Career switch to librarianship
October 7, 2011 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Is librarianship right for me?

I'm a mess, and I need objective advice on what the heck to do with my life.

Here's my backstory:

I have a Bachelor's degree in nursing. Throughout college, I had a lot of doubts about the nursing profession being right for me, but I pushed through, mainly because I was terrified of failing. After graduating, I had a hard time getting a job, and so jumped at the first offer I received (from a rehab/long term care facility).

Needless to say, I quit this job before finishing orientation because: 1) I finally admitted to myself that I had no passion for nursing, 2) I was really overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility, and 3) my gut was screaming, "GET OUT NOW." I spent two months moping, then decided to attend massage school, which I finished in August. However, in the short time I've been practicing as a massage therapist, I've realized that I don't have the entrepreneurial spirit to build a steady clientele, nor do I want to work hands-on in health care in any capacity.

At the moment, I'm working as a massage therapist one day a week while I take some time to figure out a career path that would utilize my strengths and abilities. I have always been drawn to the humanities, but my mom discouraged me from pursuing a career in the arts because it didn't seem practical or profitable. But if I hadn't been a nursing major, I would definitely have been an English major. My favorite courses in college were the writing-intensive courses, and I just adore literature.

Which leads me to...
I am currently considering librarianship as my future career, as the idea of acting as a link to information resonates with me much more than using scientific/clinical knowledge and skills at the the bedside. While I would be open to incorporating my nursing background in some way, I think I would rather do something completely different, like youth services librarianship. I've already applied to volunteer at a local library, and I'm also going to reach out to a few school librarians in the area to find out if I can shadow for a day.

So my question is, how else can I test the waters to see if librarianship is right for me? Any suggestions or words of caution?

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by constellations to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read the past questions about whether to pursue an MLS?

As far as testing the waters, volunteering at a public library or shadowing a school librarian is the way to go to get a feel for whether this is something you would like doing. Then ask the librarians you are working with what the future holds for their field, and how many applicants they had for their last job search. I'm sorry to tell you that funding for public, school, and academic libraries (perhaps with the exception of private institutions) is plummeting, and that the supply of qualified librarians far outweighs the demands.

If you decide to pursue an MLS anyways: I know you say you would rather do something different, like youth services librarianship, but frankly your nursing background will be an edge that not many other job candidates will have, and being open to a career as a science librarian, hospital librarian, or other special librarian will likely give you much better job prospects.

I don't mean to rain on your parade, and it's good that you're asking these questions and thinking ahead to possible challenges and whether this career is a good fit for you or not. In a lot of regards, librarianship, like many other things, is what you make of it, and if you commit to a good program, bust your ass to make opportunities for yourself, network like crazy, and be open to moving to just about any locale for a job (meaning, not wanting to stay in your hometown), you might be able to make it work. But that doesn't take away from the fact that there are a lot of people who haven't been able to make it work, including many of my talented, intelligent, capable friends, who are now not only unemployed but saddled with a lot of debt from their MLS programs as well.
posted by stellaluna at 12:47 PM on October 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

how else can I test the waters to see if librarianship is right for me?

For comparison, see if there are volunteer positions open in any special or academic libraries in your area.

Any suggestions or words of caution?

If you are in the US, there are very few jobs available right now - especially at the entry level. I don't think anyone knows when or if this is going to change.

ALA has been saying for over a decade now that a librarian shortage is looming - don't believe them. Many of these jobs are being eliminated or given to cheaper paraprofessionals.

Also, responsibility and a form of entrepreneurial spirit are key for professional success in public libraries, especially if you eventually find yourself in management. You may need to manage a staff, and will definitely have to help make the library useful and relevant to your community - a moving target - usually without a lot of (or any) money and often with your attention divided. This is not optional, as budget cuts are always looming, and in many places the days when the library being funded was a given are over. Working with the public can also obviously be taxing and dispiriting.

Don't overlook the fact that librarianship is first and foremost a technical service profession, and involves a lot of fairly rote work for people who are not always appreciative.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:49 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree with ryanshepard & stellaluna. Have you soncsidered medical informatics or healthcare informatics?
posted by pointystick at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2011

I know a *lot* of librarians and I would offer the same cautions that everyone else has already covered: there aren't a lot of librarian jobs right now. There are a lot more people getting degrees than there are jobs for them.

Think carefully about whether the cost and time is worth it for you.
posted by ged at 12:56 PM on October 7, 2011

I definitely think you should do some shadowing before you commit to going to library school or anything. One thing about librarianship is that, in almost all types of job, there is a huge customer-service component. "Adoring" literature is nice, but in pretty much any library job I can think of librarianship isn't really about literature, it's mostly about people. And not necessarily people who like books.

What is it exactly that you think you would like about being a librarian?

Also: any chance you could get a paid non-librarian job and work in a library full or part time for a while?
posted by mskyle at 12:57 PM on October 7, 2011

As one of the umpteen thousand unemployed MLIS holders, I say don't do it. (Or if you still really, really want to, don't go into debt for it.)
posted by Daily Alice at 1:14 PM on October 7, 2011

I interview people for library jobs.

People who tell me they want to work in a library because they love books and/or reading are far, far less likely to get the job than people who tell me they want to work in a library because they like to help people.
posted by box at 1:40 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who has responded. You've all given me some food for thought, and I really appreciate your input.

pointystick - I have considered health care informatics, but I've been reluctant to pursue it further because I feel I lack the practical nursing experience necessary to be successful in the field.

mskyle - Good question. As a nurse and massage therapist, I've learned that I really enjoy interacting with people and answering their questions, but I hate working in such a stressful, high-pressure environment; I feel like being a librarian would fulfill my desire to help people in a way that is not quite as draining as nursing. I also think I would enjoy the cataloging/classifying aspect of the work - it fits my compulsive need to have things in the right place.

box - Good to know.
posted by constellations at 1:41 PM on October 7, 2011

Nthing the sentiment that there's way more supply than demand right now.

Nthing what others are saying about loving books/literature. That's borderline-irrelevant.

Youth/children's librarianship may actually be a good niche to focus on.

Are you willing to relocate anywhere?
posted by Angus Jung at 1:44 PM on October 7, 2011

I would not encourage anyone to go to library school right now due to the job market. I am gainfully employed in the field and count my lucky stars every single day. I do enjoy working in the field and the work is rewarding in some ways, but there are a ton of drawbacks, too (low pay, zero job security, limited opportunities for advancement, etc.). If I had known how things would be now when I had been deciding whether to commit to my library grad program, I would not have gone, and would have channeled my time, effort, and hard-earned money toward a different plan that might have prepared me for a more stable, sustainable career with more room for growth.
posted by anonnymoose at 1:49 PM on October 7, 2011

I have considered health care informatics, but I've been reluctant to pursue it further because I feel I lack the practical nursing experience necessary to be successful in the field.

There are so few people with a science/health care background that a medical library would probably love to have someone with your background. That is, of course, if you can find one that is hiring, because what everyone is saying about lack of job openings is so true.
posted by kyla at 1:53 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in library school right now, and I work at a medical library. I feel positive about my career prospects, but mostly because I have a significant amount of work experience in this field already--it's much harder to get a library job without experience, so if you pursue this, be sure to volunteer or do a practicum.

There are so many interesting jobs in healthcare out there, I feel like you should dig to see what you can do that merges your love of providing information and helping people. Working in a library is one way to do this, of course, but it's certainly not the only career that lets you do those things. Have you thought about becoming a patient liaison?

The medical informatics idea that somebody mentioned upthread is a good one, and you may also want to look into Masters of Public Health programs.
posted by zoetrope at 1:56 PM on October 7, 2011

You don't need any practical nursing experience to be in health informatics. I'm a doctoral student in the field, and I've never been a nurse, or worked in health care. I am even funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research. It's completely possible for you to do medical informatics. Your BN in nursing is a great start.

If you're interested in programs in the field, you might want to check out this list: Informatics Degree Programs, maintained by a faculty member* at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science. The list is updated every 2 years. It contains programs in bioinformatics, nursing, public health, medical informatics... and more.

*[Disclaimer: I work with this faculty member.]
posted by k8lin at 2:04 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Librarianship can absolutely be a "stressful, high-pressure environment."

Not as bad as nursing, I know -- even on the worst day, lives usually aren't at stake (but ask me about that time I was working the desk, alone, and a patron fell into a diabetic coma. And then while I was calling 911 someone asked me where the audiobooks were.) But you will get into arguments with people who swear that they shouldn't owe money on that book, or should be allowed to check out books anyway. You will get into arguments with people who expect you to magically make a book appear because they need it for an assignment that's due tomorrow. You will catch people masturbating to internet pornography.

I have cried five out of the last six Fridays because the atmosphere at work was too intense. No lie.

I love the work, but sometimes public librarianship -- if you're interested in youth services, it probably will be public librarianship -- has all the worst aspects of working in retail.
posted by Jeanne at 2:12 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just finished my MLS and in nearly 6 months I've had one interview. The last rejection notice I received stated that they received 140 applications. This is the reality.
posted by waitingtoderail at 5:14 PM on October 7, 2011

I would recommend that you talk seriously with the librarians that you reach out to. I also recommend that you talk to recent MLIS grads. Sometimes, librarians who have been at one job for twenty plus years completely fail to understand the current job market; conversely, recent grads have a weaker grasp on what the job is and what it can change into over time.

Depending on the state, school librarians (those who handle K-12) are being moved back to the classroom or laid off so be aware of that; it's also not uncommon for school librarians to either lack the MLIS entirely or completely opposite spectrum, be a teacher-librarian with both teaching credential *and* MLIS. You don't list a teaching credential among your list up there so you'd potentially have to consider that were you to go down the path of school librarianship in some states. That's assuming there's a job to be had, of course, which is a terrible assumption in a market where they're laying off teachers let alone staff.

Youth librarianship (children and/or YA) is typically an entry-level position in public libraries and therefore in high demand right now. It's also incredibly demanding, draining, and way too much like social work (in my admittedly biased opinion). Oh, I take that back: sometimes it's like social work and sometimes it's like babysitting. Story time can be fun (especially if you have any flair for acting) but requires a fair bit of prep if you're new. Reference questions tend to be along the line of 'I want to get on the computer' or 'Can I check out the latest Wimpy Kid book?' I worked within a centralized system when I did my short public library stint, so all I know about cataloging is that it was typically not performed at the branch libraries at all. It is extremely unlikely that you would be a youth librarian cataloger.

Informatics and especially health informatics are growth areas in information science. If you have any interest, given your nursing background, I would strongly urge that you think about that as a potential path. Whether you take the MLIS path recommended above or another path to it, it sure seems like a smarter move than traditional librarianship. Definitely look at MLA and SLA if you are interested at all in that area.

If you do decide to go down this difficult path, I would highly recommend that you get a job as a copy cataloger (paraprofessional--you'd be qualified right now for such a job) ideally in an academic library at a university which has a library school and offers tuition remission (that part's important). Then you combine a number of important factors: on the job experience in a potentially relevant area to your interests, crucial resume boosts for that all important post-MLIS job hunt, the potential to be an internal hire post-MLIS if you and the job like each other, and the chance to get a low cost MLIS.

I find it very difficult to recommend that you get an MLIS with any other set up given your current lukewarm feelings about it. Forgive me for being blunt, but you seem to be searching for the answer and hoping that librarianship is it. The best librarians I know went into the career knowing they wanted it badly. You're not there yet, so if you decide to go down this path, why not also take a paying job in the library and see how things shake out?
posted by librarylis at 7:20 PM on October 7, 2011

"My favorite courses in college were the writing-intensive courses, and I just adore literature."
Have you considered being an author? You could try writing some stories and seeing if you can get any published. Might as well add to the field of literature. /yet another unemployed librarian
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:09 PM on October 7, 2011

Best answer: constellations, you can test the waters! Most libraries entertain the possibility of internships and / or volunteer experiences in the short term. And a para-professional position might give you the overview of working in a library while still being employed. So unlike some of the above posters, I would encourage you to try the profession and kick the tires.

Most librarians come from humanities backgrounds; that set of skills is to a degree saturated on the market right now - depending on where you are looking for work. If you are willing to relocate anywhere then you will find many more opportunities for professional employment. If that is what is attracting you to the profession you may want to explore but it is going to be a much more difficult path without even more training - i.e. a second master's degree in a humanities, teaching experience, programming experience.

However having an health / nursing undergrad degree would be a great asset in applying for a medical librarian position or a biology/nursing liaison position in an academic library. That doesn't seem to be where your passion is at right now, but you may want to explore that area. In a recent search for just such a position, zero applicants (0) had nursing degrees. Clearly if you had applied you might have gotten an interview - just based on your paper qualifications. Of course, what you are qualified to do and what you have a burning desire to do may be two different things and you seem to have prepared yourself for a profession that you don't enjoy. Bringing your desires and your competencies into alignment seems to be what you are seeking. The most successful librarians are both qualified and passionate.
posted by mfoight at 5:51 AM on October 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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