Pondering the Potential Paradox of Previous Practical Library Experience

According to the 2021 MLIS Skills at Work report from the SJSU iSchool 90% of the job postings they analyzed require job-specific experience representing an 11% increase over the 2020 edition of the report (p. 16). This has been a growing trend, especially in entry level positions in the library and information industry and it creates the potential for a paradox of previous practical experience in libraries. It also doubles down on many of the issues associated with privilege that our profession is rife with. We’ve recently had posts about how library work won’t love you back and that having a library job in grad school can open doors for you. But we haven’t talked about the elephant in the room, aside from having a grad school job (there aren’t enough to go around for everyone), what other ways are there to get the work experience that the entry-level job ads say you need? How do you make sure it’s the right type of library working experience? What are the wrong types? No one ever tells you those things in library school, because we don’t like to talk about the bad parts, like the vocational awe and the understaffing and the precarity, we only want to glorify the industry instead of exposing the problems and encouraging our students and new grads to try and help us find ways to fix them. We never talk about the privilege associated with being able to get the right kind of library work experience while in grad school – because yes, sadly there is a right and a wrong kind. In this post I’m going to try and give you some preliminary answers to the questions I posted and point you in some directions to explore and think about. I’m also going to talk about things I’ve heard both good and bad because I don’t want to completely scare you, I want to be realistic but also give you some hope.

The “right” and “wrong” ways to get library-work experience

If you’ve been hanging around in libraries and asking anywhere near as many questions about strategies for getting a librarian job as I have been you’ve probably heard about the paradox of practical library experience. What this boils down to is there being two schools of thought within LIS. There are many librarians out there who think that the only way to get librarian experience is through librarian work. They have a very narrow view of the “right” type of librarian work experience and everything else is wrong. My colleagues and I who’ve shared discussions about it coined the term “staff-stink” for the most common issue. There are librarians and libraries out there who will punish you for working in a full-time staff level role. This seems to be prevalent mostly in college and university libraries, but I have heard about it in public libraries as well. The most common thing that seems to happen is you have a part-time or full-time staff level library worker who decides to get their MLIS and their goal is to move into a librarian role within their institution. You’d think that would be easy? It’s not always and I want you to be prepared for that. I don’t tell you this to dishearten you, no, I’m sharing this with you because to be forewarned is to be forearmed. If you know this barrier exists you can be better prepared to tear it down with your bare hands if you have to. I have a very good friend at the academic library where I work full-time in a staff-level supervisory role. He’s a huge advocate for support staff, always willing to go to bat for us, and always talking us up about how important we are and how the library couldn’t function without us. But he did admit to me that he does have an automatic gut reaction against staff-level experience when he sees an application for a librarian position. He actually told me that in his mind he’d mark that person down a point. And then we discussed why, because he admitted he knew that was wrong but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. I think I’ve ground that attitude out of him though.

What ends up actually be the issue here is not your very valid and very important and very related work experience. No what you’re rubbing up against is bias and comfort. Again especially true if you’re trying to stay within the same institution like I am. You have to work extra hard to overcome the fact that people are used to seeing you as staff and they’re not good at imagining what you look like in any role but the one you already do. How do you combat this? Finding ways to supplement your “wrong” experience with the “right” kind, but also by building yourself a team of advocates within the institution who see you for you and what you bring and not the role you’re currently in. The more people you have selling you to these other people the better. Keep reading to find out how and where you can work on getting the “right” kind of experience.

How and where to get library-work experience in grad school

Community Service Learning courses

These are a new and emerging trend in post-secondary and especially in graduate studies. You don’t see them often but they are worth their weight in gold when you do! Seek them out, hunt them down. Community Service Learning-based courses present you with what essentially boils down to a graded group practicum in most cases. The course is structured to teach you while you get the chance to build practical skills in the theory you’re learning by working with a community-based organization on a relevant project. The one at the University of Alberta is not run out of SLIS but it should absolutely have a section within SLIS. I just finished taking it this past August and it was amazing. The course is called Building Intersectional Feminist Archives and it’s run out of the Digital Humanities and Gender Studies departments. In it we learned all about the principles and theories of digital archiving, especially how they relate to marginalized groups, and while we were learning this we were also in groups actively building intersectionally feminist digital archives for three organizations. I was the project leader for my team, so I not only got experience in building the digital archive itself, but also some more management experience for my resume, and project management experience (which if you looked at the SJSU report you will see is one of the in demand skills they found). All that while also getting a fantastic grade for my GPA and completing one of my required IT courses.

Practicums/Field Placements

If your program offers a practicum or field-placement course and you are in a privileged enough position to be able to work that into your life schedule then you should take it. There might even be some programs that even require students to do a practicum. The COVID era has opened up a lot more options for remote practicums that make these types of experience more available to the non-privileged groups and distance learners who might not be able to work face-to-face work into their schedules. Generally you work with the supervisor at the practicum site to figure out what you’ll be working on so you should be able to tailor the position to the “right” type of experience.

Co-Op

Many MLIS programs do offer a co-op option. Usually for the on-campus students only though which does leave the online students rather out to dry. Co-op jobs are like on-campus jobs in that they are highly, highly competitive and extremely coveted because they work around your course schedules. A friend of mine chose Western’s MLIS program specifically because it offered co-op and she got two great short-term librarian level roles out of it for her resume. Because these are co-op roles for MLIS students you don’t have to worry about the “right” or “wrong” types of work experience.

Paid employment

This is one of those privilege issues we’ve been bringing up. Paid employment is the ideal way to get the experience you need, but it can come with a lot of strings, and it’s not something every graduate student is in a position to do. Many online students for example are earing their MLIS part-time and at a distance because they work already either in a library or in another industry and they’re trying to transition. We punish those people instead of embracing what they bring to the table because they can’t juggle multiple jobs or can’t give up a full-time position for something less stable. There are two main types of paid employment at issue here. On-campus and off-campus.

On-Campus

There are several types of on-campus employment that count as the “right” type of experience that will help open doors. There are definitely not enough of them to go around as I mentioned before, and they are highly competitive. The most obvious ones are jobs in your campus libraries – depending on the duties of these jobs they could be the right type of experience or they might not be. Generally the ones that would be the “right” kind will involve “librarian-level” duties and will be explicitly for graduate students. Other jobs like shelving and pulling holds definitely won’t hurt you, but they’re not going to open as many doors. Working on a reference desk is a good middle ground because it will help you a lot in some libraries and certain roles, and for others it will just show that you have an understanding of library reference work but maybe at this library that doesn’t matter because librarians don’t staff the reference desk. These types of positions really only benefit on-campus students although if you’re very lucky now in the current COVID climate you MAY be able to find remote positions at your library or another institution. A classmate of mine at the University of Alberta is currently working in a remote position for Michigan State!

The other big type of on-campus role that could be helpful is graduate research assistant (GRA) positions. How helpful these positions are will again depend on the role itself and on what type of librarian or information professional roles you’re interested in seeking. Me personally? Well I want to be a Copyright/Scholarly Communications/Open Education Librarian, so when I saw a GRA position with a copyright instruction related project I jumped at the chance to work on it and applied. My supervisor was so thrilled to have someone with as much copyright knowledge and experience as me on the team, it was the first time he’d ever had a GRA with any copyright background. These positions can be both internal and external to you faculty so be on the look out to sell yourself to researchers who might not know that what they really need is a librarian student for a research assistant.

Off-Campus

Full-time library or Information jobs

This is where you’re either going to strike gold or find yourself facing an uphill battle that you’re going to have to be strong enough to fight. This is where the “right” type of library job vs the “wrong” type of library job can really help you, or have the potential to hinder you. If you are one of those people who does somehow manage to land a full-time librarian job while you’re in school, congratulations you’ve done it, you’ve found the lost city of Atlantis, unearthed the Holy Grail, etc., etc. If however you find yourself in a “staff” library library worker job do not be disheartened. It will all come down to what exactly you do in that role and how you can sell that experience in your cover letters and resumes. I have two friends in my program who were both working in full-time staff level positions at different public libraries. Both are nowhere near as far into the program as I am but they both got librarian versions of their staff jobs already, one within the system where she was staff, and one in the public library in a neighboring town. This is part of the paradox of practical experience. It really is as much about the library you’re applying to as it is the work you’ve done. It’s a bit of a roulette game knowing which libraries will consider your experience valid and which won’t. Just remember someone, somewhere, will always appreciate your experience – especially if it’s full-time experience.

Part-time library or Information jobs

These types of jobs will be especially common in public and school libraries. You’ll often see postings at public libraries for Sunday Librarians, or Evening and Weekend Supervisor type roles. You may even see some part-time programming roles. As far as school libraries go, in districts with less funding you’ll often see part-time school library roles. They won’t always be called librarian roles and they more than likely won’t always require a masters, but the work you’ll be doing will still be the “right” type of work if school libraries are what you’re interested in. (With school libraries it’s important to remember that each district and jurisdiction has wildly varying requirements for who can and can’t work in a school library. So do your research and results may vary by location on that advice!) As with on-campus jobs and full-time jobs the kind of work you’re doing will be what helps you a lot, or just acts as neutral, generic library experience.

Contract library or Information jobs

Welcome to precarity. Something I’ve been told over and over and over again, that makes me angry every time I hear it and is a guaranteed way to end up getting a lecture from me on privilege is that to get anywhere in libraries you need to pay your dues by taking contract positions (at least one but probably more) anywhere you can get them. So you have to be willing to move, to work precarious jobs and constantly be in job search mode, and to possibly deal with having no benefits. Privilege rearing its ugly head again. This type of attitude and expectation only benefits a very small portion of people who work in LIS. To get this type of experience it will be easiest if you have the money and flexibility to move around and if you have a partner who has benefits. Please don’t think you HAVE to do this to get full time, gainful employment as a librarian or information professional. Don’t feed the stereotype, and libraries where you can, please, please stop relying on contract employment as your default!! It doesn’t benefit anyone. You can find your way to a permanent job without taking this route, it might just be harder and take longer. But your mental and physical well being and your needs and those of your families have to come first.

Volunteering

Volunteering is usually the domain of two groups. Those who are privileged enough that they don’t have find paid employment to get their library experience, and those who are working in other industries and need whatever library experience they can get in order to help transition between careers. I acknowledge that at various times I have inhabited space within each of those two groups. If volunteering is the path you take it really can be a great way to get librarian experience usually on a project basis. The only downside is, that similar to staff-level jobs you’re going to end up running afoul of people in the industry who think only paid librarian experience counts towards the experience requirements. Volunteering can be with libraries, but volunteering with professional associations is another common tactic here.

Internships

Internships are different from practicums, field placements, and co-op positions. They can sometimes be for credit and sometimes not, but they should always be PAID. If you want to learn more about the rules around internships in America I highly recommend the section on that topic over at Ask a Manager. In Canada at least there are two major government funded internship programs that are going to be of interest to you here, but only if you’re under 30. They both come under the umbrella of the Young Canada Works program. One arm is specifically for work in heritage organizations, which includes libraries, museums, galleries, and archives. There are two options paid 6-16 week contract positions, or 4-12 internships. The internships are paid so the designation of one set as employment and one set as internships seems very artificial and inexplicable.

And what if I can’t do any of this? Do I still have hope?

The short answer to that question is hell yes you do, sadly you just have to work a lot harder at selling yourself, and it may take longer. At the end of the day even though we have the “right” kind of experience and inversely the “wrong” type of experience, neither is actually bad! If you think of it in terms of stat modifiers in an RPG any library experience at all is a base 0 stat, and the “right” kind of experience acts like a +1 or +2 modifier giving you a boost. If you can sell yourself and your transferable skills and experiences on paper in your cover letter you should be able to overcome only having the base level experience enough to get yourself into an interview. What do you do from there? Well luckily HLS has a whole bunch of interview related advice.

1 reply

  1. This is a wise and thorough examination of the dilemmas facing librarians seeking professional employment. Perhaps the model used back in the last century when I went to library school is worth re-visiting. For those of us who wanted to go library school at UBC we had to have practical library experience prior to going to library school. At the end of the program, some Chief Librarians came to recruit at UBC so it was plausible and possible to get a professional librarian position right out of library school (I am speaking only of the public library world). I agree with you that for librarians to take on part time library jobs for the sake of gaining library experience can be a route to languishing in positions and not being valued for professional education and skills. These positions do not necessarily lead to a librarian job.
    As a member of the OLA Mentoring Committee and a mentor we have these conversations on an ongoing basis. Thank you for raising some very valid points and also providing suggestions for gaining library experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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