initially be a scary undertaking (especially if you have social anxiety!), but most of your colleagues will be flattered that you asked and only too happy to get to know you better. And subsequently having a familiar face in meetings may help ease the “new person” feeling. Some libraries also have a mentoring or buddy program for new hires and these can also help you find your feet, especially if you are more comfortable asking newbie questions to people outside of your immediate colleagues and supervisor.

  1. Embrace Your New Identity:

The life experiences that you bring with you into your daily work are a deep well you can draw on in times of need. How you obtained this experience isn’t the most important aspect but if you have worked in different fields, travelled, volunteered or have clearly grown in life because of situations you’ve experienced, you are going to be more resilient in the workplace. Your cumulative experience will not only help you in your day-to-day work but give you something to draw upon when faced with tough situations. Being able to reflect on how you successfully navigated a path through various past challenges will sustain you through your current issues. 

Don’t compare yourself to others who have entered directly into the profession in a linear path.

Remind yourself that your unique, non-linear progression is just as valid and worthy. Librarianship attracts a healthy number of career-changers. Your life experience and exposure to different communities and ways of working will help you to stand out.  Imposter syndrome can sneak in when colleagues who entered the profession directly from college are rapidly climbing the promotion ladder–you will get there, too. Accepting your identity as a late-comer is important or you will forever feel behind. There’s no catching up and no need to. By focusing on your strengths and the merit of your work, you can build your confidence.

4. Exploring and innovating within your role to build confidence

One thing that Hannah and Deborah had independently found helpful was realizing that holding back and not going outside our comfort zone only exacerbated imposter syndrome or feeling less worthy. A great piece of advice we received was to focus on work that feels personally fulfilling and then direct your energy towards it, as much as your other work will allow. We’re cognizant that some roles in an academic library may not allow for full flexibility to choose projects, but in areas where you can experiment, it is useful to identify meaningful projects. When you feel invested in projects it helps build your confidence and allows you to talk about it, present on it or generally discuss it at meetings with enthusiasm. Gradually, your colleagues will start to recognize your specific area of expertise. This goes double for non-traditional roles, such as newly created positions that cover emerging areas of librarianship and evolving roles. 

Building a Community of Interest

If you found yourself entering academic librarianship as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career and have had similar experiences and see yourself reflected in what you have read, please get in touch with us! We’re looking to build a community around these experiences and delve deeper into the question of how librarianship is influenced by career-changers and how career-changers are themselves affected by their switch. We’re hoping that this community can also serve as an informal support network for anyone who is feeling unmoored and wanting to better understand and grow their identity within academic librarianship. Academic librarianship is a rewarding career path that’s not without its challenges, and we hope that building a community of other career-changers can help enrich all of our experiences as we navigate this career together. 

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