On Being a Librarian and “Loving Books”

Recently, another librarian’s blog post made the rounds.  She had a friend who was considering going to library school, and one of her reasons for doing so was that she loved books.  She also reported that many people had told her that’s a bad reason to go to library school, thus she was looking for additional feedback.  (And I’ve committed a cardinal sin of blogging here by not bookmarking the original post; now I can’t find it and can’t link to it.  If anyone remembers who wrote it and/or where to find it, shoot me a message in the comments and I’ll happily link it).

So, what is it about prospective library students who say they want to go to library school because they love books that makes us cringe so much?   After all, most of us love books too, right?  I haven’t actually ever met a librarian that hates books…

I think our reaction comes from a worry that these prospective students are approaching the profession with a framework that is incomplete or naive (and just to be clear, in no way do I mean that these prospective students are stupid – just that they haven’t fully thought through the situation yet).  It’s been a long time since being a librarian was just about books, if, indeed, it ever was just about books.  We know our profession is often misunderstood (how many times have you been asked, “Wow, you have to go to school for that?” or “Did you take a class in shushing people?”), and thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even some prospective librarians aren’t entirely sure what their future job entails.

The problem, as those of us on the inside know all too well, is that it’s hard to find a job in this field.  The number of qualified candidates far outstrips demand and the current economic situation has only made things worse.  We fear that the person who comes into librarianship just because they love books is never going to be able to clearly articulate other reasons why they became a librarian, and they’re going to rot on the job market because of it.

So, current and future LIS students, here are my thoughts on the subject.  There is no inherent shame in loving books.  We all do.  But that can’t, and shouldn’t, be your only reason for becoming a librarian, and it especially won’t fly when you find yourself at a job interview.  There needs to be more substance to your thought process than that.  So, if you’re still in the stage where you’re considering LIS programs, I would spend some time researching the profession before deciding if it’s really for you (and spending a ton of money on earning your degree).  Volunteer at a local library if you can.  Ask a local librarian or two if you can shadow them for a few days to get a better sense of the work they do.  If you’re already in library school and preparing to go on the job market soon, start thinking about how you’re going to answer the question “Why did you become a librarian?”  Because you almost certainly will be asked (I heard this question in all of my interviews at least once).

And before anyone asks me again, I became a librarian in a round-about sort of way.  I was pursuing doctoral-level education in another field, where I was also working as a teaching assistant.  I eventually came to the realization that I liked teaching more than I liked the daily grind of doing dissertation research.  And I liked helping other people (like my students) with their research more than I liked doing my own.  I loved helping them find that “a -ha” moment, where they learn something new, particularly when it was a skill, like a database search, that would help them through the rest of their school years, maybe even their lives.  I also love tinkering with technology – figuring out how things work and how people can use them in their lives and research.   And when I sat down to discuss all of this with my advisor, he said it sounded like I would be happier as a librarian.  He was right.  I still get to teach (without having to grade papers, which is just an added bonus), I get to feed my insatiable curiosity every day by assisting students and faculty with their research papers, which run the gamut from accounting to zoology, and, since I’m at a small school where I also serve as the educational technologist for the faculty, I get to tinker endlessly with new software and hardware everyday.  And yes, I love books, too.

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.