I just finished Anthony Bourdain's Medium-Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the chapter "So You Wanna Be a Chef" in particular got me thinking about what it might look like if someone wrote an essay "So You Wanna Be a Public Librarian". What this essay would say, what advice it might dispense to aspiring public librarians or those of us who are fresh out of library school, MLS in hand, has been something I've been turning over in my mind. I can, of course, only speak from my own experience with librarians and the field of library and information science.
Would it advise attending library school? Since graduating in May of 2009 and plunging into a job market that was marked more by the desperation of employment seekers for a job, any job for which we might be qualified rather than competition for actual good jobs (of which there were few and far between) I've felt very strongly that my answer would be no. Or at least, not until one had a few years of professional level work experience under their belt. Coming from a New England State where libraries are not dependent upon meeting certain criteria in order to receive state funding, the public librarian job ads here fall into two different groups: M.L.S Librarian with several years of professional work experience and B.A. Librarian with limited to no professional work experience.
Some of this is due to the predominantly suburban/rural nature of the area. Many libraries aren't even open 30 hours a week let alone 40 to warrant needing more than one "professional" librarian on the pay-roll. And as we all have seen, more and more public libraries are suffering cut-backs in staff, hours, and worst of all budgets. So how would someone who wanted to become a public librarian in a New England state go about maximizing their employment potential? I suggest the following things.
1. Don't get your Master's Degree (Yet).
2. Get a library job. I don't care if it's part-time or a 10 hour a week job running story-time that only requires a B.A. If you are one of the lucky few who get a full-time librarian job with a B.A. don't think that means you'll get to skip graduate school. If you do not secure a full-time library job then go get a second job to support your library career. Sadly I cannot cite myself as the origin of this particular brilliant piece of advice, that goes to one of my former library school professors. The beauty of getting a library job before going to library school is that for many lucky souls their place of employment will offer tuition reimbursement ranging from limited to your whole degree, so keep this in mind. For when you do decide to traipse off to library school you could find yourself in less debt than those unfortunates who thought it was a brilliant idea to go from college to graduate school without spending a couple years employed in a public library first.
3. Join your state library association. You'll get to network with your local movers and shakers which will be invaluable when you are looking for a job post-grad. By attending state conferences you'll get exposed to the topics which public librarians are concerned with and will allow you to know what job skills libraries in your state look for in their librarians. On the degree front most state library associations offer scholarships for para-professionals (which would be you, the person with a B.A. who is working two jobs to support their library career). You can apply for those scholarships and if you're lucky you'll get one. Once you have completed steps 1-3 then young novice or mid-life job-switcher you can proceed to step 4.
4. Go to Library School. I mean it, GO. TO. LIBRARY SCHOOL. A physical campus where you can meet your peers, avail yourself of opportunities ranging from social to professional and learn the backbone of what makes a good librarian. I know many of you probably can't attend an actual school and complete your degrees online due to the demands of family, work and time constraints. If you find yourself in that position make an effort to at least attend one class at the actual campus. I can't say enough for how amazing it is to be surrounded by other wanna-be librarians. If you've followed my advice and returned to school after some time off working, you'll also benefit from being able to defer payment on those undergraduate loans which you've been working a second job to pay.
5. Get an internship. I did two internships while in grad school and I cannot tell you enough how many times that came up in job interviews. You'll put what you're learning in classes to work, and get something to put on your resume. Unlike college, you will often find paid internships where you essentially become part of the staff for the duration of the internship. Plus, libraries love graduate interns. We are the future of the profession and they want to help you be successful.
6. Continue working while in grad school. I'm sorry, did you think you were going to quit your job to devote your time to your studies and be a student again? I've had people in my classes who were working 40 hour a week jobs with families to take care of, sure they may have only been taking 2 classes at a time but they were still getting their degree. You don't have to complete grad school in a year and a half or two years, unless of course, you want to.
7. Get a Job.
I did not do the things I have suggest to you all, and sincerely wish I had. Most of the successful people I met at library school did what I have laid out above and got full-time professional positions. I who did not do that, am extremely lucky to have found a job in a library where although I am part-time, there are opportunities for further education and advancement. So don't do what I did. Do the above and I promise, you will be all the happier for it.