How flexible do I need to be to become an academic librarian?
September 30, 2008 7:25 AM   Subscribe

If I don't want to move far, is academic librarianship out of the question? If so, how do I go about finding a summer practicuum in other fields?

I've just started the first year of a two-year MLS in a big city, where I've lived pretty much my entire life and have many things on the go here. I'm on track to becoming an academic librarian, but feel apprehensive about spending years moving around and/or in part-time positions. I'm almost 30 and really want to get my life started to the point where my main priority is to simply get a decent paying full-time job once I'm out of school, especially one that will allow me to maintain my hobbies. My questions are:

1. Is working in an academic library out of the question? I'd be willing to, and in fact would love to, move to a smaller university town nearby, but that might not broaden my options nearly enough. I'd rather not have to move for a part-time job.
2. How can I make the most of my time in school and of the summer between first and second year in order to find a job that meets my priorities after I graduate?
3. How do I go about contacting organizations for a job next summer?

I have interests in research and in databases, but not a lot of practical experience in either, as well as rather limited skills, but a strong desire to learn and an aptitude for the latter. I've also only held jobs in the public sector in the past and feel most comfortable in that area. I'm worried I'd be out of my element in the corporate world.
posted by waterandrock to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, to succeed in academic librarianship, geographical flexibility is a great help. If you live in a "big city," you surely have a number of academic libraries already nearby, though. Is there any reason you're dismissing those options? Otherwise, you should do what you can to set yourself up for one of those jobs. Start making contacts at all those places now. Ask if they have mentoring programs for library students or will take someone on to shadow them for a day. If your school has any sort of alumni/instructor network, use it to get an internship/practicum at one of these places ASAP. Don't wait for the summer. Go out for an internship now, even if you can't get course credit yet. Definitely do a practicum for course credit too (it'll be more valuable than most classes you would take instead), but don't stop there. If you can afford to work part-time at a library, consider that. If you don't have contacts, don't be afraid to just stop by or email out of the blue.

If at all possible, try to get a practicum in the area of librarianship you expect to actually perform upon graduation (i.e., if you want to catalog, work with the cataloging department). That sounds like a no-brainer, but it really goes a long way.

Your goals for the internship/practicum should be (in no particular order):
1. Meet lots of librarians, including ones who know other librarians around town
2. Gain actual library skills that you can't get in class (actual experience answering reference questions or playing with MARC records)
3. Gain library "experience" (read: resume filler). Whether you actually learned anything or not, the more time you have at an internship, the more you can spin that you're just as experienced as your competitors for the same job in the future
4. Shine! Be amiable and well-loved by the library staff, so you'll be the first one they think of when they need a new hire

If you can do all this successfully, you will overcome deficiencies in geographic flexibility.
posted by aswego at 7:52 AM on September 30, 2008

Yeah, aswego has it. Also, do you have any interest in science libraries? A disproportionate number of us librarians are humanities people, so a good librarian who's willing to be a subject specialist in the sciences is a hot commodity (and may not need as much of a science background as you might think, depending on the institution).
posted by clavicle at 7:58 AM on September 30, 2008

Response by poster: Really? That's a nice alternative perspective. My impression that I will need to move around a lot once I graduate comes from my current supervisor for my part-time job at an academic library. She herself and others she knows spent many years away.
posted by waterandrock at 8:00 AM on September 30, 2008

Working in an academic library is not out of the question, but it is absolutely essential that you get some practical experience working in one while you're in school - either an internship or just straight out volunteering. Unfortunately there's a glut of MLS grads, but the ones with experience have a leg up. Also, the academic library world is smaller than you realize (and maybe even smaller depending if you are pursing a particular subset of academia), and forging networks of practicing librarians is going to help tremendously when you look for a job. Hiring committees at academic libraries receive tons of applications for their job openings, but if you have good experience and references from colleagues that the hiring committees may know, your resume may float higher in the stack.

Also, many librarians are very active in the "web 2.0" sphere - blogging, Twitter, FB, Ning, etc., and that is one way to work on forging connections and getting your name out there. Just as a data point, a few librarians started writing and blogging in library school and seemed to be able to turn that into an advantage for employment and publishing.

As for #3 - just start knocking on doors (or emailing/calling) - ask to set up informational interviews to find out what academic librarianship is like (some of it may be surprising) and find out if shadowing opportunities or internships are available. Taking some initiative is important, IMHO, there's way to many MLS grads that just assume a job will fall into their lap upon graduation.
posted by dicaxpuella at 8:00 AM on September 30, 2008

Also, have you joined any of the library associations? ALA, SLA, MLA, etc? Many have meetings and/or mixers that are excellent for networking.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:34 AM on September 30, 2008

Get involved in library associations. My interest lies in special libraries, specifically science related organizations. During graduate school I worked in a science library. While my background is in humanities I now have experience in the hard sciences. This experience plus the involvement in SLA helped me find a job post-graduation.
posted by collocation at 8:38 AM on September 30, 2008

Best answer: If it helps at all, my group of friends consists of a lot of librarians. Most of them are academic librarians who landed their positions within a few months of graduation. We live in a large metropolitan area, and none of them had to move.
posted by zizzle at 8:56 AM on September 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks zizzle that does help!
posted by waterandrock at 9:07 AM on September 30, 2008

Join library associations, do internships, practicums, volunteer, talk to any and every academic librarian you know, consider getting a second master's (if you don't have one already), especially in a field that's not a humanities. What's been said up-thread is all excellent advice. I wouldn't say it's completely out of the question, but it definitely will be difficult and you may have to make sacrifices.

Of everyone I know from library school (I graduated last year), I'm the only person employed with a full-time job. I run into other alumni all the time at SLA meetings, and they're all desperately job hunting. The only reason I have a job right now and they don't is that I spent at least one full year of library school volunteering for two different libraries, while working part-time for very, very little pay at another to get experience and make contacts. I had to take out student loans to support myself during this time, but I landed the Best Job Ever because I was the person who was already there when they needed to hire someone. I got full-time job offers from both of the places I volunteered at, in a very competitive LIS job market, because I was willing to work and train for free a couple of hours a week for a few months.
posted by booknerd at 9:24 AM on September 30, 2008

Whether or not you have to move to find a job depends almost entirely on where you live. Here in DC, there so are many colleges and universities (and other, specialized research libraries) that there are almost always opening of some sort. In Pittsburgh, where I went to library school, there are only a handful of academic libraries, and therefore the job market is really tight.

I agree with the above comments that the key is to work--volunteer or paid--in a library while you are in school. It's much, MUCH more likely for a library to hire a known entity than to take a chance on a freshly-minted MLS without much if any work experience. The official associations (ALA, SLA) are, I think, less important, but I still encourage you to join them; all forms of networking help.

Oh, and the second masters is a good thing to keep in mind, but that should be part of your long-term career planning and is probably not required to land your first out-of-school job.
posted by arco at 9:43 AM on September 30, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, I have a second masters, though in the humanities, and a part-time job, which is why I think I'm doing all the right things at the moment for this field. Just wondering if there are tons of other people out there with the same idea.
posted by waterandrock at 10:03 AM on September 30, 2008

In my experience serving on and being judged by academic library search committees, already having a second graduate degree is a great advantage. It may also help you find opportunities that are more suited to you-- you will probably be working with faculty in the field of your second masters, and if you know something about those faculty going into your interview, you will impress your potential colleagues.
posted by activitystory at 10:15 AM on September 30, 2008

Just wondering if there are tons of other people out there with the same idea.

Of course there are! Hopefully though, depending on your specific area, there aren't tons of other people out there that also have second master's and library work experience, so you'll be in good shape to get a job out of school. At this point, all you can do is spend as much time as possible networking and letting people know you're looking for a job now, or soon.

I have interests in research and in databases, but not a lot of practical experience in either, as well as rather limited skills, but a strong desire to learn and an aptitude for the latter.

This, however, is a bit concerning for me. While you're in school, you should take every possible opportunity to turn these interests into actual skills. All librarians have, or should have, a strong desire to learn, so that won't really differentiate you.
posted by booknerd at 10:45 AM on September 30, 2008

Response by poster: This, however, is a bit concerning for me. While you're in school, you should take every possible opportunity to turn these interests into actual skills. All librarians have, or should have, a strong desire to learn, so that won't really differentiate you.

Yes, if I were to go the non-academic route I would heavily focus my electives in this area. Otherwise I will focus my electives on information literacy instruction, reference services management, etc. as well as perhaps systems courses and markup languages.
posted by waterandrock at 11:30 AM on September 30, 2008

Academic Librarian here. I work in the same city where I got my MLIS. No need to move!

That said, competition will be fierce for what few academic library jobs that exist in your area. You need to get a leg up on your competitors (a second Masters is a help and a hindrance*) and the best way to do that is to get as much practical experience that you can. Associations help, but I would hire someone with experience far faster than I'd hire someone I met at a conference.

Build some tools that you can show off to possible employers (Reference wiki) - this will help you gain experience, learn, and get something you can show off at interviews.

* - It helps if it's in an area you'd work with in your new job, it's a hindrance if it is not as your employers may be concerned that you'd jump ship for something else closer to said field.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:22 PM on September 30, 2008

Seconding robocop is bleeding - make something to show at your job interviews. The librarians we interview, regardless of the position, who have built something useful with the skills they've learned are light years ahead of those who merely express interest in doing things. A simple wiki, or a blog on a focused topic, or even a set of plain ol' html web pages will go a long way. If you don't already have them, pick up a few tech skills. (Being able to search databases is not a tech skill. Some html, a little CSS, setting up an open source blogging platform or content management system, that's where it's at.)

Academic librarians are also typically expected to present and publish. If you can do that while in library school, you'll demonstrate aptitude and interest in the type of work academic librarians do. Turn a class project into a presentation or poster session for your state or local library association conference, or watch for Calls for Papers (CFPs) you think you could handle. Subscribe to the feed at Dolores' List for a start if your library school doesn't forward CFPs to you regularly. Join a few associations while you can pay cheap student fees.

Everything everyone above said about internships, practica, and part-time jobs is correct.

Finally, there are just shy of a million librarians on AskMe. If you put location info in your profile and check out Jessamyn's contacts listed as colleagues for people in your area, you may find someone with whom to start networking.
posted by donnagirl at 11:04 PM on September 30, 2008

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