April 19, 2018

How to Survive and Thrive in Your First Library Job

Congratulations! You have worked hard to earn your degree and have been successful in finding a professional position that suits your skills and abilities. You have navigated a competitive job market in the midst of a recession, and, in spite of reduced budgets, you have been able to launch your career. But no library school, however full of internships and practicums, can fully prepare you for day-to-day life as a working librarian. Here are some hints to help you fit into your role and have a fruitful and rewarding lifework—all based on observations from years of mentoring new ­employees.

Starting now, your challenges will be to adapt to shifting work flows, changing job descriptions, new and unforeseen duties, all kinds of administrators, tight budgets, ever-changing technology, and new uses of space. Any and all of these are happening while you are trying to gain job expertise. Below are some concrete ways that those buzzwords in the job ads can play out in the stacks.

Communication skills

One important first step to the communication picture is to learn the names of your coworkers. Some institutions have a photo directory so it is easy to connect names with faces. If yours does not, it will be up to you to make those connections. While you may worry about seeming presumptuous, don’t wait for your colleagues to make the first move. It can be as simple as an occasional walk around the building, at which time you can introduce yourself and see where staff members are located. Attending social events and going to lunch with colleagues is also worth the time investment. Learning about one another’s personalities and creating a bond will help you work together better.

For a conversation starter, try asking about the history of the library and its community. This can help you understand what’s important to your user base and the reasons behind the institutional ethic. Even—or perhaps especially—if your mandate is to be a “new broom” that brings major change, take the time to learn the existing culture and show that you understand and value it—this can yield big dividends.

Locate people whose skills you admire and ask them to mentor you, either formally or informally. It is fine to seek advice from more than one ­person.


To work effectively as a part of a team, the first challenge is literally showing up. You must be flexible enough to work with other colleagues’ schedules. Include ample time in your calendar to be available for consultations and impromptu discussions, and make it a priority not to cancel unless you really must. When unavoidable conflicts do come up, let your teammates know as soon as possible, so they can help come up with alternative ways for you to contribute in advance.

As a new staffer, you will likely receive many invitations to participate in committee work. Once there, listening is as important as talking. Maybe more so: revealing a willingness to learn from more experienced colleagues is sure to be well received, while too many contributions run the risk of looking like showboating or perhaps a lack of interest in others’ ideas. Examples from library school may be counterproductive—even if germane, they play up your lack of “real world” experience, so cite them sparingly.

Some assignments will be optional, others not. For optional activities, be judicious in your choices and be careful not to overcommit. Taking on too many responsibilities in an effort to be cooperative and helpful can backfire if you are then overwhelmed with tasks and are unable to carry your weight in completing work for the team.

Try not to do your work at the last minute; be prepared for the next meeting even if something else comes up.

Embrace emerging technologies

Many times, new graduates from information sciences programs are very knowledgeable about new technologies. But that’s not the only way to become an expert. Many of your new colleagues may also be well up on recent technological developments, via post-master’s certificates, other forms of professional development training, on-the-job use, or simply personal passion. Seek out your techie compatriots by checking out internal documents and web pages so you can learn from one another, and you can offer help or suggestions without reinventing the wheel.

Sometimes your colleagues will assume that you are the expert on new technologies and their application. No one can know all of the possible software available, so don’t feel embarrassed to say you have not heard of some particular product or don’t know how to employ it. Then offer to explore the options. Also, don’t dismiss older technologies that may still be effective, such as electronic email lists. Also, be strategic in embracing new innovations: while it’s important for libraries to be proactive about going where the people are, don’t embrace new approaches just because they’re new, unless they help improve your service.


Check with other employees for the accepted dress code at your library, and err on the side of caution. If in doubt, go with “business professional.”

Maintain a line between your private and work lives. Consider carefully whether it is a good idea on social media to “friend” colleagues, especially those above you in the organizational structure. In spite of the many articles about “personal branding” that would have librarians make their social media presence a single unified persona, you may want to consider maintaining separate presences for your work and your personal life, or restricting posts about personal activities to filtered groups so they’re not visible to work peers. If you wouldn’t talk about it around the literal water cooler, it may be best kept away from the virtual one.

If you observe behaviors that are ineffective, or inappropriate, take them as a cautionary tale, but don’t try to correct them yourself. Remember that it is the job of the supervisor to amend improprieties on the part of others.

Risk taking

Many times the institution says it is looking for an “innovative thinker” or a “risk taker.” But in practice, this may be less true than those writing the job ads would like to believe. Before going too far out on a limb, size up the situation. Are people rewarded for taking risks? Are they admonished when those risks don’t pan out? Make sure your supervisors think your innovations are solid ideas before you gamble on them. They will also know the best way to introduce your ideas to the rest of the library. There are unwritten rules in every workplace, and your supervisors and mentors will be able to guide you around obstacles of which you may not be aware. Keeping them informed of progress on your projects will allow them to support you.

Inevitably, even with those precautions, not all of your proposals will succeed. Some may even be downright failures. Admit mistakes; your colleagues will appreciate your accountability. Learn from your miscues, but don’t let them dissuade you from making the next (carefully chosen) move: pick yourself up and keep going. Be gracious with your successes; thank the people who have helped you along the way.

The time in your first position is an exciting experience and presents an opportunity for growth. The first six months will set the atmosphere for the rest of your tenure in that job. You will not get another chance to make a first impression, so make it a good one.

Margaret Casado, Research Services Librarian, Hodges Library, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), has 17 years of academic library experience. Alan Wallace has 28 years of experience in academic libraries. For the past 26 years he has served as Undergraduate Reference Librarian, Education Librarian, Instruction Coordinator, and supervisor of graduate students in the UTK Libraries. Both also serve as adjunct instructors with UTK’s School of Information Sciences

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Wow! Incredibly informative and (having just completed my first 6 months), spot on! Thanks for the tips and I will definitely be taking some advice from the #Teamwork section!