So, You Want to Become a Librarian/Archivist: 2012 edition

Dear Internet,

In 2008 or so, I started writing columns on “So, You Want to Become a Librarian/Archivist”, which ended up becoming pretty popular. With as many domain shuffles I’ve had in the last four years, the content is archived but has not been put back on this current domain as of yet.

A few days ago, my friend Kate said, “Hey! There is a thread on Ravelry about wanting to become a librarian. I think you should chime in.” And I agreed. Below is my original post with some slight editing. Once I stop getting lazy, I’ll put up the older posts, but the below pretty much is succintly how I feel today.

Please, please, please use this to pass around to anyone who is thinking of becoming a librarian, please add in your own comments about your experiences with library school, education, job hunt, anything. I don’t know where the misconceptions are coming from, but if watching #libchat is any indication, a lot of n00bs out there still can’t shake the myths. I no longer care WHY the myths exist, I just want to break them.

—-

First, if you can’t find what you’re looking for via Google or any search engines, then you’re going to be a terrible librarian. Here is my point: I searched for “online library science programs accredited” in Google and the VERY FIRST item is a link to ALA (American Library Association – our professions largest professional organization) listing of accredited schools, which includes online programs. I know of four you can do entirely online:

There is probably others that do entirely online degrees, but those are the big ones. The number of library schools in the US is tiny (like 50?), so it averages one per state. Most, if not all schools, offer a blended degree of online/in classroom.

There ARE schools that offer library science or library tech degrees in bachelors or as certification programs. These are not the same thing as getting a MLIS. I want to make this clear because this is commonly misunderstood.

So WHY do you want to be a librarian? You only say, I think I would be good at this. But you don’t really clarify WHY you think you would be good at this. Here is a major site aggregator for library jobs that is compiled by ALA. Even if you see the same job title twice, you will hardly see the same job responsibilities, duties, or description. If you think the job is going to be standing around all day handling and reading books: Let me burst that bubble for you right quick. I barely have time to keep up with my professional reading, let alone personal reading. I was more cultured in topics and titles when I slung books at a bookstore then working in a library system.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: Who the hell is this person?

  • I’m a systems and web librarian at a community college
  • I have a GED, BA, MA, and now my MLIS
  • I graduated from Wayne State in 2010 with my MLIS and archival certification
  • I’m not going to be overly humble here: I was the golden child of my class. I worked through school at the campus library as a reference librarian, I was on many professional committees on and off campus, I started a new organization ON campus, I was active within the community, and I had a 3.85 GPA. It took a year and 114 job applications before I landed a job. I applied for EVERYTHING and EVERYWHERE.

(Also, I would highly advise you NOT to go to Wayne for your online program. This is the worst run school ever, the director is douchebag delight who is out of touch with the needs of the students — we tried to get him removed as head when I was there.  His main residence is in the southern states. Yes, he’s a director of a program in MI, but lives in the south. The programs are poorly coordinated and run. Stay the fuck away from Wayne.)

Let’s move on to your education: A lot of people say that having a degree in history, or English, or similar is extremely helpful in having a MLIS. This is true and this is bullshit. It’s bullshit because EVERYTHING you do outside of library school will be extremely beneficial to your career path. Those customer service skills you learned in retail? You will be a prince(ss) among the people for deft handling of difficult patrons. You’re interest in comics and gaming? You will soon be scheduling programming and events for teens and adults when new releases come out. Worked in housekeeping or similar detail while going to school? You will be the MASTER of unclogging toilets. There will not be one skill you have not acquired in your personal or previous professional life that you will not call upon at some point in your library career.

Also, having a degree in the humanities such as English or History does not give you a leg up in getting a MLIS or working in a library. It is relevant if you want to specialize but if you are going to work somewhere and a specialization is not required, your degree in underwater basket weaving is just as useful as the one in physics. I am also going to strongly suggest you get, if you do not already have, heavy tech skills. I worked in the IT industry for nearly a decade before going back to finish my undergrad and then on my two masters degrees and having my background in IT  has been a boon to my job search and interviews

Next is job descriptions. My title is “systems and web librarian.” What does this mean? At my institution, it means that I am responsible for:

  • Maintaining our online catalog system (OPAC) in all capacities
  • I manage, update, create content for our library’s website and all social media accounts
  • I am a liaison to six departments on campus so I keep up to trends and info on all those fields
  • I do collection development for my departments
  • I teach information literacy classes 85 hours a semester
  • I am on the reference desk 10-15 hours a week
  • I am on numerous committees on campus
  • I participate heavily with the state wide library organization
  • I am the liaison to the institutions IT department and I work with them on many tech projects

Now I have a colleague who works at a local college here who does nothing but web development for the library. It was required he had his MLIS. Not that he does 1/6th of what I do, but that his job is 1/6 of what I do. Some librarians on this list may recognize that what I’ve listed is similar to their own lists of what is expected of them.

So the job market. Yes, it’s brutal. But so is it everywhere, it is NOT just in library world. I’ll reference my point above of 114 job applications and year before I landed my gig, but I want to stress I did NOT apply for positions only at libraries, I applied for any and all positions that I was qualified for in librarianship or as an archivist regardless of the sector. Just because you have an MLIS and/or you’re a certified archivist doesn’t mean you have to work at a library or at an archives. This seems to be a popular misconception that all n00b librarians/archivist seem to think is true. For example, Blizzard Entertainment is looking for an Associate Librarian & Archivist. I have many friends who have never set foot, professionally, in what is considered to be traditional librarian/archivist jobs. Other options are: Knowledge management, information architecture, UX designer, content producer, and about two dozen other fields you can go in with a MLIS.

So let’s talk cash. Yes, librarians are underpaid, I will not disagree with this. But the amount of cash you make is solely relevant to the type of job and where you live. I have friends in Chicago who work in public libraries who think $45K starting out is terrible, WHEREAS in Michigan (anywhere in the state really), that’s hooker and blow money right thar. I’ve applied for jobs, many with the same titles/qualifications/etc that ranged as divergent as $30-100K. It’s crazy with the lack of consistency, but I get super frustrated when people do not take cost of living and high cost areas into faction here. Another friend of mine, who is looking to move into becoming a director at a small college, found a gig in Maine that paid $32K. For a director’s job.

If you think librarianship is where the big rollers are, you are sorely mistaken. You can wage your MLIS into a field that pays you big money, but as a whole, librarians do NOT work for the benefits of fame and fortune.

We’ve talked school choice, getting an education, kind of jobs you can get, and your potential big bank.
Let’s talk about paying for this education.

I had $100K in student loan debt when I came out of my MLIS. (Had because it’s now down to $69K.) That money funded most of my BA and both of my masters. Knowing me, I knew that I needed to not work 40 hours a week while going to school because it would not work for me. I had tried that before many times and always ended up dropping out of classes (this is part of the reason it took me so long before heading back to finish my undergrad. I have transcripts in at least 6 colleges before I sucked it up and knew I had to put school as a priority). I knew that coming out of this, I was going to be heavily in debt and I was totally okay with that. Could I have made better choices with the funds? Sure. I could have done a lot more to save/grants/scholarships. But I do not regret getting my degrees. Not all people are like me. I have a friend who is doing her MLIS degree two classes at a time. I have another friend who did the program in 18 months (traditionally, it takes 2 years). Some are paying for it by themselves and others are getting loans. You need to do what’s best FOR YOU. Everyone’s experiences and expectations are different. There are a lot of options to finance/save/pay for classes. Research them. I was also lucky to land a job that pays me enough for hookers and blow, so I’m fast tracking my student loan payments and the entire debt will be paid off in 10 years.

Lastly, let’s talk about job titles. The field of thought is to be called a librarian is to have a MLIS. But, a lot of rural/small libraries are getting away with volunteers and/or long term employees who call themselves “librarians” (withOUT a MLIS) because they worked at that particular location for 900 years so they are the best choice. I do get that train of thought, I do. But it’s like calling ones self a doctor after reading WebMD. There is a lot more to the word “librarian” then just working in a library and I wish more people would see that.

Which brings me up to my last point: If you decide to go this route and you want to do this for a living, be prepared to defend what you do ALL THE TIME. Example: When I saw my orthopedic surgeon for the first time earlier this year, and he asked me what I did and I told him I was a librarian, he said, “I thought libraries are dead? Everything is on Google.” Uh, what? My retort was, “Do you stop using stairs because elevators come into existence? Do you no longer have an accountant because TurboTax exists?” He got my point real quick. People are often careless and dumb, but when it comes to the life of libraries, they are downright stupid.

This has been a production of “Lisa’s Quick Guide to Becoming a Librarian” in 10 easy steps. No warranties implied or assumed. Money back not guaranteed. Act now as this is a limited time offer.

So, why do you want to be a librarian again?

-Lisa

P.S. Every other Wednesday or so, there is a great chat on Twitter called #libchat, that starts at 8PM Eastern. You may want to check that out and consequently, you can find me on Twitter as @pnkrcklibrarian if you have any questions. Lastly, you can also email me if you have questions about Wayne, library school, or why the sky is blue!

P.P. S. Another niblet about Wayne:  I landed a job on campus as a reference librarian in one of their libraries in my second semester, which I worked at until I graduated 18 months later. As I was doing a dual degree of sorts (librarian AND archivist), I also won a scholarship that same semester. My final semester, I had a bill for the same amount of the scholarship. When I contacted the school’s office, I found out they revoked my scholarship 18 months later, because they felt it was “unfair” as I had the job on campus. The job paid me, but did not give me any tuition breaks. If my partner (now husband) at the time did not have a good job, I’d be up shit’s creek without a damn paddle.

Booksellers v. Librarians: GO!

[Ed. note: I started writing this at the end of January of 2009 but never published it for whatever mystery reason I may have had at the time. Nearly 11 months later (eep!), a lot of what is written here is still highly relevant, so I’m cleaning it up and pubbing it.]

I wish I had some witty story about a patron to give this entry more punch but the best I can come up with is the “faculty” dude who came and started yelling at me about “throwing out those kids” who were apparently disturbing his royal highness while he was working. I was, at the time of the yelling, walking over to work with another patron who needed access on the all access computer (no Internet access but allows students to install and run software for classes. Thus, “all access” is kind of moot, I suppose.). Even though I motioned that I would be with him in a second, he kept yelling across the open area about how they were bothering and disturbing him and I HAD BETTER DO SOMETHING! Right sparky, I’ll get right on that.

After helping the student get logged into the all access computer, I looked for the librarian on duty for consultation and it turned out “those kids” were two girls who were talking quietly while working on a project together in an area designed for such a thing. The open plan area is not a quiet study area and that information is posted as such all over the place. The librarian on duty spoke quietly with the girls, his royal highness kept glaring at the librarian on duty and at me and didn’t say a peep after that. It was one of those “what the fuck, becky” kind of moments.

And I’m only two weeks into my new job.

The one thing that has been stressed since my starting this program is that you need experience, experience, experience in order to make it in the real world and winning this job has been a $deity_send in that it is giving me not only real world reference experience but experience in an academic library to boot. But here’s the thing: my classes that were to prep me for this job have really had no impact on how I handle myself at the reference desk. This sentiment was also echoed by several librarians I have interviewed over the last six months who have all told me that while lib school was great for the theory and some of the application, they really didn’t feel that they learned their jobs until they were on the jobs.

This, then, becomes the catch-22: You need some experience to get an entry level position but you must obtain an entry level position in order to get the experience. Lots of libraries like to hire in-status students, which is a boon to many of us who have had no prior experience in libraries before lib school. But this goes back to the teaching moment in that how you are trained while working in the library whether as a volunteer, intern or paid employee. These experiences can and will shape how you handle your professional career thus one must also take this factor into account when one is looking for a starting library position.

One thing I have noticed is this slightly playful but not really competition between those who work in a library and those who work in bookstores. For some reason that I cannot fathom, there seems to be some sort of unspoken rivalry between booksellers and librarians, and I’ve heard more than one librarian on various message boards bitch and complain how booksellers “try” to be like librarians by providing reader’s advisory and reference services without proper training and booksellers complain that librarians try to treat bookstores like libraries or that librarians feel like they are slumming if they come and apply for a job or work in a bookstore.

This is the part I don’t get: Bookstores are out to make money and to the corporate bookstores, the bottom line is ALL about the money. Whether or not someone gets interested in reading or enriching their life based on the books they purchased means nothing to the higher ups in corporate America – it’s just about how much the customer has spent and is there a way to get them to spend more. It’s about discounts, volume and bestsellers. It’s not about education, enrichment, support or education. This is not to say the average bookseller is not a reader, I’d roughly guesstimate that about 90% of the people I worked with were huge readers who read in a variety of genres and many of us had subject specializations. We were a very well rounded crew with a broad spectrum of education and backgrounds.

And this is not also to say that every bookstore feels this way – but having worked in $corporate_bookstore and being told time and time again that I spent too much time educating the reader rather than hand-selling them crap, I speak from experience. The other big argument that often comes up in discussion is how the bookstores are attempting to be like the library system (“help desks” that imitate reference desks, library-esque setting, comfy chairs, etc) while the library system is attempting to try to be like bookstores (cafes, overhead music systems, wider range of programming). But my question is: Why spend all this time arguing about who is trying to be like the other? All this mudslinging is ridiculous as libraries and bookstores can co-exist AND live together.

It’s like watching a never ending game of Tekken and in the end, the ones left holding the “WTF?” bag are the customers/patrons who just wanted help finding a damned book.

The consequences of world domination.

Last week, to put it succinctly, was the week from hell.

I left for St. Louis to present at a conference on Wednesday, came home mid-afternoon Friday only to immediately head to the Fox Theatre with Justin to see Bob Dylan play Friday night. Saturday morning, after dropping Wednesday off at the dog boarders, we drove to Kalamazoo to see our friends Lauren and Eric get married. Sunday, after a pit stop at IKEA, we headed home where I was able to finally couch for the first time, it seemed, in weeks.

I only checked email twice on Monday. Twice! Clearly, I was tired and overworked.

Justin and I have been having a lot of conversations on what’s going to happen with me when on-campus classes are done for me in May (I’ll still be doing a few online classes for the summer session): I’ll be out of a job (the graduate program kicks students off of student assistantships after 36 credit hours and I hit 42 or 44 May 2010), Justin and I are getting married (to get health benefits – srsly), we’re moving somewhere but we’re not sure where. And then there is the honeymoon to contend with (UK? Italy? For how long?). In a short amount of time, a lot of stuff is going to be happening and I can’t plan for it because it is all dependent on whether or not I get a job offer and if so, where I’m going. And on top of that, if I don’t get a job offer, where do we move to? Justin has the luxury of telecommuting, and I know that if I can’t find a job in X time, he will support me, but I don’t want to have to do that.

It’s called having to pay $900/month in student loans, muthafucker. (“Down with your bourgeois education,” Justin says.) So then it goes back to, “What do you want to do! What do you want to do with your life!” and of course, “world domination” doesn’t necessarily pay the bills.

In all seriousness though, I stacked my interests and my work experience in the last two years to make myself as marketable as possible. I’ll have 18 months of academic librarianship under my belt, along with having presented at a conference, certification in archival work coupled with practicum experience, digital librarianship, special projects I’ve worked on with professors plus my own incredibly varied background.

I’m awesome and I know that.

One thing I keep musing on is just how far and to what extent I want to make librarianship and archival work my life — because I know me well enough to know that I will rabble rouse and want to change the world (I’ve already started that on campus here with the creation of a new student group that I did with three other students this summer), and while there are many incredibly awesome librarians and archivists out there who do similar rabble rousing things, the profession as a whole can be and is to some extent, incredibly backward and staid. As a student, looking at the work being done typically sums up one thing — that everything has to be committed to death and with that comes the death of innovation and moving forward. But as par usual, I’m digressing. As it stands, in addition to my course work and 20 hours of ref desk pimpin’, I currently am doing the following:

  • President, ASIS&T,Wayne State student chapter.
  • Vice President and co-founder, Progressive Librarians’ Guild, Wayne State student chapter.
  • Communications chair, Graduate Employees’ Organizing Committee, Wayne State.
  • Member, virtual reference committee for new technologies, Wayne State Library system.
  • Digital technologies librarian liaison, various roles/responsibilities 1.

I can see my life going in a variety of directions, and I know that I’m flexible enough with my skillset that if I don’t like how one way goes, I can totally switch it to another. The problem, however, is that I’m not quite sure if I want to be a rabble rouser anymore — my own work and interests seem to get pushed to the side because when I take on something, I like to think I give it 110% of my focus – and I know it is because of this that makes me so good at what I do.

Writing, for example, has gone to the way side. Not just missing a few days or a few weeks but it’s been since MAY since I’ve posted anything to this or my LiveJournal account, which I even barely check anymore. My other domain, biblyotheke.net is to represent my “professional portfolio” and that’s not even been tweaked with since I installed Indexhibit on it a few weeks ago.

The quandary I’m having is not only how I want to live my life, but how to live my life and make it meaningful. How do I balance a husband, a future family, a career and personal interests while giving myself Lisa-time? What type of jobs should I start looking for? Should I sell out? Consult? Write the “Great American Novel”? Do I want to work 60hrs a week and push family and personal life aside (like my mom)? And if my school involvement right now is any indicator, it can end up like that.

Because I find it incredibly difficult to say “No.”

1. I have not discussed with my freelance employers what I can and cannot post about my work for them, so for now, they remain anonymous.