Q&A: After 12 years at a public library, how do I position myself for a new job?

Q&A: After 12 years at a public library, how do I position myself for a new job?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am coming up on my 12th anniversary in the first professional librarian position I took after finishing library school. I was a midlife career changer, and was fortunate enough to land in a situation that suited me perfectly in practically every respect. Now, a dozen years later, it’s not that I am actively looking to make a move, but a combination of factors are pushing me to get my resume in order so I can be ready with it in case something unfortunate happens where I am, or if a really promising opportunity should present itself. However, it’s obviously going to take more than simply adding my current position to the last resume I used. The career-changer resume that succeeded for me when I was fresh out of library school (but had years of experience in other fields) has to go. Where I work, all positions report directly to the director, without any management or supervisory paths. This has been fine with me, as I have no interest in being a manager or a supervisor – but I know that this kind of progression is common and is one of the things that hiring managers look for. So I have spent nearly 12 years doing a lot of different things (at our medium-small, semi-independent public library, we all wear many hats to get everything done) and learning all kinds of stuff … but I am stymied by the prospect of putting all of it into a format that is concise enough for a resume but still meaningful enough to get the point across. Also, I’m not sure how much of my 22 years of pre-library work experience should stay on there. Should I put together an online portfolio to back up what’s on my resume? Do people even use those anymore, and if so, do hiring managers really look at them? I would appreciate any guidance you can offer. I have found a wealth of resources to assist those trying to land a first librarian position, but little to nothing that looks really useful for my situation.

EM: Your best bet is to make the most of your assets and strengths, and do some networking and research. Some of the things that you might see as weaknesses may in fact be selling points to a potential employer.

I’d start by creating a “master” version of your resume, with every duty, responsibility and achievement. This comprehensive version is for you, not to be sent out in application for a position; choose carefully each time you apply for a job which pieces of information to include and what to leave out. You don’t want to “[put] all of it” in the resume; customize it to the job description each time. Tailor your summary and duties/achievements to include only the ones that will be of greatest interest to the reader based on the job posting.

The fact that your experience at your current job is varied is beneficial. You’ll have many skill sets to choose from which gives you more options for which jobs to apply to and what information to include and emphasize – this indicates your versatility, flexibility and reliability. In your cover letter you can describe your workplace as you have in your query above, stressing that you did whatever was needed to keep things running and serve your patrons. The fact that you haven’t been a supervisor doesn’t mean you can’t present yourself as a strong candidate for a non-supervisory position; you can indicate in your cover letter that this is exactly the kind of position you are seeking.

I usually advise job hunters to go back around 10-12 years maximum on their resume, which should be no more than two pages. In your case that would include all of your years at your current job. If (and only if) there is something in your earlier career that relates strongly to the position you’re applying for right now, you can mention that briefly in a cover letter, saying something like “Prior to my time at [current employer], I worked as a [former title], doing [former duties]…”  If you have to reach back 15-20 years or more, though, to find anything that is relevant to the job you’re trying to get now, it is better not to apply for that particular job and find another one related to your more recent experience to go for. Relying heavily on long-ago experience will hurt more than it will help; it can make you appear desperate and out of touch. Remember too that you are competing for jobs with others who have more recent experience, and employers always prefer that.

Give some thought to how you can address the interview question, “Why are you looking for a job right now?”, as a hiring manager is going to wonder why you are seeking to leave after so long at one employer. I don’t know exactly what occurrences are prompting you to think of getting a new job right now but something like, “after twelve years I’m seeking a new work environment and new challenges” or “recent changes at my workplace have me concerned that there may not be a place for me there long term, so I decided it was best to start looking at other options” may work. It always sounds better to employers if you are trying to move towards something you want rather than away from something you don’t want, but they also understand that when certain things happen in a workplace, employees will start looking for the exits. If the interviewer asks “What kind of changes?” or “What kind of new environment / new challenges?” you want to give an answer that is true, brief, and does not cast blame or badmouth anyone. For example, you could cite new management and drastic changes in staffing, job descriptions, and/or schedules, or layoffs of other staff members as a reason for wanting to leave, or mention a specific facet of the job you’re applying for that would be new and attractive for you.

Regarding a portfolio, if you have one that presents your achievements well and that you add content to regularly, that can be helpful, but remember that you have no control over if, or when, a potential employer looks at it. The same goes for your LinkedIn page. If it is a static recounting of your resume, it is not likely to be of much benefit. As with the resume, you don’t want a portfolio to go into the distant past.

It sounds like you’re not in a dire I-have-to-get-out-of-here-NOW situation, and that’s good. What I’d do now is

  • Create that all-inclusive, “for your eyes only” version of your resume.
  • Step up your networking. Get back in touch with past colleagues you may have lost touch with. Join and become active in LinkedIn groups; once you’ve established a presence there you can connect with others to expand your network and ask for advice from the group.
  • Examine current job postings for research purposes: to see what skills, experience, and strengths employers are looking for right now, and what salaries are being offered. If there are some skills/experience you’re seeing again and again in postings of jobs you’re interested in that you don’t have, figure out how you can get those missing qualifications. This is especially important if you are thinking of switching to another type of library work.
  • Consider joining and becoming active in professional organizations to gain more experience, expand your network further, enhance your reputation and raise your visibility within the field, all of which can make it easier to get a job when the time comes for active job hunting.

Good luck!

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