• Making it Work: Surviving as a Librarian Employed in Another Field

    March 6, 2013
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    In Brief: On average, it takes approximately five months for LIS graduates to find a library job, according to Library Journal’s 2012 Placements and Salaries Survey (Matta 2012). This time frame represents the experience of 34% of 2011 graduates, but stories of months- or year-long job searches are common (Weak 2012). While some can afford to wait or get by with part-time work, others cannot, so they begin to look outside the LIS field for opportunities. This article identifies effective strategies for maintaining connections to the library world while employed in a seemingly unrelated field and draws on interviews, research, and the author’s personal experience to illuminate these strategies.

    Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives (CC BY 2.0)

    A Familiar Story

    I began my job search in earnest approximately three months before I graduated from library school. Realizing that the job market would be competitive, I applied to both professional and paraprofessional positions, but to no avail. I graduated and moved back to my hometown, taking advantage of my parents’ offer of free housing, but eager to begin the professional career that I had been confident would start shortly after graduation. I was lucky that one of my rejections came with an offer for a part-time, paraprofessional job staffing the reference desk of a mid-sized university library. Thankful for the experience I would gain, I eagerly accepted the job and found that the position reignited my passion for reference. I was excited to have discovered my niche: I was a reference librarian.

    However, even as I steered my full-time job search towards reference and instruction jobs, I grew increasingly discouraged. I knew that I couldn’t support myself only working part-time, so I began applying to non-LIS positions. It took two months of persistence, but I was able to land a communications job at a nearby university. Since my undergraduate degree was in print journalism, it was related to my interests. However, I didn’t go to library school because I wanted to continue working as a freelance writer and editor! I went to library school because instead of telling people’s stories as a journalist, I wanted to empower them to find the information that they could use to tell their own stories.

    I accepted people’s congratulations about my new position while fighting back the nagging feeling that I was a fraud. I felt like I was giving up on my dream, even though accepting this job didn’t mean I would stop looking for a librarian position. As a person fortunate enough to have both a supportive family and a part-time library job, I still felt that I should be taking advantage of that support to gain more direct LIS experience, even if it meant more personal struggles. Something had to come through eventually, right? In the end though, my impending student loan payments, lack of healthcare, and desire for stability won out over the waiting game.

    Does my story sound familiar? Many new librarians get caught in the catch-22 of needing experience to get a job, but unable to gain that experience for some reason or another. Perhaps part-time LIS work wasn’t fiscally possible, so you couldn’t build your resume sufficiently to get an interview for a full-time position. Maybe you couldn’t wait six to nine months to hear back from your dream academic library, or discovered that the public libraries in your area hadn’t hired new employees in years. For whatever reason, you just couldn’t get a job in a library. You’re not alone: Library Journal’s 2012 Placements and Salaries Survey reports that 18.3% of job placements in 2011 were outside LIS in the private industry, nonprofits, and the fields of law, retail, and finance (Matta 2012). The good news for those of us stuck in LIS “unemployment” is that even if you take a job outside of the field, you can still find your way back. Your MLS degree can be put to use in a variety of research, customer service, and marketing positions, and all of those fields can provide you with skills that will prepare you for future library work. This article is about how to make that happen.

    Taking a Job Outside LIS

    Imagine that after months of futile searching for a librarian position, and then any position at all, you finally get a job offer. As is the case with any hiring scenario, it’s important to think carefully about how a job will benefit your resume before accepting it. It’s tempting to take the first job offer you receive, especially if you’ve been rejected many times before, but you won’t be helping your long-term professional goals if you take the a position that’s the wrong fit. There are several factors to take into consideration beyond wages and benefits. Will the position allow you to refine your current skills or, better yet, grow in an area where you don’t have much experience? If you’re considering taking a job as a receptionist, it’s likely that you won’t just answer phones. You’ll be the face and voice that people associate with the organization, giving you an opportunity to hone your customer service skills.

    Jessica Olin, Director of the Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College, recently wrote on her blog Letters to a Young Librarian about how her past experience as a waitress has made her a better librarian:

    With a customer who had never been to my restaurant, but who was obviously there for a special occasion, I acted one way. With a family of regulars who had been coming to that restaurant longer than I’d been alive, I acted another… Similarly, with a first generation college student in his/her first semester of college, I act one way. With a graduate student who just needs help refining a search strategy, I act another.

    On the surface, it may not seem like a non-LIS position has anything to offer the career you are trying to forge, but drawing connections is a matter of both perspective and practice. If you want to be a reference librarian but your current data entry position doesn’t offer you much interaction with the public, think about how you’re increasing your efficiency and furthering your attention to detail. While it can be challenging to repackage your skills in cover letter, the effort won’t go unrewarded. It may just take longer than you would like to see that reward.

    Career-Relevant Activities

    You don’t have to be working in a library to do work that’s related to librarianship. Making plans, goals, and timelines to build related skills will allow you to regain some control over your career direction. It might seem like more work to formulate plans for your current job while simultaneously continuing your LIS job hunt, but focusing on the beneficial aspects of your current position will enable you to get the most out of the experience—and help you translate that work to future positions.

    Britta Barrett, a 2012 MLS graduate, had no plans on quitting her office administration job at Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle to focus on securing a library job, but she realized that she could add a project to her duties that would expand her skill set while helping her employer. The museum boasts a library, but as Barrett explains, “it has been over a decade since the museum has had full time MLS librarians on staff and there is no indication that will change in the future” (B. Barrett, personal communication, February 4, 2013). Still, she proposed a practicum for academic credit on top of her daily administrative duties, which included conducting a needs analysis, weeding, physically moving materials to a new location, creating a strategic plan, and training and supervising four new cataloging interns. While EMP has not hired her as a librarian, they were so impressed by her work that they’ve officially added librarian duties to her current position and compensated her for the increased workload.

    Whether or not your employer rewards your hard work and initiative monetarily, this sort of approach to non-library work offers a variety of opportunities. Finding ways to bring your career into your day job can benefit your job search: Alan M. Saks and Jelena Zikic (2009) write that “career-relevant activities were positively related to job search self-efficacy and job search clarity. Job seekers who spent more time in both environmental and self career exploration…reported higher job search self-efficacy” (125). Of course, career-relevant activities may encompass a whole variety of things. Maybe it means reading LIS blogs on a daily basis or volunteering twice a month at a library. However you look at it, by committing to continuous professional development, you’ll actually improve the way you feel about your job search.

    Strategic Networking

    Although you may feel a pressing need to seek out opportunities to meet people who can help your job search, your focused professional development strategy should translate to any networking you may want to do as well. Networking is a way to get something you want, but it has to be a journey in and of itself. If I go to an event for the sheer purpose of chance networking rather than because I’m interested in the event itself, I walk away disappointed. For me, it makes the most sense to seek out events and opportunities that revolve around reference and instruction so that I can stay up-to-date on what local university and college libraries are doing to engage users. If I can meet someone who’s doing that work at an event, great! If not, I’m still learning about an area of librarianship that’s exciting to me and that I want to continue learning about.

    Instead of assuming that each person you meet could be your ticket to a great library job, a better approach is to attend events and talk with people you find interesting. Ultimately, networking is about developing and fostering relationships, and if you try to build a relationship based on something you want, you’re not likely to get very far. Emily Cable, a 2012 MLS graduate and full-time restaurant manager, observes:

    [W]hile it is good to meet a lot people in the field, I have found it has been really helpful to form better acquaintances with a smaller number of librarians that you really like. I know a handful of librarians that I meet up with about once a month socially. There is a little bit of shop talk that happens, but it is primarily social. It is through this group that I set up both my practicum and my impending volunteer work/internship with Oregon Health and Sciences University Library” (E. Cable, personal communication, February 2, 2013).

    To find your own groove, think about strategic networking. An article from the Harvard Business Review defines strategic networking as “figuring out future priorities and challenges [and] getting stakeholder support for them” (43). In that light, what are you doing when you’re networking if not figuring out future priorities (your career) and getting stakeholder support for them (by gaining contacts in the library field)? Erica Findley, a 2008 MLS graduate and Digital Resources and Metadata Librarian at Pacific University, explains her experience working post-graduation as a temporary Workforce Management Coordinator for Netflix and volunteering at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU):

    During the time I worked at Netflix, I was volunteering at the Oregon Health & Science University writing data for their digital collections. I did this for about 2-4 hours per week (on weeknights) until July 2010. I began the internship through a lot of serendipity (read: NETWORKING). I was working as an intern on another project at OHSU for someone that interviewed me for another library position; I think in early 2007. I kept in touch with the person and became involved in their project when they moved to OHSU. I started my volunteering in digital collections by hearing about the need for help through word of mouth.

    Findley continued volunteering while working a temporary, non-MLS staff position at Pacific University, which kept being extended. Eventually, a new MLS position was created, and Findley stepped into that role in July 2010 with digital collections experience under her belt (E. Findley, personal communication, February 13, 2013). This story reminds me that networking is not a numbers game. It’s about finding people who you click with and keeping up with them and their work. While I was attending presentations and conferences during library school, I would tell myself that I had to speak with a specific number of people before I left. I meant for this to be an antidote to my shyness, but it turned networking into a competition rather than an engaging experience. I’ve since scrapped that idea, and feel much more at ease with my professional social network.

    Fitting It All In

    Continuous professional development? Taking on additional projects without compensation? Networking? Who has time for all that?  When you’re employed, it can be difficult to carve out time to ruminate on goals and tackle extracurricular activities. But if you don’t know what you want, you certainly won’t be able to take the steps to get it. Also, it’ll be good practice for your future career. Many librarians exceed their forty hours a week with professional development and volunteer projects even when they are employed in a library.

    First things first, though. What kind of time are you willing to dedicate to professional development? Evenings? Weekends? A couple of days a month? Depending on the demands of your current job and your personal life, the answer will vary. Your time commitment will likely dictate the kind of activities you can engage in. If weekends are out of the question, then conferences may not be the best opportunities for you. If you’re willing to dedicate some evenings to pursuing your passion, you may be able to teach a computer class at your local public library. Remember: becoming a librarian or information specialist is your dream career. The extra work is worth it.

    Of course, as many of you know, even volunteer opportunities in libraries can be difficult to come by. As in all things, flexibility is key. Try to look at your interests from all possible angles. You may want to be a children’s librarian, but if your local libraries are fully staffed, why not take the elements of children’s librarianship and try to find an organization that works with children and education? As Kat Tkacik (2012) explains in Library Journal,

    If there’s a waiting list for volunteers at the library, look for other organizations promoting literacy and education. And don’t forget social services. Many shelters and soup kitchens include a computer or two—volunteer your expertise and help a neighbor navigate the job listings on Craigslist.

    On the other hand, if your search is so successful that you find yourself flooded with volunteer opportunities and projects, remember that working yourself into the ground won’t help you succeed. In case you need further advice on doling out the big N-O, check out Emily Ford’s (2009) In the Library with the Lead Pipe article on the subject. Personally I find that if I take on more than a couple of projects outside of work at a time, I’m less than pleasant to my friends and family. Have I taken on more than I should have in the past? Of course. Am I proud of that? Not anymore. To take on projects beyond my capacity does not help my career, nor does it help the organization I’m volunteering with. Working hard also means knowing your limits, and not worrying that those limits will keep you from getting a job you love.

    Continuing Your Search While Maintaining Your Sanity

    Google “job seeking while employed” and you’ll find plenty of blog posts and news stories about the importance of not searching while on the clock or on a work computer. You may think you work in an easygoing environment, but no supervisor will condone job hunting while they are paying you. In addition to limiting your job search to your lunch hour, evenings, and weekends, make sure you keep your hunt manageable. Nothing says “I’m living a balanced life” like working and then rushing home to check thirty job boards while eating a Lean Cuisine. While I have found interesting jobs via a one-off search on Indeed.com (Warning: searching “library” yields loads of nanny postings from parents that are desperate for you to take their children to the library), you will have more luck focusing on curated sources like I Need a Library Job, ALA JobList, or state library association job boards.

    You are in a stage of life that requires some relaxation time, too, so find a way to carve out time for yourself. Maybe that means you don’t look for jobs on the weekends, or that Tuesday nights are your crafting/cooking/doing absolutely nothing nights. Thea Evenstad, a 2012 MLS graduate and program assistant at a children’s science museum, explains:

    Graduate school and the job search have made my life feel lopsided. I think self-care is an important part of the job search and that it’s too easy to feel down with the dramatic highs and lows of the cycle of job applications, interviews, and rejections. I don’t feel guilty enjoying a weekend at the beach with my partner, knowing that I might move to another state soon for a librarian position (T. Evenstad, personal communication, February 11, 2013).

    The calm you gain from that time off will assuage any anxiety you may feel about not looking for a new job or professionally developing yourself during that period of time. Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter conducted a study in which they found that by challenging the idea that  a person must always be available and ready to work, people were more likely to take time off,  and their work improved as a result (104). Since you’re working and trying to find another job, be sure to relax and build in breaks for yourself. You’ve earned them!


    I’m several months into my communications position, and I’ve developed web design, project management, and interpersonal skills that I know will help me when I’m on a future committee that’s redesigning a library website, implementing tools to better track reference interactions, or fostering relationships with faculty members. I spend about thirty minutes several evenings a week checking three LIS job boards and perusing the employment pages of a couple of local university libraries. I continue to apply for positions, but am pickier than when I was unemployed, and I’ve had several phone interviews in the past month. I believe that’s because I’m only writing cover letters for positions I’m truly passionate about.

    In addition to my job search, I’ve managed to create a small but mighty professional network, which includes a librarian that I’m working with to help develop the children’s literature collection at his institution. I’ve never participated in collection development before, and I love every aspect of it, from physically surveying the current collection to figure out what gaps exist to identifying the best children’s awards to draw materials from. I’m thrilled that I’ve been invited to help draft the collection development policy for this particular collection, and feel that the professional writing I do in my current position will serve this project well.

    If, like me, you’re working outside the field, remind yourself that LIS skills aren’t solely developed and utilized within a library. Your day job — whether you’re working in retail, acting as an office administrator, or waiting tables — is providing you not only with a paycheck but with professional qualities that a library will be lucky to have. It might feel overwhelming at times to work while trying to find another job and pursuing professional development opportunities, but that dedication will benefit you throughout your entire career, not just your job search process. It’ll take time and it’ll take a lot of patience, but if you persist, good things will happen. At least that’s what Conan O’Brien and I believe (Glamourbombtv 2010).

    If you ever feel like you’re the only one balancing your future career with your day job, know that you’re not, and reach out! Whether on Twitter, in these comments, or with your former classmates, you’ll be surprised how many people will respond with “I’m going through the same thing, let’s talk” or “Yup, that was me last year, and this is what I did.” If you’ve been or are currently in a similar situation, I’d love to hear your strategies for making the most out of your current or past jobs and how you balance job searching with employment. Please share them in the comments below.

    Thanks to Kim Leeder and Heather Martin for their thoughtful edits and comments as reviewers; additional thanks to Britta, Emily, Erica, and Thea for their time and personal contributions to the article.


    Ford, E. (2009). How do you say no? In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/how-do-you-say-no/.

    Glamourbombtv. (2010, Jan. 5). Conan O’Brien takes a bow [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/DxOHez1zlms.

    Ibarra, H., & Hunter, M. (2007). How leaders create and use networks. Harvard Business Review85(1), 40-47.

    Matta, S.L. (2012, October 15). A job by any other name: LJ’s Placements and Salaries Survey 2012. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/10/placements-and-salaries/2012-survey/a-job-by-any-other-name-ljs-placements-salaries-survey-2012/.

    Olin, J. (2013, February 5). Could I show you the wine list?, Or, how waitressing made me a better librarian. Letters to a Young Librarian. Retrieved from http://letterstoayounglibrarian.blogspot.com/2013/02/could-i-show-you-wine-list-or-how.html.

    Perlow, L.A., & Porter, J.L. (2009). Making time off predictable — and required. Harvard Business Review, 87(10), 102-109.

    Saks, A.M., & Zikic, J. (2009). Job search and social cognitive theory: The role of career-relevant activities. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(1), 117-127.

    Tkacik, K. (2012, June 4). The Class of twentysomething: Degreed and jobless. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/06/opinion/backtalk/the-class-of-twentysomething-degreed-and-jobless-backtalk/.

    Weak, E. (2012, Sept. 14). Further questions: How long did it take to get your first library job? Hiring Librarians. Retrieved from http://hiringlibrarians.com/2012/09/14/further-questions-how-long-did-it-take-to-get-your-first-library-job/.

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