This exciting job market can be tough to break into, but these steps to success should help along the way
By Rachel Singer Gordon — Library Journal, 09/15/2009
When hunting for your first professional library job, you will have better odds of success if you both understand what employers are looking for and have a realistic picture of the market. A successful job hunt requires gaining the skills libraries are looking for, getting yourself out there and known, connecting with opportunities, and putting your best foot forward in all of your interactions with potential employers.
The job market
Many new entrants to the library job market are frustrated by a lack of entry-level positions, particularly in desirable geographic locations (and at a desirable wage). The ongoing economic crisis is also hitting libraries just as it is other institutions, resulting in further cutbacks and restructuring. While library associations have engaged in ongoing recruitment efforts to build up a cadre of MLS-degreed professionals to replace an anticipated wave of retiring boomers, the peak of this wave is not estimated to occur until around 2015–19—and doesn’t take into account the growing trend toward later retirement as investments and pensions go south.
While any job seeker should be realistic, however, the hiring picture is not entirely as bleak as it may seem at first glance—and no more bleak than the outlook for comparable professions. Those who are willing to compromise at the outset on salary, work environment, and/or location in order to gain some all-important work experience are then able to parlay that experience into a more ideal job later. Realize that:
- Regions with one or more library schools tend to have large numbers of applicants for most entry-level positions. Libraries in desirable geographic locations can be hard to break into; those who are geographically mobile and willing to start out in smaller, less-well-paying, rural, or less popular locations will have a leg up in the job hunt.
- Any library experience is useful; those who start gaining such experience while still in school generally have better luck than those who do not.
- Professional involvement and networking is essential. As in any job hunt, who you know and the connections you forge can tip the balance.
Keep an eye on the job market by following the ads on major national sites as well as in local newsletters and job banks. This can also show you what skills and qualities employers tend to look for in entry-level positions. Library Journal’s annual Placements & Salaries feature also benchmarks salaries in various jobs for new librarians and tracks the market for the previous year’s graduates; the 2008 version actually shows jobs and salaries both to be up.
Entering the profession
As in many fields, librarianship is a profession where experience counts for a lot. To qualify for desirable full-time positions—even those advertised as entry level—most have to be willing to “start small” and gain that all-important library experience wherever possible. Flexibility is key, and that seemingly less-than-ideal position may end up taking you in an unexpectedly delightful direction. As Samantha Cordaro McCoy, local history librarian, Franklin Lakes Public Library, NJ, puts it, “Be OK with the idea that the job you may take may not be your ‘ideal’ job—but that everything you do professionally will only help build your résumé. Who knows, you may end up loving this new job. I had my heart set on working as an art librarian after graduation but found that the public library job I took ended up being my ideal job!”
Beyond being open to looking at jobs in a different type of library than your ideal, also remain open to relocating, if possible. Many of the jobs in “less desirable” locations, especially in rural and smaller communities, attract fewer candidates, yet offer tremendous experience. Valerie J. Doyle, director, Pontiac Public Library, IL, points out that
“there is no lack of entry-level jobs. There is a definite lack of people willing to take them and pay their dues, so to speak. I recently hired a youth services librarian. Great entry-level job for a new grad and many applied. When it came down to it, though, they were not willing to drive a few hours for an interview, accept a salary that was low but a decent wage for where the job was, or turned it down for other reasons…. This job would have provided someone with experience in all areas of librarianship, but no one was willing that would have been a good fit. It’s been said, but I’ll say it again—be willing to start with a job like this. They are out there. Be willing to move. You can find that perfect job where you want it after a couple of years; better than working for McDonald’s while waiting.”
The all-important library experience you gain from any job prepares you to move forward and can help you work toward your dream position. Neely Tang, public services librarian, Management Library-the Johnson School, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, suggests that new job seekers “not be afraid of trying something different.” Tang wanted academic library work but ended up accepting a business research position for a law firm, saying that, “in the end, the skills I learned at school prepared me to be effective at my job in just a few short months. That job helped me land my current position in public services at an academic institution. It just goes to show that you never know where you’ll end up or how life will get you there!”
On this note, be sure to take every opportunity, even while you are still in school, to gain pertinent experience. Volunteer, participate in internships, work in paraprofessional positions, or work part-time at a library at night while retaining your benefit-carrying day job in another field. Look at this as a long-term investment in your career as a librarian; set a goal for a year or two years in the future to reapply for more desirable full-time positions, in the libraries and locations you prefer.
Simply put, new librarians compete for desirable full-time entry-level positions with those who already have a few years’ experience in the profession. In this environment, you need to be proactive about getting the experience and skills you need to measure up.
Where to look
Most library positions are now advertised online, and the Internet should be the first (and major) resource in your job hunt. Sarah L. Johnson, webmaster of libraryjobpostings.org and reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, notes that “many employers are bypassing print publications completely in favor of online advertising venues, such as library-specific employment sites, web-based library joblines, discussion lists, and online magazine classifieds. This lets them get the word out quickly, efficiently, and frequently more cheaply. Library employers expect candidates to be comfortable with technology on the job, and this extends to the job hunt as well.”
The first place to start your online job hunt is at national job banks such as LISjobs.com and the American Library Association’s (ALA) JobLIST. If you are geographically constrained, also consult local job banks from your state library or association, nearby library schools, or local library systems, which can be found at http://www.lisjobs.com/jobseekers/state.asp. Those interested in specific types of librarianship (e.g., academic, special, law) should also bookmark specialized job banks, which are often hosted by the national association for that subfield of librarianship.
Also be sure to join—and participate on—one or more email discussion lists in your subject interest and/or geographical area. Employers often post positions to targeted lists to attract a specific type of candidate; these won’t come across your radar if you’re not professionally active online. And if employers know you from your online conversations, this can in itself give you an advantage when applying.
Librarians today have to be conversant with technology and Web 2.0 tools, which also come into play in your job hunt. Let ads come to you by subscribing to RSS feeds from sites like The Chronicle of Higher Education and following posters such as LibInfoSciJobs on Twitter. If you haven’t yet set up a newsreader for RSS feeds, take the opportunity now to do so; populate it with one or more (or all) of the resources here. When browsing job ads, look for an orange XML or RSS button on the page, right-click, choose “copy link location,” then paste that link into a reader like Bloglines. This allows you to view the newest listings from multiple sources in one centralized location.
Building your network
As with any other profession, you will find that the best way to connect with open positions is by building a network of colleagues who will look out for your best interests. You want colleagues to know you are job hunting; you want them to drop your name when someone mentions a pertinent opportunity; you want them to give you good references and forward possibilities to you. Further, not all jobs are actually posted, online or elsewhere—many are filled through word of mouth, and you want to be part of that buzz.
Membership in library associations and attendance at workshops or conferences is one of the best ways to begin building your personal network—and to demonstrate your professional commitment to potential employers. Brian C. Gray, head of reference and engineering librarian, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, says of his job hunt, “I think my key to success was showing a commitment to the profession, beyond just getting a piece of paper that said MLIS. I was already involved in several professional associations, attended workshops outside my library school, participated in professional lists, and remained focused on my desire to work with scientific information.” Conferences also often offer placement centers; you can register to get your information in front of employers and get some practice interviewing at these events.
Beyond in-person networking opportunities, remain active online. Those you interact with “virtually” are as likely to provide useful contacts as those you meet in person—but remember, you have a mutual responsibility to help others. A successful network flows both ways. Join one or more email lists in your area of interest; participate on the LISjobs.com forums; never fail to jump into the conversation if you have useful information to impart or can help answer a colleague’s question.
Realize that in the Internet era, potential employers are almost certain to Google you to see what kind of presence you have online. You need to expect this and interact online the same way you would interact in person—never expect “privacy” from an email discussion list or blog. Just as becoming active and known offline, though, can help you in your job hunt, becoming an active participant in online projects, email lists, and blogs and consistently projecting a professional and helpful persona can be tremendously helpful as well. As Gray explains, “Maximize your visibility while minimizing your chances of rejection due to others’ possible bias. For example, post on lists/forums, have a webpage or other web presence, but avoid statements that can be misjudged. Remove the drinking photos, Google your own name, etc. Everyone does or has done things that can be misinterpreted, but make sure the job-related, positive content overwhelms the bad that surfaces.”
Résumés, interviews, and cover letters: Oh, my!
When looking for your first professional position, realize that your résumé (or, for academic positions, your curriculum vita, or CV), cover letter, and interview are your chance to make a lasting impression on a potential employer. Employers do not know you or what you have to offer—all they have to go by is what you show them and how you present yourself. So, how can you best present yourself?
Résumés and CVs
Keep them professional, keep them targeted, and keep them honest. Don’t list your hobbies unless they have some direct relevance; don’t list your marital status or number of kids. Do, though, think creatively about experience that might apply. Many professional positions require skills in customer service, in project management, or in supervision that can be gained in multiple ways. Always have someone—or a couple of someones—look over your résumé or CV for grammatical errors, typos, or inconsistencies. Learn the difference between a résumé and a CV and use a CV when applying for academic jobs; find out how to structure a CV (pdf) here.
Think also about setting up an online portfolio, where you can keep an ongoing record of your accomplishments and point employers to examples of your work. This goes beyond a basic résumé, letting potential employers get a fuller view of your accomplishments. An online portfolio can also be a useful personal tool if you make a point of keeping it current; you can always refer to it to track your accomplishments or when later creating or revising a résumé. The Library Career People provide useful tips on creating an online portfolio and links to additional resources here.
The biggest mistake library candidates make with cover letters is failing to target them to the specific position for which they are applying. Never, ever send a generic cover letter. Take the time to look at the qualifications and skills requested in each job ad, then address these as specifically as possible. Focus here on what you can do for the institution, rather than on what the institution can do for you. As Jenica P. Rogers-Urbanek, collection development coordinator and technical services team leader, State University of New York at Potsdam, explains, “My biggest piece of advice to new job seekers would be to always tailor your cover letter to the position description in the ad. Nothing causes a hiring committee to lose interest faster than a generic cover letter that just lists a candidate’s work experience. We have your CV for that: use the cover letter to tell the committee why you are the perfect fit for this job, not just a job.
As with your résumé, check, double-check, and recheck for misspellings and grammatical errors: quality counts, and this is your chance to make a good first impression.
Take some time before an interview to familiarize yourself with the hiring library and its resources. Visit the building (if it’s accessible) and its web site, look at its collections, find out what programs and services it offers. Prepare to ask questions that show that you have researched the institution and can picture yourself there; if you can locate information on the publications and activities of search committee members and bring these up during the interview, even better. Have an answer ready if asked what you know about the institution or why you want to work there.
Academic interviews, especially, can be drawn-out affairs involving meals, tours, and presentations; remember that you are always “on” during this time and remain professional throughout. If you are asked to give a presentation, put sufficient time into preparation and practice prior to the interview. If you are asked to participate in a phone interview, ensure that you find quiet, uninterrupted time to do so—and take it just as seriously as an in-person interview.
Find links to sample interview questions and advice at http://www.lisjobs.com/jobseekers/search-strategies.asp. Look through these and prepare answers for common questions ahead of time so that you are not caught off guard. If asked about a skill you don’t yet possess, be honest yet enthusiastic. Colleen S. Harris, associate head, Access & Delivery Services, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, suggests that “if you don’t know something, say that. Don’t attempt to make things up (you look foolish). Say something to the effect of ‘I haven’t had the opportunity to X, but I’m a fast learner, have done (similar thing if applicable), and look forward to expanding my skill set.’”
After the interview, always take the time to send a thank you note. Most employers are now open to emailed thank-yous, letting you make a positive impression with little effort.
Avoid common mistakes
In their enthusiasm, job seekers sometimes go too far to try to land a position, while others fail to go far enough and seem to expect jobs to come to them. One common mistake: applying for just one job, then waiting. Given the length of the process and the tightness of the market, you need to cast your net as wide as possible. Apply for multiple opportunities and continue to apply until you have accepted an offer. Be open to less traditional opportunities as well; librarians can now take their skills in many directions, as every organization needs help in managing information.
Here are some other common “do’s and don’ts” that might help smooth the process.
Do: Visit the advertising library and/or its web site, make note of its programs, services, and resources, and develop intelligent talking points for an interview.
Do not: Visit the advertising library, hang out, and ask persistent questions about the job.
Do: Write a professional cover letter that specifically addresses the qualifications asked for in the ad.
Do not: Write a cutesy cover letter that fails to remain professional, or a generic cover letter that you use when applying to any position.
Do: Immediately write a nice thank you note to your interviewer or search committee members, and touch on something of interest from the interview.
Do not: Call every day to see how the process is going. (Wait several weeks postinterview, then drop a quick email to check on the position’s status.)
Your goal is to show that you are enthusiastic about the position and the institution, that you have a picture of how you will fit in, and that you are the best person to meet the library’s needs—while staying professional and not wasting their time.
What employers want
Employers most commonly look for experience, enthusiasm, and the right fit for their organization. How do you show each?
List all applicable experience on your résumé, and stress its connection to the position you’re applying for in your cover letter. Take the opportunity to play up previous experience, even if it was not in a library setting. Show how what you have done is applicable to what the library needs.
“The key to my success was showing them that not only could I be trained in the position, but that I brought skills and abilities they didn’t even know they were interested in acquiring,” Tasha Squires, former young adult librarian, Fountaindale Public Library, Bolingbrook, IL, says. “My previous work with teens really helped sell me. As librarians, so much of what we do is work with people. If you can show how past work experiences put you into contact with people and what tactics you used for problem-solving, interviewers will realize how adaptable you are, and they know how valuable that is in an employee.”
Have you worked in a bookstore? In a customer service position? Supervised others? Managed a project? Written a grant? Think broadly about all of your applicable experience, and be able to show how it relates to a particular job.
This goes hand-in-hand with tailoring your cover letter to specific ads. You need to be able to show your enthusiasm for this job and that you want to work in this institution. Even if you are feeling down or desperate about your job hunt, never let this show to employers: they don’t want a person who just wants any old job; they want a person who is excited about the opportunity to work in their library. Research the library, see what they’re doing, and focus on the pluses of the potential position.
While you should cast your net afield while job hunting, avoid applying for positions that are obviously the wrong fit. Applying for anything and everything, even if you’re unlikely to take a position if offered, wastes your energy—and wastes the employer’s time.
The right fit
While this is more intangible and varies from organization to organization, employers not only want good librarians, they want people who will be able to work with both their fellow employees and the public. The way you present yourself professionally counts for a lot—another reason to pay attention to your own words, both online and off. Don’t make the mistake of badmouthing former employers, for instance—if you talk that way about them, what would you say about the place to which you’re currently applying?
While you’re looking
The reality of the entry-level library job market today, especially if you’re less geographically mobile, means that it may take some time to find a full-time professional position. While you are looking, make every effort to keep connected, current, and positive—all of which will in turn help keep you more marketable.
Continue to keep an eye on the ads and look at the qualifications and requirements for the openings that interest you. How can you gain these qualifications? Can you take a class, volunteer at a local public library, offer to teach introductory computer workshops? Can you find a way to attend a local conference and network with others, getting your name and face in front of potential hiring managers and people who might mention you to those with authority to hire? Think of ways to expand your résumé and show your professional commitment, perhaps by writing an article for publication or volunteering for a professional association committee. Any work you do now will prepare you for that next dream job. By seeing what employers are looking for now, you can qualify for future postings.
John Glover, reference librarian for the humanities, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, suggests that you “don’t measure the speed or difficulty of your job search against your fellow MLIS grads’. Some people get jobs right out of school, and some people don’t land one for a year or more. There are many reasons for this, and many of them you can’t control at this stage in your career, so be flexible and prepared to wait for a while if you have to.”
Try not to get discouraged by the concerns of others who have had difficulty finding employment. It is all too easy to get sucked into a spiral of negativity, but it is much more productive to look at what seems to make the difference for those who are getting positions, then find ways to emulate their success.
Find out more
As befits a collaborative profession, librarians have created a number of resources to help their colleagues with their own job hunts. Here, just a few freely available links.
- Bloom, Leah Massar, “Five Tips To Stand Out,” Library Journal 9/15/08.
- Edmonson, Emily (pseud.), “Checking Out Her Options,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30, 2004.
- Edmonson, Emily (pseud.), “Raising My Standards,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 2005.
- Farkas, Meredith, “The Job Hunt: What I Learned.”
- Taylor, Lisa, “How To Find That First Job: Tips and Techniques for LIS Students,” Info Career Trends January 2001.
- Wilcox, Matt, “Why I Won’t Hire You,” LISCareer.com, December 2004:
[This article updates an article originally published on 6/1/2005. For additional job advice from Gordon, see also How To Become a Librarian.]
Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What’s the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and consulting editor, ITI Books
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