I’ve been a librarian for about ten years. I’ve mostly worked as a reference librarian in public libraries, interfacing directly with patrons, but I also spent some time as a special research librarian early in my career. Today, I’m going to tell you not only how to become a librarian, but how to thrive in an increasingly competitive field.
What do librarians do?
At no library where I’ve ever worked have staff members been allowed to read on the job. The point of being a librarian is to be an available resource—emphasis on available. You’ll work odd hours, possibly a different schedule every week, depending on when your library needs desk coverage and personnel. Right now, I do not have two consecutive days in my schedule when I work 9–5.
Librarians train to help patrons deal with thorny information problems that they can’t solve themselves. In an information-based world, that covers everything from genealogy to cancer research. The ability to adapt to the immediate needs of the situation is a critical librarian skill.
Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen describes librarian duties well in her 2016 article about the profession. “If you think librarianship is quiet or calm, that’s not the case in public libraries,” she says. “You’ll be talking with people all day, every day.” Working with people can feel like retail work, especially when patrons become frustrating, frustrated, or begin to violate policies. As Kelly says, “you need—NEED—good customer service skills.”
“Other Duties As Assigned”
This phrase, which appears almost universally in library job ads, neatly deals with what library school glosses over. Lost children, drug overdoses, patrons masturbating, patrons becoming belligerent and threatening other patrons, and patrons engaging in gang activity may all become your responsibility at some point. If it can possibly happen under a library’s roof, it will definitely happen (someday) under your particular library’s roof. Then you will get to deal with it.
Librarians are also, increasingly, event planners. Programs are a big part of why people come into the library at all. A large number of these are directed at children or the elderly since those demographics make up most of the library’s foot traffic. While book circulation is still important, it may someday wane as the library’s measurement of success.
If you want to become a librarian because you disdain technology in favor of books, then I have terrible news for you: library work is all about computers. In large part, this is because patrons who can’t afford home wifi rely on the free internet access they can get at the library. If you still intend to take that flying leap into librarianship, and if you take absolutely nothing else from this article, then take this one piece of advice: get technology training.
Speaking of which…
Do you need a degree to be a librarian?
You need a Master’s degree to become a librarian. Not only that, but you need, specifically, a Library Science Master’s degree, which is useful only in the library industry. It tends to be expensive. There’s a program in Maryland that costs about $16,000, and it’s probably the best deal you’ll find. My own degree came from Syracuse University and cost more than $50,000 with fees and expenses. It is important to note that in my ten years as a librarian, I have never had a job that paid me that much in a year.
Paying For It
My student loan was eligible for an income-based repayment plan, but because I earned so little relative to its size, I wasn’t even paying off the interest every month. The loan actually grew at a rate of a few hundred dollars a year even though I never missed a payment. Being a public servant didn’t help me much because loan forgiveness appears to have been something of a scam. I floundered for years before a family member took pity on me and helped me out.
This is a great profession, but before you take out student loans, be realistic about how much you’ll be able to pay back. Librarians do not make a lot of money relative to the cost of the degree. Also, keep in mind that you may need more than one Master’s degree if you go into academia.
It’s not unheard of for a librarian to work up from the bottom without the degree, but it takes time, reputation, and exceptional skill. I know dozens of librarians, and of them, only three got that title without an MLS.
What types of library positions are available?
Libraries are competitive. That means that before breaking into a full-time position, you’re probably going to have to put in time at multiple simultaneous “little” jobs. Part-time librarianship is a good way to build your resume and your network, but it is exhausting. Also, it’s often without benefits. You’ll learn to love the Affordable Care Act.
View this post on Instagram
I know. In shock much?! To be completely transparent, I’ve been seeking out a library/media specialist position since I got my MA in Educational Technology and my SLMS certification 2 years ago. This position is very far and few in my district because those who get it, don’t ever leave until they retire. I had to wait and be patient for the opportunity to come along. NOW IS THAT TIME, FRIENDS. It was such a bittersweet departure for me, as I am so happy to be moving forward in my career endeavors, but I'm also sad to have left my firsties, a place I’ve called home, and coworkers I consider family behind. I will never forget my time with them or trade that experience for anything in the world. I have so many plans for my library and I’ll happily take you along with me on that journey. Stay tuned for all the wonderful things I’ll be doing with my PreK-5th graders! Thank you for your support and kind words. I’ll be doing an IG LIVE sometime tomorrow discussing my transition from classroom teacher to School Library/Media Specialist and answer any questions you may have. Hope you can join me! Book Headband: @sewcraftysherry Read Your ❤️ Out shirt: @thewrightstuffchics #TheEnthusiasticClass #librariansofinstagram #librarymediaspecialist #librariesofinstagram #teachersfollowteachers
Some silos are easier to break into than others. Children’s librarians, for example, are very much in demand. They tend to run departments that host a lot of programs aimed at a wide juvenile age range. Circulation and adult services librarians focus on running events and getting books into patrons’ hands. Reference librarians answer questions, and increasingly, those questions are about technology. If you want to be a reference librarian, learn about computers. I can’t stress this enough.
Libraries are usually organized into departments. Each department has a head who manages a budget and makes executive decisions. This position starts to involve some politics, so it can get stressful. However, it usually pays better than your typical librarian gig. In academic and special libraries, departments may be organized by subject or management responsibility rather than by patron type. For example, there may be an electronic resources manager, a bioethics research division, an archivist, or an academic liaison, but almost never a children’s department.
The director of the library may or may not be a librarian. If a librarian does become the director of an institution, they’ll need decades of experience. Non-librarians tend to be awarded the position for business acumen. Library leadership is almost entirely political and financial. A lot of people who thrive on patron interaction languish as directors. Then again, a good library director can sell winning policies and projects to municipalities and demonstrate the value of a robust library to school boards.
How important is it to network?
Librarians tend to be introverts, so it is at once tragic and ironic that they must network to survive. To say that libraries are a political, gossipy, reputation-fueled industry is to vastly understate the reality. If you intend to go into libraries professionally, get any library job as soon as you can. You need to build up professional contacts and make your name. Step up for everything. Build a specialty if you can and join committees—if you offer to do work for free, people will generally take you up on it. Start projects. Run programs.
The reason that you are going to need to network is that there are currently too many librarians and too few library jobs. That brings us to the biggest challenge you’ll experience in the process of becoming a librarian.
Are librarians in demand?
According to the bureau of Labor Statistics, the library profession is growing at an average rate. That’s not to say that all is roses. Due to automation, many traditional duties, like cataloging, don’t need as many people. However, the digital revolution is also making room for new niches. Many public libraries now have dedicated social media experts, for example.
View this post on Instagram
STAFF DOUBLE FEATURE: Julie and Piyali, Miller Branch Adult Instructor and Research Specialists. "We love filling our staff pick shelves for our customers. And we love filling each other's staff picks when either of us is away on vacation. Knowing that our fellow bibliophile and dearest friend has our back is such a comfortable, happy feeling." #library #librarylife #librarians #librariansofinstagram #recommendations #readersadvisory #reading #librariesrock #librariansrock #librariansareawesome
Who do libraries need?
Just because library work is changing doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But you will probably have to compete for a position because there tend to be more librarians than library jobs. Having another skill can really help. If you’re English-Spanish bilingual, you may find yourself in high demand. Library staffs are also chronically short on diversity, a fact which causes public libraries to become charged white spaces that drive patrons away. Luckily, many library hiring managers are aware of this and actively seek to correct it. If you’re a person of color who wants to be a librarian, then there is room for you in this profession.
Special Talents Needed
Kelly Jensen agrees that libraries thrive on special talents: “If you have a special skill or talent—knitting, acting, crafting—let people know so you can utilize those skills on the job.” Writing and editing are valuable in library contexts too, as are any kinds of graphic design, content creation, or advertising chops. Even skills like bike repair and gardening can come in handy, and if you have any business education at all, you may find yourself in management before you know it.
Above all, all libraries need, and will continue to need, techies. This is true at small-town public libraries, huge universities, and everything in between. If you can manage a network or server, you’ll even qualify for positions where you help manage larger networks of libraries.
Like I said: get computer training.
How to Find School Librarian Requirements by State
Being a school librarian is its own ball of wax. My library school actually had unique coursework for school media specialists. School librarians aren’t immune to downsizing—just ask the librarians of the Chicago Public Schools—but if your training supports school media librarianship, you can qualify for any public library job or any school library job.
You usually don’t need to pass a special exam or get a license to be a public, research, or academic librarian. However, school librarianship is a little more rigorous. Many states require school librarians to also have teacher certifications. Others require a specific library media certification. You can find a handy, ALA-supported list right here.
What other positions are similar?
Libraries don’t just run on librarians. Library assistants check books in and out, run programs, interface with patrons, recommend books, run book clubs, and sometimes even catalog books. They get paid about half as much as librarians, though, and usually can’t advance in library management. The difference is the degree. Librarians need to have it; library assistants don’t. Library assistant positions are often part-time.
Pages shelve books and act as gophers for the rest of the staff. If you’re not sure you’ll like working in libraries, this can be a good way to test the waters while still making some money. Most of these jobs go to high school and college students. They’re all part-time and usually pay minimum wage.
Volunteers, obviously, don’t get paid at all. However, it can be a good way to get experience. You’ll probably end up sorting paper into piles, but hey, everyone starts somewhere. Here’s more information on volunteering.
View this post on Instagram
Showing our Halloween pride a day early (as we will be in costume tomorrow)! 🎃👻 #syosset #library #syossetlibrary #librariesofinstagram #librarians #librariansofinstagram #halloween #halloweeneve #funshirts #morethanbooks #librarystaff #libraryfun #librariesrock #librariansrock #halloweenshirts
The Future Of Libraries
It’s not entirely clear where libraries are going. Universities and many private research libraries will probably remain stable for a while. However, public libraries are currently rebuilding their house in the eye of a hurricane. That’s both very exciting and very scary; it’s a great time to innovate, but nobody knows for sure what’s coming next. The only certainty is that ignoring the changes in the air is a bad idea.
That’s why public libraries are trying a bit of everything. Some have built makerspaces, some are loaning cake pans, some are hosting drum circles. Whatever talents you have, they could become part of what libraries do next. Your ability to bring them into this dynamic and people-focused profession is what will make you a great librarian.
Want more info on what it’s like to be a librarian? Check out this post by Romeo Rosales!