This exciting and varied profession embraces public service, literature, the cutting edge of technology, and more
By Rachel Singer Gordon — Library Journal, 09/15/2009
So, you want to become a librarian? Welcome to a vibrant and exciting profession! Before leaping into a library career, though, take some time to explore your options. Learning what is involved and how librarians generally spend their time can help you determine if this is the field for you.
Perception vs. reality
While the popular perception of a librarian is of an older woman, hair in a bun, busily checking out books and shushing people all day, librarians’ actual duties, focus, and abilities are much more varied. While some still do enter the profession owing to their love of books, none of us gets to sit and read all day. Librarians’ workloads can range from creating original cataloging records for items in library collections and developing entire taxonomies to organize companies’ data to using their expert skills to answer complex reference questions. Many librarians also pursue newer career paths enabled by technology, which can range from having responsibility for implementing Web 2.0 technologies to managing an institutional repository.
A wide variety of options are open to information professionals. Beyond traditional options in public, academic, corporate, and school libraries, just about any organization in the information age needs people to shape, retrieve, and manage its information; if you think broadly about your prospects, you are able to maximize your opportunities.
If you intend to pursue a career in a traditional library, though, start by browsing the American Library Association (ALA) web site (www.ala.org) to find out about the different types of librarianship and the resources available to you from the national association. Also, be aware going in that there are several main types of libraries:
- Academic libraries are found in colleges, community colleges, and universities and may be either general or focused on one area of specialization, as in an academic health sciences or law library. Librarians’ roles in these institutions include such varied positions and tasks as working on the reference desk, teaching bibliographic instruction, cataloging incoming materials, selecting materials in particular areas, serving as faculty and departmental liaisons, and maintaining library web pages and online collections. A second subject master’s is useful (and sometimes required) in many academic positions. Academic librarians who have faculty status are often held to similar tenure and promotion requirements as other faculty, resulting in an emphasis on research, publication, and community service in addition to their day-to-day duties. Find out more at the Association of College & Research Libraries (www.acrl.org).
- Public libraries serve communities of all sizes and are distinguished by being open to all; this is what most people think of when they picture both libraries and librarians. Public libraries also employ people in multiple types of positions, which are often defined by department; you can choose a particular focus such as children’s librarianship, reference, technical services, systems librarianship, training, readers’ advisory, or collection development. Find more at the Public Library Association.
- School media centers (or school libraries) are found in K–12 institutions. Most librarians in public schools are required to have a state teacher or media certification in addition to their MLS; check your state’s requirements. Librarians in private schools may not be required to be certified, but jobs are less plentiful and pay may also be lower. School media specialists are responsible for meeting students’ informational needs and acting as instructional partners with teachers while also carrying out the functions of running school media centers on a day-to-day basis. Be sure to visit the American Association of School Librarians, or start your quest with “Have You Considered a Career as a School Librarian?”.
- Special (corporate) librariesor information centers are found in corporations and other specialized environments, although many special librarians/information specialists now work with information outside the typical library setting and have a nonlibrary job title, ranging from knowledge manager to taxonomist. Find more at the Special Libraries Association. Since special librarianship is so broad, it also encompasses a number of subgroups from medical librarians to law librarians, each with its own typical set of duties and its own association. (Find more on medical librarianship at mla.org and law librarianship at aall.org.) Any previous experience or specialized degree will help you break into one of these specialized fields; seek out the relevant association(s) for your own area of interest.
Each of these types of libraries employs librarians in multiple subspecialties. In a public or academic library, for example, you can work in areas such as reference librarianship, answering questions at the reference desk and helping people with research; systems librarianship, working with library technology; or cataloging, creating, organizing, and annotating records for library materials. This list of “real job titles” for librarians and information professionals will give you an idea of the breadth of positions out there; also keep an eye on the job ads to see what types of jobs and titles are prevalent.
Librarianship can also be a great foundation for information-related careers in general; the skills you gain are directly transferable to a number of alternative careers, such as knowledge management, data mining, or competitive intelligence. You can think about careers with related organizations; library vendors, for example, often seek people with library and technical or library and training backgrounds. Some librarians choose to strike out on their own as independent information professionals and run research, indexing, records management, database, training, or other information-related businesses. This is a move best made by those with some years of experience as a librarian, though; it takes time to build up the skills and contacts necessary to run and market your own enterprise. Find more at the Association of Independent Information Professionals (aiip.org).
Before making the leap
We each have our own mix of reasons for entering the profession, and you’ll need to determine yours. Librarians, though, tend to be passionate about their career choice—this is not usually a profession people enter for the money but rather because they feel a calling to connect people with information, they find it a dynamic and fascinating field, they have a burning need to find information about anything and everything, or they are excited about technology’s potential to transform the way we interact with information. Asked why they became a librarian, some explain:
- “I don’t really want to be a librarian in the traditional sense, but I went into the LIS degree hoping for a jane-of-all-trades, Renaissance scholar–type education. Who knows little random bits about everything? Librarians!”
- “I realized not everybody liked searching for stuff as much as I do and became a librarian to help the confused/frustrated and make access to information more user friendly.”
- “Because Jorge Luis Borges was a librarian. Also because of Rupert Giles on Buffy. I like helping people and serving my community. I love the kind of services libraries provide to their communities. I like playing with new technology.”
- “I was working in a bookstore and liked helping people find books; it was an incredibly powerful and empowering thing to do. I was also impressed by a public librarian I knew who said she didn’t know everything, but she knew how to find out anything. I find it immensely satisfying work, morally and politically—plus a lot of fun!”
- “I enjoy working with people, technology, and information. Resolving a patron’s problem by using the resources available at my library, I imagine, is comparable to what a doctor feels after saving a patient’s life, or a lawyer feels after freeing an innocent person. While at completely different levels, to the patron, their problem at that moment can be life-altering, and, like doctors and lawyers, as a librarian I can make a difference.”
- “I didn’t enjoy my brief time in business and spent so much time at the library I figured I might as well work there. I started doing informational interviews and was impressed by all the people in librarianship who love their jobs.”
- “What I love about library science is that no day is ever the same, and you learn new things every day. When doing reference, it’s all the fun of research without having to write the paper; when doing cataloging, it’s like being paid to do puzzles all day. The more I study, the more I learn about LIS, the more interesting I find it. There is no limit to the things I can learn.”
Before deciding this is the right profession for you, put that urge to find information to work. Begin by conducting some informational interviews. Talk to working librarians in different types of libraries to find out why they entered the profession, whether their initial perceptions match the reality of library work, and what they do—and enjoy doing—in their jobs. Our impulse to share information extends to sharing information on the profession itself.
Also, be sure to use the power of online community to assist in your decision. Because technology is so interwoven with librarianship, some of the most interesting conversations now occur online, and beginning your reading now will help you see if this is the profession for you and what types of issues catch your own attention. Begin by subscribing to several blogs written by working librarians to see what they have to say about the profession, their jobs, the intersections between technology and librarianship, and the field’s future. A few good places to start:
Realize the importance of getting past public perception: today, librarians need to be both comfortable and conversant with technology, which permeates nearly every aspect of the profession. Good librarians also need to possess people skills and a commitment to lifelong learning, as the profession and the expertise necessary for success are constantly changing.
Paths to the profession
Also contrary to popular perception, most professional-level librarian positions require an ALA–accredited master’s degree in library and information science (variously referred to as an MLS, MLIS, MSIS, MSLS, MA in LIS, or MS in LIS), depending on the name of the degree at the school you choose). Non-MLS positions are usually paraprofessional-level and in most libraries pay less, although some smaller or rural institutions are staffed mainly or entirely by non-MLS workers, and some of these are one-person shows. (If you find yourself in—or running!—one of these institutions without the degree or experience, consult Pam MacKellar’s The Accidental Librarian and Herbert Laundau’s The Small Public Library Survival Guide.)
While considering whether to earn the degree and/or enter the profession, keep an eye on the relevant job ads in your area to see what requirements, skills, and qualifications they tend to expect and whether the work seems appealing. (Find these ads at http://www.lisjobs.com/jobseekers/job-ads.asp.) Realize that you may need to relocate after finishing your degree in order to increase your prospects of finding a job; factor this into your decision as well. (Read more on finding a library job at “Finding a Library Job”)
New librarians take a number of paths to their degree, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Each group has unique advantages to offer the field, and librarianship only benefits by incorporating multiple perspectives and backgrounds.
You may already be working in a library and choose to go on to earn your MLS; this is one of the most common paths to the profession. If you work in an academic library at an institution with a library school, see if your university offers tuition benefits. If you work in a public or corporate library, see whether your workplace has a policy of “growing its own”; some institutions provide financial and other support to staff members earning the MLS, while others guarantee raises and/or promotions to graduates. Realize though that these financial incentives tend to come with some strings attached—your workplace may, for example, pay for you to earn a degree on the condition that you keep a certain GPA and stay with the institution a certain number of years postgraduation. Check with your human resources department for specific policies.
Working as a paraprofessional also shows you the real ins and outs of the field, letting you see whether this truly is the career for you. As Kristen Corby, head librarian, Periodicals, Arts & Recreation Division, New Orleans Public Library, points out, “It really seems like the path I happened to take is the ideal one—work for several years as a paraprofessional, make sure you really like the job, learn a lot about library procedures, then go to library school and get the ‘big picture.’ Take an internship, assistantship, or practicum in a different type of library than the one you previously worked in, to learn some new aspects.”
You may be moving to librarianship as a second career, whether you’re currently a teacher or a lawyer or a candlestick maker. The great thing about this path is that librarianship is truly a Renaissance profession: any experience and knowledge comes in handy, making the field a great midlife career change for many. You may, on the other hand, be considering entering an MLS program soon after earning your undergraduate degree. Here, you offer a fresh perspective and can capitalize on your energy and enthusiasm about librarianship as your first-choice field. In either case, you can also take the time to gain library experience before or while in school, which will help you tie your previous knowledge to the field and help you in your later job hunt.
Most aspiring librarians will need to earn their ALA-accredited MLS degree (or equivalent); the ALA provides a list of accredited programs and guidelines for choosing a school at http://ala.org/ala/educationcareers/education/accreditedprograms/index.cfm. Why the MLS? While some institutions will hire non-MLS personnel for librarian-level positions, you have a much greater chance of securing a professional position—and being paid decently—once you have the master’s degree. Your undergraduate focus is less important to your later librarian career than is earning the MLS itself, although your choice of major or minor there might help focus your later career path and provide useful background for future specialized positions. If you enter the profession as a second (or third!) career, you further enrich the field with your previous work experiences, knowledge, and skills and can draw on these in your later job search.
Some schools, such as the University of Michigan, have refocused as schools of information rather than LIS schools. If you choose to concentrate on newer information-related areas like human-computer interaction, informatics, or social computing, or if you envision using your information skills in a nontraditional career path, you might instead choose one of these programs. Those interested in using information skills in an alternative field might also worry less about ALA accreditation and investigate nonaccredited schools such as UC–Berkeley’s School of Information.
Aspiring librarians most often in the past attended the library school closest to their home to avoid having to uproot themselves and their families to relocate near a desirable program. Many schools, however, now provide distance education options that allow you to earn the MLS from anywhere. Employers are generally accepting of such options, and some explicitly appreciate the technological skills gained by graduates from online programs. (The ALA list of accredited programs notes which provide distance learning options.)
Be aware, though, that the quality of and requirements for these types of programs vary widely. Some require regular on-campus stays, while others can be completed entirely online. Some require attendance at real-time video or chat sessions, while others employ mainly asynchronous methods such as online discussion boards and email. Think about your own working and communication style when deciding between in-person and online options; choose what’s right for you. Should you opt for a distance program, benefits include your necessary mastery of online tools and heightened attention to networking and forming peer groups during school.
Once you’ve made the decision to go to library school, begin visiting school web sites and look for information on their areas of focus, course listings, admission and graduation requirements, and campus life. Request literature from several schools; look at what each has to say about the field and what and where their professors are publishing.
Use the power of online community to ferret out more “unofficial” information on library schools, learning from email lists and other online forums where students and recent grads tend to hang out. Questions about particular schools, their focus, their professors, or the quality of their distance education programs come up quite often. Join discussion lists like NEWLIB-L or nexgenlib; visit the LISjobs.com Education forums; join the Library Grrrls community on LiveJournal.
Paying for school
It’s no secret: grad school can be prohibitively expensive, and the financial return on your investment can be minimal from a less than highly paying profession. So, how do you go about paying for it all? Begin by visiting ALA’s “Financial Assistance for Library and Information Studies,” an annual directory of awards and assistance from multiple sources. Then, think about your other main possibilities for aid.
Check with the financial aid office at the school(s) at which you have been accepted. See what programs they offer: Work study? Grants? Scholarships? Be proactive about contacting them, and don’t procrastinate—you don’t want to find that all the aid for the year has already been allocated by the time you get around to asking.
Check with your state library and/or association. These often offer substantial scholarships for those intending to work in public libraries in that state for a certain period of time (generally about two years) postgraduation. Next, expand your search to national library organizations. These most often offer scholarships to those intending to specialize in particular subfields of librarianship or to members of underrepresented groups. Also be sure to search the web site of each association listed under the different types of librarianship above, as well as with those in any specialized subfield of interest. Think of this as a chance to begin exercising the research skills that will also come in handy during your library career.
You can also find scholarship listings at the LISjobs.com scholarships page. Some representative examples include:
- The MLA (Medical Library Association) Scholarship awards up to $5000 to a student who is entering a master’s program at an ALA-accredited library school, or who has yet to finish at least one half of the program’s requirements in the year following the granting of the scholarship.
- The Fritz Schwartz Serials Education Scholarship offers a $3000 scholarship to a library/information science graduate student who demonstrates excellence in scholarship and the potential for accomplishment in a serials career.
- The APALA Scholarship awards $1000 to a student of Asian or Pacific background who is enrolled, or has been accepted into a master’s or doctoral degree program in library and/or information science at an ALA-accredited library school.
Check with your employer: If you currently work in a library or at an academic institution, see what type of tuition assistance, reimbursement, or breaks are available. If you work in a corporation, see if it has a policy of providing tuition assistance for certain degrees, and be prepared to make the case for them to fund yours.
Maximizing your tenure
Library school in itself is a large investment of both time and money, but those who invest more of themselves into their programs and academic career will come out the most marketable postgraduation. Your MLS degree is the bare minimum requirement for professional-level positions. Since all the other candidates will have the same degree, your extra professional, school, and work activities give you the edge in your post-MLS job hunt. The two keys to making yourself marketable postgraduation? Get professionally involved, and get library experience.
How do you gain experience as a student?
Start by seeing if your school facilitates internships or offers a practicum experience—even if this is not required for graduation, require it of yourself. As Corby points out, “Make sure you have some real-world library experience on your résumé before you graduate, even if it is just a practicum. Newbie MLSs who come into a job with no real knowledge of actual library work take a long time to train and, in my experience, are often surprised and disillusioned about the reality of the work versus the coursework in library school.”
See whether you can work or volunteer (even part-time) in a local library while attending school. Your real-world experience will help you maximize your classroom experience and will also give you résumé fodder for your postgraduate job hunt.
How do you get professionally involved as a student?
First, join a professional association or two. ALA offers reduced rates for students, as do many state and local organizations (which are often more affordable in general). This again is preemptive preparation for your job search. As Lisa Grimm, assistant archivist, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections, PA, suggests, “Another tip I would add is to get involved in your local professional organization, even if you aren’t working yet. It’s a small field, and keeping yourself in circulation is always useful. Someone who interviewed you and liked you but gave a job to someone else may be able to introduce you to someone else who is about to post your perfect position.”
Get involved in your school’s student chapter, and look into joining groups like NMRT, ALA’s round table for students and new professionals. NMRT focuses on those those who have been ALA members less than ten years. Among its offerings: a résumé review service, conference orientations and socials, and guaranteed committee appointments.
Just making the effort to get involved while in school can translate into larger opportunities. Brian C. Gray, head of reference and engineering librarian, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, explains, “I started locally first by submitting content to my library school’s discussion list and volunteering as an officer for the SLA Student Group at my school. While in school, my Student Group involvement and name recognition from the list participation snowballed into working with the Cleveland SLA Chapter, receiving an SLA scholarship, and being selected to an SLA committee at its annual meeting.”
Getting involved also lets you feel like part of the profession and is the first step toward thinking and working like a library professional. Librarianship is a connected profession where cooperation and collaboration are paramount; become a part of that web of connections as early as possible. Realize that every connection you make factors in to your later job-hunting and professional efforts; your network is key to your success.
For more information
As befits a collaborative profession, librarians have created a number of resources to assist, inform, and inspire aspiring and new members. Here are links to just a few:
- ALA–Library Careers
- Library School FAQ
- NEWLIB-L email discussion list
- Spear, Martha J., “The Top Ten Reasons To Be a Librarian,” American Libraries, October 2002, p. 54.
[This article updates one originally published on 6/1/2005.]
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