Q: Aside from volunteering, what are some ways that a relatively recent MLIS graduate might get their start in a public library, even if they don’t have a lot of experience working in a library yet? Thank you.
EM: You have the right idea with volunteering as a way to start and you’re also correct in thinking there are other things you can do. Networking is an important part of a successful job hunt, and my suggestions below all involve networking to some degree:
– If you can, get a part-time job in a public library. Even if the first position you have is not full time and not exactly what you have in mind in terms of title and duties, you’ll be gaining experience and a realistic idea of what public library work is all about, and connecting with others already doing that kind of work.
Ideally your supervisor will be willing to serve as a reference for you down the road, too. References are important when job hunting, and those in the field carry more weight than references from other fields.
– Join and participate in local and regional professional organizations for public librarians. Don’t just show up to presentations and sit in the audience, contribute: serve on a task force or committee, help to plan an event, write for a newsletter, participate in advocacy efforts, or even run for office. This is a great way to meet those who are currently working in public libraries, in a venue where they’ll get to know you and your strengths, character and work ethic. Some of these groups and/or events are more work related while others are more social; both can be beneficial.
– Conduct informational interviews to learn more about different roles for MLS holders in public libraries. Do not treat these informational interviews as stealth job interviews though! Prepare questions for your interviewees about the nature of public library work, what is surprising about it, their career trajectories (ask them how they got their first jobs), what they like and dislike about their work, what they wish they knew when they started, what organizations they are active in, etc. If you establish rapport and seem to get along well with someone you interview, they may be willing to be an advisor for you, which leads me to my next suggestion…
– Get a mentor or even better, multiple mentors who are working in public libraries, and if you have more than one, seek mentors who are diverse, in their backgrounds, ethnicity, age, roles, skills, experience, years of service, etc. This doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement with advisors with whom you are in constant contact, in fact, that could be overwhelming for the mentors and might require more time and effort than they are willing to give. It could be a casual alliance, with you and each of your mentors meeting once every few months and catching up over a cup of coffee.
– Join listservs / LinkedIn groups / FB groups for public librarians or that include many public librarians. Read what they post, get an idea of what their challenges are, join the conversation, share an article or other resource, pose a question to the group.
– You may even want to create an event or project, group, blog/vlog/podcast/zine/FB page/book etc. yourself, or with other new grads to share the workload, related to public library work. That would be a great thing to discuss in a job interview – something that could really make you stand out from the other applicants, and who knows where it might lead?
With these activities you can start to build your professional reputation and connect with others. Remember that the benefits of networking are not instant, but they are definitely worth the effort and time, and can be a lot of fun too. Good luck!