Q&A: How do I switch from corporate library work to public library work?

Q&A: How do I switch from corporate library work to public library work?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: When I attended library school a decade ago, it was with the intention of working in a public library, but I got drawn into corporate work as a metadata specialist. The work was interesting, the salary was good, and I had loans to pay off. Mission accomplished, I’d like to get back to my original intention. However, I’ve advanced far enough in my corporate career that I suspect my resume is a turn-off for most library hiring managers and have gained little traction in my applications. I’ve considered deeply the step back in pay and seniority I’d have to take, and I’m willing. What can I do to make myself a more attractive candidate?

A: I’d start by examining a large number of public library job postings that interest you, and compare your existing skills and experience to what employers are requesting. Consider which public library-related skills and experience are conveyed clearly by your resume, which ones will need some explanation from you, and which you don’t yet have.

For the ones that require explanation, remember that you are competing for jobs with others that clearly have the experience the employers want and you’ll have to convince the reader of your application documents to contact you for an interview – connect the dots for the hiring manager, make it very clear how your past experience and existing skills would translate or transfer to the new venue. Hiring managers may be skeptical about your suitability based on your past experience; you’ll have to overcome that and be very persuasive in your cover letter in order to get a chance to interview, and be able to explain clearly why you feel you’re a strong candidate in the interview.

You’ll need a compelling answer to the question “Why are you seeking to make the switch from corporate work to public libraries?”, especially if this will, as you said, involve a step back and a pay cut. Your answer must convey that you really understand what public library work entails and that you’ve decided what kind of public library work you want to do. Be specific; “I’ll do anything” conveys desperation and a lack of preparation. You also don’t want to have an attitude of “My past experience, though different, should be enough to get me hired, just give me the job and I’ll figure it out and learn quickly, how hard could it be?”, etc.

Network with public librarians, join public library professional organizations and Linkedin groups; engage with as many public librarians as possible. Really listen to what they have to say, positive and negative, about their work. Start building your reputation in the public library community.

Most important: for the skills and experience you don’t yet have, figure out a way to get them, via volunteering/pro bono or part-time work, for example. Public library work is different in significant ways from other types of library work, and it is not easy. By getting this experience, you’ll convey how serious you are about making the switch and that you understand what the work is like, what its challenges are, and what it takes to be successful working in a public library. Good luck!

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