So you want to be a librarian?

This week has brought several questions from people who maybe want to be librarians into my life, so it seems about time for another round of my advice for people considering the field. I’m mostly going to be talking here about people who are interested in MLIS requiring positions in libraries (including special libraries) but I’ll touch on other roles in libraries as well.

My advice is also US centric: I gather much of it is also true in Canada. While I think the general ideas apply other places, the specifics might not, so research your own location.

The realities of the field:

There are so many amazing things in libraries and librarianship, but there are also a number of real challenges. It’s good to think hard about whether those challenges are things you are up to dealing with before you spend time and money on getting a degree.

Some of the practical issues:

  • The vision of libraries as quiet temples to knowledge just isn’t true now (and honestly, hasn’t been for a while). If you’re not comfortable dealing with people, you will have limited job options. (see “Self-awareness”, below.)
  • A lot of traditional libraries are tied in one way or another to government-controlled funding. This can come with a lot of unpredictability and potential instability.
  • A number of libraries and library systems are reducing staff (or have done so), or are reducing the number of MLIS-required positions. Many MLIS requiring jobs require at least some amount of management duties.  (See “What these jobs involve”, below).
  • Library salaries are generally low compared to the amount of education required for equivalent professional positions.  Especially in publicly funded library positions (public libraries, public schools, public higher education, etc.) raises may be few and far between or controlled by people outside the library.
  • In a number of places (especially close to library schools), there are a lot more people who would like to be librarians than there are open positions. This is particularly true for entry-level positions.
  • Modern librarianship is complex, with many moving and sometimes rapidly changing pieces. An ability to keep up with your own professional development and research new tools, current issues, and concerns (without spending a lot of money on it) is essential.
  • Many library jobs these days involve an ability to deal with a diverse range of people and personalities, sometimes in very stressful situations, or in situations where some people are actively antagonistic.

In some parts of the field (archives, for example) many of the available positions are part time or grant funded and only last a limited period of time. Some people really enjoy this variety, or they combine it with other things in their life (freelancing, a flexible part time job doing something else, a financially supportive spouse or partner) but a lot of people find the uncertainty stressful.

A number of library schools and library organizations advertise that there will be openings in the field as people retire. They’ve been saying that for years, and while it’s sort of true, there aren’t nearly enough to make up for all the people coming out with MLIS degrees. If you actually want a job as a librarian, you should be aware of that, and that you’re likely going to need to do significant preparation outside of your courses, and also be flexible about your career choices.

Do you have library experience?

It is very hard at this point to get a library job without previous experience in libraries, or something very similar.If you are not currently working in a library (or have not in the past) will you be able to take a part time job in one that would let you do meaningful projects? Can you arrange your time and financial situation to allow you to do an extensive internship? If you are looking at a library school near you, do they have part time reference jobs?

Useful experience is the kind that demonstrates you have done the tasks of the job you want to apply for. You may or may not have attended meetings or done management tasks (often not part of the job for part time positions or interns) but here’s a range of skills that will give you options when applying for MLIS requiring jobs:

  • Answering reference questions on different topics.
  • Assisting with longer research projects.
  • Doing collection development. (Selecting materials to be included or withdrawn from a collection)
  • Creating resources, documentation, or educational materials that explain complex questions in useful ways.
  • Working with different kinds of patrons (based on your interests).
  • Dealing with difficult patron situations.
  • Managing extensive data that requires attention to detail – cataloging, obviously, is part of this, but some other business tasks (development research, customer management software, etc.) can demonstrate similar skills.
  • Cultivating an ability to learn new technology tools effectively and quickly. (more on this below.)

You can definitely use other experiences (working in a bookstore, managing files, technology skills, volunteer projects, etc.) to help you demonstrate ability with at least some of these things, but as a rule, you can expect the application pool for entry-level jobs to have a number of people with library experience and good skills in many of these areas, and someone without that background will need to have exceptional qualifications in some other way to stand out in most hiring pools.

Available jobs:

I often tell people who ask me this question that you should prepare yourself to have a choice only one of the following: where you live, what kind of library you work in, and what kind of job you have in that library. You might  get lucky and find a job that meets your preferences for all three, but don’t count on it.

If you need to stay in a given location (because of a spouse, partner, other family, or other reasons), you’ll likely need to be very flexible about the type of jobs you look for. If you want a very specific kind of job, you will probably need to be willing to move. This is especially true early in your career.

Take a good hard look at job postings in areas you’d be willing to live with. Good places to start this kind of search include I Need A Library Job (note that each day’s list only has that day’s postings) and posting lists from library commissions or statewide organizations, as well as job lists hosted by library schools or professional organizations.

Don’t just look once:
Come back and check at regular intervals. Look at the job duties, the requirements, and what people list about things like salary and work hours. Obviously, the kinds of available jobs will change over the time you’re in school, but it will give you a sense of what the market is like. When I’m job hunting, I bookmark a bunch of the relevant pages and load them once or twice a week.

Over time, you may also see some useful patterns, like the fact a particular library has very significant turnover – that might suggest that something is dysfunctional or a problem there – or that certain kinds of jobs seem to have a good upward progression (people start in an assistant job, but move up into professional or full time positions fairly regularly.)

What those jobs involve:

Administration or service?
One noticeable change in the field in the past decade or so is that more and more MLIS requiring jobs now have a significant aspect of management to them. This may involve a variety of administrative tasks: supervising employees, managing a budget, meetings about specific legal or local requirements, and so on. A number of librarians I’ve heard from find this frustrating, and that it takes them away from the things they like more about the profession, like helping people find information and solve problems in their lives.

If what you really like is the circulation-desk exchanges with library patrons, or on the ground reference work, consider whether a non-MLIS position might be more satisfying for you. If you’re not sure, you may want to see if you can try it out before committing to grad school.

Basically, this is similar to other professions: some people really prefer the work of a paralegal to being a lawyer, or the direct patient care of working at length with a patient of being a nurse, rather than the shorter more limited time that is true for most doctors or especially specialists. It makes a lot of sense to figure out if that’s true for you before you get a degree that may limit you getting those kinds of jobs.

The size of the library:
In larger libraries, you may do only a small set of tasks. For example, a reference and instruction librarian at a university with a large library may spend almost all their time answering reference questions, creating resources (like LibGuides) or being in meetings about doing those things. A systems librarian or technology librarian may spend most of their time making things work, troubleshooting technical problems, or providing tools for new tools (and often managing projects for upcoming upgrades or system changes.) And so on.

In smaller libraries, the librarian may wear a bunch of different hats, rather than specialise. For example, at my job (in the library part, it’s just me and an assistant who’s in the library role 15 hours a week), she does a lot of the shelving, ordering, and serial processing, but I do a bit of all of that when needed, as well as reference questions and research, creating resources, meetings about specific needs on campus and elsewhere, and I also have those management tasks I mentioned above, though they don’t take a large chunk of any given week usually.

Considering schools:

This is the short section of this commentary, because it’s really pretty simple. If you decide you want an MLIS degree after you do your research, pick the ALA accredited school that is cheapest and logistically most feasible for you that meets your needs. (i.e. if you want teacher certification or archives specialisation, or something else specific, you may have fewer options.)

Do not take on any more debt than is absolutely necessary.

Look for options that will mean you can get library-specific experience that fits your situation. For some people, that’s going to school full time, but getting a job as a library assistant or doing one or more extended internships. For other people, that’s getting a job in a library and doing the degree part time. It may be something else for you, but think about the consequences of your choices.

It’s probably worth giving some preference to a physically local school if there are opportunities for library-related jobs or internships while you’re in school, or if you’ll actively participate in student organizations, but if you don’t live near a library school, or what it offers isn’t a good fit for you, there are some good distance programs now.

Going to a program local to you can be a good thing, but mostly it’s probably neutral. On the positive side, you can network with people who may also be in the area for a long time. (You will also be competing against them for jobs in the area and some people find this stressful.) On the other hand, some libraries actively like getting applications from people with experience outside their local area, since it can bring in new approaches or ways of doing something.

Do check into the school’s current reputation, and especially if there are any concerns about accreditation that would affect your expected graduation date. You may also decide you want a specific focus (archives and school librarianship are the two most common places this applies) which may affect your choices, especially the latter, since teaching certification varies from state to state.

Giving yourself the best options:

You can do a lot while you’re in school to help give yourself the best range of options after graduation. I’ve already talked about getting library-specific experience (which will also often help you with the things below), but here are some other skills you seriously want to give thought to acquiring.


Do you like to be around and help people?
A lot of people consider being a librarian a great job for an introvert, but the reality is that most library jobs these days involve dealing with people. Often, that’s one on one, in sequence (something this introvert enjoys), or in more structured settings (like instruction settings or programming, where the librarian can do some things the way that helps them do their job best).

Back room cataloging jobs are getting fewer and further between these days, though some library technology jobs offer the same kind of focused space to work. If you really want to deal with people at more distance, or only specific co-workers most of the time, you might want to loo at other fields.

Are you good with work that involves details and some repetitive tasks?
Most library jobs have some of this. Sometimes it’s being at a reference desk and having five out of ten questions being “Where’s the bathroom?” or “Can I borrow your stapler?”. Sometimes it’s spending hours working through lists of materials, cataloging details, links on a website, or books on a shelf, to make sure things are in order and working as they’re supposed to. Even jobs that are more focused on programming, children, or teens, may have elements of planning or documentation or creating booklists that can get a bit tedious over time.

While a lot of jobs that involve reference do include exciting new questions, if you’re not good with consistent detail-focused work, you’re probably going to have trouble with some types of library work.

How do you do your best work?
Is working in a busy public library where you spend a lot of your time helping with questions or managing space something you’ll enjoy? Or do you want a job that focuses on longer projects? Can you do good work if you are answering with irregular questions while working on other tasks? (i.e. working on a project or ongoing task, but pausing whenever someone has a reference question? This is pretty common in a lot of library positions.) Are you comfortable working independently and coming up with solutions, or do you need more structure in your tasks and how you do them?

How do you feel about mediating the use of space?
Especially in public or school libraries, making sure people follow the rules for the use of different library spaces (noise, food and drink, sleeping, other behaviours) is part of the job. It’s often one many librarians dislike (we want to welcome people!) but it’s also often necessary if those behaviours are causing trouble for other people in the library who are also using the space.

What kinds of spaces do you do your best work in?
After one particular job, I am now extremely clear that I do very badly in an open-plan space where there’s lots of background noise and continual activity. I’m happy to do reference desk shifts in public spaces, but I also need quieter space for focused projects and some kinds of work (and just for me to be able to do a good job in general.)

What’s important to you about the structure of your work place?
Some places may have a lot of structure and established procedures, others may be a lot more open-ended (but you have to figure out how to do your job without a lot of direct training or support, because you’re the only person doing that thing.)

In some kinds of library jobs, you’re working with lots of other librarians. (Which can be great, but there are also libraries out there that are pits of dysfunctional behaviour, or where there’s enough interpersonal stress to be decidedly unpleasant. I’ve had a job where people clearly didn’t like me. It was not fun.) In other kinds of jobs, you may be the only librarian (or maybe a librarian and assistant) reporting to people who don’t understand libraries or librarianship. This can be really challenging in other ways.

Many people do better with some of these options than others, and figuring that out before you get to the point of job hunting will help a lot.

Awareness of the field:

Navigating librarianship as a profession is a skill by itself.

Keeping up with what’s going on: 
Most librarians don’t get a lot of professional development money (many of us maybe get a conference a year, and usually if it’s local or otherwise inexpensive, plus whatever our own organisation might provide or local library events). So we rely on blogs and discussion forums and professional publications to help us keep up with what we need to be thinking about.

Particular topics to consider at the moment:
Right now, there are a lot of discussions about the use of technology, information literacy, privacy, and how to navigate political decisions that affect or may affect our libraries, patrons, and communities. Along with this are the ongoing discussions about how we teach people to find information, how we provide resources, how we balance immediate desires (the latest new books) against having materials for less common but still important goals (like accurate health or research materials), and how we encourage people to use our libraries and resources.

Creating a career:
On a larger scale, we also need to navigate our profession from job to job. It’s rare these days to be somewhere we might stay through retirement. Job hunts can take a long time, even if you’re doing everything right.

My last job hunt, I was applying selectively but regularly for most of that time, and I got interviews for about half my applications, which is a great result.  (And I’m also mid-career these days, which helps). But it still took about 18 months to get an offer. Learning how to present yourself and your skills well is a different thing than doing those skills well, but if you want to be a librarian, it’s a pretty necessary thing.

(You can’t really start hunting for MLIS requiring jobs too much before you earn the degree, so your first job hunt will be particularly challenging. Knowing how to write great cover letters and resumes and respond to the questions people might have about your experience fits their needs is key.)

The reality of how libraries are paid for.
I started my last job hunt because I could see financial and organisational changes at my previous job that made me think the long-term prospects weren’t great, and I was the most recent hire in the library. (And then there were some specific changes that were not a great fit for me in particular, and about four months later my job was cut, though with six months warning due to union agreements, so I stepped up my search.)

People have asked me how I saw that coming, and what I say is that I was paying attention to hiring and firing at the institution as a whole, and in similar institutions and particularly in positions sort of like mine (professional roles which were not driven solely by student numbers or other related needs.) If you’re interested in school libraries (and to some degree public universities and community colleges), take a close look at student populations in the places you want to live, and whether they’re growing or shrinking in the next 5-10 years.

If you don’t develop this skill, think of other ways to build up options for yourself, like a really significant emergency fund, side freelance work, or keeping up with highly employable skills you have for other reasons.

Soft skills:

I mentioned above that most library jobs involve dealing with people these days. Whether you’re answering their questions, managing materials, in meetings, supervising other people at the library, or something else, you’ll have more success in the profession if you can deal with other people using clear and appropriate communication, and manage what you’re doing in a way that works for you and the situation.

Exactly what skills matter most depends on the kind of job (a children’s librarian is going to go about this differently than a special librarian in a law office), but in general, the following things will help you have more choices:

Strong written communication skills:
The ones you are likely to use most are the ability to write effective emails or document an issue that’s come up, but being able to create how-to guides or other resources is common too. You don’t need to be the best person ever at these, but reliably competent is a good goal.  In general, strong typing skills are never going to hurt you (by which I mean reasonably fast, reasonably accurate (corrected is fine), and an ability to proofread your own writing reasonably well.

Pleasant in-person communication skills:
I’m not suggesting you need to be Always Perky here, but being welcoming and friendly, especially with people who may be nervous or uncomfortable makes a big difference in many libraries. This means being willing to figure out a style of being welcoming and friendly that works for you, and seems to work for the people you interact with most of the time. It also means having methods for getting tasks done pleasantly and collaboratively even when you’re having a bad day or bad week.

Some library jobs have very little public speaking, but in a lot of jobs you’ll be asked to do it occasionally (lead a training session for staff, lead a specific program or book group, report on a project.) In some jobs, like instruction librarian positions, you’d do a lot of it, so avoid these jobs if you find presenting stressful.

An ability to recognise when you need to ask for help or step back:
Sometimes someone needs a kind of help you’re not good at, someone else is more expert at that topic, or a situation has escalated in a way that means you need some support. There is no prize for handling everything yourself, even though it is sometimes necessary. Knowing when to get back up or hand something over to someone better able to handle it is a key thing for long-term success.

A lot of librarians have a very strong desire to help, often at significant cost to our own well-being. We stay late to do one last thing, we work weird hours to cover for other people, we work in settings with stressful setups, use outdated technology that makes our work significantly slower or harder to save money, we may have long-term financial stresses because of our choice of profession.

But often, self-martyrdom can lead to burnout, to bad service to the patrons and libraries we work in, and all sorts of other harmful things. Learning when we can say “Hey, this thing would help a lot.” or “This might  be a better choice than that for these reasons” can be very powerful.

An ability to advocate thoughtfully:
By this, I mean advocating for the needs of your library patrons, your library, and yourself. Understand what reasonable requests look like, what different kinds of unreasonable demands look like, and what some options for dealing with them are. Knowing what other people in the profession are doing about similar questions is a big help here.


One last topic is ‘what should you take in your MLIS’. Unless you know you want to specialise, I suggest you take your required classes, and then courses that can be widely applied. “Information Seeking Behavior” is adaptable to a lot of possible libraries and jobs, “Children’s Literature” is a lot more limited. A lot of library school technology classes lag behind current technologies in use: you may want to plan time to work through self-training exercises, building a site or tool for a project, or something else of the kind to demonstrate your skills and use that class for something else.

The classes I found I’ve used the most from from my own degree have been:

  • Information Seeking Behavior
  • User Instruction
  • Collection Development (this particular class had an amazing professor, who also did a lot of “What you should know about the profession” preparation around our actual coursework. Thank you, Dr. Lesniaski!) 
  • Information Policy

Technology skills:

Technology is an ever increasing part of our lives. You don’t need to be able to code from scratch for most library jobs, but you will find a lot more options if you can do most of the following:

  • Handle common tasks in Microsoft Office and equivalent applications (in general: write and format documents, do basic spreadsheet tasks like simple formulas, sorting, and filtering, and making presentation slides will be a good start.)
  • Self-teach yourself how to use a new general technology (i.e. “How does Twitter work?” “How does this new chat app work?”, “What’s different about this app people are talking about?”) You don’t need to be an expert, just figure out the common uses.
  • Have enough web editing skills to edit in a WYSIWYG editor on an existing website (i.e. create and edit pages and posts in WordPress, Drupal, or other similar setups.) and to edit text, links, etc. in other sets of code (but not necessarily create that code yourself.)
  • Create simple readable images to advertise for library events, make signs, etc. (If you haven’t done any of this, play around with designs on Canva or another online image editor.)
  • Have some understanding of accessibility issues online, especially alt-text and image descriptions.
  • Understand basic troubleshooting on computers, and feel comfortable doing searches to figure out solutions. (In many cases, this will mean Windows machines.) Understand what kinds of errors are serious, and what you can try and solve by looking around first.
  • Have some understanding of what mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.) can do, and how those resources fit with library services (i.e. access to the catalog via an app, responsive websites, etc.)
  • Awareness of privacy issues with online communication, and resources where people can learn more for specific situations.
  • Ability to use technology to collaborate on projects – how to use file servers, Google Docs or other collaborative writing and editing tools, chat or wikis for internal documentation, etc.

In some jobs, being able to indicate you have experience handling answering questions by email can be very helpful, or experience and comfort with chat. These are things people often pick up through personal use or volunteer projects, so don’t be afraid to mention your familiarity in work settings, as long as you can demonstrate the skills or show off something that involved them.

One really easy way to demonstrate a number of the technology skills is to set up a basic professional website for yourself, with pages and a blog. That way you can demonstrate your comfort with a number of things even if you don’t use them in your current job, and potential employers can look at what you’ve done. (When I’ve been actively job hunting, I usually also pick up link roundups here, because it’s a way to indicate quietly that I’m keeping up with others in the profession.)

Other tech skills may also be very helpful. One I don’t have, but that would have opened up a number more jobs to me is being able to edit or write scripts to manage information or access information from other sites.

Reconsidering librarianship?

I strongly believe there are tons of other interesting jobs out there that don’t necessarily require the MLIS degree. (Though some of the jobs here may also be an option with an MLIS degree, especially one that focuses on information sciences or information management).

If you like managing information, but don’t think being a librarian is the right fit, here’s some other possible options to explore:

  • Records management (handling files – digital or analogue – often in a business or government setting.)
  • Documentation and tech writing (attention to detail and ability to learn quickly can be a great fit if you’re also a decent writer here.)
  • Development and grant writing (A lot of development work involves research into possible donors or resources, and grant writing can really reward attention to detail and ability to research.)
  • Big Data and data management projects in general: research, statistics, and details.
  • Competitive intelligence or business consulting
  • Various technology roles: if you like helping people, look for jobs on the support or training side, if you like dealing with details, consider building skills to maintain systems.
  • Social media, especially if you enjoy (and are good at) exploring new ways of using technology and are comfortable with a variety of writing approaches.
  • Training: many companies have internal training for employees, and often people who like teaching others and sharing information find these interesting.
  • User instruction design / user experience : Making technology tools easier to use or creating learning materials.
  • Accessibility : There are an increasing number of jobs helping ensure accessibility for different groups or needs. It may involve technology or other review, or may involve working with individuals to coordinate accommodations.
  • Human resources : A lot of the same skills that make a good librarian (details, managing information) also fit well with human resources jobs.

Some further resources:

Looking for other takes on the field? Here are some places to look:

Ask A Manager
A great job-hunting resource, and full of amusing questions (also good for calibrating what’s reasonable in a workplace). There’s an open thread on Fridays, and a number of librarians hang out in the comments. There are frequent questions from people interested in librarianship, and you can look through those threads to find them. (For example, there’s two different questions like that in the open thread from the week I’m writing this post.)

If you’re job hunting or considering it, Alison’s book is the single most useful thing I did in either of my last two job hunts. Much of the info is also on her site, but the book puts it all in one convenient place.
Metafilter has a number of areas (I recommend the original Metafilter as a great way to stay informed about what’s going on in the world: links to quality information and discussion.) A number of questions on the advice section – Ask Metafilter – have included people asking about going into libraries. Again, a bunch of library folk hang out there. (One of the site’s longtime staff members, now retired from that role, is Jessamyn West, see below.)

This tag should get you some of the conversations, and you can narrow or try others with the sidebar tags. Commenting requires a one time membership fee ($5) for the site, but you can read as much as you like. (If you do decide to post, Metafilter has active moderation and its own style, so read the guidelines and maybe lurk and read for a bit before commenting extensively.)

Jessamyn West: 
There are lot of library resources out there, but one of my favourite all purpose roundups right now is Jessamyn’s email newsletter. (She also has a website). It comes out roughly weekly, and there are great links that have a wide range of interesting things. More focused on public library use, but things for other kinds of librarians too, and generally a good look at significant things in the field.

I have a lot of other library blogs and resources in my RSS reader, but that’s a whole other post.

Questions? Comments?

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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