Nerdy Careers: How to be a Librarian

Favim.com-33828_largeIs there any more of a perfect career for a nerdy girl than a librarian? Some people will tell you it’s all about the books, rimmed glasses, cat ladies, more books, shushing, e-books are the end of the world as we know it, and that all it takes to be a librarian is to work in a library. And unfortunately, those people are quite misinformed. Although libraries are casting off their 20th century shackles as technology rapidly develops and changes, there is still plenty to do as an information professional.

When asked if I spend my time at work reading all day, that’s a roll of the eyes. I run a cataloging department in an academic library, so most of my time is spent but not limited to managing my stuff, running reports, working with other departments to resolve catalog errors, figuring out what to do with ebooks, train and provide guidance for my staff, and occasionally, actually get to the catalog something. Depending on their area of expertise, other librarians spend their time teaching classes on how to use library resources, answering questions on the reference desk, administering library software, running the circulation department, managing student workers, balancing the budget, talking with vendors, identifying materials to be weeded…. you get the idea? Not much time for reading.

Being a librarian has been a rewarding experience for me as I strive to create an efficient department that ensures library materials are becoming accessible in a timely fashion. Quite often, I get asked something along the lines of “How do I become a librarian?”

Well, nerdy girls, I am here to tell you:

  1. Librarians have an ALA-accredited master’s degree in library science, information studies, etc. Yes, you read that right — a bona fide librarian requires a bona fide, ALA-accredited master’s degree. If your master’s degree is not ALA-accredited, then shame on you for not doing your research. The majority of job ads for a librarian specifically require a ALA-accredited master’s degree. Fortunately for aspiring librarians, ALA has a handy list of accredited MLS programs. Be sure to consult that list when picking programs to apply to!
  2. Don’t go broke for your degree! When I was a wee aspiring librarian (ok, so 4 years ago), I had applied to three programs: 2 in-state and 1 out of state. And although I so desperately wanted to attend the out of state program, it would have racked up a terrible debt that my in-state options did not have. With a sigh, I said goodbye to the idea of living in Tucson, AZ and stayed in my home state of North Carolina for just a couple more years. Librarians typically do not get into this profession for the money, so many a librarian will strongly encourage future librarians to consider a program that is financially feasible and will not crush the student with a mountain of debt. We can all agree that debt, especially unnecessary debt, is not fun. Be sure to first look at in-state programs. You don’t want a debt that is double what you’ll make your first year on the job.
  3. What kind of library do you want to work in? Although it was not my intention upon applying to library school, I wound up being an academic librarian. Some of my classmates ended up at public libraries, archives, corporations, schools, museums, government agencies… you name it. An information professional has skills that are of value outside of the typical image of stacks of books. So even before applying to library school, ask yourself, “What kind of library do I want to work in?” Now, you do not have to get married to the answer — as mentioned above, I wound up finding my interest laid in academic libraries when I initially thought it was public libraries was where I wanted to work.
  4. And what kind of library work do you want to do? Some grad programs require you to take an introductory course in cataloging. Many a grad student has bemoaned the cataloging class, as it’s boring, blah blah blah. My teacher noted that there were usually a few who enjoyed it. Turns out I was one of those oddballs. That being said, just because you pick a specialty doesn’t mean you’re married to it. I have colleagues who have bounced from different areas of the library over the course of their careers. Just realize that there is no one set path that you must follow, so it’s important to figure out what interests you so you’re not floundering your way through library school.
  5. Get experience, get experience, get experience Seriously. Get experience. Now, I don’t recommend what I did in grad school — 2 part-time jobs and an internship (50+ weeks on top of coursework NEVER AGAIN); however, they helped me get a job! I worked as a part-time records manager, part-time student assistant in the main campus library’s serials department, and interned at a couple different cataloging departments in academic libraries. Some of my classmates who decided that coursework was their primary focus and did not do much in the way of finding relevant experience for their desired focus. And guess what? Some of those people are still looking. Granted, it took me a year and a half plus a half dozen interviews to land my first professional position even with all those odd jobs on my cv, but imagine being 3 years out from the degree and no job. The experience unfortunately is not a guarantee, but it does give you a leg up over other new library school grads.
  6. Don’t let the misconceptions get you down. Someone — someone who asked me to describe my work, mind you — once told me that my work sounded “awfully boring.” Now, it took every ounce of dignity to refrain from countering with an equally rude comment, but seriously, hold your head high and don’t drink the haterade. It’s hard, I know, when you hear dumb comments about “you need a master’s degree to shelve books?!?” or “did you take classes in shushing?!” but you can either just let it roll off or if appropriate, take the opportunity to educate and enlighten.

Now, I don’t claim to be the expert on all there is to be a librarian. My perspective has been a quick and dirty overview, and although I’m sure budding librarian types are prone to doing their research, here’s a list of websites you can peruse:

So You Want to be a Librarian?
LIScareer
INALJ (I Need a Library Job)
Hiring Librarians

And one final bit of advice for when you do become a librarian: don’t imbibe too much at your local bar trivia and declare you’re a librarian. The hosts might remember you and repeatedly ask about the Dewey Decimal System…

Leave a Reply