Library Work Experience

If you’re currently in library school, you’ve probably already discovered one of the profession’s dirty little secrets.  That promise that there would be plenty of jobs available soon?  That there are all of these aging librarians out there who are going to retire at any minute and leave plenty of jobs open for recent graduates?  Yeah, it’s all a myth.  The truth is there are far more librarians looking for work than there are jobs available.

At any given moment, there are roughly 200 positions listed on ALA’s JobLIST website.  There are 62 accredited library schools in the country, each graduating anywhere from 15-60 students per year.  You do the math.  Of course, half of the positions listed aren’t entry-level anyway, so that leaves even fewer positions for folks looking for a first job.  Certainly, JobLIST isn’t the only place you should be looking for listings, but you get the idea.

I don’t want to get too heavily into the debate of whether or not LIS programs are simply admitting too many students for now.  From their point of view, they have to admit students–students who pay tuition–in order to satisfy the demands of their parent institution.  Fewer paying students lessens the program’s worth in the eyes of bottom-line-focused administrators.  The problem is, fewer students would also mean a better job market for those that do make it through.  So don’t be too hard on your LIS program – they’re caught between a rock and hard place.

Instead, I’m going to focus on what you can do to improve your chances of landing a job by sharing some of the things that made me successful.

I’m going to start with the single most important item – library work experience.  By the time you graduate, you MUST have some library work experience on your resume.  The degree alone isn’t going to cut it – not with so many job seekers out there.  At minimum, you’ll have completed a practicum/field project/internship, etc. as part of your library degree, but you shouldn’t stop there.  Look for as many opportunities as possible to get involved in library work.

This may mean taking a low-paying/minimum-wage part-time position as a shelver or circulation worker to get your foot in the door.  If you already have a full-time job you can’t sacrifice while you are going to school, think about volunteering.  Plenty of libraries, both public and academic, rely on a steady stream of volunteers, particularly in these lean times, to keep things running smoothly.  If you’re wondering, I did both circ/shelving and volunteer work.  The point is, you need to set foot in a library and do some work there before you graduate.

Most of the applicants on the market will have at least some work experience in a library before they graduate.  If you don’t, you’ll be way behind from the start.

Keep in mind, particularly if you’re on a large university campus, that you likely won’t get a library job simply by firing resumes at the online student work website.  There are  too many students applying, and you’ll just get lost in the shuffle.  I tried this route during my first semester in library school and got nowhere.  During second semester, I walked up to the desk, asked who hired circulation workers, and asked to be introduced to that person.  Forty-five minutes later, after presenting my resume and having a brief interview, I had a job.  If you are persistent without being pushy, good things generally happen.


14 thoughts on “Library Work Experience

  1. Good advice Rachel! As another recently hired academic librarian, I would also suggest current library school students who are thinking about academic librarianship take a class on pedagogy AND a research methods course. I know that hiring committees look for instruction experience and research “potential” even if you haven’t published anything. In my case, taking the LILI Practicum at SLIS was a big plus.

  2. Great advice. The work experience is crucial. I did get one job by going up to the person and offering to be their assistant for free. And that government documents experience got me my current job. Networking worked for me too. I emailed someone at Memorial to ask questions over lunch and gave them my resume and they gave it to someone that offered me another job, so there are lots of ways to try for experience besides the student work website.

  3. Great advice regarding doing whatever you can to get some kind of relevant work experience before graduation.

    One thing I need to clear up, though: since its launch in 2006, ALA JobLIST has never had as few as 60 job postings. Even at the worst of things about a year ago, the lowest that figure got was around 150. At this particular minute, there are 255 positions posted on JobLIST. If historic trends hold, that’s likely to fall a bit during November before picking up again during the winter months.

    Still, no denying your point that it’s a very tough job market out there right now, especially for entry-level positions. The retirements are actually picking up, but openings in those senior-level positions aren’t translating into other openings down the line as positions are frozen or cut due to economy-related funding issues.

    In addition to being at the top of your game as a job searcher, the best advice I have is to advocate, advocate, advocate! Make your school/city/state/federal representatives understand why it is critical that libraries get a stable piece of their shrinking funding pies (and your individual need for a job isn’t going to convince them). Library advocacy ultimately equals library jobs, so make that a regular part of any job search.

    Best of luck with the new blog, Noisy Librarian!

    1. Thanks for chiming in David, and I apologize for confusing the numbers! It’s difficult to keep them all straight when there are four or five different library job sites with new postings appearing and disappearing every day. And it’s always frustrating that certain postings seem to stay on sites forever with no closing date – you don’t know if the position has been filled or if they’re still looking (I’m not thinking just of JobLIST here, but of job sites in general).

      1. Thanks so much for the revision, Rachel. I appreciate it!

        Regarding postings that seem to live on too long, I can’t speak for other sites, but on JobLIST we always notify employers that their ad will remain on the site for 60 days unless they ask us to remove it sooner than that. Because so many employers treat deadlines they include in their ads as a “date of first consideration” but continue to accept applications until the position is officially filled, we do not automatically pull ads that reach the deadline date during their run on the site.

        If you see a position that you are interested in, but with a deadline listed that has passed, it could still be well worth your while to contact the employer and see whether they are continuing to accept applications, as that very likely could be the case.


  4. An internship is also a great way to get library experience and learn more about a specific type of library. I did mine in a science and engineering branch library on campus and loved it!

  5. Hurray for your new blog, Rachel! You can find mine at I’ll add you to my blogroll sometime if that’s cool with you! And yeah, I agree about getting student library jobs by walking up to the staff in person. I’ve always been suspicious about those super-generic dump-into-mysterious-who-knows-who-actually-checks-it-and-when-database online forms I’ve seen at a number of institutions now for student library positions. I think making personal contact is important even if they tell you in the end that you need to apply via the online app. You can always use the meeting as an opportunity to find out more about the job, to show that you’re not just looking for “a job where you can study on the job.”

  6. I currently have four years experience as a library assistant and two additional years as a shelver/page. I have an MA in Psychology, and I’m currently enrolled in an MLIS program. Despite all that, I cannot find a better library job (library associate maybe) in my area and I’m desperate for one. I know when I finish my degree, that will open more doors, but work experience just doesn’t seem to help much beforehand. I’m hoping afterward will be another story.

    1. Rachel, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t have much luck moving up the ladder until I got my degree either. I’m hoping things turn around for you soon!

  7. I agree with the importance of getting your foot in the door and gaining library work experience. I am not expected to complete my MLS degree until January 2011, but because I have had two years public library work experience and am so close to getting my MLS, I was offered and accepted a professional librarian position one month ago. Even though I do not have my degree yet, but have relevant library work experience, I was chosen out of 60 candidates.

    Good luck to everyone out there!

  8. I have been a librarian for more than 25 years now. Even in early 1985 experience was a must. I spent seven years working at UT Austin’s PCL as a para (full time through grad school) and that was what helped me get my first professional position.

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