Reference librarian wants to shelve
December 5, 2019 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Long ago, I shelved books for a living. Then I became a librarian. The stress of public service has been amping up some longtime mental health struggles and I would love to return to the straightforward task of shelving books for a living. How can I convince a library to hire me when I am way overqualified?

For some context, I've been a public reference librarian for years. Lately, as the fraying of society has worsened, the job has gotten tougher. Also, thanks to menopause and some other life circumstances and mental health issues, I can't foresee myself jumping through the hoops necessary to change professional careers. I need something that is straightforward and that I am capable of doing no matter how shitty I'm feeling.

I am always so envious of our shelvers. We have people who have been doing it for decades. They are mostly quiet and very introverted. Libraries are good places to work, generally speaking. We have several public libraries in my city. How do I approach getting a job as a shelver? What do I say in my cover letter? I've thought about starting as a volunteer, but that is something I would only have the energy for (in addition to my current fulltime job) only if it's possible that I would ever be hired there.

I know that shelving can be physically grueling. But it's the kind of grueling I feel that I can handle.

I know there are a lot of library people on Metafilter. If any of you were to see an applicant like me in your pile, is there anything that would make you consider it?
posted by cat friend to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Volunteer at a school library, maybe.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 2:20 PM on December 5, 2019

The general advice I've heard for this kind of "downward" career move is that you need to tell a really frank and compelling story about why you're doing it — otherwise the assumption will be either "this person has suddenly and catastrophically burnt all of their bridges at once" or "this person is in a temporary pickle and is going to flake the minute they get out of it."

I don't think you have to talk about mental health. (In fact, I don't necessarily think you should, since that might unfairly bring up the "temporary pickle" assumption: "oh, they're having a breakdown, but surely once they relax they'll go back to their old career.")

But I think you need to make it clear that this isn't something you're doing on a weird whim. If you can talk about this as more compatible with your long-term goals and commitments, or as fitting your ideals about librarianship better than what you do at the reference desk, or as a kind of partial retirement, that will give them some kind of story to fit you into other than "fuckup" or "flake."
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:37 PM on December 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Are you able to spend some time each week shelving? I love to jump in and shelve when they're short-staffed; gives me a reprieve from my typical work.

If not/if that's not enough: I hire shelvers and librarians, and I'd want to read why you're interested in a switch in your cover letter.
posted by sugarbomb at 2:52 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Consider searching for jobs in book depositories in your neck of the woods. Legit library job, lots of shelving, but virtually no contact with the public (though "shelving" at the one I worked for involved a scissor lift and you had to wear a safety harness). Might also also offer opprotunities to branch out into archives, if that sounds interesting to you.
posted by pullayup at 3:54 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Does your library have someone doing shelf reading? This is a task most dislike but it’s so important and might scratch the itch for you. Plus it can be done anytime, whereas shelving it more time-sensitive as well as physical.
posted by Riverine at 4:26 PM on December 5, 2019

Could you step sideways into archives or records management? Or a non-public library job? I temped once for internal circulation and accessioning (and shelving) at a TV station. I interacted with staff borrowing things for research, but virtually no one else.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:54 PM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

We have several public libraries in my city.

Curious about this: are they all part of one system or independent libraries? Only asking because you'd probably be applying to the one system and not to individual libraries. However if you live in a big city which also has suburbs around it, those may all have individual libraries.

The reason I ask is because it's really only the largest systems who pay shelvers anything that would be considered a reasonable wage. I assume you know this, but just putting it out there. Is it possible you could do something that is tech services related (dealing with processing incoming books which is similar to shelving) which might have more of a career path attached to it so the idea of starting at the bottom would seem like a more natural direction?

And I hear you about why this is what you want to do. I agree with other people that some kind of records management might be a lateral move which didn't also have people asking questions you might not want to answer, and could make use if the experience you already have while still meeting your criteria for being a straightforward job you could do at any energy level.

Also some of this may depend on how much it's important to have paying work as opposed to fulfilling work. For example in my community there is a really active Friends group who selects and curates books for the library book sale shop. Does not pay, but might hit all your other buttons (apologies for presuming you might not need to get paid but if you were out on disability this could be a thing you could do to cross-train).

And, as a last option, you might be able to talk to HR at your current job that you no longer feel up for reference work but would like to stay within the system but have some accommodations you'd need and ask if this might be a possibility. If you've been a good employee they might find a way to accommodate you.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

The cataloguer in my library did this by requesting a demotion in our library. She became one of our pages. Have you talked with your own library about continuing to work there but in this role?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:56 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cataloguing is a nice, solitary occupation. I would go back to doing that with great happiness.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:02 AM on December 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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