How do I know if I want to be a librarian?
March 6, 2009 6:58 AM   Subscribe

How do I know if I want to be a librarian?

I have an undergrad degree in History, and that has led nowhere careerwise, so I've been thinking about going back to school. I've always loved academics and research, so I thought that being a librarian could be right for me. However, before I spend more time and money on more school, I'd like to be sure that this is a career that I'd really love. I don't want to base my decision on stereotypes of what everyone think librarians do, but rather what they really do....

I realize there are many different types of librarians... In today's economy is it better to specialize in school or get as much general knowledge as you can and then be flexible? How much IT is involved in librianship? Customer service? If you're a librarian, what's your daily routine? What are the most important skills and traits you need to love the job and do it well?

I've been accepted to San Jose State University's program. If I decide to pursue this, I would take advantage of their online classes for the first year and maybe even the whole way through my degree, as I can't afford to move right now. Any specifis SJSU information would be appreciated as well.

Thank you if you're still reading this and for any information!
posted by roxie5 to Work & Money (33 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Two good friends of mine are librarians at a major law firm - the husband is a director-level type, and spends a goodly amount of his time in IT projects - shelf space is being reduced by electronic media, access issues, networking, etc. I imagine the same goes for librarians in academic environments as well.

He happens to have a JD but never bothered with the bar exam, so (and this is conjecture on my part) he probably has a firm grasp on what his customer's needs. I'd be willing to bet that for private-librarian-type work (am I saying that right?), industry-specific knowledge would be invaluable.
posted by jquinby at 7:11 AM on March 6, 2009

I answer ths question for people a lot and I've sort of compressed my advice into a nub. Feel free to ask more follow-up questions if these bullet points lead to more questions.

- There are only a few librarian-type jobs [as opposed to other jobs you can do with an MLIS of which there are many] that don't involve working with other people and nominally the public. If you do not like working with the public you should think about this a little bit. The last thing the world needs is another librarian who is bitchy and dismissive to patrons.
- Unless you go work in a rural public library, most librarian jobs are in very hierarchical organizations without a lot of turnover. This means that if you don't like your boss, you may be working with them for 20 years. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- if you love your boss you will also be working with them for 20 years -- but it doesn't have the upward mobility of the corporate world, it's more like the job stability of the government world, though this is changing as the economy changes
- If you are going to be a librarian (and not an IT professional) the jobs don't pay terrifically. Do not go into major debt to become a librarian
- Libraries are generally pretty local which means that what's a treasured and valuable skill in one library setting may be something treated with suspicion and/or mistrust in another library setting. I'm thinking of this in terms of tech skills. The average librarian I meet (and I live in Central Vermont and work more with public librarians than others but I'm professionally involved at a state and national level so I do know some things) is less tech savvy than the average non-librarian in my universe. Librarians are often in the position of supporting and training people and old, outmoded or badly functioning technology. If they're not really into doing this sort of thing, it can breed resentment. You see this a lot, at least I do.
- Money is often an issue. Most libraries that I know about have budget issues to deal with. Doing more with less is a valued skill. You spend a lot of time figuring out how to buy things for the library -- books, technology, software, furniture -- and how to get good deals on it at the same time vendors are trying to get you to pay more than things are worth. Again, this is my opinion. Because you're funded locally (publics and academic to some extent) you have to show your value to the local people on a frequent basis
- Intellectual freedom is important. Patron privacy (it's no one's business what you're reading) and general intellectual freedom are important cornerstones of the profession in many ways. Think about how that works with your values system. While there are many conservative librarians, the profession is generally anti-censorship, queer-friendly, labor friendly and in favor of childrens' rights to read what they want (decisions on content are more properly made by a parent). I think this is a good thing but not everyone does.
- Because of the nature of the work, there is a conventional streak in librarianship. There's a sense that "this is the way we've always done it" can be a GOOD reason to continue certain processes or procedures. Personally, i think there is some sense to this but it's also difficult when you're trying to change things, having to come up against that sort of reasoning without anything else to back it up.
- Librarians are generally, in my experience, quirky and smart. Quirky is a mixed bag. Smart can also be a mixed bag.

My advice to you is to look at your local professional organizations and see if there's one you might want ot be involved wiht. It's good to come out of library school knowing some librarians and maybe being profesionally involved. I got interested in the local Social Responsibilities Round Table because that's where my interests lie, but you could join any of these sections or round tables locally. I don't know if you're actually in California, but the CLA has some good resources online. I know we have some SJSU graduates among the MeFi population, I'll let them speak to SJSU as I don't know much about it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 AM on March 6, 2009 [21 favorites]

Get a job in a library, preferably the type of library you think you'd like to work in.

I had the same questions that you did after graduating with an English degree. I volunteered for six months in a public library and then worked as a library assistant in an academic library for a year. My job was largely customer service oriented, with some office-job skills (maintaining some excel databases, editing the webpage) thrown in for good measure. I was also taught how to edit bibliographic records, which was one of the things that the librarians usually did. As someone who's good with computers and has worked in a variety of customer service and administrative jobs, I found all of this incredibly easy to learn.

The librarians' job duties weren't drastically different, though they fielded reference questions rather than dealing with patrons' late fees and also had to attend conferences and meetings.

I ultimately decided not to get my MLS because the vast majority of the job skills I saw in the job were ones that could be easier, and better learned on the job, and I wasn't sure I was passionate enough about any of the job duties to make the expense of an MLS worth it. The job market for librarians isn't great, to boot, despite what the ALA might say. And the pay, considering the fact that a master's is required, is often terrible.

So before you get your degree, seriously, try working in a library. I love books, love research, and enjoy customer service positions--but the expensive graduate degree made it difficult for me to justify when compared with the potential job satisfaction. Also, working in a library before you have your MLS will make your job search, if you stick with it, much, much easier.

For grumpy, and fun, views of librarianship, you should take a look at the annoyed librarian's blog.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:29 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

you might also want to look at the library_mofo livejournal group. While I think both that and the annoyed librarian's blog cast a pretty negative light on the profession, I'd be lying if I said I didn't know real life people who felt that way and acted that way. It's sort of like going and reading the one-star reviews of your product on Amazon.
posted by jessamyn at 7:32 AM on March 6, 2009

Oh, and one more reason to get a job in a library--mine would have paid for me to get my MLS, if I hadn't decided to move out of the area to get a (free) graduate degree in another subject. Many libraries will pay for their support staff to get the piece of paper.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:39 AM on March 6, 2009

I don't have an MLS, but I do work at a small academic library and I perform several functions here that you would need an MLS for at a larger library.

I would say a lot of what you are asking depends on what type of library you work for. Larger academic libraries and many public libraries can be very hierarchical: you do your job and no other jobs and you do your job the way it "has always been done" and no other way. If you like that sort of structured work, it can be great. It can also be very frustrating when you want to try something different and are banging your head against a brick wall.

That being said you can find libraries that are more open to suggestions and flexibility, but they will probably be smaller libraries like the one I work at and the pay will be sucky.

I mostly do access services, so I work with the public. Like any customer service-type position this can be very draining, but it can also be very rewarding.

One type of job that can pay decently is a subject librarian at a larger academic library. Have you thought about getting an M.A. in history as well as an MLS? I would suggest periodically looking at the ala job list to see what sorts of jobs regularly appear and then specialize based on availability of jobs and personal interest.
posted by ephemerista at 7:42 AM on March 6, 2009

Get a job in a library, preferably the type of library you think you'd like to work in.

This is key. Do not go straight into library school fulltime after completing your undergrad. Work in libraries, try different fields, get some seasoning. This will not only help you figure out if this is something you want to do, but will help you stand out in the future job market if you decide to go through with this as a career. Looking back at my MLS classmates, most of the students who got their degree right after college have moved on to other, non-librarian careers, while those of us who work in libraries prior are still here.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:43 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I did my BA in history, then my MLIS at San Jose State. Here's my .02 worth.

In today's economy is it better to specialize in school or get as much general knowledge as you can and then be flexible?

I used grad school as a playground to gain as much general knowledge about different types of info science related jobs as possible. I did coursework in reference, archives, IT, etc. but primarily focused on IT, as I fell for the "the old librarians are retiring! and they don't understand technology!" myth (google "librarian shortage myth" to see what I mean). This was what was best for me - when I started school, I thought I wanted to be an academic librarian. When I finished school, I wanted to be anything but! However, once I got to interviewing for jobs, I kept getting asked why I didn't focus on any single track. So, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

How much IT is involved in librarianship?

Can't tell you, as I have yet to have an actual "librarian" job. I ended up as a taxonomist for a web company, which is all IT all the time. I did a couple of volunteer resume-builder gigs at public libraries, and these too were because of my IT skills (HTML, mainly).

Customer service?
Lots. When I interviewed at public libraries, one of the things that counted against me was that I hadn't had a customer-service-oriented job since I worked retail in my early 20s. The image of me making my living for 15+ years hunched over a computer, working independently, probably put my interviewers off :)

If you're a librarian, what's your daily routine?
I can tell you my daily routine as a taxonomist - there is none :) However, things I use throughout the day are skills gained in my coursework in vocabulary design, user behavior, and SQL. LOTS of SQL.

What are the most important skills and traits you need to love the job and do it well?

Depends on the job. My job requires flexibility and the ability to work at a fast pace, deal with unrealistic deadlines, and prioritize often-conflicting needs.

Any specific SJSU information would be appreciated as well.
I'll be brutally honest here - I hated the program, and most of my colleagues who went through it feel the same (much moreso than me - generally I love going to school, so I did manage to make the best of it). IMO, the school is more interested in generating tuition $$$ than they are in preparing students for the real world. Once you graduate, there is ZERO support in terms of job placement. The school accepts far more applicants than there are jobs.* Also, the old guard of librarians (who will likely be interviewing you when you start your job search) tends to frown upon online learning. Nearly every interview I went on involved some sort of "Why didn't you take day classes at UCLA, in person?" line of questioning.

If I sound disgruntled - well, that's because I am! While I do value my current job and the learning opportunities it affords me, I am very disappointed that I emerged from SJSU with thousands of dollars in student loan debt and absolutely zero ability to be an adult reference librarian, which is what I really thought I wanted to do. I fell for the ALA's librarian shortage propaganda hook, line, and sinker, and really, I'm more disappointed in my own naivete than SJSU. And to be honest, I do understand that my own set boundaries limit my employability - I am not willing to leave the West Coast, and I am not willing to work as a children's librarian. From what I hear, if you are willing to relocate to the flyover states and/or work with children (which generally pays less) there are greater opportunities.

Feel free to MeFi mail me for more, if you haven't had enough of my many opinions on the subject!

*Oh, and in the current economy - there are no jobs, at least not if you want one that pays enough to cover living expenses and student loan debt. In any major city, there is an overabundance of well educated MLIS's competing for not just the few positions that pay a living wage, but also the positions that pay $12 an hour with no benefits.

posted by chez shoes at 7:52 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am glad you are asking this question before you start library school. Going to library school with the expectation that at the end of the process you will have a job as a librarian is the wrong way to go about it. Think of the kind of work you'd like to do, including working in a library. Then see if the work requires an MLS, or somehow your career would be enhanced by having the MLS.

As others have stated, it's a pretty tough job market for fresh library school graduates, and often the pay is not good enough to justify the costs of getting the degree. If you have any geographical constraints, the job search becomes exponentially more difficult.

Some data points:
Library Journal's 2008 Placements & Salaries Survey (this should give you a rough idea who's hiring where for how much)
Overview of the 2008 Placements & Salaries Survey (linking to this because it explains the almost freakishly high average starting salary for one iSchool, Michigan - "placing 56.3% of its graduates in agencies such as consulting, e-commerce, financial services, and interactive marketing")
posted by needled at 8:02 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I went to library school in 2002-2004. I had 3 good friends there. Of the four of us, three worked in libraries upon graduation. Five years later, I'm the only one who still works in a library.

Universities are cutting budgets due to endowment losses and state cutbacks. Public libraries are reducing hours. Corporate libraries are getting closed down wholesale. It is damn hard to get a librarian job these days. My 6-person department has two staffers in paraprofessional positions who actually have MLIS degrees.

It's true that a lot of librarians are going to retire in the next several years, but a lot of those positions aren't being re-filled. With the technology improvements in the last 10-15 years, it's easier and easier for people to be their own librarian. And the librarians who are left are more productive -- able to get more work done in less time.

There's gonna be a huge change in the way this profession works, and it's gonna come soon. Maybe it won't be a profession at all anymore. Maybe it'll morph into something different. And due to the professional conservatism that Jessamyn mentions, it's going to be a tough fight. Do you want to be there to be a part of this?

As for SJSU: they undeniably graduate more librarians than there are jobs in the Bay Area. I know someone who did the online program and thought it was really hard -- the really stringent requirements (way tougher than my non-SJSU MLS) combined with lack of personal contact with instructors & students really brought him down. On the other hand, I know someone else who thought it was just fine. Whether you like online learning is probably more a personality thing than anything else. As the only library school in the Bay Area, SJSU is definitely plugged in to what's going on in the profession locally. But that doesn't guarantee you a job when you're done.
posted by jillsy_sloper at 8:44 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to get a job as a librarian, work in a library before and during library school. It really was striking how the people in my program who worked in libraries got jobs with little trouble, while those who didn't were still looking a year and a half later.

If you want to get a job as a librarian, be willing to relocate, and be willing to work in a wide range of job descriptions. You will be much more likely to find a job if you're willing to work in both reference and tech services, public or academic, in any of 5 areas that you find acceptable, than you will be to find a job if you keep waiting for an academic business librarian gig to open up in Seattle.

I don't know much about SJSU, other than having the vague impression that the librarians who graduated from that program haven't impressed me much, professionally speaking. Though you get out of it what you put into it, and I've also seen librarians who came from really great programs and you would never know it. Here are the U.S. News and World Report rankings of library schools, if you're interested. Some of the top programs have distance education options.

From personal experience, the pay in a decent-sized public library is better than the pay in a decent-sized academic library, which is something you may want to keep in mind when you're thinking about what track you want to pursue (although the benefits at an academic library frequently are much better).

Pursuing a "track" can be useful, though as far as employability, keeping an open mind during the job search will work in your favor. All the way through library school I was aiming for being an academic librarian, and my first job out of library school was in a public library. The two are quite different in a lot of ways. I might suggest interviewing librarians who are doing jobs you think might interest you.

Having a special skill set can mean you're competing against a much smaller pool of applicants, with a greater chance of success, so if you find something you like in librarianship that not everyone else is doing, totally pursue it. I ended up becoming a serials librarian, and my job search was much easier because of it. Library schools train reference librarians and catalogers pretty well, but most don't offer any classes in serials or acquisitions, so those fields have much smaller pools of applicants and it can be easier to find a job as a serials librarian or an acquisitions librarian. This is where working in a library before and during library school comes in. Electronic resources librarian is another subfield which is hot right now but most library schools don't train for this.

Also nthing the observation that the job market in general is very tight. I was very lucky to find a full-time job right out of library school (and having 7 years of library experience before and during school absolutely helped me land that job) but I did have to move to another state, and most of the librarians I meet in this area are working part-time at more than one library -- often three or four libraries quite distant from their homes -- to make ends meet while they wait for that dream job: full-time and close to home. Being in a market close to one of the library schools makes this problem even worse.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:46 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Tenthing the "Work in the field before accumulating debt for it" - both because librarianship is not for everyone, and because the job market is painful right now, and experience will help with that.

Me: Worked as a paraprofessional in an independent school library while (and after) getting my degree. My boss (who had been here 15 years) took a new job. I am his interim replacement, and interviewing on Monday for the long-term replacement.

I work in the upper school (grades 9-12), and here's my take on your questions:

Customer service: Tons. Students. Faculty. Staff. Random parent questions. All sorts of things.

The part I love about the job, though, is that I get to go home pretty much every day knowing I've directly helped someone find information that was important to them. (Sometimes it's for a paper, sometimes it's for a personal question, sometimes it's just something they had to get done.)

The hard part for me is that there are constant questions and interactions - it's hard to find times that I can focus on more detailed projects without losing my train of thought 10 times in half an hour as people ask simple stuff ("Can I borrow a pencil", "Can I use a computer"). While non-school libraries simplify this a bit (a lot of places, you have desk time, but you also have non-desk time for meetings/focused stuff), it really is a challenge for a lot of library positions.

Technology skills
Really never hurt. At all. Though if you're asking on here, you're moving in the right direction.

My take on technology is that it's the bits that are directly user-facing that are most useful to librarians: being able to design a network or do complex repairs or program are less useful than being able to do quick common repairs (printing, etc.) and helping explain how to use software/the Internet/etc. to do what the patron wants. Having skills that can adapt to new technology quickly are also important.

Typical day
7am ish: Arrive at work. Unlock the library, turn on the lights and computers, etc. Get things ready for the day, check my schedule for anything unusual, check on computer reservations for the laptop carts we manage, review email, add tasks to my to-do list, etc.

7:50 Homeroom

8 - 11:30 Ordinary daily stuff: lots of common questions (using the copier, password and printer problems, office supplies), plus finding books, deeper research, etc. I usually average around 1 deeper/more complex question and 10-15 minor ones an hour.

11:30-12ish Lunch. (In the school cafeteria, talking to colleagues, etc.)
12-3pm More school, standard questions, etc.

3pm on: One day a week, usually, I have some meeting after school, and am here until 5pm or so. The others, I leave between 3:30 and 6, depending on what I'm doing after work, what focused projects I need to work on, and so on. Technically, I'm supposed to be done at 4, but after 3 is the best time for focused/detailed work without interruptions.

I do some presentations to classes, but they go in waves. Lots of individual conversations with students, faculty, etc. Very little downtime.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:58 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

This has been pretty thoroughly answered. I'm mostly here to add emphasis and maybe a smidge of advice.
Jessamyn, as usual, has it pretty much nailed--especially the part about money. I've had very good luck attaining jobs that pay well in the public library world, and money is still always a concern. Naturally there are exceptions, but in general, academic libraries do not pay as well as public. Make of that what you will.
Library school is pretty stupid, really. You will almost certainly hate it and think it's a waste of time and brainpower. You'll have a couple of good, heady classes (and depending on your school, you might be able to take a couple of electives outside of the library school), but that's about it. I think of library school as sort of a professional hazing. That said, I'm a believer in requiring an MLS for librarian positions.
If you do decide to be a librarian, don't go into library school with too many assumptions about what kind. I had planned to be an academic librarian (for many of the same reasons you cite for your interest in the profession), but the first job I got was in a public library. Now, you couldn't pay me enough to be an academic librarian.
posted by willpie at 9:00 AM on March 6, 2009

I went to SJSU in the early 2000s. As it's been stated upthread, it's, uh, got problems. However, a lot of those problems were due to the old director who was just god-awful. I understand there's a new guy (well, new since, what, 2004 or something) who is a lot better. And yeah, SJSU had no placement assistance and used to crow about how they were the largest library school in the country as if giant class sizes and uncertain job prospects were a message to spread far and wide. And the line from the ALA in those days was "Quick! Become a librarian! Lots of people retiring means lots of jobs opened up for new people!" which, of course, never materialized and probably won't ever.

Two good things about SJSU -- accredited, and cheap. It's still accredited; I don't know how cheap it is now but by working full time and going to school I was able to graduate with no debt. Again, been pointed out before, but let me tell you how important this is -- DO NOT GO INTO DEBT FOR LIBRARY SCHOOL if you can possibly avoid it. Librarians *never* get paid enough to justify loads of debt. (An aside: can someone explain Simmons to me? A private school with a library program? Really?)

Public service? Yeah, do us a favor and if you're absolutely opposed to public service please do not become a librarian. Even if you think you land some (to you) great job that lets you sit in a cubbyhole and catalog all day that may not last very long and nobody wants to work with someone who regards patrons as The Enemy.

I've never had enormous trouble getting jobs, but I have a very particular IT skillset that I basically lucked into back in 1994 that has ended up being very big in libraries and in IT in general. If you're a history major with no library background and no skills really to distinguish yourself from the other kajillion history majors with no library backgrounds who have graduated at the same time you have. But if you're dead set on going to school without getting a library job first my advice to you is:

1) Try to do something in school or volunteer-wise to set yourself apart, something unusual beyond the typical intern type stuff. Set up your own ILS or help to wire up a local impoverished public maybe?

2) Once you graduate, be flexible in location. I know you're not going physically to SJSU so this may not apply but you better believe the Bay Area is full of those kajillion history major recent graduates all competing for the same two jobs. If you're an American, you can work in Canada under a NAFTA permit.

3) Try not to get discouraged by my and other's downer advice too much. If librarianship is really for you you will find a way to make it work. I can't see myself doing anything else.

Any more questions about SJSU or librarianship or being a tech librarian or whatever, please feel free to memail.
posted by the dief at 9:04 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer. I have tried since graduation (2 1/2 years ago) to get any job in a library. They are either not hiring or want previous library experience.

I volunteered for one day at the library in my town in Tennessee... there was another volunteer who worked with me. The librarian who supervised us didn't seem excited to have us there (she also seemed reluctant when I called her on the phone to ask about volunteering needs), and never called or emailed me back. She didn't speak to us more than she had to and sent us home early, so I felt discouraged from calling her back.

After reading answers here, I will not go to school for this until I have spent more time in a library. I may try volunteering at another library in a neighboring town. I actually think I would like the customer service aspect of the job more than the IT stuff, which is part of the reason I asked the question in the first place, as I know the field is changing.
posted by roxie5 at 9:26 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are as many different types of library jobs as there are people in the world. I agree with a lot of what chez shoes has said about SJSU. I completed my MLIS there at the end of 2007 through the distance learning program, after finding my Literature/Photography BA (2005) to be a dead-end, career-wise. I chose the SJSU program for two reasons: it was the cheapest game in town, and I felt I needed to stay in San Diego because my dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. One semester in, SJSU raised their fees by 60% with no warning, and my experience with them was all downhill after that. I have an incredible amount of vitriol and animosity in me towards the program and most of the people involved with it, with a few very notable exceptions.

That being said, if you want an MLIS and want it fast and with very little effort, it's still a viable option. Some people take one class at a time and take up to 7 years to complete the program. You can do it that way, and work full-time in a library, and maybe your library will pay for the degree. A lot of people I met did that, and it seemed a good way to go, especially in a public or academic library. I enrolled in the program while I was working a crappy full-time admin job, but soon decided that the only way I'd eventually get a good librarian position was to make some sacrifices. I still believe that. Like chez shoes, I was unwilling to leave the West Coast... hell, unwilling to leave my city(!) and unwilling to work with children. Here is the path I took to get my job:

1) Quit my full-time admin job, took a $9/hour library assistant job at a museum that I've always loved, and got student loans to supplement my living expenses. I did this because I thought I wanted to go into museum/special librarianship or archives. I started my MLIS specialization in archives.
2) Worked 30 hours a week at the museum, took a full load of classes, and volunteered 1/2 day a week at a public library and volunteered 1/2 day a week at a different special library (the zoo).
3) Was offered a paying job at the public library, but had realized I... didn't really like working with the public (sorry, Jessamyn!)
4) Had to quit my job at the museum when they wanted to change my hours around so I couldn't continue to volunteer. At this point, it became clear to me that archives/museum librarianship was never going to pay my bills. I had to literally haggle to get a $10 used office chair to sit on in the library at the computer. I switched to a different $10/hr part time job in the museum, while looking for a real library job and continuing to volunteer in my spare time.
5) The volunteering paid off, and I was offered a full-time, full-benefits job at the zoo library, after volunteering for a year. This was about halfway into my grad program.

Of the friends I made at SJSU, all of them are unemployed or not employed in a library except one, who is working three different part-time jobs: at two different area community colleges, and at a public library. He got one of these through an internship, the other because he knew someone who already worked there. From that, I think the takeaway is: This is a nearly impossible job market. If you are not incredibly dedicated and willing to make sacrifices (read: I have 40k in student loan debt), the SJSU program, and perhaps librarianship in general, are not for you.

I'm not trying to scare you off. My job is wonderful, amazing, rewarding, and I wake up excited and happy to go to work each day. If you're still interested, I'd love to tell you about it (send me an email). I just don't want SJSU to con another poor, unsuspecting, recent grad into their expensive, un-financially-supported program with these pie-in-the-sky promises of easy-to-get librarian jobs, when they're unwilling or unable to actually place people in these jobs, because the jobs are so damn underfunded and hard to find. It's a great profession, but you deserve to go into it with your eyes open.
posted by booknerd at 9:29 AM on March 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

the dief has said some good stuff. Couple things I wanted to add:

I understand there's a new guy (well, new since, what, 2004 or something) who is a lot better.
Actually, from those I know still in the program, it's gotten *worse*. The new guy (who I personally am unimpressed by) has a business-oriented background and it seems to be all about numbers - how many students they have, how graduates get the highest pay in the country (yeah, those lucky few in the Bay Area that get jobs!), and my personal favorite - how SJSU outranks UCLA in job placement. Statistics can be manipulated, and boy do they ever manipulate - this last fact is just due to supply and demand. More tech jobs in the Bay Area + more tech-inclined graduates in the Bay Area = more job placement than here in Southern California.

SJSU had no placement assistance
And they have even less now. They pretend to care about you as long as you're a source of income for them. Once you're not - forget it.

used to crow about how they were the largest library school in the country as if giant class sizes and uncertain job prospects were a message to spread far and wide
Still do. See above re: manipulation of statistics.

. And the line from the ALA in those days was "Quick! Become a librarian! Lots of people retiring means lots of jobs opened up for new people!" which, of course, never materialized and probably won't ever.

Two good things about SJSU -- accredited, and cheap.
Still accredited, still cheap (relatively speaking) - but the online program seems to have a fee increase just about every semester. When I started (2003) classes were around $600 per. Now they're over $1200 per.
posted by chez shoes at 9:29 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everyone above has said some really good stuff, and I will add yet another plea to get some work experience in a library before you go for the degree. Having that sense of how libraries work from the inside was really helpful to me in getting my first professional job (I did go straight from undergrad to library school, but I worked part time in a bunch of library departments both as an undergrad and as a grad student).

I also wanted to suggest that you look into some of the non-traditional libraries. I did a very general library science degree and now I work in a law firm library doing reference. It's similar to what an academic librarian might do in some ways and different in some ways. For one thing, I don't do much teaching - it's all about getting the results to the attorneys as quickly as possible, not about teaching them how to do things themselves (we do some of that, but it depends on the initiative of the attorney to learn). Customer service is huge, because attorneys have large egos. Dealing with vendors and the government is also huge in what I do, so there's a certain need for being the squeaky wheel when it comes to getting access to documents, etc. Also, technology is very important because law materials are increasingly online, and searching cost-effectively is super important.

On a busy day, I probably would:

--monitor requests that come in via email, phone, and walk ins, which means multitasking!
--receive 5-10 requests that are "get me this court filing/news article/book/etc"
--receive 5 requests that are "my password doesn't work"
--arrange for a vendor to come train an attorney on a product at a mutually convenient time
--receive 3-5 requests for medium-level research like "give me background information on this business like how much money they make and who the officers are"
--receive 3-5 requests for more in depth research that go "I'm working on an article about probate law in Massachusetts, what can you tell me?" or "I need to know what the law is regarding whether our client needs to file with the government if we do this with our stock"
--run many, many searches in specialized legal databases
--do lots and lots of Google searching (I love Google!)
--call a government agency or a research service that will go to the court and make copies for us
--keep a detailed calendar and database of passwords and password administration instructions

The other thing about law firm work is that it's heavily dependent on what the client or the attorney needs at any given time, so we have days when I do all that stuff and more, and days when I sit here and work on long term projects like reorganizing our catalog and writing research guides and the phone never rings. So you have to be at least a little bit self-directed as well.

If having something a little more fast-paced seems appealing, feel free to MefiMail me and I can blither at you some more.
posted by marginaliana at 9:30 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

roxie5, you might have better luck with volunteering if you tell the library staff that you're interested in a casual, unpaid internship because you're considering becoming a librarian--one great thing about many librarians is their dedication to their field; the people who worked at my public library were very enthusiastic about trying to turn me into a librarian.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:32 AM on March 6, 2009

Do you have a specific geographic area you were hoping to live/work in? The library job market can be very regional.

I work the reference desk at a public library and personally I love it BUT I like people and I like customer service. I work the reference desk, do programmes for babies, children and adults, teach computer course to adults and do some selections. Most of my time is spent doing reference work which can be helping a toddler find a book about dinosaurs, helping a teenager research careers as in paleontology, or help a university student research recent finds.

I choose to work part-time because I have three children and my salary is adequate to support us (I understand Candian librarians staff are paid a lot more than American ones though). I have a BA but did not get a MLIS (and my employer would pay for it) as the difference in salary is neglible in the library system I am in and the job market for MLIS (which in this area equals management) seems tighter than for front-line staff.

Good luck!
posted by saucysault at 9:44 AM on March 6, 2009

Another MLIS chiming in...

Look through librarian job postings to get an idea of what the job market is like. Job postings are usually very detailed, especially for academic jobs. They will tell you what the duties of the position are and what experience they expect you to have. Try ALA Joblist,, or Lib Gig.

If your image of being a librarian is helping some professor pore through big stacks of books to find some interesting historical material, you may be disappointed. A general reference librarian won't be doing that (very often anyway), but maybe a history specialist in a big academic library (likely requires an MA) or a special collections librarian. You may try looking at special libraries as well, as those often involve more research than reference.

Once you have an idea of the type of job you're interested in, get an internship doing that and possibly a part-time job if you can. From my experience, it's better to specialize. Because of what Jessamyn said about the conventional nature of the profession and an aversion to change, you may find academic librarians who don't appreciate the skills you earned at a public library and vice-versa. Of my classmates, those who specialized had a much easier time finding jobs than those who didn't (me). But that's just how I see it, maybe I'm bitter because I still don't have a job.
posted by wsquared at 9:51 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am a network technician at a library. Here in suffolk county on long island there are librarians making 60 -100k a year.

It all depends on how your library works. Here all librarians are civil service. To get a pay raise you have to take the next test , (then your library has to allow you to be that level since they are paying you).

If you want to do IT in a library like I do then that is diff and doesnt require a library degree (i got this job with an associates in network admin and i also have a BA in Management of Technology).

The pay depends on if your local library is civil service or not.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:43 AM on March 6, 2009

(An aside: can someone explain Simmons to me? A private school with a library
program? Really?)

I'll try to be brief:

1. Excellent financial aid (I had nearly my entire tuition covered)
2. A great library science library
3. Faculty who know their shit (my favorite ran the library in my field at Harvard)
4. Stellar internships (Mine were at Harvard Law Library, the Tufts archives, the Schlesinger Library)
5. The networking that comes with 3&4, above.

I have no regrets whatsoever about getting my MLIS there. It's not perfect, but it's better than most. You get out of it what you put in to it.

To the original question:

Get lots of experience. If you can't get a paying job, volunteer.
Attend professional association meetings and ask questions. The local chapter meetings are where you will find out what's real and what's hype in the field.
It's a really wide field but there are some skills that will always be asked for. If you are into archives, for example, knowing about finding aids and EAD is a must. If you are going to be cataloging in academia, then you should know how to work with OCLC. And so on. Job descriptions ask for the same stuff over and over again - read them to find out what's wanted.

My library (a tiny departmental library at a big university) is a weird one and certainly not typical, but: my day is spent juggling faculty requests for material, digging money out of various budgets to cover our costs, cataloging, dealing with donated material, space planning, association meeting stuff, long-range planning, and helping patrons in the library itself. There are lots of meetings on the campus, college, and departmental levels, and someone always needs paper for the copier.
posted by gyusan at 11:15 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Looking back on my initial post, I sound a lot more negative than I really am about the profession. It certainly has its frustrations, but I sincerely wouldn't want to be anything else.

FWIW, making $60-100k in Suffolk County is not remotely like making $60-100k in the vast majority of America. Moreover, even in Suffolk County, those librarians almost certainly have several years of post-MLS experience--my guess would be that most of them are directors of municipal libraries.
posted by willpie at 11:16 AM on March 6, 2009

OP, if you are currently in Tennessee, why did you apply to SJSU and not the UTK program, which also has distance education? Just curious.
posted by needled at 11:50 AM on March 6, 2009

Lots of good advice here. I'll chime in just to say that while I don't know where you are in TN, I am an academic librarian in TN. MeFi mail me if you want TN specific info.

I'll also say that while yes, academic jobs aren't getting filled now, that won't continue forever. However long it takes for the general economy to bounce back, when it does, there will be libraries hiring. Of course, I'm saying this as someone WITH a job...if I were looking now, I'd be a bit more pessimistic.

I'll also second the "get what you put into it" part of library school. I have lots of colleagues who went to a variety of MLS schools, and everytime I hear one of them tell me their degree was easy, I cringe. Mine wasn't (UNC-Chapel Hill), and it wasn't largely because I took hard classes and did LOTS of internships. Like any educational opportunity, you have to work at it to really benefit.
posted by griffey at 12:23 PM on March 6, 2009

I'll throw in my 2 cents too. I work 11 hours a week at a small academic library in Illinois as a circulation clerk. Although I've been trying for over a year and a half, I haven't been able to get another library job, part-time or otherwise. I've also been doing an LTA (library technical assistant) program at a community college for a year and a half and I'm almost done. The way I see it, I've been getting experience and training without going into debt. Even with my LTA jobs are hard to get, but at least I'll have a leg up on some of the competition. Like everyone else has said, if I was willing to move I might have more opportunities.

At work I do a lot of customer service. Besides checking out books I have to help people with using computers, getting the copy machine unjammed, finding a book, and other little things. I prep books for display and change out the new books on the new shelf. Mostly it's helping people use the library. If you are decently computer literate then you can handle any of the day to day stuff.

I expect that unless I'm very lucky I'll be doing part time work for quite some time, but I like my job a lot. If you do volunteer or get a part time job, learn as much as you can and ask a lot of questions. Anything you can familiarize yourself with will be useful on a resume. Good Luck.
posted by CoralAmber at 12:48 PM on March 6, 2009

My wife, an English major, did most of the SJSU program before quitting because she hated it so much. Professors did not care. One distance-learning professor actually forgot that she was teaching the class for about 3 weeks, and posted nothing online during that time. The distance-learning professors are doing this as their second job while they teach somewhere else during the day; they treat their distance-learning students as second-class, accordingly. Moving to San Jose will not help this. Very few classes are offered on campus, and last I checked they were moving more towards, not away from, distance learning. My wife lived in San Jose but had to do almost all distance-learning.
posted by agentofselection at 7:40 PM on March 6, 2009

Just chiming in to add to what everyone else has said, though I'll disagree slightly with the "don't go into debt to go to library school." I mean, obviously, if you can avoid it, that would be optimal and great. But if you do decide to do it, I do think it's worth considering the balance of convenience/job prospects/not uprooting your life to go to school. I went to Simmons, I hated it and only went because it's the only game in Boston and I wasn't going to move, and I am in way more debt than I'd like to be for it, but the degree was the piece of paper I needed to get the kind of jobs I wanted. The good thing about library school is that it's totally doable while working full time. I worked in libraries (one academic, then one law firm) while doing my degree, and got a "real" librarian job soon after I graduated. Of course, the job market being what it is right now, I'm sure circumstance on that front are entirely different now.

I'll also echo the sentiment that it's worth being open minded about the kinds of libraries you'd be willing to work in. I thought for sure I would only want to work in academic libraries, but I've now worked in law firm libraries for about 6 years and have loved every minute of it. Law firm reference is fast paced, varied, and great for multi-taskers with short attention spans. Plus, in a better economy, the pay is great.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 10:18 PM on March 6, 2009

I'm an academic librarian and really enjoy my work. I actually think the best route is to go full-time and work in a library as a grad assistant while in library school. This means you're around professional librarians and are assigned the work of real librarians, rather than the some of the mindless stuff parapros get stuck with. Plus going full time gave me a great community of classmates who are now librarians across the US.

I'm not sure it's the best idea to work in a library before going to library school. The parapros I know all seemed ambivalent about becoming librarians, probably because they were stuck with the worst job tasks.

This field is good for people who are intellectually curious and enjoy working with people.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:52 AM on March 7, 2009

I've been in an MLIS program, and I thought I'd add one thing to the information given above. One of the balances in all library education programs is between giving people the skills that they need to do the job as it currently exists versus the theoretical skills needed to do the job (or similar jobs) as they change in the future.

This is an MLIS thing, but it's pretty much a simplified version of the whole liberal arts versus professional education thing. You may say to that that the ML(I)S is a professional degree, but things are rapidly changing at the moment in the profession despite the efforts of people currently in the profession to ignore the changes.

My advice to you would be to try to gain as many critical thinking skills and ways of research and to avoid entirely classes that teach you how to use particular tools. There's a lot of stuff out there in the schools that has a low cognitive load and teaches you how to perform a couple of discrete skills. It's probably easier to learn the meta- skills and the research concepts on the fly and then learn the more concrete skills later on the job. (You probably won't want to go all the way with this, you probably want to take all the courses you can in whatever area of specialization.)

My own personal, non-statistical impression is that a large number of people from earlier cohorts are still unemployed and looking for things to do. It's not clear to me that the ALA is being at all realistic in its job outlook for the profession, it is clear to me from talking to people currently in the profession that they don't have an eye on the way that the world is changing around them.
posted by corprew at 10:47 AM on March 9, 2009

That said, and I apologize for double commenting -- this is my first comment and I failed at the UI, even though I ended up not going into the profession, I really did enjoy my time in library school rather a lot and it's added greatly to all the work that I've done since. It really is a generally wonderful thing.

I think it's impossible to know whether you want to be a librarian until you actually go through library school and actually work there for a year or three. You may end up after it all in the 'Information Professions,' which include such things are Information Architecture (IA), Interaction Design (IxD), and other similar careers centered around human use of information. If you like being a librarian, you might enjoy some of these as well, and take a course or two in Usability, Classification, or Interaction Design while you're in school (or before.)

A lot of people who start out as librarians seem to drift that way, and it might be worth checking out how you feel about some of them at the beginning of your journey rather than changing mid-stream.
posted by corprew at 10:53 AM on March 9, 2009

If you want to be in a library-related job but aren't so keen on customer service, being an archivist might work out for you.

If you're a processing archivist, you can go a long time without having to interact with the public at all, since you're processing collections for the public to use.

Archive school (you'll need an MLIS) seems to be a hot thing right now, so many people have trouble finding jobs, which is why, as other mentioned, you should try and get some experience through volunteering before you go to school.

Many of the people I went to school with didn't have any archiving experience, and are having real trouble finding a job. Fortunately I had some experience, and that really helped me.
posted by elder18 at 2:28 PM on March 9, 2009

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