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!

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!

Q&A: How can I use my public library experience in the private sector, and how can I prepare for such jobs?

Q&A: How can I use my public library experience in the private sector, and how can I prepare for such jobs?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am 24 and have spent a year and a half working part-time in my local library’s Youth Services department, and have recently been hired as a Library Assistant. I am now in the process of applying for MLIS programs and am hoping to find the best way to prepare for my future. I’d love to learn more about how to use my experience for jobs outside of public libraries and how to best prepare for them while continuing to work and pursue my degree. Where should I start, and should I look into volunteer opportunities or focus on internships? Thanks!

A: You are in a very good position in that you have library experience prior to library school and will get more experience during your studies, and that you are thinking about this early and understand the importance of real-life experience. Many people graduate with a required internship or practicum as their only library-related work, which can put them at a disadvantage during a job search when they are competing against applicants with more experience. It sounds like you’ve already decided that public (or academic?) library work is not your goal, and that’s fine, and it is also fine if you are not at this point 100% clear on what kind of information work you *do* want to do.

What I’d recommend now and during the first months/classes of your graduate studies is to learn about as many different roles in the field as possible, via your classes, your own reading/research, informational interviews, and informal discussions with classmates, your professors and those already working in the field. As you talk with those who are working outside of public libraries, ask them about the most important skills they use every day and consider which ones you may already have (transferable skills) from public library work. These could include customer service, research, reference, programming and services targeted to a certain demographic, training/instruction/public speaking, etc.


The strongly-suggested-if-not-required internships that many MLIS programs have are usually done toward the end of your studies. By exploring and learning about different types of info work early on, you’ll be in a good position to decide what kind of information work and internship to pursue, and what additional skills and experience you’ll want to acquire before graduation if possible.  Even before you are actively job hunting, read job postings as research, to have a clear and realistic idea of what employers are seeking.


If you can do multiple internships, that’s even better than just one. You can volunteer as well; internships and volunteering are not an “either/or” choice – you can do both. And all of it will enrich your resume.


I’d also join and become active in professional organizations (your local chapter of SLA is probably a good place to start; people in your network may suggest others) and LinkedIn groups related to your chosen information work. These will give you a more robust network as well as marketable experience as you begin to create your professional reputation. Good luck!

Q&A: Should I say on my resume and LinkedIn page that I am a consultant or freelancer?

Q&A: Should I say on my resume and LinkedIn page that I am a consultant or freelancer?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am an experienced information professional and have been job hunting for many months. I’m concerned about how much time has passed since my last job ended and how this looks to potential employers. A friend suggested that I put on my resume and LinkedIn page that I am freelancing or consulting now, so it looks like I have some work experience that is current, is this a good idea?

A: Well, if you are freelancing or consulting, then you do have current work experience and you should include that information on your resume/LI page, describing the kind of work you’re doing and listing (at least some of) your clients and projects.

If you’re not consulting or freelancing though, putting those things on your LI profile and resume is dishonest. If you don’t list any projects or clients, a hiring manager or recruiter will read that as “probably unemployed and trying to hide it”. If you get an interview and have no answer when asked about your recent consulting or freelancing work, that will be the end of the conversation. And what would you do if an interviewer asked for the name of a satisfied client as a reference?

“Available for freelancing” or “interested in consulting” or a similar phrase are not likely to be effective either, in impressing readers or getting you interviews and/or job offers. They’re too passive, and even a bit desperate if you are otherwise not working. Potential employers are interested in what you have done and are doing, not what you wish you were doing.

Some people go so far as to create a business name and even a website to make it appear they are the founder/president/whatever of a company or nonprofit, and that they are working when they are not. An online portfolio showcasing your work and achievements is one thing, a fake business or organization that you’re the “founder” of is another. An interviewer with any skill will discover with a question or two and a quick look at your website that the company or organization is just for show.

Regarding your work history, something is better than nothing, but a gap is better than fictional work experience. Better ways to avoid or fill a gap include part-time work, work in another field (ideally something related to information work), volunteering, and service in professional organizations. You can also create a project or event, perhaps with others. With just a few hours of effort a week you can have something real for a potential employer to see, rather than a gap in your work experience or a lie on your resume.

Q&A: Finding a library-specific career coach or resume writer

Q&A: Finding a library-specific career coach or resume writer

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am wondering if there are library specific career coaches/resume writers out there. I have been receiving conflicting information when I have my resume reviewed, and the comments I am getting are more appropriate for business and sales, which are very different worlds than the library one. I want to show myself at my best, but I’m confused as to how to best do that, when it seems that some people look at what you have achieved, and being at my current job as a temporary employee for more than a year, but not getting more responsibility because I’m not even a part-time employee.

EM: (Full disclosure: I have been a career/resume advisor and instructor for librarians/info pros and library school students for over ten years.)

Yes, there are library-specific advisors who can give you feedback on your resume and make recommendations regarding your career development. As you noted, advice that is geared towards other fields may not be ideal for an information professional.

You can start with local, regional or even national professional organizations that have mentorship programs or offer resume-reviewing or other job-search assistance services. Such services may come with membership or there may be an additional fee for, for example, a resume or cover letter review, or a one-on-one advising session. Sometimes resume-review services are offered at conferences.

You can also ask trusted librarians in your network if there is anyone they’d recommend. As with any kind of advising or any paid service, you’ll want to get some info about the person providing the service, either from their website or LinkedIn page or via direct communication, to be sure this is the right one for you:

• How long have they been advising librarians? What are their qualifications as a career/resume advisor?
• Have they been a hiring decision maker (hiring manager, member of a hiring committee, etc.); have they reviewed resumes and interviewed info pro job applicants in real life?
• Does their LinkedIn page and/or other online information support the qualifications or provide samples of their advice for info pros? Do they have recommendations from other info pros re: their advising?
• What exactly do their services include and not include, and what are the fees for the services? For example, do they provide one-on-one advising or coaching, cover letter reviews, mock interviews? Do they provide resume reviews or offer a resume writing/re-writing service? (If they offer resume writing/re-writing, that is going to be more expensive than a review.)

There are also some red flags to look out for: if a potential advisor pressures you in any way, or makes unrealistic promises, such as definite interviews or even job offers, I’d steer clear. If an advisor has not been job hunting him/herself in decades, their advice may be out of date. In general, if you don’t feel comfortable with a certain potential advisor, keep looking.

You say that “it seems that… people look at what you have achieved” and that is true; a resume is a tailored account of your work history, skills, strengths, and achievements. If you are concerned that you need more library-related experience, a reputable advisor can discuss with you how to get that experience.

Good luck to you!

How I Got My First Job: Mai Reitmeyer

How I Got My First Job: Mai Reitmeyer

Interviewed by Ellen Mehling

EM: What was your first professional position?

MR: My undergraduate degree was in Biology and Secondary Education. After teaching high school biology for a year, I decided teaching was not for me so I leveraged my biology degree and found a job in the pharmaceutical industry. Six years in a corporate job reminded me of why I wanted to be a teacher – I loved doing research and helping others learn new things so I decided to go back for my MLIS. My first professional position was as a Reference / Technical Services Librarian at a private boarding school.

EM: How did you get it?

MR: I saw the job listed on the Rutgers University SC&I job listings page and I immediately applied. I was offered the job partly because of my subject specialty in science, along with my prior teaching and work experience. However, I also believe that I was hired because I expressed an intense enthusiasm for learning. As a new librarian, I felt that it was extremely important to be highly adaptable. I now know that this is a skill that every librarian needs, whether or not we are early in our careers.

EM: To what do you attribute your job search success?

MR: When I decided to go back for my MLIS, my dream was to one day become a Science Librarian so I could combine my love for science, research, and learning. However, I knew without prior experience as a professional librarian or a second Master’s Degree, that it would be difficult to find the exact position that I had in mind. As a result, I routinely searched the various online job postings for a job that I was qualified for that would put me on that path to the job that I had envisioned. Since I was still working at my full-time job in pharma, I had the luxury of waiting until the perfect opportunity arose. My job as a Reference / Technical Services Librarian at the boarding school gave me invaluable experience in reference, instruction, and various library technologies. I also had the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of librarians who provided me with immeasurable support and mentoring. Thus, when the perfect position became available at the American Museum of Natural History, I was uniquely qualified because of my past experiences. Had it not been for my first job, I literally would not be where I am today.

EM: What advice do you have for librarian/info-pro job hunters?

MR: It’s always good to have a career goal in mind but don’t be afraid to seize any opportunity that may push you outside your comfort zone. Every opportunity is a chance to gain invaluable experience and make connections that could lead you to your perfect job.

Mai Reitmeyer is Sr. Research Services Librarian at the American Museum of Natural History. She provides research assistance and instruction to the Museum’s staff, students, researchers and the general public using the Museum’s main and rare collections and extensive archives.

Q&A: Should I get the MLIS?

Q&A: Should I get the MLIS?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am 44 years old and live in New Jersey. I have decided to change careers and want to pursue my lifelong dream of working in a library, preferably as a librarian. The only licensing/degree requirements in our state at this time is for librarians (MLIS) and not any college, nor certification/licensing, for library support staff. I have started to volunteer at my local library and also began online classes for a library technician certificate, then associate program offered in another state. I am enjoying the classes so much that I plan to get the degree regardless of the fact that it is not required in my state in order to obtain a support staff position. My home library is encouraging me to pursue becoming a librarian, which is wonderful. However, I am concerned that at this junction in my life, investing 50K into college (I am starting from ground zero, so A.A.+ BA + MLIS) and graduating at 50 years of age, would be foolish with the library job prospects for the future being so competitive and that most likely positions obtained may be a part-time position…all this is making me question my sanity, let alone that will not allow me to pay off my college debt before retiring. Do you have any advice for someone like me, new to the library world, but has the utmost passion and desire to be a part of it and is keen to climb any mountain to do it?

A: When someone says “Being a librarian is my dream job” I think, “You need to learn more about what it is really like to work in this field”. What I would do now is research: take a thorough look at the profession to make the decision that is right for you. There are real challenges in information work and you’ll want to begin your studies with eyes open.

It is good that you are thinking about this well in advance of starting work on a Master’s degree. It is also beneficial that you are volunteering in a library; that will give you valuable experience, networking opportunities and an understanding of how that type of library works. So you’ve got a strong starting point. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Do some informational interviews. Talk to a number of info pros, as many as possible and from diverse backgrounds, experience, years in the profession, levels of responsibility, types of jobs, locations, etc. In the interviews, include questions about how interviewees got their first jobs, typical daily duties, biggest challenges and frustrations, what they wish they knew when they started, how things have changed, what they like best and least, and the trajectory of their careers and whether they are happy where they are now. Ask about the biggest surprises and misconceptions of library work. Ask about their worst day on the job. Ask if they have any reservations about recommending this profession. Listen to all of it, positive and negative. Take notes and read and re-read them later. Give extra consideration to any opinion or piece of advice you hear from more than one person. Start with your colleagues at your home library; they may suggest others you can talk to.
  • Join info-pro listservs, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups and – if possible – professional organizations (local, regional, national); learn about current and emerging trends and issues in the field, join discussions, connect with others. Immerse yourself in the field as much as you can.
  • Think about how you want to brand yourself and make your decisions with your goal in mind. Is there a certain type of library work you know you want to do? Focus on that in your information gathering but try to be open minded as you hear and read about other types of work.
  • Consider moving to another part of the country after graduation, if your situation allows. This can expand your options re: employment once you graduate. Find out about the job market, salaries, experience and other job requirements and cost of living in the area in which you plan to live. Think about how you might use the degree outside of libraries. If you have your heart set on having the title of “librarian” as opposed to doing information work in a setting that is not a library and with another title, understand that your job search may be longer and more difficult. (INALJ has a list of keywords on its home page that include non-traditional titles.) Understand too, that even with the Master’s degree, marketable skills, and enthusiasm, the job search may take months and months and that networking (which takes time) is crucial when job hunting.
  • Regarding your age, there are many info pros who come to librarianship as a second career, and make good use of previously-acquired skills and experience in their new profession, so I wouldn’t let that one variable factor strongly into your decision.

(The Associate’s degree, unfortunately, is not going to help you to get into grad school or land a job after getting the Master’s. You’ll need a Bachelor’s to get into library school, and work experience in a library will help to make you a stronger job candidate, but the Associate’s won’t give you any advantage.)

Finally, pay attention to your gut reaction as you read and hear more about librarianship and be honest with yourself. You know that the MLS is a big investment of time, effort and money. It would be an awful thing to get halfway through and quit (and either have spent money for something uncompleted, or have loans that will still need to be paid off), or force yourself to finish just because you started, without enthusiasm or excitement about your goal.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or just unmoved about what you’re learning about the field, you may want to choose another path. But if you feel exhilarated and energized by your examination of librarianship, this may just be the right profession for you. (And you can write back to us and ask how to choose a grad school!)

Good luck!