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.

The Making of an Instructional Design Librarian

I’m now in my sixth month and second semester as a tenure-track Instructional Design Librarian, which is a new position at my library. In December I completed my second master’s in Educational Technology (specializing in instructional design) so now I can call myself an instructional designer with confidence. I’m a new academic librarian AND a new instructional designer, and my job is to wear both of those hats, often at the same time.*

I spent a lot of fall semester figuring out exactly how an Instructional Design Librarian should fit in at my institution. Figuring out my role(s) and mastering the intricacies of the tenure-track handbook has been an enormous, time-consuming challenge. (Spoiler: I’m far from having it all figured out).

Instructional Design Librarians, Please Stand Up

As far as I can tell, there aren’t a whole lot of people like me – at least, title and primary responsibility-wise. There are oodles of instruction librarians, lots of emerging technology librarians, many online/distance education librarians – and multitudes of librarians that have taken on instructional design/educational technology as an additional duty or interest. I discovered this last group in the wonderful Blended Librarian Online Learning Community, which offers fantastic webinars. A term coined by Steven J. Bell, the “Blended Librarian”

first combines the traditional aspects of librarianship with the technology skills of an information technologist, someone skilled with software and hardware. Many librarians already demonstrate sound technology skills of this type. To this mix, the Blended Librarian adds the instructional or educational technologist’s skills for curriculum design, and the application of technology for student-centered learning (2003).

My position and skills certainly fall under this definition. I think that a large percentage of academic librarians have at least some of these skills. Sometimes I say I have the librarian job of the future (at least for academia) and I think that more and more librarian jobs will require these skills going forward.

Taking Stock

When I started this job, I realized my new library desperately needed new and innovative ways to reach more students. Only 23** librarians (including me) serve 38,000 students and 2,000 faculty. Our YouTube page hadn’t been updated with fresh content in years, and there were no communal, reusable learning objects*** to speak of. After settling in last fall (truly settling in will take years in this position), I started my work by doing lots of brainstorming. It was clear from the start my time is limited. Since I am wearing “two hats,” I have to carefully manage my time to fully attend to my librarian duties (liaison subjects, instruction, reference hours, tenure-track work) while striving to make enough time for instructional design. I talked about keeping a work diary in my last post, but I use the same online notebook to sketch out loads of ideas. Holy cow, do I have a lot of ideas: badges, learning object repository, an information literacy curriculum customized for our campus, interactive tutorials, design workshops for librarians, instructional videos, assessment plans… I’ve also been instructed to work on improving my library’s existing online resources, namely, LibGuides.

Last semester, I strove to meet everyone that works in our very large library building and to meet the instructional designers on campus. Our campus has an Academic Technology Center (ATC, which falls under IT), the Faculty Development Center (FDC), a resource called Online Academic Strategies and Instructional Support (OASIS), as well as the University Extended Education (UEE) department. Each of these has one or more instructional designers, and confusingly these centers tend to overlap in their offerings. I spent a lot of time tracking down needed software – Camtasia for the videos, Adobe Captivate for interactive tutorials. My office computer died once and had to be replaced. I had to figure out which librarians I had to talk to about getting YouTube access and my own corner of the website for tutorials (still working on my own corner of the site, but I want to have a mini-repository of learning objects like that from University of Arizona libraries).

Jumping In

In my ACRLog posts so far, overwhelm is a prominent theme for me. So I started small. My library is currently suffering through a stacks closure due to an earthquake last spring, so I created a brief video on how to page materials. By consulting with librarians, I came up with a shortlist of other basic videos and developed two more on searching for library materials. I also took a course on Universal Design for Learning, while concurrently taking a course on writing a journal article in twelve weeks, both through our Faculty Development Center. Per my assignment sheet, and my personal interest, I’ve also been working hard collaborating with another librarian to revamp our assessment model (using the draft ACRL IL framework) for the information literacy component of our campus’ First Year Experience (FYE) program.

Partly due to the stacks closure, and partly due to coming re-organization and major renovation, I moved to a new office the day before winter break. I’m now consolidated in the same hallway as all of the other instructional designers on campus – from ATC, FDC, OASIS, and UEE (holy alphabet soup!). I’ve already learned a lot from them and am excited about the possibilities for collaboration and promoting the library and its resources. Under a grant last week, we were all able to attend two days of training on Quality Matters and our university system’s version, Quality Online Learning and Teaching. I was inspired to think about ways to develop and offer rubrics to allow librarians to self-evaluate learning objects.

Now on to Spring Semester

I continue to work hard on the assessment redesign for our piece of the FYE program (my colleague and I are presenting a poster at SCIL Works, and we submitted a poster proposal for ACRL, look for us if we get accepted! [Edit: Accepted for virtual con]). We’re also working on a grant proposal for release time to assess the pilot once it’s completed. I’m meeting with librarians to talk about developing videos/tutorials for their subject areas. I’m working on developing resources to help students and faculty use library resources like eBooks and streaming video. I’m working with members of our library’s Open Access Team to create presentations on utilizing open educational resources. I want to work with librarians to improve their instruction and their instructional materials, and I’m planning to employ social justice themes in information literacy instruction. I’m also following the critical librarianship community, as I’m from a blue-collar background and sometimes feel out of place in academia.

I get asked a lot what I do as an Instructional Design Librarian. I am certain that my answer will change as I embark on new projects and as I explore new possibilities, but I have come up with a short-ish answer. My new elevator-length job description/mission statement is that I endeavor to design and develop reusable learning objects that can be embedded into online learning environments, and to inculcate effective instructional use of educational technology among campus faculty.

Yep, that’s a mouthful.

Reference
Bell, S. J. (2003). A Passion for Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It–A Reflective Inquiryportal: Libraries and the Academy3(4), 633-642.

*I want a button that says “ASK ME about cognitive load!” Because IMHO many, if not most, librarians excel at inflicting cognitive overload in their instructional materials.
**Give or take a few positions in flux.
***At my in-person interview for this position, I was required to teach my audience how to create a reusable learning object (in 20 minutes or less, yikes!). I taught them to make an educational slideshow using myBrainShark and assessed their learning with Poll Everywhere.

Lost Time is Never Found

It was three months before I realized: each week I was working four hours on the reference desk, but my assignment sheet said I was supposed to be scheduled to work three. One hour – that’s not a big deal, right? I wrestled with this discovery for days! Should I speak up? Was I being petty to point out the discrepancy? I finally emailed one of the librarians that crafted my assignment sheet – he spoke to the desk scheduler and the discrepancy was resolved, no big deal. Only three hours a week on the desk from here on out!

It was one hour! Out of forty. ONLY forty! Never in my past life as a non-librarian would I have worried about a single hour, but since I’ve begun the tenure-track life, I measure each minute by productivity achieved, or lack-thereof. I identified completely when Erin Miller, the other (also tenure-track) FYAL blogger wrote, “I have never had to be so concerned with the minute-by-minute flow of each workday,” in her first blog post.

Time management! This is nobody’s favorite phrase. I felt little-to-no pressure in my past life as library staff to achieve Great Things. I usually had a few projects going, but deadlines were of my choosing. I’ve long been amused by people that stress how busy-busy-busy they are – especially when I read articles like this. Busy-ness is just another social competition. But as a tenure-track librarian, I now find myself falling into that trap! I’m just TOO BUSY these days! Do you realize what I could do with that extra hour each week? Great Things! And as Benjamin Franklin said, “lost time is never found again.” This is especially true on the tenure-track.

Managing Yourself

When I started my new job, I was basically left to my own devices on the afternoon of my first day. I was suddenly in a brave new world where I had to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and set my own schedule. I hereby admit that lack of structure makes me uncomfortable! So I made two decisions off-the-bat: I would work 8:30 to 5 every day and I started a work diary. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. (I once tried to count them all – somewhere around 12 or 15. All but two were hourly). I know that the first days of a new job can go by in a blur. And my job wasn’t just new to me – it’s a brand new position at my library. I didn’t want to feel like I was running on a hamster wheel with nothing to show for it. I decided that a work diary would help me see where my time went and what I accomplished.

And it has helped! My “work diary” is really simple – I set up a notebook in Microsoft OneNote and use a page for each month. I fill out a row in a simple table for each day: what time I worked and my accomplishments. It’s only a sentence or two for each day, but I can tell you how much I worked and what I worked on for any day since August 1st. I even started including what I did on the weekends, since I’m one of those people that can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast, let alone what I did on Saturday.

There are Four Reasons to Keep a Work Diary as listed by the Harvard Business Review: focus, patience, planning, and personal growth. Writing down what I do each day keeps me accountable and on track (focus) and also shows me that I am making progress on a project even if it doesn’t feel like it (patience). I can see how much time something takes, and that helps me set realistic expectations for deadlines (planning). The article recommends writing 100 words a day about your feelings – I don’t write nearly that much – but if I am feeling especially emotional one day, good or bad, I include that and when I re-read what I wrote I can remember those feelings and think about how I can avoid frustration or find more “wins” in the future (personal growth).

I happen to use Microsoft OneNote because it was already on my work computer, but I also like the way it looks and is organized, and that it syncs across platforms. Evernote is also a good choice, or even a simple Microsoft Word document.

15-Minute Rule

Keeping a work diary also showed me how heavy my workload was. Seeing how much (or how little) I could accomplish every day quickly helped me discover that I needed to do as much as possible in my work time or I was going to end up either (1) working too much, or, (2) not getting enough done. I love this job but I have no desire to work over my forty hours each week because I also love having a life. Only a month or so in, I was already stressing about all the projects that I wasn’t making any progress on!

Enter the 15-minute rule. Juggling multiple projects often means making progress on one or two to the detriment of the others. I committed to working at least 15-minutes a day (on average) on each of my ongoing projects. And guess what? I now get stuff done!

When I got here, I told myself to take it easy and not sign up for everything that came my way. But, alas, I’m a compulsive overachiever and I stretched myself thin my first semester. I signed up for an online class through our Faculty Development Center on Universal Design for Learning and made zero progress on it the first two months. Funded by a grant, the facilitator sent out regular emails promising to enter course-finishers in monthly drawings for $100, but even regular promises of financial gain failed to spur me to action. Realizing I wasn’t getting anything done did. When I started scheduling 15-minute chunks to work on the class, I made progress and finished. And then I won that month’s drawing for $100. Personal satisfaction and monetary winnings: best week ever!

Schedule ALL the Hours

I used the 15-minute rule in conjunction with advice from academic Cal Newport, who runs the fantastic Study Hacks Blog. Newport recommends planning out every minute of your work week. I thought my schedule was packed when I first started here – so many meetings! And so many projects! Now, I spend a half-hour every Monday morning planning out my week. I have a recurring appointment with myself where I keep a list of all the tasks that need to be scheduled, and all the projects that I’m working on. Here’s what my schedule looks like now:

Weekly Schedule
My weekly schedule now. (ID means instructional design time!)

Okay, so I’m still working on not getting anxious just looking at my weekly schedules, but I’m constantly reminded to stay on track and to get work done. It also forces me to work on things I don’t want to – like doing collection development in GOBI. Scheduling time to work on it in little chunks has helped me make progress instead of waiting until the last minute to order, and now GOBI doesn’t seem so bad.

I also build myself in little buffers – like I’m not really going to spend an hour on email every day, but I’ll also use that time to catch up on my reading for professional development, or I’ll get started early on the next task. (Also, I’ve gotten really good at managing my email from attending one of librarian Anali Perry’s Inbox Zero presentations. HIGHLY recommend perusing her slide deck.)

Take a Walk

Finally, here’s a counter-intuitive tip: to better manage your time, take a walk. It’s been easy for me as new tenure-track faculty in a brand new position to feel overwhelmed, so whenever it gets too much, I go outside. Often by myself, sometimes with coworkers, and sometimes I grab coffee with coworkers. It helps me to step away from thinking so hard about what I need to do, and it also helps me to clear my mind and find inspiration.

Cal Newport talks about using this state of mind to manage your projects. He says to “forget your project ideas (until you can’t forget them).”

At first, in this position, I kept a list of projects I’d like to work on – then I’d look back at it and feel like I was already behind. But let’s be honest – I’m the only instructional designer at my library, and I only have so much time to dedicate just to design. Something like 8-12 hours a week in an average week. Not much! Now, I might sketch out an idea or two for a project on one of the scratch papers in my office, and then I forget about it. The things that really matter and I really want to accomplish never leave my mind. This tactic is especially coming in handy as I start to write my prospectus and need to clarify my research interests.

How about you? How do you stay sane and manage your time?

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.