A Tale of Two Part-Time Library Jobs

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alex Harrington.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” may be a bit melodramatic, but “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” fits pretty neatly when I try to describe my graduation from library school. See, I didn’t plan ahead, and I had no idea what to expect job-wise when I finished. I thought that having a graduate degree in library science meant I was automatically qualified to be a librarian. But I learned better, and now I have two part-time jobs in libraries (plus one non-library job). This is not what in-library-school me thought that after-library-school me would be doing, but so far it’s working for me. Because some of you might find yourselves in similar situations whether you expect to or not, I hope sharing my story and some advice I’ve learned along the way will help you in your post-graduate job searches.

Story of my life

To understand the advice I want to give you, you first have to hear the story of my post-library-school employment. So gather ’round, and I’ll tell you a tale…

I worked at a non-library-related job throughout grad school. I finally noticed the problem with this in my last semester, the summer of 2010, and did some volunteer work at the public library, shelf-reading my own “adopted” section two or three times a week. (It was too little, too late, as far as my hire-ability was concerned, but I made an effort.)

During that same summer semester, I had an internship with the local community college. I worked with the electronic services librarian. Everyone was very friendly and gave me good advice, and I had a good time in general. Then the semester ended, I graduated, and I started looking for jobs. I did so all fall and winter.

Finally, I figured out that no library work experience meant I really couldn’t get a librarian position, even though I had the degree. (This was news to me… but I was 23; let’s chalk it up to naïveté.) All the librarian postings said they wanted at least a year or two of library work experience. I realized that I would have to take a paraprofessional job to get the experience that, along with my degree, would make me suitable for a librarian position.

In the spring of 2011, I was in the middle of interviewing and waiting to hear back about a clerk position at the public library (the type of position that requires nothing more than a high school diploma, a grasp of the Dewey Decimal System, and the ability to show up) when the electronic services librarian from the community college emailed me. She said they wanted to hire a library specialist in reference; would I be interested? Well, it was part-time and paraprofessional, but it seemed better than shelving books all day. I interviewed and got the job. Fast forward to six months later, in August 2011: the college said they wanted a weekend librarian for the campus closer to my house. I got that position, too. So now, I’m a part-time library specialist at one campus, part-time librarian at another campus, and I still work part-time at the non-library job I had throughout school. (That’s 51 hours, seven days a week, in a 25-mile radius, for those keeping score at home.)

It might sound like I don’t enjoy my current employment situation, but that’s not true. My non-library skills actually come in handy more often in the library than you might expect. I like staying busy, and having three jobs is a great way to stay busy. Plus, as my colleagues remind me, I’m still young. I have the energy to keep up this schedule for a while without risking burnout. However, this type of schedule isn’t for everyone. Ideally, most people want to come out of graduate school looking at a full-time job that calls upon the skills and knowledge they developed while earning their degree. So how do you manage to do that?

Your Turn

My situation isn’t that unusual to hear about nowadays. Many graduates are finding out – a little too late – that they need qualifications other than their degrees in order to get the jobs they thought would be handed to them after graduation. Keep these four things in mind, and maybe you’ll be able to start out higher on the totem pole than I did:

Plan ahead. Get library-related work experience while you’re still in school. Start as early as possible. Volunteer if you can while you search for a paying gig. Start reading job postings for your ideal jobs and learn about the usual requirements for those positions. They may not be what you expect.

Get your foot in the door. You might have to start in a part-time or paraprofessional job, even with the graduate degree. It happens. Don’t let it get to you. Just do your job with pride, and do it well, and before you know it, they’ll be asking you to take on bigger responsibilities and move up in the library world.

Have patience. Work experience takes time. Work hard, and wait patiently as your experience grows. Focus on doing the best work you’re capable of in the meantime and time will fly.

Look for opportunities. Sure, if someone asks you to do an extra task or help them out, that’s a good opportunity to demonstrate your skills and willingness to be helpful. But seek out opportunities, too. If there’s a section that nobody else wants to weed, ask if you could have a shot at it. Maybe your library is completely absent from the world of social media, and you think they could benefit from being on Twitter or having a blog. Try not to step on any toes (there might be a librarian who is extremely proud of that gaudy bulletin board you wanted to change) but get creative and think of ways you can prove to your supervisors that you are a benefit to the library.

For other job search ideas, you may enjoy the resources Preparing to job-search: Some considerations and Job tips for future/recent LIS grads. (They have some really great advice that I wish I had heard two years ago!)

What sorts of things are you doing to plan ahead and be an impressive candidate?

Alex Harrington (@alexampersandra) is from Virginia Beach, VA. Her MLIS, which she completed in August 2010, is from the University of Alabama SLIS online program. She works for Tidewater Community College as a part-time library specialist at the Portsmouth campus and a part-time librarian at the Virginia Beach campus.

12 replies

  1. It sounds like you’re off to a great start! It may be a while in two part-time jobs and it’s not uncommon. I also wrote about this a while back. There are unique challenges to working two part-time jobs, but in the end it gives you incredible perspective and flexibility–something any employer should love to have in a full-time hire.


  2. I had a similar lack of library experience, and after graduating in 2011 I now work “on-call” at three library systems – not only am I part time, but I am not guaranteed hours. At first I felt very unusual, but in talking to librarians in the systems I’m working at, I found that many worked on-call for a year or two before finding more permanent work.
    My research partner and I are actually looking at the ways people are using this type of part time librarian. The perception is that people are using part time or on-call workers more and more because of the economy, but I’m not sure that ‘s true. Our research website is here: http://librariansworkingoncall.wordpress.com/


  3. Nice work, Dr. Word Nerd. Working in those parapro positions also helps give a sense of appreciation for those jobs and the people doing them, eh? I’m glad you’re making it work for you. So many of us take really unusual paths and are so much better for it.


  4. I’m glad you could find systems willing to work with each other’s schedules. My problem right now is most local libraries now require a year or two of experience for the paraprofessional positions, even shelving, and I’m not even trying for the MLS yet!


  5. A word of advice for those looking to break into a FT job while doing two (or more) PT jobs. My background: I worked in a non-lib job FT, while attending SLIS PT, also while being a single mom. As I progressed I made friends in my classes who warned me that I had to get myself in a library. So my last semester, I quit my FT job, took my final 12 hours, did an internship, and starting working PT as a library page. It was a crazy semester! I graduated in May and luckily got a FT para job in June (which later turned into a pro position). That was 4 years ago, I am now a library director for a small public library. I see tons of overqualified people trying to catch a break into a better position. Here is my advice (finally!): go the extra mile no matter what it is, even if you think it doesn’t matter. It does. It will pay off. Also, if you are trying to break into the same system you are currently employed in, be careful about what type of employee you are. It seems obvious, but I have seen it myself. Don’t come to work late, don’t make the same mistakes over and over again b/c you are in what you hope to be is a temp position (just a stop on the way to a FT gig). Even larger systems can be sort of incestuous – so be careful about every day work habits and attitude b/c word travels. Go the extra mile in your PT positions even if you might not get paid to do those things.


  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Alex. I’ve been in the same boat as you: when I started my MLS in 2009 I had zero library experience. In the past three years, I have had part time or temporary positions in five different libraries. If you add in volunteering, it would be seven different libraries. As many have mentioned before, it seems that this is becoming more common. I have come to think of my library career as climbing a mountain: it takes lots of steps to get to the top. And each one of those part time jobs have been part of the journey to the summit. Thankfully, I’ve just started a full time paraprofessional job, so I now feel like I am coming up to the timberline and the peak is in sight.


  7. I’m so glad to see some success stories that started out where I am now. That is very encouraging, not only to me, but hopefully to others as well.

    Everyone is absolutely right about trying to move up within the system you already belong to: be cautious! Sure, you’ll have bad days, but keep your general outlook and attitude positive.


  8. Great advice! I found this out sooner rather than later (luckily for me). While an undergrad, I volunteered at my local library and helped with the summer reading programs; I was there for about a year. It wasn’t until now, almost 2 years later and starting my MLS program in January that I have a position as a Ref desk assistant.
    You really do have to get creative and just try different things – but no matter how many jobs I applied for, I still kept looking on the job board and tried to think of ways I could just jump in.


  9. A big problem for me was that many institutions didn’t want a lib student *even as a volunteer*. I was overqualified to fill in at the most basic levels and they had employees for the higher positions; and the employees often reacted as gatekeepers when I offered to shadow and help. I even had one employee tell me directly “It’s not worth my time to teach you how to do my job, but you better find something fast because your degree is basically worthless.” Ouch.

    Luckily I found a part time library job for an organization which had never had a librarian before (read: low expectations) and I have learned on the job. I found this through daunting job searching, because it was posted not on any board but an obscure website that came through my jobs feed. I was lucky to catch it but even more, I was lucky it was on an obscure website because my competition was fairly low. Perhaps that makes me sound like I am a terrible librarian who shouldn’t have been hired, but in reality I, like others, graduated with a lot of ideas and not much experience and what I needed more than anything was to be given a chance.


  10. I was interested to read this post, as I too have three jobs, all in libraries, one professional and two para-professional. I agree with a commenter above that this helps me appreciate “the other side” more in all three jobs, and hopefully to understand and work well with my colleagues. Working in several organisations, roles, and types of library also helps to keep me fresh, look at my work and workplaces objectively, and transfer ideas between them, and it widens my options for whatever I may do next. There is certainly something to be said for having several part-time jobs.


  11. I have 2 more semesters until I graduate. I had a nonlibrary PT job, but this past June they relocated out of state. Since then I have been searching for both non-library and library positions. I have been holding off on an internship,but after this posting and everyone’s comments, I feel I need to just get to work. Unpaid isn’t permanent. I appreciate everyone’s candid advice. And, yes, I am taking the internship next semester.


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