A kind reader forwarded a listserv conversation about moving from public to academic libraries. It seems some public librarian out there would like to make the transition, but has heard it’s difficult.
Many thoughts spring to mind when I see this question. First of all, does anyone ever try to go the opposite route? I’ve seen and heard discussions for years about librarians wanting to move from public to academic libraries, but never the other way around. I don’t know of any academic librarians who’d want to work in a public library.
Why might that be? For most of the public, for a large portion of the profession, and for groups like the ALA, public libraries are the only libraries that exist. That odd belief is behind any grandiose statements about the importance of libraries, or, worse, The Library. “The Library provides something for everyone. The Library is the cornerstone of Democracy. The Library is Blah Blah Blah because Everyone Can Use It.”
I guess technically everyone can use my library, but people usually don’t stumble in from the street to search for porn, play online games, or listen to storytime.
Shouldn’t all librarians aspire to participate in the noble traditions of the public library? If one is lucky enough to procure a position in one, why would you want to leave? Aren’t you betraying democracy or something?
The answers are obvious for a lot of us. I wouldn’t want to work in a public library. For one, I don’t want to help the general public do whatever it is they do in the library. I like making sure students and faculty can do academic research, because when I do any research that’s the kind I do.
It’s nice to know there’s somewhere people can go for help finding information, but I don’t really want to be the person helping people to find recipes or learn to use Word or set up a Facebook account or whatever it is librarians help the general public with.
Then there’s the job satisfaction. At least at first glance, this study seems to indicate that academic librarians are generally satisfied with their jobs. That seems about right to me. A lot of academic librarians have job security through tenure. They tend to make more money. They work with relatively smart people. The average faculty member might be eccentric or odd in some way, but not in the way as the crazies who sometimes infest public libraries.
That’s another thing, the crazies, the homeless, the rude and teeming public. Academic librarians tend not to see as much of this as public librarians. I hope we’re not supposed to feel bad about this, because I don’t. The librarians who I read and hear complaining the most bitterly about library patrons are public librarians. Is that why some librarians want to become academic librarians – to escape the crazies?
So why do people become public librarians at all? Partly, it might be a sense of idealism, perhaps drummed into them in library school. The Library. Democracy. Intellectual Freedom. Etc. That idealism seems to be based on a reality that has never existed, as new librarians often find. Maybe it’s the idealistic ones who realize they’ve been lied to, and now they want out.
I guess it could be a difference in interests. Usually academic librarians have some sort of scholarly interests, usually at the dilettante level, which isn’t necessarily a drawback for a librarian. And many of them have to write articles or books to keep their jobs or get promoted. Some librarians would consider that a burden.
So if you don’t like to write, public libraries are preferable. Or if you spend all your free time reading genre fiction or playing videogames, you might prefer a public library where you can put that experience to work for you. And certainly if you like working with children.
Still, I notice almost no one wants to move from academic to public libraries, but I’m not sure what one does to move the other way. The libraries seem like two different cultures that share a basic vocabulary but not much else. Outside of technical work, do the two have anything in common? It doesn’t seem to me that experience in one is preparation for work in the other.
Take reference work for example. Though both public and academic libraries have reference librarians, they don’t necessarily do the same things. Theoretically, the public librarians should be broader in their knowledge because they have to deal with a greater diversity of questions. On the other hand, academic librarians tend to have better resources and subject specialists that most public libraries couldn’t afford even if they needed them, which they don’t.
I guess there are those academic librarians who think librarianship is all about social media, like some public librarians, but those librarians tend to dumb down the discourse in academic libraries, either that or they’re relatively new librarians who don’t know much about the profession and stick to stuff most people can learn easily.
I’m not much at dispensing advice, but if someone asked me how to move from public to academic libraries, I’d suggest doing the things academic librarians do. Get another degree. Study languages. Write some bad case studies of library activities. Speak at conferences. That kind of thing.
Or you could get an LIS PhD and teach in a library school. The hours are better and jobs are a lot easier to get.
Or you could just uphold democracy and intellectual freedom and all that jazz and stay in public libraries. The crazies might miss you.