How to become a librarian?
March 26, 2009 7:10 AM   Subscribe

How do I become a librarian? I will soon have a PhD in English but am not sure academia is for me. How difficult would it be to get a job as a librarian, and what are the necessary steps to doing so (obviously an MLS degree)?
posted by emerson to Work & Money (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Get some library experience right now. If you can spare a few hours a week to work in your college library, great. You'll be doing library assistant work (check out, returns, shelving), but that's fine - it's a foot in the door. In my mind, library experience is much more important to starting your career than an MLS. Back in library school, it was easy to pick out which students had worked in a library and which were coming in straight from undergrad. Now, it's all the folks who worked in libraries previous to starting their MLSes that are still in the field - the others have wandered off, some disappointed.

With a PhD under your belt, you may experience problems being over qualified (librarians make a big deal out of advanced degrees), especially when you're looking for pre-MLS work. After your MLS, your PhD becomes more of an asset as you can head pretty nicely into subject specialization and collection development. A good subject specialist, we versed in library instruction, is a huge asset to both the library and the associated department.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:40 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

How difficult would it be to get a job as a librarian?

The job market for librarians is pretty bad right now. I'd think long and hard before making this choice. And whatever you do, do not go into debt for it!
posted by chez shoes at 7:40 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few thoughts from a husband of a librarian:

- An MLS degree isn't always required to get in the door but it certainly won't hurt, especially in today's job market. If you can handle a PhD in English, you can handle an MLS. There are a few universities that offer it as a primarily online course, which may or may not be your cup of tea.

- Many, many cities are essentially broke, and libraries everywhere are having their budgets slashed. This means that lots of libraries are cutting staff (or at least not hiring) right now.

- Unless you're looking for work in an academic library, be sure that you're ready to deal with the general public, including neglectful parents, homeless people, perverts, and the clinically insane. I'm not trying to dissuade you, just making sure you know what you're in for. There are lots of good librarian blogs you should skim to find out more about whether the job is right for you.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:47 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unless you're looking for work in an academic library, be sure that you're ready to deal with the general public, including neglectful parents, homeless people, perverts, and the clinically insane.

In academic libraries, these people are called "students and faculty."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:48 AM on March 26, 2009 [25 favorites]

You can jump straight from the PhD program to an MLS program, but if you've never worked at a library before, you should consider working at one in a "paraprofessional" position to make sure that the life is for you. Having library work experience under your belt can be as important as the degree in getting your first post-MLS job, and there are a few libraries (although fewer all the time) that help pay library school expenses for their employees.

What sort of library might you want to work at? At many academic libraries, librarians have some of the same responsibilities as teaching and research faculty, including a requirement to do research and publish in order to get tenure. The job market for librarians, particularly academic librarians, is pretty tight; rumours of a librarian shortage may be overstated.
posted by metaquarry at 7:50 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Although the deadline has already passed for this year, I strongly urge you to consider next year applying for the Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries for Humanists, run by CLIR.

Fellows are recent PhD recipients in the humanities (English, history, literature, even linguistics -- it's very open), and they work in academic libraries for a year or two performing a range of duties depending on the specific library. No previous library experience is required. Many fellowship recipients go on to become academic librarians, and it's a great way to (a) see if you'd like the work and (b) get your foot in the door without the 'overqualified' problem that robocopisbleeding pointed out above. The participating libraries vary per year, and the CLIR website has a lot of info on what fellows have done during their fellowship period.

I applied this year and would have definitely done it (I got a job in academia instead and decided to go for that). Feel free to mefi mail me if you have more specific questions about it.
posted by deeparch at 8:27 AM on March 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Good answers so far. Can I project my own past frustrations for a second? OK, good. Be prepared for a long and difficult job hunt, seriously. The librarian shortage did not exist earlier in this decade when ALA was trying to convince us that it did, and it continues not to exist. Also, yes, think long and hard. Please make sure you are really enthusiastic about being a librarian, not just being gainfully employed. Extra bonus if you have ideas about what exactly you want to do in libraries.

Also there are a bunch of previous AskMes on this subject that will tell you all of the above and more.
posted by clavicle at 8:28 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

An MLS is definitely necessary right now, because there are thousands of people with MLSes looking for work.

And if you can focus on multimedia/information systems/information architecture/online learning in your MLS program, that's going to make you the most competitive in terms of who's getting hired right now.

To be honest, if all you want is steady employment, there are probably better options. Remember, you'll be competing against people who really really want to be librarians, and that shows.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:39 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding deeparch's recommendation of the CLIR fellowships. The person I know who went that route has nothing but good things to say about it. And do you have any experience with text encoding or digital humanities work? If you can bring that kind of background to a library job you will be much more marketable in the coming years. Academic libraries are just starting to look into how to curate and preserve humanities data sets.
posted by MsMolly at 8:52 AM on March 26, 2009

One consequence of the tight job market: be prepared to move. Many academic librarian positions are filled through national searches, even at the entry level, and except in major metropolitan areas, public library jobs that require an MLS are not distributed very densely.
posted by metaquarry at 8:54 AM on March 26, 2009

Nthing the recommendation to get some paraprofessional work in before you embark on another degree.

I entered into librarianship without really knowing what it involved, after a honours arts degree and no clear career direction, and am bored witless of it now (I work in a corporate/law firm library, for what it's worth).

I've found that it's a job that is consistently undervalued and underrespected, and I don't feel that it challenges me very much academically or intellectually (and I know that the role i'm in is pretty challenging, as far as the industry goes). A lot of the work is administrative and procedural, and (I find) a service driven job gets pretty repetitive and frustrating after a while. And the pay, across the board, no matter what sector you work in, is rubbish comparatively to other industries that you could work in with a comparable skill set (marketing, private sector research, IT, information architecture, web design/management, hell, even the government pays better than a lot of librarian jobs). I'm sure there will be no end of librarians on here arguing the other way, but....

Oh, and if you do decide to go into librarianship, don't think that you're confined to acadmia or public libraries. There are always lots of jobs around in corporate/private sector/finance/legal libraries as well.

YMMV, but I'd try and get a feel for the profession and the work you'd be doing (as well as the job market and other concerns of that ilk) before diving into a career in libraries.
posted by shewhoeats at 10:02 AM on March 26, 2009

Another cautionary voice about the overabundance of MLS degrees right now compared to the market. I have bunches of friends who graduated from one of the top SLIS programs in the country. Almost every one of them is horribly underemployed.
posted by amelioration at 10:09 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree that you should be prepared to move. Having a PhD in English is a great asset for working in an academic library. If academia doesn't appeal to you, you may want to look at other options, because academic librarian often have faculty status, publish etc.
Options for MLS graduates include:
-Special (Government or Private Corportation
-Information Management within Government or Private sector (records and IT)
-Organizing stuff (working with taxonomies, databases, search engines) This could be anywhere, but most excitingly includes Google, Microsoft, etc.

If you are in a Library you can choose between working in the Front (with people) or the back (with the stuff and computers)

The only thing truly necessary is to get your MLS, but I agree that you should get some experience, not only to increase your chances and possible get some support, but to figure out what you are interested in. I disagree that people who work in a library before hand have an advantage. I didn't have any experience and I love being a librarian for the government. Many of my friends who had no experience are gainfully employed (in Canada)
posted by Gor-ella at 10:21 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

How to become a librarian dpends highly on where you live. I am a network tech in a library. HEre in suffol kcounty long island all librarians are civil service. so you need your mls degree. The you have to take the civil service test for librarian 1 and maybe the librarian trainee.

Once you get a grade you will be put on the list.

I am sure other counties and other states will be different. Also different school districts have different library budgets. here i nhuntington the library budget is sperate from the school budget and gets its funding seperately.

So it all depends on where you live .
posted by majortom1981 at 11:17 AM on March 26, 2009

Nthing "get some experience," preferably in a wide variety of libraries. It's no better to be an unhappy PhD than to be an unhappy PhD, MLS. Unless by "better" you mean "two years older and probably thousands more in the hole."

MLS here myself (well, MSI, technically) and I had a very difficult time (this is in the US) getting a job straight out of library school, despite various prestigious paraprofessional experiences on my resume. I wanted to work in a very specific type of academic information management and wound up working in a corporate solo library instead. Ultimately I decided that working as a librarian, per se, wasn't for me; many of my information school friends did the same.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:22 AM on March 26, 2009

IANAL - I am not a Librarian - but I have worked in libraries, and am also a humanities PhD student.

I would like to second the suggestion to try out working at some librarianish stuff (cateloguing, etc) to see if you like it. I grew up loving libraries and volunteering at libraries, but when I worked running a small library for an academic research unit (only 10,000 items, mostly reprints), I was close to pulling my hair out - the nature of the work drove me batty. I realised that while I enjoy being the user of a library, I did not really have the aptitude for real librarianship (the cateloguing, the data management, etc). I'm still working part-time at a library, but I much prefer the bits of my job which are pasting bookplates and typing up call-tags (the non-MLS work) than any cateloguing, etc, assistance I do.

But I have a friend who has moved from a PhD into an MLS and is now very happy working as a librarian. So you never know - but as someone who is already engaged in one long degree, like me, it never hurts to get a taster before embarking on another (even if it is shorter).
posted by jb at 11:33 AM on March 26, 2009

Don't know if this will help, but I'm in slightly the opposite situation -- I'm an academic librarian & have been contemplating whether it would be a good move to go for a PhD (not just for professional reasons).

As it relates to librarianship, I see many reasons for and against. With a PhD you have expertise in a subject & are ideal as a faculty liaison and collection development specialist. Then again, a PhD is not usually a requirement for being a librarian. If a second degree is required, a master's is usually enough. Also, a second graduate degree seems to be more necessary for bigger institutions where higher-level research is performed.

Definitely try and get a job in a library first. Lots of MLS students work in libraries while getting their degree: Unless you have an 'in,' the experience will be what what employers look for.
posted by onell at 11:40 AM on March 26, 2009

I know I say this everytime a librarian question comes up, but don't limit yourself to the idea of the reference librarian. Having skill sets in technology related areas, cataloging, and even the more obscure government documents and serials management can really help you get a job.

Try to get as much hands on experience you can get, even if it's just volunteer or student work, in as many different aspects of librarianship.

Even back in the day of abundant LS jobs, my classmates that wanted to go the public reference librarian route had a way harder time finding jobs than those of us that chose cataloging.

Good luck.
posted by teleri025 at 11:42 AM on March 26, 2009

Lots of good advice so far.

I echo everyone's opinion to get a bit of experience beforehand just to see if it is interesting to you. Though keep in mind, there is a big difference between being a shelver and being a liaison librarian with a huge collection budget.

Not sure if this applies so much to the US as for librarians up here in Canada, but if you do carry on down this road you might want to consider relocating to help further your career. I left Vancouver, where there are very few jobs right now, for a smaller city. But the job I am doing now is giving me much more experience than I could ever hope to get in a larger centre.

A recent management position in the library system I work at had about a half dozen applicants. If this job was in Vancouver it would have had easily 10x that.

Good luck.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 11:29 AM on March 28, 2009

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