Should I change my career from education to the library field?
December 15, 2012 8:03 AM   Subscribe

I am currently very unhappy in my career (education) and would like to change to a completely different career (librarian). Please advise whether this would be a smart thing to do.

I am an assistant professor at a small college with a masters and a doctorate in psychology, and I hate everything about my job--the need to entertain my students in order to get good evaluations, the work on 6-7 committees, and the large amount of administrative work. I'd love to become a librarian in a public library. However, I spent 10+ years in school to get my three degrees and have over $50,000 in debt.

Is it worth it to go into more debt to follow my dream? Are there library jobs out there, or is the library field as bad as the education field? What would I need to do in order to become a librarian? (i.e., Which degree(s) would I need?)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to work in most public libraries (either federal funded or in academia) you need an MLS (masters in library sciences) from an ALA accredited school. Some private sector jobs will settle for a B.S. in library sciences but those programs are fairly rare.

Unfortunately, from what I've been told by my partner (who worked as a cataloger in a public library for 5+ years) any librarian job that pays well also requires a lot of administration work. Some universities also require librarians to teach and to conduct research and serve on committees,etc.

I can't really say how much you will earn, because the market differs, but the public libraries here in Louisville, KY pay around 18 dollars or less an hour. Yes, this is for a full-time position that requires the MLS. My partner earned around or less than 30 grand in his cataloger job in another state. At the local university I think a tenured research librarian started around 45 grand. Obviously this will differ based on location and library funding.

Librarian jobs are also very scarce and highly competitive and experience is important for getting your foot in the door.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Previously on AskMe and worth reading: 1, 2

If you're in the US, you will minimally need an MLS/MLIS. I've been a librarian for just about a decade - there are very few jobs right now, the competition for them is stiff, and the pay is often low. DO NOT go into debt for a degree if you decide to pursue one.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:21 AM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

See also:
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:22 AM on December 15, 2012

You might look at What Color is Your Parachute? and do some of the exercises there - for instance, become acquainted with a librarian and ask for an informational interview, or see if you can shadow them for a day. Maybe several librarians.

You can look at the ALA website for information on how pursue a career in librarianship (assuming you are in the US).

Honestly, changing fields like this is going to mean 1) more debt and 2) more school for 2) probably less pay. Consider a more conservative change to a better-paying job that is more interesting to you. I imagine there are jobs where your current degrees and skills will be considered valuable - identifying those is where "Parachute" comes in.

Memail me if you want a few examples of people who have wound up in my field without necessarily having all the degrees.
posted by bunderful at 8:25 AM on December 15, 2012

The job situation for public librarians is bad. Don't believe people who tell you that a lot of librarians are retiring and so a lot of jobs are opening up; libraries are trying to get by with smaller numbers of librarians, as administrators rationalize that people can use Google and library catalogs without professional help. And libraries, like any institution that gets funded by state and local taxes, have had a hard time in this recession.

There's basically zero financial aid available from universities for MLS degrees, so you'll be going further into debt for a job that probably pays less than what you're earning now. (The median starting salary for public librarians is reportedly around $48,000, but I make less than that in an area with a pretty high cost of living. I've been a librarian for six years and I haven't even had a cost-of-living raise since 2009 -- and I find a lot of jobs advertised in the rural south for around $30,000 a year.)

Most of what I do as a librarian is:
-Teen and tween programming (I'm a YA librarian. You will have an easier time finding a job if you're willing to do YA or children's librarianship, but it can take a lot out of you.)
-Weeding books
-Customer service (including patrons who insist that their fines are wrong, that they never checked out that book...)
-Tech support, whether that's replacing the receipt paper in the self-check-out machine or giving patrons direct assistance in how to use programs
-Simple reference ("Do you have A Tale of Two Cities and where is it?"). The most common question is "Where is the bathroom?"
-Shelving books, if our budget is bad and we have to cut the hours of our part-timers.
-Policing people who are drinking soda at the computer desks, yelling on their cell phones, etc.

I don't do nearly as much as I would like of reader's advisory (most patrons don't even think that the librarian might be able to recommend them a good book, especially if they're teenagers) and in-depth reference -- again, a lot of patrons don't even realize that I might be a good resource, so they don't ask.

I actually like my job a lot! I only have to work 35 hours a week, I have a union, I have pretty good health benefits, and I usually enjoy helping people out. But it's a good job for me because I wanted a job that would leave me enough hours to pursue my writing and other hobbies, and I was willing to live on a lowish salary (for a person with a Master's degree, anyway) to make that happen. The job market is worse now than when I started out, and I definitely would be hesitant to recommend the career to someone who already had multiple degrees and a lot of school debt.
posted by Jeanne at 8:51 AM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you hate all the teaching aspects of your job, but with a doctorate in psychology, aren't there other things you could do besides teach?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love libraries and 'confused that love with the idea of becoming a librarian. Very disappointing.

The day students just wanted to be in the library to goof around/be noisy, the night school students were serious and wanted quiet time to study. Try and reconcile the two with no help from the "always online searching for a new and better job" director.
Of course it was a public jr college so all the bosses were political. Ugh! Glad I left!
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 9:18 AM on December 15, 2012

It is very, very, very hard to to find a full-time job in a public library - especially one that pays decently. As a datapoint, we see plenty of $30k (and sub-$30k) FT library jobs here in the Chicago suburbs. Also keep in mind the serious lifestyle issues: working many nights and weekends, and (at least in this metro area) ridiculous commutes, because the city doesn't hire anyone at all ever.

Anyway, just nthing everyone else. Do not go into (more) debt to become a librarian, because it will take you a hundred years to pay it off. Do not assume that you will ever find FT work at all - I know lots of folks who are still cobbling together a bunch of PT jobs, ten or fifteen years in. Definitely, definitely work in a library part time before pursuing an MLS - a lot of people find what Tullyogallaghan found - that they like libraries and hate being a librarian, which is all about customer service and being friendly to people who are really mad at you about their 10-cent fine. (And even if you love it, like I did, you may find that the combination of low pay and weird hours is enough to change your mind.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an academic librarian, and I really enjoy my job. I'm also an assistant professor on the tenure track (at about half of colleges and universities, librarians have faculty status), doing a lot of the things you're talking about, including administrative work and serving on committees. Being an academic librarian typically pays better than being a public librarian, and it's still not a lot. With the kind of debt you're talking about, I really don't recommend this field. It also might require you to move for your job, like being a professor.

With the recent recession, there have been a lot of funding cuts to libraries. A lot of new MLS graduates are looking for work. Your PhD would give you some additional meaningful qualifications if were to seek work at an academic library, but I think you'd be frustrated by how much less you'd get paid.

I would really encourage you to spend some time reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed, specifically their content on alternative careers for PhDs. You must know that to even have a tenure-track job means you've accomplished a lot more than many of your fellow graduates.

Are you sure you're not just burnt out after a busy semester?

I think librarianship, like working in a book shop, appeals to people looking for something simple and intellectual. As I said, I love my job, but it's got its own set of complications and frustrations.

Is some kind of private practice or research related to psychology an option? Good luck to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

What do you think you would like about being a public librarian? I hope it doesn't feel like we're second-guessing you but I think every librarian has met a lot of people who are attracted to the idea of librarianship but don't know very much about what the job actually entails. (Heck, a lot of us *were* that person who was attracted to librarianship but had no idea what it would actually be like.)

Like others have said, the library job market is very tight right now. Would you be willing to move for a job? How far?

I would very, very highly recommend that you work in a library before (or at a minimum *while*) you pursue an MLS, for two reasons: #1 it will help you evaluate whether you really want to be a librarian, and #2 it will make you vastly more attractive as a job candidate once you have the degree.

I'm a librarian (in higher ed, though I was considering public librarianship when I started my degree), and it took me a long time after graduating to find a librarian job even having worked in libraries for three-four years while I worked on my degree, and even with a background in the sciences (which is less common in library-land than humanities and social science degrees). And because of that job I don't get to live where I want. Lots of the people I graduated with are not working in libraries now.
posted by mskyle at 9:56 AM on December 15, 2012

I finished my MLIS in 2008. There are no jobs. Don't do it.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

A professor of mine did this, apparently without any MLS degree.
posted by yclipse at 10:13 AM on December 15, 2012

I wouldn't recommend it.

You don't technically need an MLS to work in a public library, but for most systems there's so much competition for even entry level jobs that it's probably a necessity to get your foot in the door.

You're probably not going to get funded for MLS work, and would likely be paying through loans and out-of pocket. The market seems saturated at the moment, and barring some miraculous change in economic and political climate it's going to be dire after graduating. That means more debt, more than likely.

My own work as a public librarian was immensely satisfying (often I wish I had stayed in my position and never left to get an MLS), but I never once got a cost of living raise in the ~3 years I worked there, even in a public library system which was doing comparatively well and never laid anyone off. Also, and this may just be my perspective, but I always felt as though the stuff I was doing was necessary but also a band-aid solution for a wide number of gaping wound-type problems, and that often became discouraging.

As other people have said, public libraries are currently figuring out ways to do more with less, and in staffing terms this equates to hiring part timers (often part timers who are fully accredited and desperate for work) to do full time work in a way that doesn't require paying them benefits or a full time salary.

Also, not to assume too much about you, but some people think about public library work as sitting behind a desk, reading, recommending books, and other stuff that involves the printed word. Likely the stuff you will be doing will be much closer to social work mixed with IT consulting. Helping people fill out job applications, creating guides to social services, organizing community events, using the Internet to help people with problems they can't navigate on their own, planning classes to teach these skills and so forth. You may have your dedicated patrons who come in for reader's advisory, but that's going to be a small minority of your patronage. I tended to like this aspect, but it's worth noting. The recommendations for informational interviews are good ones.

It's a great job, and a great profession, but not a great time to be entering the field. If you're really dead set on it, then try to find something that doesn't require an MLS. Some systems privilege the degree at a much lower rate than others, and I worked with many people who didn't have an MLS, so it is possible (at least in the past).
posted by codacorolla at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2012

MLIS 2007, huge student loan, no jobs. The profession is being deprofessionalized - even in universities - and public libraries don't have any money. I strongly advise you to do something else.
posted by scratch at 11:26 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have several friends who are librarians and considered doing it myself. Sometimes I still wish I had, but only because there are no full-time jobs in my field, and for librarians there are just ALMOST no jobs. hahaha! The only jobs that seem to be available at all are for those with computer skills (databases, programming, etc.) and, a few years ago anyway, children's librarian positions (that means dealing with screaming kids, not surrounding yourself with lovely kids' books). A friend who wanted to be a cataloger only got a job because she finally settled for a job that was half front desk service and half cataloging and in a town in the middle of nowhere, highlighting two of the issues: most of the jobs involve customer service, which many prospective librarians are trying to get away from; and most of the jobs that are available will involve moving somewhere you don't want to live. Oh ... and her job paid under $30k for the first couple of years, which blew my mind. How can a job that requires a master's degree pay less than $30,000 a year?

If you really can't deal with your job anymore, look into other fields that aren't such a mess. Another friend is leaving teaching and planning to get a speech therapy degree, although she's been teaching English overseas to ensure that she has no debt first (note: teaching ESL here is about as bad as trying to be a librarian). Another went to work for a textbook publisher.

I have a few thoughts about trying to reinvigorate yourself in your current position, but that's off topic, so I won't bring them up.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 12:17 PM on December 15, 2012

December '11 library school graduate here. I'm going to nth the sentiment that this is a BAD idea, especially if you have to go into debt to do it -- there really are very few available positions. A good portion of the people I graduated with have only part-time library-related jobs. And.. those that have been most successful in finding full-time library employment were willing and able to pick up their lives and move halfway across the country to fill a position. If you want a career change, I'd look elsewhere, honestly.
posted by LittleKnitting at 12:33 PM on December 15, 2012

I have an MLIS with twelve years' experience in libraries and library-related organizations and I'm unable to find work in the field (I've ended up going back into IT doing technical writing). The library jobs I do see (in my part of the world, anyway) tend to be part time or director-level.
posted by medeine at 4:06 PM on December 15, 2012

I would not get an MLIS if you want a job.
posted by ibakecake at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2012

The people I know who have come out of "library school" haven't had too much trouble finding jobs, unless they are looking for jobs in libraries. The jobs they are finding are in information management and user experience, but that doesn't sound like what you are after. If you are, your psych background would probably provide a strong entre into user experience work, particularly user research, but also interaction and information design.
posted by Good Brain at 8:35 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might try perusing the "I Need a Library Job" digest to see what kinds of jobs there are state by state (and know that there are likely a ton of people applying to each of them). It casts a pretty wide net across a wide range of library/information professional work and, even so, there's not a ton of jobs.
posted by Pryde at 12:35 PM on December 16, 2012

I work as a paraprofessional in an academic library. When I started, in 2010, I was considering librarianship as a career and planned to use this job as a springboard into the profession. Since then, our staff of professional (i.e. degreed) librarians has been cut, through a combination of layoffs and attrition, by close to 40%. One of these positions has been replaced by a paraprofessional/tech (i.e. non-degreed, probably a lower salary), and the rest are simply gone for good. I am no longer planning to go to library school.
posted by pullayup at 2:52 PM on December 16, 2012

I recently wrote a piece on this topic, for another forum.

Here is the tl;dr of that advice:
  • You haven't stated WHY you want to become a librarian. I don't think you can expect anyone to give you a reasonable answer unless you state what makes you think this is a good career choice.
  • There is no preferred educational background that will make you a better librarian. There is still a myth perpetuated on various career sites english/humanities/soft sciences are "preferred" if you want to become a librarian. This is pure poppycock. The only time an educational background is more desirable is if you intend to do subject specialization, which is mainly required in academic settings. Your degree in underwater basket weaving will have just as many transferable skills as a degree in physics.
  • As a holder of a MLIS, you are not required to work in traditional career paths such as academic or public libraries. Example: Blizzard Entertinament, a gaming company, is currently looking for a librarian/archivist. Other options are: Knowledge management, information architecture, UX designer, content producer, and about two dozen other fields you can go in with a MLIS. You don't have to work in a library or an archive to be a librarian.
  • Yes, the job market is terrible. It is also terrible in just about every other professional field. This is not unique to libraries and I get super frustrated with people who make it seem like the lack of jobs is singular in this field. I applied for 114 positions, across public, academic, corporate, and other fields before landing my current gig. I was also willing to move anywhere in the lower 48 (my husband telecommutes for his position, so that was our only restriction). Not everyone CAN move as easily as we did, but it seems a lot of the complaints about not being able to find positions is because some are stuck in a specific region or area, and the area may not have an abundance of jobs OR they are so stuck in working in a particular setting (they want to be a teen librarian), they do not seek out jobs in areas where their skills would also be valued.
  • You didn't discuss cash, but it's a big proponent in looking for a position. Librarians, as a whole, are undervalued in the pay area. I will not argue this fact. What I will argue is that for someone who is living in a high dense metro area, where the cost of living is going to be more, $45K starting is going to be peanuts where as in a lower cost of living area, $45K is hooker and blow money. Don't dismiss a job in an area just because it seems to be too low because that pay could be on target for that region.
  • I have $100K in debt from three degrees (BA, MA, MLIS). I choose to do this because knowing me, I knew that I needed to put my focus on school as previous attempts to do both at the same time meant I flunked out of class andmy work life suffered. I was prepared for the cost and I have no regrets on doing so. Not everyone is like me, so to ask "is it worth it to go into debt" is making the generalization the only way to get this degree is to incur debt. Some would argue if you're passionate about X, you'd do anyting to do X. Others would argue against that. I have friends taking a class a semester and paying it themselves while I have others who are fast tracking the program (18 months instead of 2 years) and others who are taking out loans to cover the entire thing plus cost of living. Some are doing it debt free via internships, work experience, grants, scholarships. There is no one single best use case of a correct path. Everyone is different and so are their expectations AND choices. But money to help offset costs DOES exist.
  • Which brings me up to my last point: If you decide to go this route and you want to do this for a living, be prepared to defend what you do ALL THE TIME. Example: When I saw my orthopedic surgeon for the first time earlier this year, and he asked me what I did and I told him I was a librarian, he said, “I thought libraries are dead? Everything is on Google.” Uh, what? My retort was, “Do you stop using stairs because elevators come into existence? Do you no longer have an accountant because TurboTax exists?” He got my point real quick. People are often careless and dumb, but when it comes to the life of libraries, they are downright stupid.
So, why do you want to be a librarian again?

posted by pnkrcklibrarian at 3:06 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

pnkrcklibrarian, I echo your frustration: as it turns out, full-time jobs are much more scarce in MY field (which I chose over getting an MLIS partly because of the very well-organized "DON'T GET AN MLIS; THERE ARE NO JOBS" message out there). When I looked at the "State of the Profession" report last year, the supposedly abysmal stats were actually better than for my field. :/ Haha...oh, the pain. Anyway, just pointing out that this is a great comment. (Although I would argue that my friend's >$30k salary is low period. Certain costs are higher for middle-of-nowhere positions, too.)
posted by wintersweet at 12:18 PM on December 17, 2012

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