Becoming a Librarian: My Journey

Well somehow the calendar has sneaked up on me and it’s now March. I just realized that February 2011 marked my eighth year of employment as a librarian. My how time flies. Recently I moved into a new place and was unpacking. In one of the boxes I found my application letter to library school, from Spring 2001.

I remember working really hard on that letter. At the time, I labored under the impression that getting into library school was difficult. I admit, I was afraid to re-read the letter, but I did. More on that later…

While I’ve always loved libraries–one of my earliest memories is attending a “Tuesday Toddlers” program at the local public library–I didn’t see it as a calling. Like most college students, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do: television journalism. I started taking mass communication classes and soon realized that television news was rather “fake” and low-paying (yes, less than a librarian!), not to mention cut-throat.

I switched my major to secondary education/social studies: “I’ll be a high school teacher.” When it came time to start volunteering at a local school, I thought: wow, I “hate” high school students! Time for another change in major: I ended up with a degree in history. Despite the changes in major, I still see lots of similarities with what I do: journalists provide information, while librarians provide access to information. And although I didn’t want to be “stuck” with a classroom of students all day long, I still enjoyed helping them in those one-on-one moments, which mirrors what I do as an instruction and reference librarian.

While in college, I needed to earn some extra cash. On a whim, I went down to the campus jobs office. They set me up with an appointment at the library. At the end of my freshman year, I had a student assistant job in the collection development office of the university library. Without it, I can surely say I would never have become a librarian. I did typical student worker tasks: I inputted book orders, checked book prices, pulled books to be weeded, compiled donor lists. I observed the librarians. They liked what they did. I came from a blue-collar family. This was the first time I think I actually got to see people enjoy what they do: it wasn’t just a job, but a career.

Being away from home, the librarians (Carol, Stan, Ming-ming, Hilde) treated me more like a family. I appreciated that. Whether they realized it or not, they became my mentors. Side note: C&RL News has an article on student mentoring from its Feb. 2011 issue. One day, one of the librarians asked me if I thought about attending library school. My response, “No way!” I wasn’t ready to succumb just yet. However, the more I worked, the more it made sense. After returning from a semester abroad–and ready to get back to my “home” in the library–my mind was made up. Library School, here I come!

I didn’t fuss around when choosing a library school. A MLS is a MLS. I stayed in my home state and went to Indiana University. My librarian mentors gave me lots of good advice: the classes are boring, lots of busywork, concentrate on employment. I was surprised on my first day of classes to learn that there were students who had never worked in a library. Asked by the professor as to why we were here, one student said, “I like to read.” My response: “I like to eat, but you don’t see me in culinary school!” We’re librarians. We all like to read.

Some students complained that the work wasn’t challenging enough. It is what you make of it. I’ve always thought of the MLS as a professional degree, as opposed to an academic degree. Frankly, I was working 39 hours per week as a student library assistant at various jobs–and taking a full load of classes–I was ok with it not being “challenging.” The classes gave me a good foundation and provided me with the theoretical background I needed.

The highlight was the various work experiences: I worked as a reference assistant at the IU undergraduate library and the school of education library. I also spent a year as a technical services/archives assistant at the Kinsey Institute. This is where I gained the skills that led to employment–not the classes. The MLS is just the base requirement for employment as a professional librarian. You need to show more than just that.

I ended up being able to finish a semester early, with a December graduation date. One year post-9/11, the job market was still in a slump. However, I was geographically mobile and somehow managed to land three job interviews in my last few weeks of classes (graduating in December, I started sending out resumes in October). I had my first professional librarian job lined up by the week I graduated. I started the job the following February.

There’s no secret to this: it’s demonstrating relevant work experience, projects, internships, etc., a well written cover letter and resume, exemplary communication skills, sense of adventure, and a sense of humor. And yes, a bit of luck or faith (depending on your preference–or maybe both?).

So back to that library school application letter. Why did I want to become a librarian? I was expecting to read it and see myself as a tad too optimistic (Not that I’m jaded now. I just like to say I’m a realistic optimist!). There were some hackneyed phrases about wanting to “be a broker in the information age,” but the gist of it holds true for me: I enjoy connecting people with information. Information is the key to life-long learning. Libraries are about open access to all. I mentioned that I “could not imagine doing anything else.” It still holds true for me today. I like what I do and I haven’t looked back. Each day is something new and I enjoy that.

8 thoughts on “Becoming a Librarian: My Journey

  1. I’m in my last semester of library school, and I’m terrible at hunting for jobs. As a distance ed. student who also works full time, it’s really challenging to make connections with librarians in town (I’m not geographically mobile and need to find a job in the town I currently live in). Any words of wisdom for a desperate job hunter?

    • I think most libraries that will be hiring will be looking for some sort of library-related experience. I don’t think it matters much whether it’s an internship, a practicum, or library assistant experience. But they’ll want something. I know it’s hard when you work full-time and go to school (been there!), so if you have any time to possibly volunteer (if there are no other options available), I would try to do that. Otherwise, you could see if the library has a “friends” group and volunteer some time there, too. Also, play up any previous customer service and technology skills in your resume. Show how those experiences are applicable to a librarian position. Since you’re in your last semester, sign up for ALA with the student discount (if that’s something you’re interested in doing). Also, to stay in the loop, sign up for free discussion lists for librarians. You’ll get lots of good ideas, advice, and job postings from those. If possible, you may need to cast a wider net, too–maybe look at libraries within 45 minutes from where you live, too. Best of luck!

  2. Your librarian mentor Stan is my father’s brother–librarianship runs in the family! I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for a while, so it was a surprise when he e-mailed to say I should check out the blog of one of his former student assistants. The library world is even smaller than I thought!

  3. I just graduated in January and am job hunting. It’s torture! One thing I have going for me is that I’ve been an adjunct faculty member for 4-5 years. I just got my evaluations back, and they were great! (Go me!) I want to show employers, but where and when do I do that? When they ask? Or should I just send it all in? Any advice is greatly appreciated

    • That’s great! I was always hesitant to look at my students’ evaluations–only to find that they were generally good! I think maybe putting your evaluation into an electronic portfolio and then providing a link to it from your resume/cover letter might be a good idea. Otherwise you might burden potential employers w/ a piles of paper.

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