Thursday, May 27, 2010

Open Letter to LIS Students and Librarians-to-Be

While discussing the recent Friendfeed thread on LIS schools and student placement with my good pal, former bosslady and library management mentor Mary Chimato, some interesting things came up that I really think are worth sharing. I hope this post is particularly helpful for new grads or current (or newly matriculating) library students. My intent is not to discourage new librarians - I openly advocate for folks to join the profession. It is a career I love, and I think many would find it fulfilling. But I advise them to come in knowing what the hardships may be.

The big thing, when it comes to hiring. The big thing, when it comes to looking how resumes and CVs are structured with relation to the job requirements. The big thing you need to walk into LIS school thinking about:

How do you know you really want to work in libraries?

Using the library as a patron - much as we all appreciate that you do so - is very, very different from actually working in a library. Unless you have done so, hiring managers may be wary of your commitment and veracity. Enthusiasm is wonderful, but if you can back it up by saying you've experienced a library working environment, it does quite a bit to back up your claim. I would argue that the part the patron sees of the library is perhaps 15-20% of the actual work done, if that. Working a reference desk looks fun, so does teaching, but what you don't see are collection management duties, class prep, updating technology skills, sitting through vendor platform change training sessions, planning services, and navigation of interpersonal and interdepartmental politics.

In our (very honest) IM discussion, Mary asked, "Would you really hire someone to be your e-resources librarian who has never negotiated a vendor contract? Or updated SFX links?" I might hire someone without vendor contract experience if I had another librarian with that experience who could mentor them through it. But if they've never touched an ERM interface in this lifetime? Likely not. And this is why most reference & instruction positions will require you to get up in front of a classroom and teach your prospective colleagues. Having taught classes before will *definitely* give you a leg up, since (in my experience) experience smooths out the roughness of inexperience.

Also, for LIS students, most LIS programs offer credit for internships. I cannot emphasize enough that if you haven't worked in libraries, please take advantage of this. If you have no experience, but you don't take advantage of this, I had better see something glaringly outrageously awesome that makes you stand out as a candidate. If you have no experience in libraries (which is like currency in the current job market- the more you have the better), and you make zero effort to *get* any experience, how seriously can I take you as an applicant? And, much as librarians may hate to admit it, this is a small professional universe. The more folks you know, the more folks you can point out that you worked with who have good recommendations for you, the stronger your case an an applicant. With SJSU churning out librarians, and no across-the-board admission or rigor standards for LIS programs, *you* need to convince *me* that you are different. It is not uncommon for reference & instruction librarian positions to have over 150 applicants. What makes you stand out? If *you* can't answer that question, how could I as a hiring manager possibly do so?

Practicing librarians are well aware of the differences between classes and actual practice. Knowing this, how can we in good conscience hire someone with no experience? That is not to say new librarians with no worktime under their belts don't have a chance. You absolutely do - but you have to know that any place making a such a hire is making an investment in you - and perhaps more of an investment than in an experienced candidate. As Mary pointed out (and I fully agree), "the only way that works is when there is an experienced librarian who can and is willing to put the time in with them." I had the very good fortune of an excellent mentorship in my first librarian position as I learned the ropes. Without a colleague who is willing to put in that time to help you shape yourself into the career, negotiate responsibilities and priorities, and generally be a friend while you find your librarian legs, you may have a difficult time of it. And with budgets the way they are, and everyone doing more with less...well, let's just say that it may be more difficult to get that quality time with someone under a crunch to fit 70 hours of work into 40. One more reason to get that internship, volunteer experience, or part time job in a library.

Please go in with your eyes open. Please garner as much experience as you can before you hit the market. Yes, it can be difficult. Yes, you may be schooling and working part time in a library while still maintaining your full time job and a family. Sounds rough? Talk to the librarians you know - you'll be very, very surprised to find that most of us did it the hard way too. All while knowing the mediocre income potential for the MLS.

Finally, let me leave you with this thought: I *want* to hire you. I want you to run circles around my other candidates and make it very clear that you are the one I want to work with. I want your resume or cv to shine so brightly that it erases the memory of all the poorly spelled, completely unqualified, and comic-sans-fonted ones that came before it. As a candidate, know that every person on the hiring committee is hoping that you succeed in convincing us of your potential and your superduperness as a colleague.

But we have to rely on you for the proper packaging of yourself. Do it. Impress me. MAKE me hire you.


Alison said...

This is a great post. As a MLS student myself, may I post this to my Facebook page for my classmates to see? I know some of them do not have library experience as I do, and I want them to be able to get jobs when we graduate :)

Colleen said...

Alison - I'd be happy for you to share the post! Feel free to post wherever you like, and best of luck with your MLS work. Welcome to the world of librarianating!