During the past twelve years, librarianship has been my ticket to adventure. Fueled by wanderlust and a burning curiosity about libraries and locations all over the U.S., I embarked on an expedition of discovery just after receiving my MLIS. During this journey, I worked on all three coasts and gained invaluable experience in academic libraries that included community colleges and universities large and small, public and private. I have seen exemplary practices and have survived dysfunction. I have interviewed countless times and have sat on the other side of the interview table as a search committee member on many occasions. Some of the places and faces I have encountered I miss dearly. Others looked best as they shrank in my rear-view mirror. I have laughed, I have learned. I have made mistakes that I’m hoping to help you avoid.
Along those lines, in this article I will share with you a list of key considerations for academic library job-seekers. Though I have worked primarily in the capacities of reference and instruction, I have tried to include here advice that will apply to library job seekers across the board. For the most part, this article is geared towards newly graduated job-seekers. However, veterans of the job search may find a few nuggets of wisdom in this article as well. There is no hard science behind the advice I offer—just the gut instincts and insights of a vagabond librarian.
If the library’s and/or institution’s online presence is a mess, it’s quite likely that they are a mess. In addition, if the library site is not highly accessible via the institution’s site, it could be an indication of how highly (or lowly) the library is valued by administration or the campus community in general. If it takes you, an information professional, more than 30 seconds to find the library link from the homepage, it’s possible that students and faculty aren’t able to find it at all.
Faculty Status (Or Not)
Though it often comes along with a hefty amount of responsibility (e.g. to publish, present, provide academic advising, etc.) faculty status for librarians will usually equate to a better salary, better benefits, and support for professional development, etc. It also means increased access to one of your key constituent groups, as you will be serving on campus governance committees with faculty from outside the library. I have found that interacting with non-library faculty during committee meetings is one of the best opportunities to clarify the role of librarians and the mission of the library, and to market library services. Faculty status for librarians is very common at the community college level throughout the U.S. At the university level it is more common on the west coast and in the larger cities of the northeastern U.S. Regardless of location, top-tier universities often require a second master’s degree of applicants who are to be granted faculty status. (Some will even require a second master’s without offering faculty status.)
Why search all the greatest library job sites individually, when indeed.com will search them all for you simultaneously? But be wary of third-party sites that show up in your search results that reproduce job announcements for the purpose of duping you into registering for their site to initiate the application process. Doing so is likely to result in a barrage of spam. This is easily avoided by going directly to the website of the organization offering the job.
Salary ranges posted in job advertisements are typically too wide to be much reassurance. However, most state-funded institutions post their salary schedules on their own websites. Unfortunately, since each school has their own way of calculating years of experience, it may be impossible to determine which “step,” or level of experience, you would be assigned. Without that piece of the puzzle, it will be impossible to pinpoint your pay rate. If you are applying to a publicly-funded school, you may be able to find a state government or third-party website dedicated to posting the salaries of state employees, since this is usually public information.
Though this can be frustrating, salary is not typically discussed until you have received a job offer. As far as timing goes, I don’t recommend conveying a salary requirement to your potential employer unless you have been asked to do so, or if you are doing so as a counter-offer to the salary they have proposed. In my experience, the only other time you should even consider conveying a figure before you are offered a job is if you strongly suspect that they are not going to be able to afford you and you would rather not proceed with the interview process if that is the case. It’s an exception rather than the rule, but occasionally you will have the opportunity to negotiate your salary. Take the advice my first boss gave me and “never accept the first offer they put on the table.” Usually they’ll be prepared to meet you about halfway. And remember what Kenny Rogers said: “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.
I can’t emphasize the importance of this one enough. Librarians tend to be very helpful people. As such, most of us want to be as accessible to our constituents as possible. Trust me: you’ll be plenty accessible, whether you like it or not. You will also have a mountain of work to plow through, so having an office that is not within the immediate vicinity of the reference or circulation desk or any malfunctioning printers can be very helpful; preferably your own office, with a door that closes. If not, you could end up being the default reference or circulation staff member whenever coworkers abandon the desk, the printer-troubleshooter, building information guru (as in “where’s the bathroom, dude?”), and myriad other duties that may have you asking, “I got my MLIS for this?”
Administration’s grasp of information literacy
Let’s hope that the folks who work in the library know what makes libraries tick. But do the administrators and faculty outside the library also have a grasp of current issues and future directions for libraries? Most academic institutions’ websites will offer the mission statement and the learning outcomes of individual departments and/or the college in general. If these academic philosophies, which typically serve as a foundation for creating curriculum, tie critical thinking to information, discuss information literacy directly, and stress the importance of the ethical use of information, take it as a good sign. One of the things that drew me to my current position was the fact that every student at the college is required to take a librarian-led information literacy course prior to graduation. Though this level of institutional commitment is not commonplace, it has proven to be an accurate indication of how seriously my university takes information literacy.
Support for Professional Development
A healthy travel budget for conferences and release time to attend those conferences and to work on publications and presentations will be essential to you as you strive to keep up with our rapidly-evolving field and build your curriculum vitae. Be sure to ask about support for professional development during the interview process! It’s not likely that potential employers will be turned off by raising this topic. In my own experience, search committees view interviewees that raise this issue as savvy, not sassy.
Type of Institution
If you want to be a generalist, develop the collection, and teach within the context of a variety of disciplines, the community college level may be a good fit for you. Community college librarians in public service positions typically work most closely with writing students who need sources for persuasive essays. But since community colleges focus on preparing students for transfer to universities and also provide vocational certificate programs, you could be delving into any subject from aviation mechanics to botany. It’s worth noting that in certain parts of the country, community colleges pay better than state-funded four-year institutions. It is also worth considering that especially on the west coast, it’s likely that you’ll only work 9 or 10 months per year if you’re a community college librarian. Though it’s likely that you’ll be expected to continue your scholarly pursuits over the summer, you’ll be doing it from home, in your pajamas if you like!
If you are more interested in specializing in a particular subject niche of academic librarianship, such as Asian art or developmental psychology, go for a university. That way you’ll be able to relish every moment of teaching and buying resources for programs that are near and dear to you. As I mentioned previously, to specialize at this narrowly-focused level, many top-tier universities will require a second master’s degree related to your subject focus.
Landing a job will be much easier if you cast a wide net, geographically speaking. If you limit yourself to a particular city or even a particular region, it could make it challenging to land your first library gig, especially if there is a library school (or several) in that area. Be adventuresome! Go where you’re needed for a few years. Then, once you’ve gained some experience, you can be pickier about where you work and live.
Unless you are interviewing for a technical services or digital resources coordinator position, it’s likely that you will be asked to conduct a teaching presentation on a topic that is typically assigned by the search committee. This could take place via a teleconferencing platform, but it is more likely that this will take place during the on-site portion of your interview. I have found that it is safe to assume that if your presentation draws a good-sized crowd that includes students, faculty, staff, and administrators (especially those who aren’t on the library payroll), it is likely that the library has a good relationship with other campus departments, both academic and administrative. I wouldn’t disqualify a college just because your audience isn’t standing room only, but typically, the more, the merrier (the institution). Your teaching presentation is also a good time to evaluate the library classroom or other teaching facility that you may be using if instruction were to be a part of your role. In my experience, if the space, the furniture, and the technology in the classroom are adequate, it may be an indication that the instructional role of the library is valued and that the library has a healthy budget.
I’ve found that first impressions of an institution and its personnel tend to be fairly reliable. You are presenting your best side during an interview, and your prospective employer will be doing the same. If their best side is not so pretty, imagine what their worst side looks like. If the employees air dirty laundry about the institution during your interview, this could be a sign that people are honest, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it could also be a sign that there’s a lot more dirty laundry where that came from. Be wary of an organization that isn’t user-friendly and welcoming during the interview process. Are you treated as a guest, or strictly as an interviewee? Though they may be wearing a poker face to a certain extent, colleges you want to work for will welcome you warmly.
In Search of Infotopia
Though I have learned to apply some of these considerations through negative reinforcement, I am glad to say that the ideal employment scenarios I have described are also based on experience. Though no library I have encountered has embodied all of the attributes of the paradigm, some have been largely characterized by harmony, productivity, and even happiness. In pursuit of greener grass, I could keep up my vagabond lifestyle indefinitely. But I am happy to be where I am for now. And I realize that the utopian library, or infotopia, is perfect, and therefore unattainable. If we were able to attain it, there would be no need for librarians. Until then, I hope that these suggestions and considerations will lead you to the academic library job of your dreams.