I want to be Special!
March 28, 2011 6:09 PM   Subscribe

Help me decide whether or not to go to library school. What is it like to search for jobs and work as a (special) librarian?

I think I might maybe want to be a librarian. I've been doing general internet research, polling acquaintances, and reading other library career related AskMes, and I'm confused by the mixture of pessimism and optimism about librarian job prospects. Some sources say it's a great idea (in fact, I know a number of current and prospective students of MLIS programs), while some say forget about it! you'll get part time work at best.

Most of what I've been reading is about prospects in public and academic libraries, but from the information I've gathered so far, I'm more interested in special libraries--medical library work as described here sounds amazing to me, and I'm sure there are other cool possibilities. Archival work could also be a possibility, and one of the programs I'm considering is a dual MLIS/MAS.

I'd love to hear from some special librarians (or other folks with MLISes who do related work that's not in academic or public libraries). What is your day to day work like? How has job searching been in the last few years? Would the archival studies part of an MLIS/MAS be useful in expanding job possibilities?

Bonus question: I have good computer skills but I haven't kept up to date with web development/IT in the last few years. Could it be worth my while to spend a year in community college while I make this decision, brushing up on my IT and maybe learning some web programming? (And volunteering in libraries.) I enjoy IT and web type work, and while I don't want a career in the field, I think a research/information management-heavy job that incorporated some IT would be ideal for me.

(It might or might not be relevant that my background is a BA in English, admin experience in health and publishing, and some experience in low-level tech support. I've done a WEE bit of library volunteering and plan to do more.)
posted by equivocator to Work & Money (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
How has [Special libraries] job searching been in the last few years?

A horror show. Think long and hard before starting the degree. There is an oversupply of librarians in the market and things are bleak.
posted by mlis at 6:28 PM on March 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not a library answer, an archival answer: My mom is a public services archivist at a major Canadian university and she pretty much loves it. She gets to interact with the public (which is great except for occasionally having to teach bored first-year classes how to use the resources), handle a wide wide variety of topics through the research she helps to perform/performs, and there are so many things an archivist gets to do. Or can do. Editing journals, writing articles, being involved in historical committees, organizing historic tours of town - all things she and her work have done. The material is fascinating (you get to read people's diaries! and get paid for it! I was s much more interested in her job when she explained it that way), the work is varied and enjoyable.
posted by hepta at 6:29 PM on March 28, 2011

I'm confused by the mixture of pessimism and optimism about librarian job prospects

I can see how you might feel this way as I have been there. I am a library technician. The pessimism and optimism comes from the fact that the jobs can be few and the optimism comes from knowing that our skillset is much needed in today's information age.

My personal experience has been disgruntledness at my education not being recognized. The college I graduated from was hiring a "web librarian" and two "web library technicians" recently. Ultimately they scratched the "web librarian" because the position would have been too costly. So librarians can have trouble finding work because their degree commands more of a salary, while library techs can't find work because they don't have the education.

I meet a lot of library folks in records management circles. I would almost say that records management is the way to go - its a far more flexible career path. You can still participate in RIM with an MLS. Check out ARMA International - http://www.arma.org - for more info. There's a broad spectrum of interesting work to be found in the RIM field. I used to maintain a controlled vocabulary and loved researching topics for inclusion in the controlled vocabulary.

Lastly, if there is a library or RIM conference or society in your area, give them a shout and see if they have conferences or chapter meetings. It would give you a better feel for your local job market and great networking opportunities! Good luck with whatever you decide :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 6:50 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm an archivist, so perhaps this is grass is always greener syndrome, but it seems that librarians have a lot more job options. Not that the recession hasn't hit librarians hard or that there isn't an overabundance of people in library school or with recent degrees, but there's just a greater diversity and variety in the types of library jobs to begin with. Also entry level librarian jobs seem to pay more than entry level archival jobs (again may be grass is greener syndrome and depends upon the institution, but I also think it's at least partially due to the fact that ALA is a much stronger professional organization than SAA).

Archival work can be interesting but it can also be deadly dull, depending upon the collection. Processing (arranging and describing collections, basically "the meat and potatoes" of archival work) can get old quick for some people (myself primary among them so maybe I'm biased). For me at least, the frustrating thing about archival work as it is now practiced is that it is becoming increasingly balkanized, at least in the larger academic and government institutions that are more likely to have jobs. There are processing archivists, reference archivists, and sometimes appraisal or collections archivists. You rarely get to do it all, as hepta's Mom has. Most jobs are entry level, short-term, grant-funded (soft money) processing jobs; OK for the first couple of years out of school, a bit of a drag when that's all you can get 5 years out. Mid-level and "permanent/ non-grant funded" positions have been very thin on the ground for at least the last 4 or 5 years. Senior positions understandably require supervisory and fiduciary experience that is really difficult to acquire when you're just going from one grant funded processing position to the next. Even grant funded "Project Archivist" jobs (when available) don't usually provide the experience necessary to break through.

I could go on, but I need to wrap up and get ready for work tomorrow. Feel free to memail me if you want more details.
posted by kaybdc at 6:52 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It depends on how special you're willing to be and how geographically flexible you are. I had a short job search - about two months of active applications before I landed a gig at a corporate recruitment firm. I was *very* open-minded about what kind of context I was willing to work in (which was a good thing, because I never heard back from any of the academic gigs I applied to), while being very picky about where I wanted to live (Boston). I applied for several positions at universities but was also very broad in terms of considering research-type but non-librarian positions, think tanks, corporations, law offices, etc. It helped that I had rock-solid work experience in a corporate environment+had worked two part-time jobs while going to grad school full time, excellent computer skills (especially Excel), great references, and could point to success on a variety of projects including independent study. My current job, while not exactly where I thought I'd be two years ago when I went into grad school, is awesome; good pay, lots of autonomy, lots of flexibility in what I work on, and I get to do a little bit of everything library-wise around the office, from building a corporate library from the ground up to fixing our database to figuring out the taxonomies in use in our verticals to designing and delivering tutorials (f2f and online) for our employees.

MLIS is right, though: there absolutely is an oversupply of librarians on the market. If you are very focused on a particular context, expect to have a hard slog of applications unless you can distinguish yourself somehow (and even then....) or expect to have to move to a less-geographically-desirable area for at least a few years. My impression is that there are even fewer archival positions available, but I can't comment on them personally.

Web/computer skills are solid gold, and so is instructional design. I think you've missed the deadlines for most schools for Fall 2011 anyway, so yes, enrolling in some CC classes would be a very smart thing to do with the time between now and next app season.

Oh, and for the love of god, do not take on a lot of debt to get this degree. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't go if I didn't get a research assistantship; I did, fortunately, and the rest is history.

Feel free to memail me if you want any more info.
posted by athenasbanquet at 6:58 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got nothing but pessimism to offer you, sorry - nthing all of the "horror show" responses. I graduated with my MLIS in 2006 and have yet to work in a library. If you need to earn a living wage, and want to live in a major city, your chances of finding a job are probably pretty slim. And as for archives jobs - that's what I thought I wanted to do when I started library school. I soon learned those jobs pay around $12 an hour, yet still have people with Ph.D.'s competing for them. As others have said, records management and technology offer more possibilities.
posted by chez shoes at 7:08 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a data point, I've been out of grad school for 2 1/2 years now, and I honestly don't think I've seen enough decent archiving jobs to employ just the people I graduated with, let alone all of the other archives students that have come out since then from the many other schools that offer archives degrees.

I was extremely lucky and I have an awesome job at a nationally-recognized archive.
Very few people I graduated with can say the same.
posted by elder18 at 7:52 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a lucky medical librarian with a wonderful job at a non-profit health org. Part of my job conducting literature searches for researchers, for all kinds of health reports from bibliographies to systematic reviews. The other part of my job is maintaining the Interlibrary loans systems, and helping researchers with citation software.

What's helped me --

- Strong skills with computers, and problem solving. (I have some undergrad courses in web & computer programming, and I love working with computers.)

Most things I learned on the job but had experience with databases and citation software from university. If you end up as a solo special librarian, this will make working with any ILL or web/content management systems easier. If you are interested in management, have you also looked into distance education on (management of) library systems?

- This probably wont' help you :/ but I have a Bachelor of Science, including some physiology and biomechanics courses. Librarians with any science degree are less common. Also, some of my colleagues have moved horizontally into more research/writing positions, and also into environmental scanning work (finding out what's new in medicine and writing on it), if this interests you. Some of these coworkers don't have a science background but have a writing background.

- I got my foot in the door at a small non-profit health org. Our library department soon had funding cuts, and lost people, but my experience there helped me get my foot in the door at a larger, well-known & stable health org.

- Keep up with how to present a strong resume and do well in interviews. Networking is also a lot of work, but helpful. Medical librarianship is a relatively small field.

- Often some training/teaching/tech-support experience will help you.

I don't think the archival studies will help you, unless you are planning to work at a very specific library, like a rare books library, or a museum. Technical courses would be better.

Some places to apply to that you might not have thought of:
- Medical associations
- Medical journals like eMJA
- If there's a medical librarian association or group in your city, join it - or drop into their events and network if the subscription fees are high.
- Health Technology Assessment and systematic review organizations, where they need librarians to teach or help with searching. You're in Australia, right? Then like:
Cochrane Centres in Australia
Dept of Health & Ageing HTA
posted by SarahbytheSea at 8:20 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the answers so far! I'm trying very hard not to thread-sit but will throw in a couple of notes...

1. I do live in Australia, but I'm Canadian, and I'll be moving back home before pursuing this. That's why I haven't looked up local professional associations/conferences yet... I suspect a lot of things are different across the high seas. (But thank you for the specific links, SarahbytheSea. I'll check them out while I'm still here.)

2. I'm super, very, extra flexible about the context/type of work. Thanks for the suggestion of records management--I'll definitely look into that! And I'd be interested to hear of any other same-same-but-different possible paths.

3. Locationwise, how flexible I am will depend on some factors in my personal life, but at the least I'll be looking to stay in medium to large cities. I know that's going to limit me.
posted by equivocator at 8:34 PM on March 28, 2011

I don't know where library jobs are advertised in Canada, but I heartily recommend you start reading the ads regularly and trying to imagine where you'll fit into the market and what it will be like to compete with your classmates, not to mention all those unemployed librarians, for the very few jobs that become available. I got my MLIS many many years ago and worked out very well for me, though I don't formally work in the field anymore. However, I would not recommend librarianship to someone starting out unless they are so committed to it that they cannot imagine doing anything else. Comparing the market for librarians vs., say, accountants or nurses or teachers is sobering. Every company has accountants. Every hospital has nurses. Every school has teachers. Despite the horrible law market, every law firm still has lawyers. In contrast, jobs for special librarians and special libraries themselves are just about always in jeopardy. An alarming proportion of library literature and professional association meetings are about "how to make sure that management values your special library and does not close it soon." A library degree today is like holding a lottery ticket that may or may not pay off. Yes, a great candidate has the potential to be that shiny exceptional person that gets hired while her classmates do not, and maybe that's just the reality of many jobs today, but it sounds like an incredibly stressful premise with which to start a career. And what if you are one of the lucky few who gets hired and then that particular position just isn't what you want? I'm not trying to be discouraging if it's truly your passion and you simply must go for it. Best of luck.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:18 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a public library director and have been out of school about 10 yrs now. My archives comrades in grad school were entering a cool field, but one that was extremely competitive with lots of political shenanigans (more so than the usual). Archives are usually non-profit organizations and always seem to be under-funded despite the fact that they do cool, amazing work. This means that jobs are scarce, and good jobs are rare.

At UW we specialized fairly early - it'd be helpful to have a better grasp of your interests and skill sets before you take the leap. I knew I wanted public work and geared my courses to that goal; archives and special libraries each had their own track, as did children's services, academic libraries, and school librarians. Lots of the more specialized positions require a 2nd master's degree, from law degrees to teaching certificates. Not sure how that plays out in Canada, but I imagine it's similar.

If you can get work clerking in a library of any type, do so -- volunteering is a great start, but working the service desk at a public library or shelving government documents for 20 hours a week at the university will give you practical experience to base decisions on.

As for being optimistic or pessimistic? I have no idea what to say, other than that I love what I do, and even on bad days wouldn't trade my job for another. Jobs aren't that plentiful at the moment so you might face a tough search when you finish, but who isn't right now?
posted by hms71 at 9:21 PM on March 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

and *it* worked out very well for me, that is.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:21 PM on March 28, 2011

I'm one of those "special librarians". I've worked at a .com startup and 2 academic libraries and I also run my own web hosting thing and a bunch of web sites. I suppose my career has been relatively successful. I've had my MLS for 13 years now and have stumbled into a bunch of good things. My recommendation is don't go to library school at all, jobs are too scarce. If you do decide to go for it, go special or go hungry. We're paid more. It's just that simple. Go for records management not archives. Stay away from public libraries, the work is too chaotic. Academics don't pay what they should and that's only getting worse. I'll also echo hms71's final paragraph. I love what I do but I've carved out a really unique niche for myself. Also, the SLA conference is one big huge party, way more free booze than CLA or ALA :-)
posted by Blake at 6:39 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I probably shouldn't have gone to library school, though it's not something I have Big Regret about or anything, and I am currently employed as a professional librarian. A large percentage of the people I went to library school with do not currently work in libraries, and of those who do work in libraries, there's a significant number who are in non-professional jobs (i.e. jobs they technically didn't need to go to library school for). The people I know who specialized in archives are all underemployed.

As for medical librarianship, I'm a member of the Medical Library Association, though I'm not much like the librarian who wrote the article you link to - I'm at an academic library where I support a pharmacy school. The Vanderbilt medical library/librarians are incredibly awesome, but also kind of unusual. The stuff they do is not necessarily what most medical librarians get to do. I actually could have worked there and I sometimes wish I had gone for it, but oh well.

Like SarahbytheSea, I have an undergrad science degree (in biology), which definitely helped me get my foot in the door in medical libraries. I know health science librarians who have nursing, chemistry, and pharmacy degrees, but I also know some who have more liberal-artsy kinds of degrees.

The job market is tough, though, for all types of librarians. An M.L.S. is necessary if you want to get a job as a librarian, but it is absolutely not sufficient, and you will have to work hard to create a career.
posted by mskyle at 6:57 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

My general impression is that lots of folks want to be archivists--more than there are jobs for archivists--and this is a hard field to get into. I can't speak to special libraries.

There are definitely a lot of librarians out of work. Those who find jobs are generally geographically flexible and willing to take a job that doesn't seem perfect. If you won't move, this is NOT the field for you. That doesn't mean you won't end up someplace you really want to be. It just means it might not be your first job. Stick around in your first job for a year or two, and you'll find a lot more options after that. (Though there are also plenty of librarians who are finding the jobs they want at places they want; it's not completely hopeless.)

Some growing areas in librarianship: anything to do with digitization, digital libraries, metadata, data, scholarly communications, and electronic resources. I've heard of a few failed searches for metadada librarians of late. This reflects academic libraries more, but sometimes small units of larger library systems can function like special libraries. And the metadata and digital libraries training would be an asset for working in an archive. (I worked in an archive in library school, and while I loved the collection, I couldn't handle the dust or very slow pace.)

I wouldn't spend too much time brushing up on technology. It's not that it'd be a waste of time, it's just that you might be able to do this pretty easily while you are in school.

The most important thing is to get experience while you are in school. Choose a program where you can work part-time at a library during school--either through an internship or field experience or whatever. It'd be great to find someplace where you can work the whole time you are in school, so these librarians can be your mentors. Different schools offer different amounts of support in finding these positions, so make sure to ask about that as you look into schools.

And do make sure the school is a good fit for you. If you want to work in archives, don't go to a program where most folks while to be school media specialists, no matter how cheap or convenient that program.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:49 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another medical librarian chiming in with perhaps too much advice. Obviously I am not your job coach, etc, just a lucky librarian with many opinions.

My personal perspective is less pessimistic than most, as I got a well-paying full-time medical library job secured 1 month before finishing my MLIS. However, I was willing to move to a small town in rural upstate NY. Other library school friends have had similar luck when they've been willing to move to a small town rather than a city. Based on this small sample size, geographic mobility is key to securing a library career - or at least to securing your first professional position.

It's also worth making sure that you really, really want to be a librarian before jumping into this career. I love my job and I can't really imagine doing anything else, but it takes a lot of work to secure a good career in libraries and you need to be committed to it.

Choosing a Library School:
Some schools have medical/health specializations, like the University of Pittsburgh. Here's their curriculum for an example of some MLIS courses that might help you prepare for a career in medical libraries: http://www.ischool.pitt.edu/lis/degrees/services/health.php.

IMHO: If you decide to go to library school, I would highly recommend going in-person rather than solely online, or at least making a serious effort to be on-campus sometimes. I made valuable connections with classmates and professors, not to mention the librarians at my university, by being on-campus most of the time, attending LIS department events, lectures, etc. I also found it much easier to motivate myself to do professional development when I was surrounded by other aspiring librarians on a daily basis.

Library School:
Many people complain about the worthlessness of an MLIS degree and while many of their criticisms seem valid to me, you have to work really hard to make your MLIS valuable to you and your career goals. Treat the time you're in library school as your library apprenticeship, rather than a hoop you have to jump through.

The folks at HackLibrarySchool are full of excellent advice in this regard: http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/. In particular, the massive sprawling Google Doc that spawned HackLibSchool is full of good advice for getting the most out of library school: HackLibSchool Google Doc.

Try to investigate medical library and health information-related topics in your library school courses. For example, I researched the NIH Public Access Policy in my information policy course, studied the primary care physician shortage in government documents, and reviewed consumer health information in reference class. All of these projects can help you become someone knowledgeable about your field, which will make interviewing and interning easier.

Work/Internships during Library School:
If your financial situation allows it, try as hard as you possibly can to secure a library-related paid part-time job while you're studying. (US-specific: apply for financial aid & try to get work-study funding.) Check with the graduate student employment office at your university to see if the libraries offer library students reference assistant positions, or anything else directly relevant to a library career.

Even if you're not interested in academic libraries per se, there's a good degree of overlap in skills between health sciences and academic library work. You'll get used to searching databases, conducting reference interviews, etc. Perhaps more importantly, you may get to know the librarians by working in the library. Networking and connections are so important, especially in academic libraries. Every field has unadvertised positions and libraries are no exception. You need to talk to a lot of librarians frequently if you're going to encounter these opportunities. (I got one such job from a librarian acquaintance - it was a summer-long position & exactly what I needed.)

Get in touch with the health sciences (academic) and hospital librarians in your town. Email and very politely ask if they have 30 minutes to meet with you, show you around the library, and talk a bit about their jobs. Hopefully they'll be amenable to meeting with you. You'll learn a bit more about the job and the field, and you'll make more connections.

Job Search:
You would think that librarians would simply kick ass at searching for jobs, given our incredible searching skills...but I haven't found this to be the case. I've encountered librarians who search 1 or 2 sites and leave it at that! A thorough library job search includes national listings (like LIS Jobs & ALA), at least a few library school-provided job sites (like UTexas & Drexel), state/province/local library association job sites (like the Vermont Library Association site, Bay Area Library & Information Network), and any specialty-related job sites (like the Medical Library Association and Special Library Association sites, as well as their local off-shoots).

At least among many of my friends, motivation is the biggest problem in their job search. If you make a deal with yourself to apply within 24 hours (or whatever short time frame) after seeing a good job opportunity, you'll increase the number of apps you send and the number of chances you have.

Medical Library-Specific Tips:
Get a good medical terminology book and work through it. You'll do more effective literature searches if you have a passing familiarity with the vocabulary. I'd recommend Medical Terminology: A Short Course.

At least in the US, there are some medical library residency programs. These are post-MLS programs that offer concrete on-the-job training. Most expect some experience working in libraries (such as part-time during library school). I'm not sure about the availability of these in Canada or Australia, but here are links to the US ones I know about:

Finally, you might want to join the major medical librarians listserv to get an idea for some of the day-to-day issues medical librarians deal with. Much of the list is devoted to interlibrary loan requests, but there are useful discussion threads as well.

Best of luck!
posted by brackish.line at 7:50 AM on March 29, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I am only halfway through my MLIS program, so I'm not sure how qualified I am to answer, but like you, I am 1) also on the special libraries track and 2) not terribly picky about where I land and am pretty much open to anything. I admit I may be being hopelessly naïve, but for better or worse, I’ve always sort of approached my grad degree as a means of expanding my job skills and options, not necessarily with the goal of being a capital-L librarian.

That said, through a weird combination of factors, I lucked into a special library-ish job about a year ago. I'm a taxonomist at a market research firm (taxonomy being, in case you haven’t heard much about it, the organization and classification of information to aid in search and retrieval of that information). I read all the research the firm produces, catalog and tag and organize it all, work with clients on special projects that customize how they can view the research to best suit their needs, do lots of number tracking and cleanup and maintenance on the research database, think about long-term taxonomy strategy, etc. I like it very much and plan to stay on after finishing my degree at the end of next year. Also, since I’m basically messing around in the database’s infrastructure all day, it can be tech-heavy, and although I have amazing support from my company’s tech team, I often wish I had a better understanding of it. So that leads me to say that brushing up your tech skills would not be out of place at all, regardless of where you end up.

Something that has been helpful personally was getting a student membership to the local branch of the Special Library Association. I requested a mentor through the association, and meeting with her regularly has clued me in to a lot of different job prospects for special librarians that I didn’t even know existed. She’s a corporate librarian of about twenty years, an unapologetic generalist, and has worked in a ton of different environments (currently she is the director of a law firm library). She’s introduced me to many of her colleagues, and I've been able to chat with them as well and get even more ideas.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions. I feel like taxonomy not a super well-known or discussed aspect of librarianship, though that may be my somewhat limited experience speaking—since I've been on the job, so far I’ve only met one other taxonomist, and that happens to be my job’s predecessor.
posted by anderjen at 10:19 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have an MLIS. I was a librarian for several years (finished grad school in 2007). I'm now working for a major US university in a non-librarian capacity, utilizing graphic and web design skills that I taught myself in junior high.

I have $50k in student loan debt, mostly from my MLIS, including some associated loans to help keep me afloat with living expenses while I was taking low-paid part-time library work during my first three semesters of grad school before I found a full-time job in my last semester.

If you're looking at funded programs, you have nothing to lose. Although I'm not using my library degree to work as a librarian right now, I'm sure having a master's degree in general helped me to get my current job, ensures me a higher salary than if I just had a BA, and I learned useful skills that are now second nature, making it much easier for me to find things on the internet and do research when needed.

If you're seriously considering going in to debt to get an MLIS with the intention of finding work as a special librarian (that's what kind of librarian I was!), I couldn't possibly advise you strongly enough: do. not. do. this.
posted by booknerd at 1:59 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a FT paraprofessional with a lot of archival processing/digitization duties at a research archive at a private university, with a few semesters left until I finish my MLIS (which I've been doing PT through a totally online program).

I strongly suggest that you do whatever you can to get several months of work experience (whether internship, paraprofessional, whatever) under your belt before committing to getting an MLIS, and then continue working at that job even if it means taking longer to finish your MLIS. You need to go into it with your eyes open, and because of how completely over-saturated the field is, more work experience = stronger candidacy for jobs (or at least, that's what I'm desperately telling myself as my graduation date starts to come into view).

I think this blog should be required reading for any people who want to join the archives profession. It's not easy, and frequently demoralizing.

Feel free to MeFi mail me if you want to know more.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:32 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great answers--definitely a lot to think about!
posted by equivocator at 8:46 PM on March 30, 2011

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