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.