I Got a Job and You Can, Too!

Congratulate me, readers! I have achieved the pinnacle of library school success and secured an honest-to-goodness library job. My job search went so well, in fact, that I had three offers to choose from, plus another on the horizon when I withdrew from consideration. I’m telling you this to brag, of course, but also to offer hope and to establish authority for the advice I’m about to give you.

There’s a ton of advice for job seekers out there already, including on this site, so I’m going to focus on the elements that seemed to be key in my case, or ways I deviated from standard practice.

What I Did:

  • I started planning for the job search three years ahead of time. When I decided to become a librarian, I didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. What I did have was the single best piece of advice I’ve heard: start looking at ads for jobs you want, as soon as you can. What are they looking for in a candidate? What do they have in common? Do you have what they want? Where can you improve? With three years of lead time, I was able to build significant experience in every major category. Don’t have three years? That’s okay! Pick one area where you feel less confident about your skills and find a way to build them up, even if it’s just a little bit.
  • I volunteered. As soon as I got into town, I applied to volunteer at all the different libraries and cultural institutions. I didn’t plan to work at all of them, but I know from experience that most places will never get back to you, and the ones that do take a long time to connect. I’ve been volunteering at different gigs for years to make friends and get out of the house. I find it relaxing to go someplace a few hours a week to do low-level, repetitive work, like apply stickers to books. This is different, in my mind, than doing an internship or practicum. Some readers may feel I’m splitting hairs, and maybe they’re right, but I had enough mentors and advisors sniff at my decade and a half of filing old photographs or staffing an early morning shift at the emergency shelter. It didn’t count, they said, because it wasn’t real work, and I didn’t really do anything. I should be spending my time better.

It’s true that I didn’t create new programs, or present original research to the board, or orchestrate a fundraiser. Here’s the thing, though, when it comes to hiring decisions: employers notice that you showed up on time for two hours a week, every week, to do the work that no one else would do. It makes a big difference when potential managers can call the volunteer coordinator and hear that you were reliable, professional, and a team player. It’s so easy to do, and no one does it. If you’re starting library school soon, make volunteering a priority.

  • I got a clear idea of what was important to me in a job. I never settled on a specialty, and I don’t care much about where I live. The only parameter I had going into the job search is that I didn’t want to work with kids or teens. Even discounting the specialty positions (music librarian, digital archivist, rare book preservationist) and the ads calling for 7+ years of experience, that left more jobs than I could reasonably apply for. If I didn’t care about location or job title, what did I care about?

Readers, I care about money. I have a single-income household and a massive student loan bill coming due. I sat down, did the math, and came up with a minimum salary: $50,000 a year for a low cost of living area. Then I only applied to jobs that listed a salary of at least that much, or jobs that didn’t list salaries but were interesting enough to spend the time applying for them and risk being disappointed later. This was as limiting as it sounds—I applied for twenty jobs total—but it worked.

The key lesson here is to pick one job feature you absolutely must have and be flexible in everything else. Want to be a film archivist? Don’t be too attached to salary or location. Only want to live in Portland, Oregon? You’re probably going to have to compromise when it comes to type of job and pay rate.

What I Didn’t Do:

  • I didn’t do an internship or a practicum. I had a perfectly good library assistantship and I already do enough volunteer work. I also have a long work history from before library school. I did apply for a few especially prestigious or high-paying internships, but I didn’t need one to be successful. If an internship or practicum isn’t required by your program, think about whether it’s worth your time. Do you need to establish some work history or gain experience in a specific skill? Is providing free labor or paying the school tuition money for the privilege of providing free labor the best way to achieve your goal? The answer could be “yes,” and in a lot of cases it is. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be.
  • I didn’t mention my grades. I didn’t include my GPA or honors on my resume, and I didn’t bring it up in interviews. Maybe employers saw my grades on the transcripts I had to provide as proof of degree, maybe they didn’t bother to look. I bet they didn’t look. No one cares about your grades.
  • I didn’t include a Technology Skills section on my resume. Even though I mostly applied for tech-based jobs, I didn’t have a special section about technology skills. I have exactly one notable computer skill, and I’m reasonably competent with everything else. What I did instead was include the notable skill under the relevant work history, and if the job ad mentioned specific software with which I had experience, I made sure to write about it in my cover letter.
  • I didn’t get published. Heck, I didn’t even try to get published. I didn’t present any of my work anywhere. Honestly, I didn’t have anything to present even if I wanted to. I won a research award in undergrad, and I write for this blog. That turned out to be close enough, even for tenure-track positions. If you’re able to get published, that’s fantastic and you should do it, but you can set the bar much lower. You can ignore that bar completely.
  • I didn’t negotiate salary. I know you’re supposed to negotiate salary. I’ve read the research and statistics, my school provided plenty of training on the hows and whens and for whats. It’s just that when the time came, I only got offers that I was happy with, salary-wise, and then I only had to pick which one I thought was best based on other factors. Maybe I could have negotiated more vacation time or a complimentary parka, but I’ll have money in the bank and a free second master’s degree, and frankly that was all I wanted.

Cover image by the author.

Emily graduates this month from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and begins work as a Systems Librarian at the University of North Dakota in July. She looks forward to experiencing real winters again, instead of the poor excuse for cold weather found in central Illinois.

3 replies

  1. As an employer – an academic library dean who has hired dozens of librarians and hundreds of library staff – I can confirm that nobody cares about your grades. At least, nobody I’ve spoken to in over 2 decades of doing this work. You got the degree – good enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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