I sometimes (I would not say often) get asked about being a librarian. Why I did it, how best to do it, any other advice for the baby librarians out there. It is a a common curiosity. Librarianship is still seen as mysterious, romanticized, stereotyped. On one level, people’s expressions shift when they realize you likely need a Master’s degree to even apply for the job (more if you work in a specialized field). On another level, there is genuine public confusion as to what we do all day.
Sometimes I have good answers to questions, other times I don’t. I am not the best person to come to for advice in all scenarios and there are plenty of other librarians I think you should turn to (see the list below). I’ve learned a lot from others and can only speak to my experience working in academic libraries.
We are an eclectic bunch. All librarians come into this field differently. Some have different expectations. Some have more means to understand what they’re getting into before they begin. Librarians talk about it so much that I believe we are in search of constant validation for how our own strange journey got us to where we are. Nothing about librarianship feels “normal” to me in the context of other jobs, so I think it’s only justified. We sit in a place that starts to blur capitalism and socialism, access to information and gatekeeping. Maybe me telling you might thoughts will help you be reassured of your place. Please reassure me of mine!
Here’s my list of frequently asked questions and answers. I will update as I come across new ones.
Q. When did you first consider being a librarian?
A. My well-rounded answer would be when I was a pre-teen spending the night at my best friend’s house. I watched The Mummy for the first time and I fell in love with Evelyn (played by Rachel Weisz). I wanted to be just like her (as in, go in adventures and fight evil mummies). But then, as I grew up, I realized that librarians in my typical library didn’t seem to have as much fun so I quickly forgot that thought until my senior year in college. I was an English Lit. major with no plan. I thought about getting alternatively certified as a teacher once I graduated as a backup plan, but knew grad school sounded like fun. But what would I go for? My friend suggested librarianship–that she was tossing around getting her MLIS. We could do it together. So, with no other great ideas, I applied. It was a rush job. I wish I had known that you should probably plan a year out, but I didn’t know any better. I remember saying up late into the AM to get stuff submitted. I didn’t miss deadlines, but there was a lot of stress. I wish I had looked into what grad school was going to be like a bit more. But, I didn’t know what I did not know. I was 22 and from a family that had never gotten more than a Bachelor’s degree. I recommend finding some “How to apply and survive” grad school books. I’ve read some after the fact and was like “Damn, I wish I had done that.”
It also didn’t help that my school’s MLIS program info was a hot mess. It was scattered all over in various nooks and crannies of their website. Communication was not very clear at the time. There were a lot of moving parts I did not understand. I don’t know if I even should have understood. I think universities are getting better about that sort of thing, though. Email and online applications/portals were just starting to be a standard thing at the time.
Q. What was applying to grad school like?
A. It was a bit silly. Applying to library school is different than other schools, I feel like. We don’t quite seem to know how best to vet people and every school requires different things. I remember having to write an essay, submit my sad resume, asking 3 people to write letters of recommendation for me. I generally think letters of recommendation are barriers to access. Why can’t my grades speak for themselves? But I certainly think they speak volumes more than any GRE or entrance exam. Shortly after I had to take the GRE, my school removed the requirement for new applicants. Lucky them! The GRE was a waste of time and money for me. I have a lot of test anxiety and adding very little time to study on top of that did not make applying to grad school a fun experience for me. Though I’m not proud of my score or application, I was accepted. That was all that mattered to me. I did not want there to be an interruption between when I would get my next student loan offering. It was kind of a matter of survival, honestly.
Q. What was grad school like?
A. I wish I had enjoyed the ride a bit more. Rather, I wish I had been able to. I was paying for it, after all. I’m in debt with student loans because of it. If I could do things differently, I would have tried to take in-person classes, because I completed my degree completely online. Most of the classes I could have benefited from in retrospect were offered on-campus only at the time. I took what was offered just so I could complete the degree. I needed to finish quickly. I cut corners to save time and money. I needed a job. I needed healthcare. I did not have the privilege of supportive parents during this time in my life. I was working 2 part time jobs and squeezing in studies in between. Do I regret doing my degree all online? No. It allowed me to work my jobs at 2 different libraries and get experience. But if you can do things differently, maybe you should. What I do not recommend is quitting school and saving up money to go or “taking time off” to figure things out. That’s when life will pass you by. You might not go back. There is no point in working a job that barely pays if you can go school and graduate with a degree that will help you get a better job. I would rather have done things slightly differently than never have done them at all.
Speaking of which. I really wish I could have taken a cataloging class. It wasn’t mandatory for me and there were no online course offerings at the time. Another thing I (maybe?) wish I had done was changed my advisor. After the first two meetings with them (the second ending with me in tears), I should have fought for my right to have a a decent one. Mine was not that for me. I went it alone rather than potentially cause a scene. Mine did not keep me informed of due dates and, in fat, mislead me about them. Mine also basically advised me to take only one course my first semester, which I could not do if I wanted financial aid (so she was effectively telling me to drop out), and she also sent my resume to people without my consent. In that last one, my advisor was trying to help me get me a job as a GA (graduate assistant), which would have gotten me a tuition waiver. It was hard to be mad at that, but I realized after the fact it had harmed more than helped. More on that later.
There was a lot wrong with how the department functioned, but I was too young to know how to complain and it’s probably better that I didn’t. Librarians all seem to know each other and it is not worth burning bridges. There was just so much miscommunication and lack of caring about me as a student that I cannot recommend my school as the place to go to library school. However, it was the only school which is ALA accredited in my state. So, I did not have a lot of choices. I just have no loyalty to my school or program because of it. I complained on exit surveys or faculty feedback forms, though. I like to think my voice might have changed a few things. The program does seem to have gotten better, from what I can tell of the new graduates. However, my program recently got a warning about its accreditation status. It still has a ways to go.
Q. Should I try to be a GA?
A. I never was one. Like I said above, I did apply to be one. But not because I was well informed about what was happening. I later did not see the point of being a GA, which is basically a work study position. Sure, you can get experience, but I was already getting that in the 2 libraries I was working at and had guaranteed stability at both. GA positions, as I understand them, are available only from semester to semester. So, keeping your position is not a guaranteed thing and I think you might have to reapply each time. They may be worth it for the tuition waiver, but I also didn’t want to lose my foot in the door at the two institutions I was working at. One did offer me a full-time position when I graduated. You have to weigh the pros and cons. I personally find them exploitative in the overall system.
Q. Did you write a thesis?
A. No. I did a final comp. For Comps at my institution, they give you a prompt and you write it out by a certain date. There was also the option to do a portfolio, where you have to present in front of a panel and get asked questions. That sounded like too much work and, thanks to my advisor, I missed the deadlines on anyway. I am glad I did Comps, though. You defalt to that unless you choose otherwise. I am a strong writer and would choose to do it again if I had to. I’m always surprised to see how many people actually don’t pass Comps. They post the data on it in an email each time it’s given out: “X# took the exam. X# passed.” Alumnus are also invited to attend the portfolio presentations. You might try to attend one of those if you’re thinking about going that route. Find a librarian who will give you the deets.
Q. How was getting a job as a librarian?
A. I actually got a job as a librarian before I got the degree! I was a part-time librarian for a small seminary library while finishing up my last year the MLIS. A little before that, I got a job as a part-time aide at a community college library. I worked both of those part-time jobs while going to grad school. A little after I graduated, the seminary library offered me a full-time position. It fell in my lap and I do realize how lucky I was to be handed a full-time position. I literally had no plan otherwise (maybe I would have found a PhD program somewhere once I figured out what I wanted to do), but otherwise those two part-time jobs were going to be my meal ticket. Library jobs (not just librarian jobs) do not grow on trees.
In fact, the first library-related job I had was the aide job at the community college. I feel like they only considered me because I had been accepted into grad school. I was blunt in the interview about needing experience and not being sure if librarianship was even right for me (how could I be? I had never worked in a library before!). Before that I only had food industry jobs and experience working at a now-closed video rental store (oddly very close to library work, honestly!). I feel like if you are a grad student applying for certain entry-level library jobs, you are fighting an uphill battle. You are not yet qualified to be a librarian, but you are also seen as a threat to the other librarians who wonder why you are applying to “such a low position.” I have sat in interviews where librarians worried that the graduate applicant would be telling them how to do their jobs, that they would not be happy doing grunt work, that we would lose them when they did graduate. Libraries are not as willing to give you experience as you think they might be. Unless, perhaps, you want to work for free. Shadowing might also be an option, but it is helpful if you know someone willing to set that up for you or ask on your behalf. So, my best advice on applying to jobs as a graduate student is to be humble and reinforce you know your place.
Q. What is the interview process like?
A. For the first librarian job I got (for a part-time position), it was just one interview. A one-on-one thing. I only got the interview because the dean at the community college where I was an aide (see previous answer) knew I was looking for more work. I had just applied at her college library for an instruction librarian position and did not get it (but the interview was good practice!). She forwarded me the job posting and knew the library director at the library where I would get the first librarian job. Like I said, all librarians know each other!
For the other librarian positions I’ve applied for (public and academic), there have been MULTIPLE stages of interviews. The public library, once you pass the first stage, won’t make you do it again if you end up applying for another position apparently. I have enjoyed attending public library interviews, because you learn a lot about your city that way–and how different they are from academic libraries. Interviews are good practice, and are key networking opportunities (re: dean of community college library still hooked me up even though I didn’t get the library instruction job!). I learned this as I went along, but I wish someone had told me in my first library-related interview. I might have backed out right then and there because I was NOT ready.
I will also say that interviews are good to start while you are still in grad school. Start applying before you have the degree. Go in humbly, and they might be willing to take a chance on you. Interviews will show you what you really want to do in your career, issues you might be overlooking when you look at job postings, and what you need to learn more about.
I once applied for a cataloging position in the college library I currently work at when I was still full-time somewhere else. The first interview went fine and I got a call back to do the second round, but by that time I had realized their vision for the position did not match what I originally thought. It was more than I was willing to invest. I had also learned more about who I would be working with and official duties–stuff they couldn’t cram into the job posting. I was glad I backed out and waited until the position I later got opened up. It wasn’t a good fit–at the time or ever (at the time, my grandfather was put on hospice so changing jobs also did not seem like a good idea). I am really glad I went to the interview, though, because it gave me even greater perspective for how the library functions at the librarian level, which I think helped me understand the next position I applied for with them.
My library typically has at least 2 stages of interviews for librarian positions, depending on the amount of applicants. One with the hiring committee, and one where you do a teaching demo or presentation over a topic in front of all the librarians. For position I ended up getting, there were 3 stages. They added a phone interview to weed out candidates before pulling people in. Presenting in front of peers (and, frankly, people you may have worked with previously or gone to school with because LIBRARIANS ALL KNOW EACH OTHER), is the scariest part, I think.
Q. What librarians should I follow for more advice and insight?
A. These, just to name a few. Drop others in the comments, but these I want to particularly highlight because I’ve learned a lot from them: