Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What I Meant to Say Was

So I got interviewed--yep, they were that desperate--for an article about the job market outlook for librarians. I gave them some of my usual blather about how new librarians should think about their transferrable skills, not waste their time in a saturated market and look in areas where there are fewer entry-level librarians--i.e. not in a town with a library school--and that new librarians should also consider looking for work in special libraries and not get so hung up on working in public and academic libraries. So,I thought I would take the time to say what I meant to say.

The Brass Ring

When I was in library school, the brass ring was the academic library. Everybody wanted to work there and the cool kids were strongly encouraged to apply. Public libraries were ok, especially if you were going to work in children's librarianship since that is where you can, mold young minds, but I wanted to work with adults, and even before it was modestly cool, with newcomer populations, a special population the library. And the minute you say special, library schools don't really know what to do with you--unless you're going to be working in a music or a law library. There is not that much assistance for looking for work in special libraries and the library school kept pushing the academic or public library as the only options. This is not to say that they are not great options--I did my internship in a public library and I sometimes look back on that time with deep, longing sentimental sighs--but it would help to have professors speak positively about all types of libraries.

If this is not the case at your library school, or things have changed, realize that I am speaking from my own experience and perception.

Transferrable Skills

So no one knew what to do with me. Luckily, I was a bit older and not so prone to take career direction from people who had stayed with the same employer for most of their adult life. I also knew that I had to take charge of my own job search and not wait for someone to find a job for me. I realized that there are multilingual newcomer populations in both academic and public libraries and that I could tailor my project and my interviews to describe all of the skills that I had acquired in my volunteer work and apply that to the library world. It is what got me my internship, talking about my transferrable skills: I had teaching, classroom management and public speaking skills, in addition to customer service and a deep knowledge of about serving this specific population--in addition to my promiscuous reading habits, which is the only time that you can say promiscuous and have it mean good things for an employer. And a practiced with ways to describe how all of these skills would be useful, which is what you are supposed to do when prepping for an interview: learn to talk about yourself with depth and describe your unique abilities in relation to the employer's needs.

A Library Degree is the Minimum

While on the topic of transferrable skills, when I was at the ALA career fair, a light bulb went on for me in my first interview. My epiphany was this: the library degree is the minimum. When you are called into an interview, the employer checks this off and then talks about everything else you can possibly bring to the table, so you can't focus constantly and exclusively on your library school experience.

Library students hate this: when I mention this in any presentation I give about careers, I get this look of "don't dis my degree". I am not dissing the degree; I learnt a lot and paid a lot for my degree too, but I have stopped kissing it before I went to bed every night. It is the ticket to ride. Without it, there is no interview. But you are more than your degree and you need to learn how to explain how much more you are.

Everyone Can Move

Well, not everyone. People who have homes that they can't sell, aging parents or family members in care who need them, or children whose needs can only be met in that community, they can't move. Everybody else is fair game.

I know you are comfortable, you have your books on your shelves the way you like them and damn, but you think you can make something out of your current relationship, but you are going to be unhappy, have to sell your books and it's tough to nurture a relationship when you are broke and constantly whining about your job search.

If you aren't getting offers in your current labor market, you have to move to get the job you want. It is tough, but it has to be done. And once you do it, it gets a bit easier to move again, and even move back, once you have some experience or get courted back. It can happen, but you have to get unstuck to get the experience.

The other option is telework, but that may take you out of libraries entirely--which might not be a bad thing, provided that an employer will accept what you do as transferrable. You also can't give up on libraries, of all types, so you need to stay in touch with librarian friends and build up your network. Which you should be doing anyway.

Become a Specialist

Library school will make you a generalist: you leave with enough tools to fit in any library and what you make of what you have will determine who hires you. Maybe you should become a specialist.

Working in a special library will make you a specialist. You will learn a lot about engineers and scientists if you work in special library in an oil and gas company, for example. You will answer specific reference questions for them, deal with their information needs, find information delivery solutions for them, catalog, develop collections specific to their industry or sector. You will also have to pretend that this stuff is fascinating even if you left science or engineering to become a librarian because it didn't fascinate you as much anymore, or if science has always left you cold, and faking fascination is not a bad skill to cultivate. All of the skills you develop in that library are transferrable to the science library on an academic campus, or even in a public library that needs someone to find science fair projects. You just need to explain how to transfer your specialization to that potential new employer.

What about not working in libraries?

What happens to the people who can't get a job in a library? And this can happen--the trick is to get busy doing something, but not waiting for phone calls. If you have to take a year and write business plans for people, you can still use those skills in a business library in an academic, public or special library, you just have to talk about how it is related. Like how you questioned your client and interacted with them, how you researched the market, the process of writing the plan and how successful each plan was and what resources you would provide to a client that needed similar assistance. See, transferrable.

Sadly, there is one thing you can't do: you can't convince a library employer to interview you if you spend too much time out of library work. For you, this means lots of frustration unless you can network your way into an interview, either through contacts or by volunteering (which you should be doing BEFORE you leave library school). Worse than working out of libraries however, is being the wallflower of the labor market and not doing anything. Long periods of unemployment are probably hardest to deal with, so it is important to do something with dignity and that is transferrable.

It is also important for people responsible for library hiring to see how applicable that work outside of libraries is to people who are patrons of the library and for them to see that a person who is determined to work will also be determined to work hard for the library.

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