Is librarianship a career you’ve been considering? Have you been told you should work in a library since you’re a huge book lover? We thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some of the awesome and some of the, err, less awesome aspects of working in libraries. These are the things you won’t learn in a glossy brochure or on a fancy website dedicated to the career. Instead, these are lessons from librarians who’ve been in the trenches.
Fellow librarians, we’d love your nuggets of wisdom, too, so feel free to hop into the comments and share your insights as well. We don’t care if you have a degree or not; we just want to showcase the range of duties, skills, and “other tasks as assigned” that come with the terrain in librarianship.
I worked as a public librarian for about 5 years before transitioning to editing here on Book Riot and writing on the side. But librarianship will always be a part of my heart.
The biggest things I hope people thinking about a career in the field consider are the following:
Librarians work with people, not with books
You absolutely get books into people’s hands but your primary job is to work with other people. If you think librarianship is quiet or calm, that’s not the case in public libraries. You’ll be talking with people all day, every day, and you’ll be working to meet more and more people so you can market your services as a library and librarian. You need — NEED — good customer service skills and you need to be even tempered, cool under pressure, willing to be firm and inflexible (both so you can enforce library policies that ensure equality for all and so you can advocate for patrons who need it when times get tough in the library itself), and having a sense of humor will never hurt. Being passionate about books and reading isn’t a detriment, but it should not be the why of getting into libraries.
Be willing to learn
Sometimes you end up being a librarian in a capacity you have zero experience in. This is true whether or not you attend library school and get a master’s degree. You might suddenly be in charge of knowing a range of non-fiction titles in the library that you have no subject experience on. Spend time getting to know it; the quicker you can become an expert, the more you become an asset to whatever library you’re at — as well as future libraries. Flexibility and willingness to dig in will only make the career more rewarding for you.
Speak up about your other skills and talents
Being able to write is an asset in libraries. Being able to edit is an asset in libraries. Having skills in design or certain computer programs is an asset in libraries. Share these things. It might mean more work put on your plate periodically, but it’s also a huge opportunity to advance those skills, as well as create positive outcomes with your library and your coworkers.
Likewise, if you have a special skill or talent — knitting, acting, crafting — let people know so you can utilize those skills on the job. Maybe you can run a knitting group for a night. Perhaps you’ll be invited to do outreach for the library because you’re willing to perform in a skit that talks about the library’s summer reading program (and trust me, even your most enthusiastic children’s librarians might want someone else to do this part!). These things you cannot learn in any classroom for librarianship and yet, they’re an added value to the job and field.
It’s not a 9-to-5 job
If you’re going to be a public librarian, don’t expect to work a nice 9-to-5 job. You’re going to work days, evenings, and weekends. Depending on the library’s hours, you might work Monday and Thursdays from noon until closing at 8 or 9, with Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays being normal 8 or 9 to 5 hours. You might be working Saturdays twice a month, and if you’re a library that’s open on Sundays, you might work those, too (and the chances of those being premium pay hours are slim). It’s not the end of the world, of course, since you love what you do, but it is worth considering if you have obligations outside work that might require a consistent or rigid availability.
— Kelly Jensen
Kelly makes some great points, and I definitely agree. Even though as a collection development librarian, I do primarily work with books and materials and do have a very flexible regular work week schedule, that is not the norm in public libraries. Being willing to learn and speaking up about my skills were critical to being able to advance my career.
Here’s what I’d add:
Work + life experience is invaluable
I came to librarianship in a roundabout way, as a lot of people do. I abandoned academia, floundered for a few years, then decided I wanted to save the world and ditched my soul-sucking corporate office job and enrolled in grad school to get a master’s in social welfare. I needed a part-time job while I was doing another round of grad school, and because I had experience working with teens and knew a lot about books, I got a job as a teen library assistant at my local public library and went to library school instead. Experience in other fields is a huge asset, whether it’s customer services experience, technology, or teaching, or even in jobs you don’t think have anything in common with libraries. So working for a few years, even if it’s not in libraries, is a great idea before committing to get an MLS degree.
It’s a small, small world
Even though there are a ton of different types of libraries, it’s actually really small field, especially if you go into any sort of speciality. This can be both good and bad. Most people who work in libraries share similar interests and values. It’s been great to feel like I’ve found my tribe and actually want to hang out with my co-workers and to look forward to meeting new colleagues at conferences. But it also means you can’t burn any bridges. If you totally flake out on a group project in library school, it’s entirely possible that someone from your class will be on a hiring committee and interviewing you someday. If you say something mean and snotty on Twitter, someone might think twice about supporting your bid to serve on a committee. When it comes to professional advancement, what your peers think of you will matter, and it can work in your favor or against you.
— Molly Wetta
There is little I can add to the thorough notes provided by Kelly and Molly, but there is one thing that I really have to stress, which I only realized in real words a short time ago:
There are multiple types of people who work in libraries
I am a bookish introvert who spends the day in an office, working on all electronic aspects of public library service and thoroughly crafting emails, reading and editing multiple times before hitting send. There are many people like me, who like working with the public to a certain extent, but are even more at home with metadata, circulation stats, data organization, and all the other logic puzzles that make up the back-of-house needs of any library type.
If this sounds like you, great! There is work for you in libraries. Think about what you’re best at in this realm, and where that kind of work might be—an academic library? A corporate or government library? Public libraries have back-of-house needs too.
On the other hand, you might be the type who knows everybody, can talk about anything, makes every floor your stage, and feeds off the energy of the people around you. You’d probably make a great children’s librarian, or really any type of librarian who works with people, whether that’s running programs in the public library, or teaching information literacy at a university.
These are just examples of personality and person types who work in the library. I know librarians who haven’t read a book in years and live to build databases (the CS type, not the online resource type) and systems. There are librarians of things, and seed librarians, and curators of rock legend paraphernalia.
So don’t think about librarianship as the job for just the quiet, bookish type. The library needs all types. Think about what kind you are, and remember that you’re going to have to work with other types—prepare for clash, and know what you can do to work through it.