Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Public to Academic, But Never the Other Way Around

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.



  1. Karla Forgaard Pullen MSW RSW says:

    Wow – some pretty loose use of vocabulary here for a librarian! While you are so facile in stereotyping public librarians, public libraries and the public, you only re-inforce your own stereotype – the socially inept isolate who is embittered or eccentric. I am glad in one way that no struggling member of humanity need face your scorn and unprofessional attitude, but on the other hand I am sad for the reams of students who must endure your hyper-critical regard. I hope you are humbly grateful for your ‘place’ in the economic scheme, because you couldn’t survive a day in the real world with your point of view.

  2. accidental librarian says:

    The public in your library depends on the public in your community. If you’re in an urban library located across the street from several social service agencies and a homeless shelter, your patrons will tend to have more problems (unrelated to an information need) than if you are located in a middle class suburban area with stay-at-home moms and homeschoolers and retired people looking for a book club or local history. At least in my region, urban public librarianship is where everyone gets the impression that public libraries are “teeming with crazies.” It doesn’t have to be that bad.

    I used to work academic, then I took a PT public library job after my daughter was born because the hours are perfect for our family needs and as a relative newbie librarian I thought I might want to develop a specialty in working with children.

    While I really enjoy a nice staff, supportive director, and surprisingly satisfying work, when I’m ready to return to full-time I’ve decided I want to go back to academic. I like that kind of reference and research (and the accompanying databases) better, plus I miss the regular teaching part.

    I knew I was taking a risk but I really hope I didn’t completely torpedo my career with my latest move. Suggestions?

  3. Community college libraries represent the best of both worlds. We get the crazies, we get the scholars, we get the eager students yearning for knowledge and we get paid so much it’s almost criminal…

  4. Dr. Pepper says:

    I tried going the other way. There is some difference, but what I was going to be involved with had no relevance to story-time or kicking out bums.

    As far as having people on youtube, facebook and porn sites, you don’t really pay attention to those silly little undergrads using the library computer labs, do you? :-)

  5. Public Librarians and Academic Librarians are two different breeds. Since Publics are “The Default Library” I can see how an Academic could start their career there, realize this is not for them and then try to branch into Academia or Special. Most likely, if you start your career in Academic or Research libraries that is where you wanted to be so there is less Academic -> Public. In my humble opinion.

  6. Real Librarian says:

    Please, Dr. Pepper, the AL doesn’t have time for the undergrads.

    They are peons.

    You don’t get to even approach the AL until you are well on your way to a doctorate. As far as staff, you had better be a full professor with tenure before you think about going to see the great and wonderful AL.

  7. hehehe! I had to laugh, because I’m an academic librarian and I want to work in public libraries! I hope to make the move to public in a few years. Jobs are slim these days, so I have to wait and be patient! :)

  8. accidental librarian says:

    Actually – let me amend my earlier statement as it read as terribly insensitive. I have been at one urban public library that exemplified the stereotype. It felt chaotic and combative compared to academic libraries and most public library experiences I’ve had. Clearly, the stereotype is powerful even with personal experience to the contrary. Maybe that’s why public librarians interested in new professional experiences in academics fret so much over making the jump.
    @Dr. Pepper re:undergrads – so true!

  9. crankylibrarian says:

    My first job was in a nice upper middle class branch of a public library. It was the most dreadful job I’ve ever had in my life. (and I was quite middle aged when I started that job)

    The patrons weren’t the problem – the management and staff were the problem. It a thuggish lookin’ fella walked in they’d be all atwitter about how scared they were of him. To me it just stunk of pure racism – and this system offered no diversity training & had never thought of it.

    I moved on to a vaguely academic library job and will say I am treated with much more respect by patrons and staff of the college. This is very unlike the public library where the para”professional” staff expected the degreed librarians to deal with really stupid stuff like telling a staff member not to poop in the staff restroom or cleaning up vomit, urine and poop (not pooped from the butts of the para”professionals” – but golly they sure had diarrhea of the mouth)

    I expected the public patrons to be troublesome and the job poorly paid, but I did not expect the level of overt hostility and disrespect towards a fellow staff member who actually took the time to get a silly library degree.

    Will I go back to a public library? I’m not sure. At least I get some intellectual challenges here as opposed to shelving 5 to 7 carts of books a day.

  10. another f-ing librarian says:

    Well, everyone knows that if one ever gets a job in a library doing anything in a professional capacity, they will probably never get another library job doing anything else. Librarians think that librarianship is ossifying, and that the professionally-trained librarian brain just can’t cope with change. Or something. Working in a public library isn’t ‘preparation’ for working in an academic setting? Huh?

    Know what? Waiting tables, or working retail at The Gap is preparation for public service work in *either* setting. Get over it. Really, most other librarians are just as smart as you. Quit being afraid that they’re smarter, and just hire them. We all need colleagues who are smarter than we are. They’re good for our institutions and make us better.

  11. Wow, lots of judgment about people in general. It is nice to work with the elite and privileged of the world. Where is your silver spoon?

  12. Rolling Eyes Librarian says:

    I have read your pieces periodically in the past but I am sorry to say I can’t imagine you spent any time or gave any presence of forethought to this entry. I have sat on many round tables working with both academic and public librarians and, knowing them well, can’t imagine that you represent the majority opinion. Whether your frankness is more from stupidity or your stupidity is more the insensitive frankness, it is hard to tell, but I am certain that it is some of both. If only it were irony but there is none. Public librarians were never any more naive about their calling than academic people. We each have a different respectful calling. Public librarians do not have the benefit of a liason visit with the research professor in order to know what questions they are doing to be asked and yes, we do get research questions and we do affect change in helping people learn to research. But yes, you are right, we do gracefully handle life’s more needy casualties. And yes, I will allow for the fact that it can get difficult. But public librarians also have a high calling to think about the challenges of how to better manage their community’s information and identity needs. I will say it again, some do get tired of the social service calling but every library is different in how they support product and services identity to combat that. I would dare say that what you do and what I do both have two different but sometimes monotonous identities at times. Just because a public librarian THINKS she wants to move to academia, does not mean that academia is what is really sought. Do you prefer to teach research or do other people’s research for them? I don’t do other people’s research for them by going to shelves and checking indexes but I’ll bet occasionally you do. Now that sounds like less than a challenge to me, committing myself to work until I find all the avenues I know where a piece of information might lay… I had rather be using my innovative brain instead! A good empowered public librarian is always thinking about how she can massively impact her local universe. I am sorry your opinions are so low and misrepresentative. I am sorry your friend has not had more support as well. I’m sure I don’t know enough to misrepresent your academic library identity. Whatever your motivations were or lack of motivations and poor expository opinions were, they were no better than a child’s understanding of anything and I am ashamed as a fellow library that you would publish this.

  13. I’m with Walt, college libraries all the way.

  14. “I like making sure students and faculty can do academic research, because when I do any research that’s the kind I do.” Well, La-Di-Da!

    I, having been on both sides, know the benifits and pains of both.

    However, Another F-Ing Librarian hit it on the head with: “Know what? Waiting tables, or working retail at The Gap is preparation for public service work in *either* setting.” Service, people, that’s the unifying element. Along with our special brand of intelligent, crybaby snarkiness…

  15. Bruce Campbell says:

    Much like Walt Lesson, I work at a technical college library and it straddles the fence between public and academic.

    It’s difficult to make a generalization about pay in public vs. academic, isn’t it?

    I live in rural GA and the public librarians start at the same salary as the PhD’d professors in the area. I’m sure the non-Phd academic librarians make less.

    Also, I’ve worked in public library jobs where you do what academic librarians call “bibliographic instruction.” Instruct people on how to use databases, cite sources, etc. I think there’s a decent amount of overlap of public and academic job duties. Maybe if I become a true academic librarian I’ll start looking down at my nose at public librarians, but the duties seem fairly similar. One is like selling tickets for the opera and the other is like selling tickets for a rock concert. Different clientele, same crap.

  16. Wound up librarian says:

    I currently work in an academic library but I’m desperate to work in a public library. Having worked in both I like how a librarian characterized the difference – “the questions in a public library are more real.” In my public library I was asked for help with real life issues – eviction rights, parenting, health, etc. Of course not every day but often enough.

    I entered the librarian profession because I wanted to work with people. Instead I find myself spending 80% of my time in my cubicle, sitting at an empty reference desk a few hours week, and (admittedly) failing at outreach efforts to my departments. No one seems to have time, TENURE looms large. My fellow academic librarians are unable to focus on helping people – even though service is ultimately what our profession is about! – because they are smoother paths towards tenure.

    I’ve worked with librarians who wanted to work in a public library and got trapped in “secure” academic jobs; ones who started out idealistic and who now desperately try to fill the hours of their days with some sort of meaning. I’m terrified of such a future. So I’ll continue to apply for and volunteer in a public library. I miss the crazies I used to work with, they may have been difficult at times but they were real people.

  17. Bruce Campbell says:

    AL’s doing what she does best. Stirring the pot, getting discussion going. Using hyperbole to rankle sections of the audience.

  18. Been there, done that says:

    I agree with crankylibrarian. Having recently made the transition from public to academic, I can attest to the greater amount of respect between colleagues in the college setting. When I worked in the public library, non-degreed librarians had supervisory positions, and I had to act like I didn’t have my master’s so that I wouldn’t be thought of as “conceited.” Some might see getting published, going to conferences etc. as a burden, but since that the library director was the only one allowed to do those things, the other librarians were demoted to the status of monkeys. I would have been happy to contribute to the profession on that level, but such initiatives were VERY frowned upon in that setting.

    At a public library, the management structure is much more strict, and duties much more compartmentalized. This makes for a very territorial atmosphere (you can’t do web design, you can’t learn this new thing, because that’s so-and-so’s responsibility, etc.)I felt like a cog in a machine, which is why I’m not surprised the job satisfaction level is higher for academic librarians. Suffice to say, I’m glad to be out of the beehive and in a place where I’m free to contribute to the best of my ability.

  19. Houston Librarian says:

    I was an academic librarian who became a public librarian.

    I loved being an academic librarian. The job was a good fit for me and I had one of those rare academic posts that did not have any sort of publishing requirement (why add to the already teeming amounts of bad library literature out there).

    Then I went and fell in love with a woman who lived 4 hours away. I had this old fashion idea that it would be nice to live in the same city as my wife. So I applied to every position I could in that new city and eventually got a position with one of the public library systems there.

    There was a *big* difference in patron types, hours expected to work, and working conditions. But there was also a *large* bump in pay and a lot more opportunities for promotion.

    Basically, the job is just *different*. Not better or worse overall. Yes, I have to deal with crazies. On the other hand, I don’t have overly specialized social misfits screaming at me because I won’t spend my entire years budget on a single book that they are the only person on campus who can read.

    I feel like I get less respect, but I also feel like I can make a better living.

    All in all, a tossup I guess.

  20. Rolling Eyes Librarian says:

    I don’t doubt that but the rationale for public forum writing is to produce an evolved discussion and this elementary hyperbole just sounds like a poor trap for people to fall into, which they do. In my opinion, a little too easily convinced of her own superiority to make superb hyperbole for the rest of us. I know good hyperbole when I see it and there is plenty these days. Sometimes making people angry/antagonized with artificial elementary opinions is just making people angry without accomplishment or raising the bar at all. Of course, I am assuming there is a friend she should have been career coaching but I’m also betting there is really a friend that provoked this discussiion .

  21. Real Librarian says:

    “AL’s doing what she does best. Stirring the pot, getting discussion going. Using hyperbole to rankle sections of the audience.”

    Isn’t that why you hire a journalist to do this job?

  22. How about transitioning from special to either academic or corporate work?

  23. Library Lady says:

    I love, love, love working in a public library. Love the crazies, love helping people who never used a computer before set up their first e-mail account, and I love never knowing what the next person that comes to my desk is going to ask me.

    While I can understand why there is little flow from academia into public librarianship(in general, people don’t seek out jobs where they’ll be making less money, with fewer benefits),I personally can’t imagine finding a job outside of public libraries that I love as much as the job I have now. It’s not for everyone, but I’m definitely someone who thrives on the chaos.

  24. Not being a librarian, only a reader, I wonder why the librarians at my local (Southern California, upscale zip code) can’t muster the strength to tell the guy with the boombox to leave, the kids eating and texting to stop it, and kick out the homeless snoring at the newspaper tables. Fear of being sued? Fear of being hit? It gets really old.

  25. Cantankerous Librarian says:

    I was an academic librarian who is now a public librarian. I had to leave because there was no full-time position and (at the time) I could no longer work part-time as adjunct faculty. I find it amusing AL’s generalizations about public libraries, it’s vapid and naive for someone who has no understanding of a public library. Yes, a lot of the public like their porn, their facebook updates and cooking recipes. Then, there is another class of people who use the public library for research purposes, because they have no access to the ivory tower libraries with their superior clientele wiping their noses, getting tintinitis from their ipods and wearing their tattoos like honor badges. We write. We do a lot of the work other nice academic librarians do. Public librarianship is not a ‘calling’, it’s a job. Much like waiting tables or driving a cab. Or writing some blog about libraries for a library association and wondering when the next unread book deal will come through.

  26. Bruce Campbell says:

    Or writing some blog about libraries for a library association and wondering when the next unread book deal will come through.


  27. Haha… I made the transition from a research library to a public library, because I was sick of the pretentious esoteric needs of the privileged few in their ivory towers, and I wanted to get more involved in the community and make a difference for who aren’t necessarily getting ahead in life by enriching them with lifelong learning and information skills.

    I got disillusioned soon enough. The saving grace of working in libraries was that I liked to read, and could develop my knowledge of literary culture by chatting to patrons about books all the time.

    But, I then made a dire error in my career. I decided to move into school library management. Because I wanted to engage young people with literature and teach them proper research skills, etc.

    I made the mistake of thinking that young people actually cared about such things. Sure, there are some great kids, but I could count them on both hands. :(

  28. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    I started in public, moved to corporate/special and am now in an academic library. I cannot think of a thing about the public library work I honestly enjoyed. I didn’t like the loads of crap we bought to satisfy “need.” I didn’t like functioning as a babysitting facility. I didn’t like working with the homeless – too many were filthy, smelly, mentally ill, drunk, or just plain weird. I didn’t like the pervs.

    Corporate/special – I really loved the work for a long time, and the pay and benefits were phenomenal.

    Academic – the pay isn’t much nor are the benefits. But I like the youngsters and the work. It’s a private institution and we’ll let you in if you’re not affiliated. Just don’t monopolize our time or resources. We’ll put you on the “do not allow” list.

  29. bibliophile says:

    I went from an academic library to a special(R&D) to a hospital to a high school and after many years ended up in a public library. They all have their good and bad points (although I fled the high school screaming), but despite the crazies, in a public library the patrons are the most receptive and grateful for the help they receive. They regularly bring us food an lattes as than yous–I never saw that anywhere else.

  30. Ravengirl says:

    I’d love to hear from special librarians who have transitions from public to special libraries. I always thought my career would be in a public library, and what I miss most is the diversity of patrons and working with people (yes, even the “problem patrons”). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the privilege of fine free reading! But I ended up in a special library because there were simply no jobs in public libraries in California. And to my surprise, I love what I’m doing.

    I work as a solo for a multi-state research institution. Much of what I do would be considered academic – we are a grant funded organization and I often do literature reviews and consult with scientists on research interests. But I also get to do “everything”. Cataloging, ILL, management – I’m doing it all (at one point I supervised two employees). The one thing that troubled me about working in public libraries was the lack of appreciation for innovation and heavy bureaucracy. I’m fortunate that my organization appreciates new ideas and risk taking. If I had to, I’d go back to working in public libraries, because I derived great satisfaction in helping people with all kinds of questions and needs. But I’d really miss the diversity of tasks I have here, and the added respect I get as a librarian. This is the first place where I’ve worked where I’ve been told that I’m an essential resource. While the public was appreciative, I was never told that in the library system I worked for.

  31. Special libraries in the corporate realm can be tricky. Library budgets can be cut instantly, and you must defend your services on a daily basis. Some institutions love librarians, others expect you to get coffee for guests, deliver mail, etc. Perverts can be a bigger problem here. Pay is good. So beware if you are a solo librarian. If you are part of a department life can be pretty good. But it can be amazing what executives will do. I have had things thrown at me, funny thing was that I had the right data in that instance.

  32. Trying to get back to public libraries. I would rather help the homeless than have an executive leer at me.

  33. Ravengirl says:

    I work for a nonprofit research institute that has a pretty flat organizational structure. Think scientists, not executives – so it’s more of an academic environment. Library budgets can be cut instantly, and in fact, I’m the only one left of originally 3 librarians. OTOH, I’ve made myself indispensable. I’ve had more job security here than I ever did in a public library system where my job was always being cut. I have had to do some defending – depending on the boss. Some are more library-savvy than others. But so far I’ve been very fortunate and recently negotiated a substantial raise _after_ we had layoffs.

  34. I haven’t even read this whole post, but I am proud to say that I am one of those individuals that went the opposite route of academic and specialised to public. I’m not saying this is permanent, (and there’s the truth right there) but I do really enjoy the real interaction you have with humankind and real conversations you have with real people every day in the public library setting.

    I would never ever get a similar experience working in an academic institution. Your client base is so defined that in a way, you’re limiting yourself. Every day is different in any organisation, but in public libraries, it really is true.

    And it challenges you and makes you think every day here. Also, where else do you have the opportunity to; do collection development, weeding, teach someone how to use a search engine and type in a url, show preschoolers how to use their imagination through picture books and crafts and…. all in one day??

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