I meet a lot of prospective and matriculating library school students, and though this may sound harsh, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether they’ll be successful in the post-schooling job market or not. A lot of it boils down to whether they’re in it for the right reasons. Don’t get me wrong: A lot of people go into librarianship without a super clear idea of what they want to do, myself included. I think the profession tends to be veiled in a bit of mystery to those outside of it, and you often won’t even know what your options truly are, or what you’re going to love, until after you’ve begun your first class. But there’s an overall motivation and passion that a good librarian has, for information, for learning, and yes, for technology. I do meet people who tell me they want to become a librarian because they love books, and my friends, I know you’ve heard it before, but that is the wrong answer.
Right now this profession needs people who are eager to experiment, and who are willing to make mistakes. We need people who can think flexibly. We need people who aren’t satisfied doing things the way they’ve always been done, who aren’t looking for a job where they can learn a skill and then perform it ad nauseam until retirement. Things are moving fast, and you have to be willing to move faster. You have to be willing to strive for perfection while going forward and implementing good enough.
All of this sounds, well, kind of preachy, I admit. But I think one of the biggest problems facing our profession right now is that we’re still doing things the same way we’ve always done them. Attempts to modernize are met with naysaying and fear, and making the absolutely crucial updates we have to make to our systems, our metadata, and our practices takes so long that by the time we agree on something new it’s already obsolete. If you want to become a librarian in order to sit at a reference desk and answer questions about databases and reference books, I think you need to think again. Not that you should change your mind about being a librarian, but that you should ask yourself whether you’ll still be interested if your reference desk disappears, if you’re answering all of your students’ questions online, if your reference collection doesn’t exist anymore. You want to catalog books? Ok. But do you still want to do it if all the books are online? If you’re not really making acquisition choices because you’ve shifted to a patron-driven model? If you’re really just processing large files of data and working with IP tables and authentication software? If your cataloging model becomes a process of searching the web for already existing data and linking it together in a new form of database?
I’m not saying all of these things will come to pass, but I am saying you have to be willing to try them if it makes sense for your patrons, your budget, and the wider global world of interconnected resources.
If you still want to be a librarian after thinking about the fact that it probably won’t look a darn thing like it does now in about 10 years, what should you do to prepare yourself for the job market? I think there are a few really important things that a lot of people neglect:
First, take technology classes. Even if you don’t want to be a techie librarian, you have to know how the underlying architecture of the web, electronic resources, and library metadata works. The database management class I took was probably the most important class I took in school. Please learn some basic HTML, and understand what APIs, the semantic web, and relational and graph databases are. If you can’t fit classes into your schedule, sign up for some workshops wherever you can find them, or just find a few books and teach yourself the basics. If you don’t like technology, and aren’t interested in the web, you are really in the wrong profession.
Second, get involved. If you’re lucky enough to be studying on a campus, there are almost certainly student groups you can get involved with. You don’t have to be the chair of every club, but volunteer to staff an event every now and then, or at the very least attend meetings and get to know your fellow students. Some day, they might be hiring you. And getting involved like this shows potential hiring managers that you won’t shy away from committee work, which is often kind of crucial on the job. If you’re in a distance program, try to volunteer at your local library. Be creative! That mental flexibility will come in handy on the job.
Lastly, try to work in a library while you’re still in school. If you can’t find a paid position, you can almost always volunteer. Often, the library on a campus where there is a library science program is pretty great about hiring those students, even for a few hours a week. Not only does it look good on a resume, but you’ll probably learn far more on the job than you will in the classroom. If you already have a full-time job and are attending school on the side, that volunteer work becomes even more important. If you’re about to say you don’t have time, all I have to say to that is that you’re a student. Did you think you wouldn’t be busy?
From my experience on hiring committees and on the job hunt, myself, I think what matters most is that you show enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion for librarianship, and not just for the traditional, expected aspects of the profession. Spend the time to learn things on your own, outside of the classroom, about the way the field is developing and about some of the new things coming on the scene. Often, you won’t learn that stuff in school, but you’ll be helped enormously by knowing about it, both on the job search, and as you define your own way forward into the profession.
I hope I don’t sound mean and dictatorial. I could be wrong about these things, and if you think I am, tell me! If you think I’m not so wrong, do you have any other suggestions for newbie librarians? In my opinion, we’re all in this together. The more we help and support each other to make our profession continue to be awesome, the better off we all are.