A Well-Kept Secret: How to Become an International School Librarian

Check out this HLS classic, originally published on October 3, 2011.

As my fellow Hacker Zack Frazier pointed out in his most recent entry, many library school students experience considerable anxiety about their job prospects upon graduation. We all know (maybe too well) how tight the job market in North America is. That’s why, whenever a classmate expresses an interest in school librarianship or working abroad, I ask if they have considered international schools.

I have to preface this primer by admitting that I have never worked as a librarian at an international school. However, I did work from July 2008 until June 2011 as an English Literature teacher at Gyeonggi Suwon International School in Suwon, South Korea. So I can comment on the hiring process, work environment, salary, and benefits, which are similar for both positions. It continues to amaze me that the international school circuit, which provides incredible employment opportunities across the world, continues to be such a well-kept secret. Nobody ever told me about it; in fact I stumbled across it quite by accident. So I’d like to share information with you about how to get in the loop.

What is an international school?

International schools have adopted either an international curriculum (such as the International Baccalaureate Programme), or the national curriculum of another country (for example, the Ontario Provincial Curriculum). The majority of international schools are privately run institutions that cater to children of diplomats, embassy officials, foreign businesspeople, missionaries, or other expats. Students may be quite worldly and multilingual, having lived in multiple countries, and are usually planning to attend university in a Western country following graduation. Teachers, librarians, and other faculty at international schools represent a variety of nationalities and must have the relevant professional certifications from their home countries. Most faculty are on two-year contracts which can be renewed as long as they and their employers are mutually satisfied. You will not be expected to be fluent in the language of the country you are going to, although you’ll probably want to learn the basics on arrival. It makes life easier. And it’s fun.

Where can I work? What kind of salary and benefits can I expect?

Honestly, this varies with the school and the country in which you find yourself. Unfortunately, jobs in Western Europe are nearly impossible to obtain if you do not hold an EU passport. Even if you do, there is stiff competition for these jobs, which means that that schools feel less compelled to entice you with strong salaries/benefits and good working conditions. However, if you are willing to go further afield to places such as Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, you can generally expect the following:

A) Housing (either provided for you directly or through a housing allowance)
B) Competitive salary (most of which you can bank, depending on the country – I lived very well on 40% of my salary and saved the rest)
C) Round-trip airfare to your home country at the start and end of your contract for you and your dependents
D) Free or reduced tuition fees for your children
E) Funding for professional development and conferences (for example, in 2008 I was flown to Mumbai for a conference. The school covered airfare, hotel, conference fees, and all other costs)
E) Ample vacation time to travel (but expect to work your butt off during the school year itself – working abroad is not a vacation!)

These are the most common benefits. Depending on the school, you may also receive others such as free or subsidized daycare for children under school age, cafeteria lunches, stipends for extra-curricular activities such as coaching, and transportation to and from school.

What is the work environment like? What will be expected of me?

Again, this depends on the school. At a new school, you may arrive to an astronomical library budget, but nothing on the shelves. At an older school, you may find that no qualified librarian has been in the stacks for a long time. Most international schools, however, put a great deal of money into their libraries and into ensuring that students have access to the most up-to-date technology. Where I worked, all students from 6th-12th grades had Mac laptops, and I was given a laptop for my own use in the classroom. Generally, you can expect to teach library classes, assist students in locating resources, work closely with teachers to integrate information literacy into the curriculum, provide teachers with ideas about how to use the library, oversee library assistants, coordinate parent volunteers, organize extracurricular activities, maintain the collection and databases, shelve, weed, repair…in short, a little of everything!

What kind of challenges might I face?

I’m not going to lie: while international school life is cushy in some ways, it’s extremely tough in others. Students are often trying to function academically in their second or third language, in a cultural environment that may be unfamiliar to them. Depending on how your host culture views libraries, you may have to put a lot of effort into creating the sort of library atmosphere you want. Parents may have unrealistic expectations of what you can provide. You will have to order and organize materials in languages you don’t speak or even read. Your administration will work you hard. However, you will also receive incredible opportunities for professional development that you might never come across at home. You will be experiencing a new culture and way of life. If you are self-directed and motivated, you will go far. My amazing students made the challenges more than worth it, and I feel blessed to have had such a great experience working in South Korea.

Okay, you convinced me. How do I look for a job at an international school?

Many international schools do the majority of their recruiting at job fairs. Bear in mind that while these fairs are primarily aimed at teachers, schools will be looking to fill library vacancies as well. Be prepared to accept a job before you walk out of the fair – and not necessarily in the first country you had in mind, either! Here are the most popular fairs:

Queen’s University Teachers’ Overseas Recruiting Fair January 27-29, 2012, Kingston, Ontario.

University of Northern Iowa Overseas Recruiting Fair, February 3-5, 2012, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Search Associates: an international school placement service that holds its own fairs in cities across the world. This organization screens both jobseekers and schools in advance, so apply early if you would like to attend a fair through this organization.

Don’t worry if you can’t make it to a job fair! Many positions are posted on The International Educator, a great resource for any educator looking to work abroad. Most administrators are happy to interview candidates by phone or Skype. If you think you know what country you’d like to work in, just Google international schools in that country and contact them directly. That’s how I got my job!

But I just finished library school and I have no work experience yet. Can I still find a job?

Absolutely. You may be accustomed to a tight North American job market where there are hundreds of applicants for a single position. But despite all the perks of international school life, the pool of qualified people willing to uproot themselves and move abroad is actually quite small. You will not be facing nearly the same amount of competition for positions as you would at home. Of course, you may not be able to walk immediately into the exact job you want, but if you are flexible and willing to head where the opportunities are, you’ll soon have the work experience you need to get that dream job.

I was just offered what seems like a great job! But how do I know this school isn’t sketchy?

While finding a job overseas can be a thrilling experience, don’t get so caught up in the excitement that you forget to ask the important questions. International schools sometimes struggle to fill all their positions, which leads some to misrepresent themselves in an attempt to hire the best candidates. Don’t just take an administrator’s word for it; do your research! Ask to be put in touch with other faculty members who can give you an honest assessment of the school environment, housing, and amenities. If the administrator hesitates to do this for you, that may be a bad sign.

A good online resource is International Schools Review, a website where employees anonymously review their schools. Although you have to pay for membership, in my opinion the cost is well worth it. Pay closest attention to the most recent reviews, as the work climate at international schools can change quickly due to high staff turnover. Also, check your school’s accreditations. Schools that have been accredited by external bodies such as the International Baccalaureate are usually more legitimate than those that haven’t.

And of course, if you have a bad feeling about a particular school, it’s best to go with your gut.

Working overseas was a fantastic experience that has shaped my life in ways I never could have expected. In fact, it was observing all the great things that my librarian colleagues at my international school got to do that inspired me to attend library school. I hope to find employment as a librarian at an international school in the future, and heartily recommend working abroad to anyone.

Cover image by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels.

35 replies

  1. Several of my friends have taught abroad in Korea, and I really wanted to do it when I graduated from college. I never managed to get my ducks in a row on it though. Thanks for the great post!


  2. Thank you for this posting. I am just now beginning the job search upon expected graduation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in December. I also taught in South Korea for a couple of years and believe I have been very near your school (did some lessons at the World Cup Stadium in Suwon and had friends working at Gyeonggi). I have often thought of going to a library in another country and totally creating my own position.


  3. Another organization and one of the oldest is International School Service in Princeton, NJ They hold several fairs around the world including three in the U.S.


  4. Interesting post. As a grad student approaching graduation, I’m interested to hear about more experiences related to public as opposed to school libraries. Is there the same demand?


    • That, I could not tell you. I think generally most public libraries in foreign countries would prefer to hire people domestically (I can’t see any Korean public library, for example, ever having reason to hire a foreigner). Also, at international schools you wouldn’t be required to speak the local language, but I find it highly unlikely that would be the case in a public library.


      • Thanks for the reply; I suspected that might be the case. Your post got me thinking, and an interesting alternative for public librarians might be a partnership with a sister library abroad. There are some major differences, obviously, but there seems to be a need for this type of partnership.

        I’d be interested to hear about anyone’s experience in this sort of collaboration.


  5. so I wouldn’t have to have a teacher degree or Certificate at all in order to work at an international school as a librarian?


  6. I have 4 years of experience working a student job in a college library and one year of volunteering in a HS library. No MLS, no additional library experience. Is that enough to work in an international school? Thanks!


  7. Great posting. I am a recent MLIS grad and I had almost forgotten about International Schools (which is ironic since I attended one in Brazil) but came upon your posting during my search for a job. I am now looking into this as a great possibility for my future and hope that my previous experience attending an international school will help in the process. 🙂


  8. Thank you for posting this highly informative article. I can see I need to brush up on my research skills as I have been searching for overseas librarian positions for years and I didn’t know about any of these resources. Good luck to everyone searching for an overseas position and I hope I am successful as well.


  9. This is an amazing article. I’ll have to do some more research, but I am interested in seeing whether most of these opportunities are restricted to working in public school and academic libraries. I hope to eventually work in a medical library setting, and would love to work abroad if the opportunities are there.


  10. So nice .I jjust got a job of a Assistant. Librarian in an international school and I am bit nervous though I have a masters degree..


  11. Great advice about the hidden secret of international schools! Starting your career at an international school is a wonderful way to kick-start your career and get valuable experience. It is certainly true that there are more teaching positions versus librarian positions at international schools (and all schools for that matter), but there are definitely opportunities at international schools around the world.

    Go to The International Educator’s (TIE) website at http://www.tieonline.com to find out what librarian positions are currently available at international schools around the world.


  12. Respected sir,
    my name is suresh complete master degree in lib science. saw
    one advertisement
    librarian post.

    skills & duties : in library only put the indent given to the supply
    order collect the books and check the books
    and superate the books as the classification and catalogue.
    than given to the classification number
    and kept in the racks and reference books also.data feed in
    library software than issue the books retrieve the books. if anybody
    return to late collect the fine also.thats all my duties.

    please see my resume if you call early for the interview will happy
    and prove my knowledge and my work and worth.

    Thanking you sir,


  13. Interesting post! I work as a kindergarten teacher at a Swiss IB/PYP school and I am pursuing my master’s degree in instructional technology/ with a focus on the school library, eventually to work in a international school library. I have been teaching internationally for the past 10 years and found my first posting at the job fair in Iowa. Just one note, most schools, especially reputable ones, do expect you to be a certified teacher, and great schools expect at least a few years experience. However, if you start out at a smaller, newer, less established or newly accredited school, they may require less experience or fewer qualifications.


  14. I have a few questions on this as this is what I am planning to do after i finish grad school, if you don’t mind. what was the interview process like? how soon after grad school did they want you to work there? what was the Visa process like and how soon did you have to start trying to get one?


    • These are great questions, Cameron! Unfortunately we don’t have the answers for you- this article was originally written several years ago and I’ll be surprised if the author is keeping track of their comments anymore. If you have an institution in mind that you would like to work for, it might be helpful to check LinkedIn for current employees, or to ask the school directly.


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