By Meredith Farkas | September 29, 2005
Ok, Rilke’s title sounded a lot better.
I got an email this morning from a gentleman from New York City who is in his early 40′s. He recently started library school and has been hearing all sorts of horror stories about the job market and how terrible it is to work in public libraries. While there is definitely some truth in what he’s heard about the job market, he was grossly misinformed about public libraries. Every library is different. Some public libraries suck, some academic libraries suck. It all depends on who is running it and who your colleagues are. I work in a library with an amazingly nice bunch of people who are completely receptive to my crazy technology ideas. It’s not as if nice people who are open to innovation only work in academic libraries.
But I digress. This gentleman was seriously considering leaving his program because he thought he’d either never find a job in a library or he’d end up in a public library job that was an absolute misery. Obviously whomever was telling him about public libraries is the one who should be reconsidering a career in libraries! Here’s an important piece of background into: this gentleman had three important things going for him that would give him a leg-up in the job hunt. 1) he was a writer. 2) he had teaching experience. 3) he had two other Masters degrees.
I’m sure this gentleman is not the only person who is reconsidering a career in libraries in light of the terrible employment prospects, so I thought I’d publish what I wrote to him in the hopes that it might help someone else who is facing a difficult decision:
Bravo for striking out on this new path! I know making a career change can be exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Librarianship is a wonderful field and I am so happy with the job I have, in spite of the fact that it took 9 months for me to find it. People who tell you librarianship is a terrible field are obviously in the wrong field. Many of us love what we do in spite of the fact that our jobs won’t make us millionaires. Yes, the job market is very bad, but it helps to be flexible and try and rack up a lot of library-related skill-sets. I won’t say that you will find a job right out of library school, but I also wouldn’t rule that possibility out. Some of finding a job is qualifications (experience and skills) and who you know, but some of it is just kismet.
If you’re considering leaving your program, I guess the main question you should ask yourself is “what else would I do if I didn’t become a librarian?” If you come up with something else that interests you and that has a better employment outlook or better pay, go for it. If I’d wanted to become a lawyer or a chiropractor as well as a librarian, I’d probably be doing one of those other things instead because I’d be paid better. For me, there was nothing else I wanted to do. Once I hit on the idea of becomming a librarian, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I felt the same sense of fit (and certainty) that I felt when I met my husband. If you feel the same way, then you really don’t have any other options, right?
The other issue is geographic flexibility. Are you able/willing to move outside of NYC? NYC is a saturated market. You will have a very difficult time finding a job in an academic library without experience (unless one of your other MA’s is in a desirable subject like engineering or biology). Public libraries in NYC pay a laughable salary considering the cost of living. But they can because there are so many new graduates (who may not have spouses or dependents) willing to take that sort of pay and live in shoeboxes. If you are willing to move outside of the city, you will find more opportunities — though still you will encounter a shortage of entry-level library jobs. Having a second (or third!) Masters degree will certainly help you find a job in an academic library, and your writing and teaching skills might also give you a leg-up in libraries that have a tenure track. Yes, I’ve heard many complaints about being on the tenure track. It involves a lot of work; a lot of writing and presenting. But it also gives librarians job security and (perhaps) more respect from faculty members. There are plenty of academic libraries that do not have a tenure track. Mine doesn’t and yet I am already starting to publish and am excited about contributing to the profession outside of my University. Considering that you were a writer and a teacher, I don’t think you would have a big problem with the publishing aspect of the tenure track.
It is very important that you try to get experience working in libraries before you graduate. Paying jobs are better, but internships and volunteer positions will at least give you some experience. It is also important that you develop skills which will make you more marketable. Look at job ads and see what skills libraries are looking for. Then get those skills. Having tech skills, being actively involved in professional organizations, having articles published while in library school, building an online portfolio, etc. will make you more marketable. The more things you can add to your resume while in library school, the better. I wish I’d done more when I was in library school, but it’s hard to know where to start when you’re a distance learner and are so isolated from a university community.
If I, with my very limited experience in libraries, was able to find a job in an academic library, then there are jobs out there. They are difficult to find and you really need to market yourself, but it’s not impossible to get a job in academia right out of school. And whoever told you that public librarians hate their jobs was only speaking from their own limited experience. There are plenty of wonderful public libraries out there. Anyone who says that public libraries are all terrible places to work should consider a career change, because that is not what I’ve observed at all. Most public librarians I know are in public libraries by choice. They love working with a more diverse group of people and they love what they do. There is no “bad” position in libraries. There is just what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. But even with that you have to be flexible. I wanted to be a Distance Learning Librarian in an academic library, but I applied for countless public, special, corporate, and medical library positions. I also applied for totally unrelated positions in academic libraries. By some stroke of luck, I got exactly what I wanted, but sometimes you need to take a job that maybe isn’t perfect, but that you think you’d like (especially your first job out of school).
If you can’t or won’t leave New York City, if you can imagine yourself in some other career, or if you just don’t have time/inclination to develop other skills and get experience in libraries, you may want to reconsider your career choice. If you love the idea of being a librarian so much that your career is more important than where you live and you’re willing to put in the time and energy to make yourself more marketable, then perhaps librarianship is what you should do. And even if you must stay in NYC, if you want to be a librarian so much that you’re willing to take very bad pay or spend a long time looking for a job, then why not go for it? I would never advise someone to quit library school if they really wanted to become a librarian or to continue with it if they were afraid of the job market. I don’t know your situation and you need to choose your own path. Hopefully I gave you some food for thought. Let me know if I can be of any more help.
Ok, so I don’t write quite like Rilke either, but hopefully someone will find this useful. If something is important enough to you, it is worth the bad pay and the struggles to find a job.