March 17, 2018

Career Tips from the Trenches

Four featured graduates describe the transition to working careers

In This Article:

Advice for Career Builders

By Nicole E. Brown — Class of 2004

There Is Work To Be Done

By Deborah Lilton — Class of 2006

With Advocacy and Collaboration

By Dalena Hunter — Class of 2007

Making the Most of It

By Kristin Centanni — Class of 2008

The four recent MLIS graduates who report below on their transition to careers in libraries and information and offer tips to new librarians tell stories of challenge, collaboration, and change. Each one represents a different graduating class, and each was profiled in an LJ Placements & Salaries feature. It is heartening to read their brief accounts, which reveal the richness of a library and information career and the solid values upon which it is built. The best LIS programs teach these early stages of career-building where practice validates the core values and ideals of our profession. They also teach the need for collaboration and the reinforcement that comes from constant contact with practicing colleagues.

Breaking in

I landed my own first job as a librarian even before I had earned an MLS. It convinced me that I had found a career, but it was in library school that I learned the fundamental principles of librarianship. I was appointed Youth/Reference Librarian at the Reading Public Library in Massachusetts. The librarian there, Joseph Schmuch, was a refugee from Classics Studies at Maine’s Bowdoin College and had found librarianship. He knew that I wouldn’t find a career in either American history or political science, my undergraduate majors, so he convinced me to enroll in the the School of Library Science at Simmons College in Boston.

The memories of that first job before and after I had been indoctrinated into the library profession by the Simmons faculty have faded, but the memory of how studying for the MLS changed my value system remains strong. The Simmons faculty buttressed my belief in the importance of free access to information and, ultimately, converted me to the liberalism that believes securing and protecting the right of the people to free expression is one of the most important jobs of government. That job includes the support and nurture of an agency with a strong mandate to work to inform democratic self-government. Working in that little public library in Reading validated these deals. The professionals who mentored me and the colleagues with whom I constantly discussed the work made the career a challenging, entertaining, and joyous one.

The reports of these more recent graduates and their tips for new librarians clearly show that our values continue to be affirmed as we grow in our profession.

— John N. Berry III, Editor-at-Large, LJ, and a not-so-recent LIS grad

Nicole BrownAdvice for Career Builders

By Nicole E. Brown — Class of 2004

When I represented the Class of 2004, I had just finished my first year as an instruction librarian at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, after graduating from the School of Information and Library Science at Pratt Institute in New York. At that time my advice to new LIS graduates was to get as much experience as you can and to find yourself a mentor. Now, seven years later, I realize that my outlook has enabled me to become a specialist in academic library instruction. That’s my passion, and I suggest you find and follow yours.

Remember why you became a librarian

I first became a public services librarian because it combines helping people, teaching, and learning in a way that no other career does. A clear vision will lead you to positions that best match your outlook, values, and skill set. Having a direction for your career will also help you to inspire and motivate colleagues to be part of your professional journey, which makes being a librarian fun and interesting. Because a career is a process, not an endpoint, your vision will change with experience. What’s important is that you can articulate that vision.

Find a mentor

Having worked as a student assistant, a reference assistant, and a librarian trainee, I have a deep appreciation for mentoring. Apprentice-type relationships taught me how to be an academic librarian. Great mentors do not necessarily have to be in your area of specialization. I still have a fantastic mentor from my days at AUC, Alison Armstrong, who shares my area of expertise, but another excellent mentor is Dawn Lawson, the East Asian Librarian at New York University (NYU). Reach out to professionals whom you admire and feel comfortable with. All you have to do is ask; initiative goes a long way.

Share your perspective

This is an applied field, so share your stories. If you think you have a good idea, you probably do! If you thought you had one and it failed, that is worth sharing, too. Librarians value the exchange of ideas. They also have a unique perspective because they understand the needs and habits of their users and act as advocates for them. So, keep your eye out for a wide range of opportunities: update your RSS reader and take note of upcoming conferences and events, even if they aren’t directed specifically toward librarians. If you are not comfortable presenting, then focus on listening. Attend as many conferences as you can so that you can watch and learn. Take notes about what good presenters do; read Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen to learn how to make beautiful, visual presentations; read Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath to learn how to tell compelling ­stories.

An MLIS does not mean you’re finished

Yes, the degree technically makes you a librarian, but you will learn more on the job. In addition, our profession is interdisciplinary, and staying current means reading widely outside of the library literature. If you’re charged with designing classes or courses, read Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences on course design principles. If you are working on or leading teams, read Lee Bollinger’s The Four Frames of Leadership to get a sense of the different ways that people conceive of leadership. If you’re curious about how organizations work, read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline to understand what it takes to create a learning organization. Reading broadly will help you to generate new ideas and connect with your colleagues and your users.

Be collaborative

If I could give just one tip, this would be it: to be a successful librarian, you will need to work outside of your department, outside of your library, and, at times, outside of your comfort zone. As librarians, we promote information literacy and work to create an informed citizenry. These goals are too immense to achieve alone. I’ve worked with writing centers, archivists, teaching centers, faculty members, and campuswide committees. Your career will also be about bringing people together and working toward shared goals.

The 2005 LJ profile described me as “energized” and “excited” about my career. I still am. I’m dedicated to teaching information literacy and participate in a wide range of professional activities. I intend to remain an engaged and enthusiastic librarian for many years to come!

For a year Nicole Brown has been working as Adjunct Instructional Services Librarian at New York University. Prior to that she was Instruction Coordinator & Reference Librarian at Emerson College, Boston, and Instruction & Reference Librarian at the American University in Cairo. “If you want to mention that I’m currently looking for my next full-time position, feel free!” she says.

Deborah Lilton

There Is Work To Be Done

By Deborah Lilton — Class of 2006

If you are in library school right now, you are preparing to rise to the challenge and reinvent the library not just in a physical sense but in a mythic sense as well.

I was fortunate to secure a full-time professional position five months after graduating from library school. I believe my application rose to the top of the pile primarily owing to a set of skills, education, and experience I already had prior to attending library school. I had a master’s degree in Lit, had worked in two academic libraries, and had teaching experience as an adjunct lecturer at two institutions of higher learning. Almost five years later, I still hold the same position.

I knew entering library school that I was interested in information literacy. I had observed the ways in which my writing students used sources in their assignments. I wanted to put my first master’s degree to work using my knowledge of British and American literature.

If you’re in library school now trying to decide where to focus your talents, look at your previous work and educational experience. Try to find a niche in library and information management that complements your background. That way you will find what distinguishes you from other applicants. Position yourself for success, and it will happen.

Once you have positioned yourself, network, network, network. I know you hear this a great deal, but I can’t overemphasize this concept. Not only did I have an excellent network at the University of Alabama’s SLIS, but I received invaluable opportunities as an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and an Association of Research Libraries Initiative participant. While I was still in library school, I was able to attend several library conferences, network with peers from library schools, and form relationships with librarians already in the field. Even if you’re not an experienced networker, you can create your own network by joining one of the many different library associations as a student member and use their mentoring program.

When you’re seeking your first professional position, join your state library association and get involved! You’ll find friendly librarians waiting to welcome you into the field. Participation in state library associations can provide valuable professional development experience at a minimal financial cost in these tough economic times.

Finally, I would advise all library school students to acquire experience working in a library, archive, or research center. This experience will come in the form of a paraprofessional position, but if internships or volunteer opportunities are all that are available, don’t shy away from them. This will set you apart from applicants who have never worked in a library before. If you have never worked in a library, highlight your transferable work experiences and skill sets. The right job is out there for you if you don’t give up.

Once you have secured that position, the transition into library work can be challenging. In the first year and a half on my job, my immediate supervisor, the head of the library where I worked, and the director of the Vanderbilt University library system retired. I had to learn on my feet, ask for help often (and be proactive about it), and be able to manage change well. In the spirit of solidarity, here are some tips to help you survive your first few years in the profession:

• Learn your institution’s organizational culture.

• Be a change agent but also show respect for the status quo.

• Ask for help when you need it.

• Don’t be afraid to speak up in meetings, but don’t be discouraged if your response does not result in immediate action.

Deborah Lilton is Bibliographer for English, African-American Studies, and Theatre at the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University, Nashville


Dalena HunterWith Advocacy and Collaboration

By Dalena Hunter — Class of 2007

The transition from master’s student to information professional has been filled with many positive experiences and some daunting ones as well. In many ways, my idealistic perspective on library and information work has been attested to by the students, faculty, and community members who visit the UCLA library in person and via phone and email seeking unique materials from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, an affiliated ethnic studies library. In other ways I am learning to integrate progressive ideas into my library and my professional development.

That 2008 profile of me in LJ ended with a discussion of invisible racism and the ways it affects minorities’ ability to retain and control records of their lived experience. It emphasized the importance of engaging critically with the institutions we support. Since saying those words I have furthered my education and joined professional organizations such as the California Librarians Black Caucus, American Library Association, Society of American Archivists, and the library union at my university. I have held small posts on committees and chapters in those organizations, and I was recently elected secretary of the African American Studies Librarians Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

At the same time I quickly learned that I needed more than a passionate interest in African American history and culture to serve faculty and students in the discipline, so I strengthened my subject expertise by working toward a master’s in African American studies. That program piqued my desire to explore the connection between information access, archival collection and preservation, and race and culture in the United States, so I entered UCLA’s Ph.D. program in information studies, with a focus on archives.

I am still the librarian at the Bunche Center, where I began my professional career in 2007. When I began working there I hoped to grow the collection, services, and programs to meet the original library mission to be a major center of black research and culture on the West Coast. Shortly thereafter, the realities of California’s budget crises affected the university and with it every department on campus. It became challenging to find ways to engage with the campus and local community while maintaining regular services. While other libraries were cutting hours, laying off staff, and closing doors, the Bunche Center library began to rely more heavily on grants, donations, and student staff.

Today the library continues to provide important resources to researchers in African American studies on campus and across the country, while the Bunche Center still produces and supports scholarship in the field. My short tenure there has taught me that although one does not necessarily need to share an ethnic or racial background with the patrons you serve or an academic background in the subject you support, it is important to understand and connect the intellectual aspects of the subject matter the library supports with tangible historical events and real-world implications.

Working toward a second master’s degree underscored the importance for me to engage more fully in academic scholarship and trends. Working with students in my cohort while serving their information needs helped me gain a greater appreciation for the connection between library and information theory and library practice.

As a relatively new librarian, it is necessary to communicate with my mentors and colleagues from my graduate program to smooth the transition to information professional. There are many LIS bloggers who detail the importance of joining professional organizations and networking at annual meetings, collecting job postings to keep your skills up-to-date, and finding creative ways to apply LIS skills outside the field. I’ve also taken many opportunities to share my knowledge and experience freely with students interested in pursuing librarianship or in the MLIS program.

Librarians are taking a hard hit in this economy, and it is more crucial than ever to understand how to apply information management skills to other markets while advocating for greater support from local, state, and national government agencies. My attitude has certainly changed from that of a wide-eyed library school graduate who wanted to change the world before retiring, but I retain my optimism that hard work, advocacy, and collaboration will buoy LIS professionals throughout the recession and underscore the important role access to information plays in a free and open democracy.

Dalena Hunter is the Librarian, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, UCLA, a position she was promoted to one month after she received her Master of Library and Information Studies with Distinction from the program at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA

Kristin Centanni

Making the Most of It

By Kristin Centanni — Class of 2008

It has been three and a half years since I graduated from Indiana University (IU) with a dual master’s in Information Science (School of Library and Information Science) and Public Affairs (School of Public and Environmental Affairs). I went to work for Diamond Management and Technology Consultants as a business consultant. At Diamond, I have worked on a variety of strategic client engagements that have spanned industries (transportation, financial services, and state/local government) and sectors (public and private). The array of projects provided unique challenges in my day-to-day work life, since each was quite different. No two days have been the same. Now I am focused almost entirely on local and state governments, helping them with savings assessments and transformational programs as they react to shrinking budgets and increased service responsibilities.

The transition into the working world was not too difficult for me. I have been working since I was 13, so I am used to the daily grind. I have also had the good fortune to work for an organization that recognizes employees for their hard work. I have received two promotions since starting at the firm. Furthermore, in consulting it is not unusual for firms to have a “live anywhere” policy with the caveat that you need to be near a major airport in order to travel to the client site; consultants typically travel every week. With the flexibility on residency, I have been able to live in Chicago and am now back in Austin, TX, to be closer to family and friends.

Looking back on workplace challenges, the biggest change so far was the recent merger of Diamond with the much larger company PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). PwC is well known as one of the “Big Four” accounting firms and was looking to expand its advisory practice with strategic management expertise. Many of my colleagues, myself included, were not sure what to make of the idea of going from a company of 600 employees to one with over 30,000. As I continue to get more acclimated and learn the ropes at PwC, I also have tried to make the most of the opportunities a large firm can offer. For instance, I am now in the final stages of pursuing an international tour within the firm, so I can live abroad for several years and work for a PwC office in another country. Granted the process has been lengthy, and only high performers are selected for a tour, but like anything you want badly enough, you find the gumption to stick with it.

For all of you starting your last year of school and for those continuing to search for that perfect first job, find that gumption, but be flexible and patient with the job search. Although the economy is still sluggish, there are jobs out there. However, the job of your dreams just may turn out to be in a different role than the one you imagined.

There are some positions that will come your way and cause you to pause, but jobs are not always what they seem at first glance. The position that you think will be a great stepping stone as you move on to something bigger and better may turn out to be a fantastic opportunity to a challenging career in disguise.

Finally, your professional career doesn’t stop with getting a job. It starts there. To all my fellow IS and LS graduates, once you land that first job, continue to network with coworkers, clients, and former classmates. Through the amazing people I have met at IU and at work, I have expanded my network throughout the United States. You never know when that will come in handy. Best of luck.

Kristin Centanni, who earned a combined master’s in Information Science and Public Affairs at Indiana University’s School of Library and Information Science and School of Public Affairs, continues as a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Austin, TX


John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. This series of articles was extremely helpful! I am currently taking my last course for my MLIS degree, which I completed in tandem with a Ph.D. in music education. It’s ‘do or die’ time for me… I will definitely be following much of the advice given in these articles.

    Thanks so much!
    Melissa Slawsky ;)

  2. I wish they had interviewed someone from a public library. The trends in governments are different than they were 10 years ago. Budgets are shrinking. I’m lucky enough to have a job in a public library, but many of my friends at similar libraries have lost their jobs or had pay cuts.

  3. Great article. Would like to add that the book mentioned above as “The four frames of leadership” by Lee Bollinger is called Reframing organizations : artistry, choice, and leadership by Lee G Bolman and Terrence E Deal.

    I would also appreciate other similar recommendations!

  4. Beautifully written articles that I enjoyed reading. I worked with Nicole Brown at the American University in Cairo (Egypt) and she is the consummate information specialist. She is also the personification of professional excellence in the field of information science and a great example for all who wish to pursue this vocation.