Going from Public to Academic Libraries – My Experiences as a Paraprofessional

Last month I wrote that I moved to academic libraries after spending four years working at a public library, first as a page then as a desk assistant. I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the differences I’ve found between the two. (Of course, as with anything, this is just my personal observations, doesn’t entirely apply to librarian work as I’m still in school and not a librarian yet, and, as in so many things, your mileage may vary.)

Displays and art projects. Some of the things I spent a lot of time on as a public library employee, suddenly disappeared once I started at an academic library. Not once has anyone asked me to cut out any craft projects, make any posters, or organize any book displays. This was no great loss for me, but if you enjoy crafting or other visually creative projects, this might be a drawback for you.

Reader’s Advisory. Knowing how to offer this service is important, even at an academic library (who knows what you might get asked at the reference desk!) but we do far less RA at the community college than at the public library. The most common book-related question I get asked now is not ‘what should I read next?’ but ‘is the fourth edition of this textbook really that different from the third?’

Outreach vs. Programming. Our community college library does do occasional programming, but it’s usually tied to the campus calendar or specific school programs (for example, we stay open extra-late one evening every semester and put out art supplies and bubble tea for students taking College 1, which requires a group poster presentation). The public library had a lot more frequent programming opportunities, usually multiple of them in any given week. The public library also tried to cover a wide variety of interests and age groups – toddler storytime, teen crafts, adult book club – while our college programming pretty much focuses on students taking specific courses or in specific student groups. On the other hand, outreach is important to both types of libraries – our college library is just as active on social media as was the public library.

Instruction. While public libraries do offer courses (I used to co-teach a Computer Basics class for adults that met every other Saturday), the librarians at academic libraries do a lot more regular teaching. Our community college librarians teach at least once or twice a week for an hour or two at a time. Professors bring a group of students into the library for an instructional session or for help doing research for a particular assignment.

Services in multiple languages. As a public library employee employed by a city government, bilingual staff could take a test and get certified in languages other than English, which came with a slight percentage bump in pay. We kept a list of employees who spoke various languages so if we encountered a patron who preferred to interact in a language other than English, we could do our best to find a staff member who could assist. I was surprised to find, when I switched to a college library, that we didn’t really worry about that so much. We definitely serve students for whom English is not their first language, but (whether this is correct or not), our leadership generally assumes that if they’re enrolled in college courses, they must have at least a base level of English language skills, and so basic library services can be conducted entirely in English by both parties.

For more insights on the differences in working at public and academic libraries, I recommend this post, this one, this one, this one, and this one. Happy reading, and if you have experience switching between different types of libraries, please share your observations in the comments; I know my insights are not the only ones out there and I’d love to hear from others!

Lauren is Associate Editor of Hack Library School and a second-year student in the MLIS program at San José State University. She’s worked at a community college library for the last eight years, and is focusing her studies on academic librarianship, OER, and metadata. You can find her on Twitter @darthbookworm3.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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