I felt really sad when I read Kyle Shockey’s post on the Librarian Burnout blog about feeling burnout after library school and being in the midst of the job hunt. By all indications, he is one of those rare recent grads who followed the advice so many of us give to LIS students — don’t rely solely your LIS program to prepare you for the profession. He published, presented, worked, volunteered, and even won awards while still in library school! How many of you did all that?? And yet he found that not only was it all mentally and physically exhausting and not encouraged by his LIS program (shame on you LIS faculty!), but he’s discovered that it didn’t lead to the job he thought he’d get if he did all the right things. Horrible.
I remember my own first library job search like it was yesterday. A lot of it was chronicled on this blog, but I tried to stay upbeat in my writing because I didn’t want to hurt my chances of getting a job by being negative. By Spring of 2005 (I graduated in December 2004), I was starting to think that I needed to look for jobs back in my previous field (social work) because I was clearly not seen as a promising librarian by anyone. Thinking about that time in my life even now gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was really that traumatic. So I feel viscerally bad for anyone going through that.
Unlike Kyle, I didn’t find library school exhausting (probably because, with a few small exceptions, I did rely on my LIS program to prepare me for the profession), but I found the job hunt isolating and demoralizing. The whole process feels like is designed to make people feel like there is something inherently wrong with them, and some have suggested that the system supports the idea that you’re out of work and searching for a job because you are flawed. For folks who already have depressive tendencies, it is all too easy to believe that the problem is you and that the problem is unfixable.
It’s easy to just say “wow, that sucks” and move on with your professional life, but there are things each and every one of us can do to make library school and/or the first professional job hunt less of a soul-crushing experience for others:
- If your library is hiring for a position that doesn’t strictly require professional experience for the person in the position to be successful, don’t require it. It doesn’t mean you’ll definitely hire a fresh-out-of-school librarian, but it opens you up to finding an extraordinary candidate who doesn’t have professional experience. I remember at my last job, we were going to be hiring some one-year temporary reference and instruction librarians to cover a bunch of people leaving and a retirement. They seemed like perfect positions for just-graduated librarians to earn a little experience doing instruction, reference, and collection development, but one of our administrators insisted that we ask for several years of experience. His main argument was that, because we’re in Portland, we’ll get plenty of applicants with the requisite experience. So depressing, but sadly not uncommon. When you’re thinking of requiring a few years of experience because it will give you fewer cover letters to read, remember that you are also limiting the options for people who need library jobs most.
- When someone is interviewing for a position at your library, be humane, be kind, and remember that the impression they get from your actions is at least as important as the impression you get from them. You are representing the library and, unless you hate working there, you should work to give the candidates a positive impression of your workplace. Treat the job candidate as you would any valued member of our profession. I remember interviewing for my first professional position at a well-respected library that treated me terribly during my interview. In addition to many small things, they made me prepare and give THREE separate presentations during my day and made me choose the restaurants at which we had lunch and dinner (which felt very much a test of my coolness or interest in the cuisines of other cultures). During dinner, they pretty much just talked amongst themselves and didn’t include me in the conversation or ask me anything about myself. Years later, when I had built a positive reputation in the profession, someone there suggested I apply for a job they had open. Based on my experience, there is NO WAY I WOULD EVER BE WILLING TO WORK THERE. I even know and like people who work there now, and yet I still think of the place as a toxic snake pit based on my experience 11 years ago. First impressions matter, even when it might seem like the person you’re interviewing really doesn’t matter.
- If you’re an experienced librarian (and I don’t mean a decade, even a little experience is great!) mentor or micro-mentor a new librarian. The support and encouragement I got from a few librarians towards the end of my job hunt saved my bacon. One person basically tore apart my cover letter and resume and helped me rebuild them so they didn’t suck and played up the value of my previous experience as a social worker. Suddenly I was getting second interviews at just the sorts of places I’d hoped to work. Soon I had my first professional job. But it was more than just the feedback on my resume and cover letters that helped. That successful people in the field believed in me and were willing to help me (even in small ways) was hugely encouraging. Why would they want to help me unless they saw something worthwhile in me? As someone who has served as a mentor, I can tell you that it doesn’t take a lot to be one. You just have to care about people and maybe have a little more experience (in some areas, not all) than the person you’re mentoring.
- Develop programs locally that support new librarians (because not everyone can afford to attend ALA). Does your local, state, or regional library association have a resume review program or an early-career librarian mentoring program? If not, maybe it’s worth building one. When I asked at my first Oregon Library Association Conference if there was a mentoring program for new librarians, I quickly found myself swept up into the Membership Committee and creating a mentoring program from scratch with another interested librarian. Our program started matching its first pair of mentors in May 2013 and has matched around 60 mentoring pairs since. It is one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. In collaboration with the head of the OLA New Member Round Table, we’re expanding the program to offer a Resume and Cover Letter Review program to meet the needs of OLA Members who just need short-term mentoring focused on the job hunt. ALA/NMRT offers a great online resume review service, but I really like the idea of having people interact with folks who know the local library scene (since most people in Oregon seem to want to stay here). While I’m a big believer in informal mentoring, there are so many people who don’t have the political or social capital to find a mentor themselves, and I want to make sure those folks have just as much of an opportunity for mentoring support as I did way back when.
- If you have an LIS intern, you really should focus on making the internship a good learning and growth experience for the student. I had an archives practicum where I was basically given boxes of (really freaking boring) university records and told to process the collection and create finding aids. I didn’t get any support on how to do it and was pretty much left to my devices the entire time. The experience convinced me that I didn’t want to be an archivist, but, for all I know, I might have loved the work in a less sucky setting. Supervising an intern is more than just about giving them work to do. It’s about teaching them about the setting you work in, giving them meaningful experiences and interactions, and mentoring them as they learn the role they’re in. Erin at Constructive Summer suggest that we pay our LIS interns, but that isn’t always possible. The least we can do though is make it an amazing learning and networking experience for them.
- If you work in a library school, you should constantly remind yourself that your goal is to help your students get jobs. You should make sure your curriculum is helping students develop the skills and real-life knowledge that will help them be successful in the field. Keep what you’re teaching up-to-date and focused on real-life problem-based learning. If students do the sorts of extra things Kyle did, you should encourage them and give them reasonable work extensions. In a professional program, what will make a student marketable really should take precedence. As an LIS instructor, I can’t imagine penalizing or not offering flexibility to a student who is presenting at a conference!
- In the big picture, we should advocate to decrease the number of people going into LIS programs. It’s obvious that there are way more people graduating with the degree than there are jobs, even when you consider positions outside of libraries in which the MLS is a valuable credential. Instead of discouraging potential graduate students, we should find ways to push programs that do not have exceptionally strong placement stats into decreasing the number of students they accept. ALA isn’t going to do this work because it goes against their interests, so it’s deeply problematic that accreditation of LIS programs happens through ALA. Maybe that needs to change. I don’t have answers to all this, but I know what we have here is deeply problematic.
Individually we probably can’t change these big systemic problems, but anyone can help individual librarians and I’m proof that little things people do to help do matter. It doesn’t take much to be kind, share our experiences, be encouraging, and be helpful to a new librarian. That the first job hunt is demoralizing and painful shouldn’t be seen as a normal rite-of-passage for librarians. We can make things better.
And Kyle, where you are now sucks epically, but things usually do get better. And, given what I’ve seen from you on Twitter, you are absolutely meant to be a professional librarian.