I’ve had the good fortune of landing a graduate assistantship with the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries of Illinois (CARLI), which is one of the biggest consortia in the country and in the throes of switching from one library services platform to another. It’s exciting to get an extended look behind the scenes, but when I tell people where I work, I receive a puzzled look and a “but what do you do there?” The direct answer is that I watch a lot of training videos and listen in on conference calls in the hopes that I’ll be useful someday, but I think what my interlocutors really want to know is what consortia and their employees do in general.
In a nutshell, a library consortium is a group of libraries that have agreed to share resources, primarily to reduce costs and provide better services to their patrons. Consortia often negotiate with vendors for discounts. For example, academic libraries rely heavily on subscriptions to electronic journals and research databases to stay current. Great big library systems like the University of Illinois have the staff and the clout to get a good deal with the major vendors, but what about private liberal arts colleges? Or cash-strapped community colleges with only two librarians, neither of whom were hired for their negotiation skills? So the big systems get together to try for an even better deal, and the little guys scooch in with them, and they collectively hire people to talk to the vendors and manage all of the subscriptions. The member libraries save time and money, because not only do they usually get reduced costs on services, they also don’t have to each keep someone on staff to do all this work. The vendor also gains for much the same reason- instead of having enough employees to bargain with 130 different libraries (to use CARLI’s numbers as an example), they only talk to the consortium’s employees. The amount of money coming into the vendor will be less, but their expenses are lower, too. The consortium would also handle ongoing system maintenance and looking after any servers.
“Computers are boring,” you say. “What I really need is some new friends. Can my local consortium help?”
Yes, it can! Consortia, even the small ones, often put on yearly conferences. Since they’re nonprofits, they have Boards of Directors, and the bigger consortia have committees as well. Last week I sat in on a meeting of the Instruction Committee, whose members were research and instruction librarians from academic libraries around the state. Most of them were new to the profession and from smaller institutions, and they discussed common problems that they were having and how they could use the consortium’s resources to help. Committees may put together podcasts, webinars, and conference presentations. While this is more applicable to librarians already out in the field, library students can still benefit- CARLI’s committees publish the results of their projects (take a look at this one from the Preservation Committee), as do most consortia. Find out in which consortium your school’s library participates and poke around their website, though you may have to do a lot of poking- the page I linked above was buried under “Governance” and “Reports and Meeting Minutes”, which is the last place I’d look for a good time.
Consortia can also help you get a job, with networking opportunities, job fairs, and job boards. You can consider working for a consortium directly, doing mysterious things with discovery systems, coordinating conferences and training, or performing analytics. This is a good option for those who realize that direct public service just isn’t for them. There may even be options for remote work- I was delighted to find out that my dream of being a librarian while never leaving the house is achievable.
Keep your local consortium in mind if you’re looking for work while you’re in school. Librarians often have positive associations with their consortium- they won’t know what you do, but you’re in close proximity to decent snacks and someone who solved their catalog interface problem, and maybe that’s all you need to land an interview once you graduate. Try to keep consortia in mind just generally. They have many resources and opportunities for you.
Emily is a first year graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her favorite thing about school so far is this newsletter from the Meat Sales Room of the Meat Sciences Department, which is totally a real thing. The world is a wonderful and fascinating place.