Learning to Fly: Life as an Early-Career Academic Librarian

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Justin Fuhr to the ACRLog team. Justin is a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. His professional interests include reflective practice, librarian philosophies, organizational culture and community, and support for early-career librarians such as mentorship. His current research assesses researcher profile library workshops and profile usage at his institution, as well as a project on relational practice in Canadian academic librarianship.

Life’s hard as an early-career academic librarian working on contract, not knowing if your contract will be renewed or where you will be working three years, a year, or even six months from now. It’s tough job searching; there’s so many qualified candidates, not enough positions, and it can be hard to make yourself stand out with experience, education, certification, volunteer work, interviews, public presentations, and on and on.  

I was relatively fortunate. I’ve been working at the library at the University of Manitoba for over seven years, starting out as a library technician, then working as a term librarian at the beginning of 2020. After several interviews for different positions, I got a continuing position in May of this year. Working at the same institution for so long helped to know our library system, run through my public presentation with my work buddies, and know of upcoming vacancies. Our library also started giving candidates the interview questions in advance. This improves accessibility and helps to prepare for the interview in advance.  

For all my worries and whinging — and trust me, my coworkers can attest to that — I’m now working as a science librarian. I moved from supporting Catholic studies, religion, and peace and conflict studies to mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Suddenly I find myself moving from B (Philosophy. Psychology. Religion.) to Q (Science) — that’s fifteen whole letters away! And what do you mean mathematics profs like old books? Oh wait, that didn’t change from the humanities.  

I now have the task of learning my new subject areas, getting to know the faculty and students, my coworkers, how to manage and develop the collections, learning how best to instruct sciences students, new databases like MathSciNet, signing up for new mailing lists like PAMNet (who endearingly refer to themselves as a PAMily), and where the closest and cheapest coffee shop is on campus.  

This is the fun stuff. It’s intimidating to learn a ‘new’ position, but it’s rewarding in so many ways. I used a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song for the title of this post — we’re all learning to fly in some ways, maybe early-careers librarians the most — but I could have just as easily used another Tom Petty song: “You Got Lucky.” 

Earlier this year I was speaking about librarianship as a career to undergraduate English literature students at the institution where I got my B.A. I was amazed at the interest they showed. I mean, I was talking about a research project I’m doing on researcher profiles, and at one point I stopped, apologized, and said this must be excruciatingly boring for them to listen to. “No,” my previous English professor said. “This is really fascinating.” I got lucky.  

One piece of advice I can offer to librarians currently job searching is to rely on your colleagues, librarians at other libraries, friends, family — whoever! — for support and guidance. I found it especially invaluable to hear from other librarians of their experience job searching, even if it had been many years since they’d gone through it. We work in a helping profession and one thing I’ve found is librarians want to help other librarians. Rely on your community, look to others for support and provide support to others when they need it. We are lucky.  

If you’re looking for a job, considering a career change, or finding early-career librarianship challenging, please keep going, you can do it. You got this. It may take time. It will take time. It will be worth it. You’ll get lucky.  

If any academic libraries are considering giving interview questions ahead of time – please do! It helps the candidates immensely. I also encourage any librarians that know of early-career colleagues currently job searching to reach out, be available, offer encouragement and to answer any questions they may have. If you can think of any other advice to job searchers or those in new positions, please leave a comment.  

For all that academic librarianship deals with and is going through, you can help guide the profession positively and I feel it’s a great profession to be in. I’m teaching students, involved with library associations, working with my colleagues on different committees, completing research with fun and collaborative coworkers, and talking all things academic librarianship with whoever will listen; sometimes I think I’ve found my dream job. I got lucky. Now it’s time to get to work. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.