How I Got This Job: Librarian

Photo credit: Liz West, CC BY 2.0.

I was a librarian for several years and this is a little tour of my career, a bit about my experiences on the library job market, and why I chose to go another route eventually.

I’ve always loved libraries. Since I was a kid, I was a voracious reader and heavy library user, checking out a bag of books every week. In college, I spent hours exploring the massive library on campus, finding the best spots to work and perusing the collections. Somehow it didn’t occur to me until well after I graduated college that if I wanted to find a job I loved, I should look at libraries.

Getting an MLIS

What could be a better fit than libraries? I was passionate about the socialist goal of an educated community and I wanted to make a positive contribution in the world. I also wanted a real professional job. So I applied.

I know now that library school will take anyone. I actually looked back at my application once and it was an embarrassing misunderstanding of the field. My main motivation was “I like libraries.” I didn’t know anything about the careers in all the different kinds of libraries, and didn’t have much of a clue what I wanted to do.

In library school, they want you to specialize. I wanted to be a generalist, which was not a thing. I resisted following a specific track of specialization because I didn’t want to limit my opportunities. I lived in a large city with lots of different types of libraries, which were all interesting to me and I wanted them all to be potential employers of me when I finished school.

Building a resume

Once I started the program, I immediately freaked out that I had no experience actually working in a library. So, in addition to my regular bill-paying job, I got a second job at the circulation desk at the university library. I learned some practical skills and met a lot of librarians and library workers. This helped me figure out more of what I did and didn’t want in a library job. Yes to helping nice people! No to late nights and condescending patrons.

I also worked occasionally as a substitute librarian in an elementary school and did an internship at a public library in the children’s department. I was figuring out my path as I went, and realized I had a vague preference for children’s librarianship, but wasn’t crazy about dealing with the public.

With that knowledge and a solid, if short, resume and I got a job as a school librarian that would start as soon as I finished my degree. This was an amazing feeling! My hard work was paying off, all the stress of working two jobs plus going to school, was going to be worth it. I now had a real grown up job that I was excited to do, proud to tell people about, and was a positive contribution to my community.

First real job! Library Media Specialist

I was the librarian and media skills teacher in a brand-new charter school. There were definite bumps in the road here: The school was expanding rapidly, leadership and faculty were very much in flux, teachers were primarily first-year, but I liked this job. It was so challenging for me. I designed the media skills curriculum and taught technology and library skills classes for K-8th grade. I created a book club for middle school kids, I revamped the outdated collection. I was passionate about collecting multicultural materials that my kids could see themselves in. This went over very well, and the students engaged more with the materials. I also had regular lunch duty and after-school care duty like all teachers did.

I took on so much and was incredibly stressed. Also, it was not full time! I worked much more than I was paid for, because I wanted to do it right. All the teachers did. The technology was outdated, heavily used, and we had no IT support. On one hand, I love the type of environment where you must just figure it out. Just make something work, no one is going to save you. On the other hand, it wears a person down day after day.

The best thing about this job was the kids, who were amazing and resilient and deserve much more than we could give them—and the school’s leadership,  who saw the value in libraries and technology and wanted to expand the entire program. This was probably the most progressive library I worked in; they knew that research and media skills are central to the modern library’s mission,  and that the library should have a large role in education.

At the end of the school year, I was totally drained. I wasn’t sure I could go back and do another year there. I felt bad leaving the school, because we had worked so hard together to build something. But I had to quit, because we moved cross-country so my husband could pursue his master’s degree. I already had mine, so now it was his turn.

A move, and a new library

Our new city was positively tiny. It had two libraries, and while I was job hunting there was probably one advertisement for an open position. It took me six months to find a library job there. I really think the only reason that they paid attention to my resume was because the hiring librarian was from the same town as me.

Getting this job was amazing. We needed the money. I needed to not have gaps in my resume. I worked at the university library, cataloging and maintaining the authority file. I cleaned up the database every day. I also fixed books, taped them up, glued in loose pages, etc. I loved that part. I am pretty crafty, and I got to build boxes, and come up with other creative ways to keep books in circulation.

I liked this job. I loved not being stuck at the circulation desk, but still helping people behind the scenes. I loved being able to wear what I like, and take breaks when I need to. I really wanted to move up into a position in which I had more responsibility. That would have been possible I believe, had I stuck around.

However, despite this being a decent job, I hated living in that town. We could not have lived there any longer than was absolutely necessary. I suppose this is the challenge that we all deal with though. Does anyone have the dream job, perfect relationship, ideal living situation, financial security, full creative life, and perfect health all at once? I feel like we are always trading off and trying to find the best balance, one that isn’t probably perfect, but keeps us from falling into a pit of despair.

Another move!

We moved again after my husband graduated. To another small town with two libraries at which I had no connections. One major change was that our new small town was a beautiful place to live. Checked that box. However, being a desirable and popular place, the job market was tougher than ever. I networked (to the best of my ability), thoughtfully applied for everything within a two-hour drive, and it took me a year to find a library job. And when I did, many people told me I was lucky to have anything at all. Every librarian I knew had an hour’s worth of anecdotes about the horrible job market.

My new job as a reference librarian at a community college was perfect. I got to help students one on one, implement new teaching ideas, learn from some very smart, interesting, and dedicated librarians. It was the kind of place where everyone pitched in and did a little bit more than was required of them. It is inspiring to work alongside people who excel in their field. It makes everyone else want to keep up.

It also had a few major drawbacks, the main one being the commute: it was two hours away. At first, I thought this was totally worth it. People do these kinds of things for academic jobs all the time! I wouldn’t be the only person I knew who had a long commute, or a long-distance relationship because of work. The other was the uncertainty. It was a contract position, so even though I was invited back for the next year, it never felt permanent. We were always on the verge of large cuts. We needed more staff, and were never going to get it. I saw all this, and I realized that I couldn’t wait around, living half my life away from home, just for the idea of a chance at a full-time job there.

That year I dedicated myself to my work, was away from home half the week, and let every other aspect of my life take a backseat, I realized how unnatural that feels for me. Some people work like that, but I just don’t.

The summer after my first year, I adjusted my priorities and put my energy into finding a job near home that checked some other boxes. I needed to focus on my quality of life, relationship, sanity, and ability to earn an income that supports us.  Once I changed my expectations, I found a job within a month. I ended up going a very different, very corporate direction. I am sure that this was the right move for me. I recognize the trade-off I am making, but no matter the path you take, there will be trade-offs. It is all about managing those trade-offs to create the life you want.

Lindsey Stafford is still a voracious reader. You may find her painting portraits of her garden in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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