Q: How will volunteer work benefit me?

Q: How will volunteer work benefit me?

Q: I am interviewing for a volunteer position in a public library. How will this benefit me and is it easier to get a paid position if I volunteer? I do not have a master’s degree yet but I am considering it.

TA: A volunteer position can be a great way to learn about libraries, especially if you are considering pursuing the MLS.  Let’s take a look at your question and break it down:

  • How will volunteering in a public library benefit me?
  • Is it easier to get a paid position if I volunteer?
  • I’m thinking about getting my master’s degree…

First, as mentioned earlier, volunteering in a library is a great way to learn about what goes on in a library.  It’s basically a behind-the-scenes tour of library operations.  Not only are you gaining valuable insights into the inner workings of a library organization, you are also gaining experience in the work of libraries.  Additionally, if you’re around long enough, you’ll start to pick up on the vocabulary and meaning of technical terms used in the work, the workflow cycles, and the politics of the workplace.  You will also begin to establish a professional network, which, if you prove yourself as a valuable and reliable volunteer, will help you in your job search.  Which brings us to question number two…

Is it easier to get a paid position if I volunteer?  If you were to take a look back through some of our older posts, you’ll find that we often say it’s easier to find a job when you have a job.  What we mean by that is when you’re in the workforce (even as a volunteer) there are certain advantages that help with the job search.  First, all the things mentioned above as benefits to a volunteer position (knowledge of the work of libraries, common vocabulary, workflow, politics, etc.) are also benefits when you’re on the job market.  When you’re asked questions during an interview (like, Tell us about a time you had to work with a patron…), you will be able to speak from a position of experience, as opposed to theory.  Second, the professional network that you’ve established as a volunteer is also very helpful.  Librarianship is a small (and close!) profession.  Lots of people know lots of other people.  Your professional reputation—something else you’re building as a volunteer—is another tool in your toolkit.  Working hard pays off; the professional reputation you build will serve you well as apply for jobs.  And finally, by volunteering you’re gaining hands-on experience and receiving up-to-date training on information tools and the work of libraries.

And I’ll close with this, a response to the third part of your question.  If you’re thinking about going back to school, working experience in a library (paid and unpaid) will help you decide if you’re ready for the investment (of time, attention and money).  Finding out what you like about working in libraries is equally as important as finding out what you don’t like.  And those experiences will help you shape your academic experience when you do decide to return for the master’s degree.  Having some experience under your belt when you enter graduate school will benefit not only you, but your classmates will benefit as well when you’re able to put theory into practice and provide real-world examples.

Whether you’re taking librarianship for a test drive, or getting some experience under your belt before moving into something more permanent, volunteering in a library can provide excellent benefits for you, the library, and the community you serve.

Q: I’m considering making the shift to academic librarianship after being a research analyst. I have a strong urge to simply call up the head of the local academic library and request a meeting with her. Is this a potentially off-putting approach?

Q: I’m considering making the shift to academic librarianship after being a research analyst. I have a strong urge to simply call up the head of the local academic library and request a meeting with her. Is this a potentially off-putting approach?

Q: I’m considering making the shift to academic librarianship after 5 years of being a Research Analyst at a large global corporation.  Before my corporate position, I worked in an academic library, so I do have some experience.  The question I have is in the approach.  The corporate environment has given me a lot of confidence and has taught me to seek out what I want and to own my career.  This leads me to have a strong urge to simply call up the head of the local academic library and request a meeting with her.  I’d like to sit face to face with her to share my resume and tell her about my skills.  Note – there are no current openings at said academic library!  So, is this a potentially off-putting approach?  Would I potentially burn a bridge by being this direct?  Thanks in advance for any advice you can provide.

TA: I commend you on your confidence and for taking ownership of your career.  I also commend you for questioning whether or not your approach is potentially off-putting.  My response is, If you need to ask that question, you already know the answer.

Corporate libraries and academic libraries can be similar in many ways, and different in others.  Generally, the corporate culture that surrounds corporate libraries can be fast-moving and competitive, and for good reason—the livelihood of the company can hang on response time and accuracy.  Some of the associated traits, however, can come across as aggressive in other workplace cultures.  It’s a matter of recognizing what works for the specific situation or workplace.

To get a sense of the workplace, and the style of approach that a director might appreciate, I wouldn’t start with the director.  I would recommend you think about conducting two or three informational interviews with others in the library.  You mentioned there were no current openings at the library.  That’s great.  What that means is you are truly seeking information about the library itself, not about a specific job.  Perhaps there is someone you already know in the organization?  Buy that person a cup of coffee and compare and contrast your corporate experience with his or her academic experience.  Is there someone who is doing work similar to yours?  Invite that person out for coffee and compare notes on how the work you do is similar and how it differs.  Throughout these interviews, you should also seek information on the culture of the organization.  How does work get done?  Do people work in groups?  What’s the style of the director and how does he/she motivate, recognize and reward good work?  If this is a small enough organization, and you learn through your interviews that the director would be open to this kind of “cold call” then you might want to make the request for an appointment.  If, however, what you learn reinforces the reservations you already have, take a more cautious approach.  Maybe you can start with a letter and resume to introduce yourself, letting the director know that you’ve learned a lot about the organization and are interested in being a part of something so exciting… Include your contact information with an invitation to talk further, and wait for the director to reach out.  At best, you’ll get an invitation.  At worst, you’ll be a recognized name when a position actually opens up and your application comes across the desk.  What’s important, though, is that you haven’t burned bridges before you even entered the door.

Q: Is there something else I should do to improve my skills and marketability? At what point do I throw in the towel and seek another career path?

Q: Is there something else I should do to improve my skills and marketability? At what point do I throw in the towel and seek another career path?

Q: I recently discovered your site and have found it very helpful.  My situation is identical to many recent library school graduates.  I have had my MLS for nearly three years. Since I graduated, I have worked part-time in an after school program, as a media specialist, and currently, as a substitute teacher.  I have been unemployed for over a year.  I understand that it’s the economy and that there are many people in similar positions.  I also know that I am doing everything I can to improve both my skills and my marketability.

I worked an internship in a public library youth services department while a student, so I had four years of library experience before graduation.  I also have experience in museum and resource center settings.  I have an e-portfolio and social networking presence.  I subscribe to library, education job-hunting list-serves and follow related Twitter accounts.  I customize each cover letter and resume, carefully prepare for interviews, and craft customized thank you emails.  I am currently pursuing certification in educational technology.  I plan to volunteer in a local elementary school media center and local university library.  Since I am a student, I also plan to look into student library positions at my university.  I have also broadened my geographical search parameters, but I am limited to two regions in my state.

If my job search is too narrow, I’d be considered too picky.  Too broad, and I’d be considered either too desperate or someone who doesn’t do my research.  I am able to communicate how my library skills will be an asset to paraprofessional, retail, and other positions for which I am overqualified.  I have received mixed views about applying for paraprofessional positions.  The positives: it will get my foot in the door, I’d be getting the experience, and I’d be working in a library.  The negatives: why should the library waste time and resources on someone who might leave as soon as something better comes along?  For jobs that I am under-qualified for or don’t have enough experience in that particular field, it’s a catch-22.  I need experience to get a job, a job to get experience, and so on.

I’m trying not to be discouraged, but it’s not easy.  I keep telling myself I’m doing the best that I can, that there are so many librarians in my position, and that there are people far worse off.  I am trying to look up alternative careers for librarians and related search terms.  Is there something else I should do to improve my skills and marketability?  At what point do I throw in the towel and seek another career path?  My intention for this letter is not to complain (I’ve landed interviews, so I know I’m doing at least something right).  I just figure that I might not be doing enough and wanted to get professional advice.

TA: Well, this is a tough one.  From what you describe above, it sounds like you’ve covered all your bases and done a lot of work.  I am really impressed with all the attention you’ve paid to different work experiences, creating and maintaining an e-portfolio and social media presence, and your additional coursework on the educational technology certification.  Having limited geographic mobility can impose some limits on the job search, but you’ve done a lot to compensate for that limitation.

Your question about paraprofessional work is one that is greatly debated and I’m not sure there’s ever one answer that’s right for everyone.  In today’s economy, people realize that choices are made that might have been different under different circumstances.  As the employer, yes, it’s likely my question would be “Why here? Why now? How long will you stay?”  As the candidate, it’s your job to allay some of these concerns by expressing genuine interest in the position and the knowledge you can gain from the experience.  You might also want to express some commitment to the position and the institution, and offer your experience and hard work in exchange for a chance to work in the position.

Another employment option to consider is a temp librarian position.  There are placement and staffing agencies out there that specialize in placing librarians (MLS required) in temp positions all over the country, with positions that range from part time to full time, on-site to remote work locations.  Take a look at this list of placement agencies: http://www.lisjobs.com/jobseekers/agencies.asp

Finally, you mention leaving librarianship altogether and seeking employment in another career track.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook:

“Employment of librarians is expected to grow by 7 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations.  There will continue to be a need for librarians to manage libraries and staff and help patrons find information. As electronic resources become more common, patrons and support staff will be more comfortable using them, so fewer librarians will be needed for assistance. However, the increased availability of electronic information is also expected to increase the demand for librarians in research and special libraries, where they will be needed to help sort through the large amount of available information.  Budget limitations, especially in local government and educational services, may slow demand for librarians. Some libraries may close, reduce the size of their staff, or focus on hiring library technicians and assistants, who can fulfill some librarian duties at a lower cost.  Jobseekers may face strong competition for jobs, especially early in the decade, as many people with master’s degrees in library science compete for a limited number of available positions. Later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings.  Even though people with a master’s in library science may have trouble finding a job as a librarian, their research and analytical skills are valuable for jobs in a variety of other fields, such as market researchers or computer and information systems managers.”


For more information from the BLS on similar occupations, you can visit: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/librarians.htm#tab-7.  Just be sure to check the job prospects of these associated fields before you leave librarianship.  We’d hate to lose you.


Q: What specialization do you feel is the most marketable?

Q: What specialization do you feel is the most marketable?

Q: I searched your site but didn’t find an answer already on this subject. If I’m wrong, could you point me in the right direction?  My question:  I recently graduated with my BS in History. I have four years’ experience working first as a library page, then as a collections processor in Archives, and now I’m working as a Digital Projects and Oral History assistant in the Digitization Department of Special Collections. My next step is to get my MLIS. However, I am unsure of what to specialize in. I have most of my experience with Digitization and Archives but think I would be happier in a different area. I’d like to work with people more and love the hustle and bustle of reference and circulation. However, I am also in love with children’s literature and would love an opportunity to work with kids, set up reading programs in the library, etc. I feel that I can be happy in many capacities in the library. So I guess my question is what specialization do you feel is the most marketable? With library jobs being competitive, I’d like to choose a specialization in library school that will be widely marketable when I begin looking for permanent positions, but that will also be something I will enjoy doing for the long haul.

TA: I totally understand your question about finding ways to be most marketable upon graduation, but you also want to find a specialization that works for you.  You can be marketable and terribly unhappy, and that’s not where you want to end up.  Employers look for experience and potential, and library school is a great time to explore different areas of specialization and to try things on to see if they fit.  From taking a variety of classes, to different internships and volunteer opportunities, you can spend some time exploring librarianship.  According to ALA, the amount of academic credit hours required for an ALA-accredited MLS can vary from 36 semester hours to 72 quarter hours—this is both a lot of time, and time that flies by too quickly.  You should talk with an academic advisor at the school to chart your course, including which classes to take, how and when to register for field experiences, and identifying volunteer or paid work experiences.  Above all else, leave library school with the degree AND work experience.

Now is also a great time to join a few professional discussions lists.  You see if the discussion topics strike an interest.  You can also monitor the vacancy announcements that come across the lists.  Even though you aren’t on the market right now, you can see what’s in demand in terms of types of jobs, regions of employment, and desired skills and experience.  This information will be really useful when you are in library school and are deciding which classes to take or how to gain certain experiences.

Also, remember the power of the informational interview.  Elisa Topper, in her October 2003 “Working Knowledge” column in American Libraries, talks about all the potential benefits of the informational interview.  Her list includes: building a network of contacts; gaining information about internships, practicum experiences and other positions in the “hidden job market”; exposure to terminology and issues relevant to a specific field; and a glimpse into different organizational cultures.  Informational interviews are a great way to explore different areas of librarianship through the real-life experience of someone who’s doing it.  Be sure to read the rest of the Topper article, and refer to our other columns on Informational Interviews to learn more about conducting these types of interviews.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for what to highlight and emphasize in my resume and cover letter to show that I can work just as effectively in adult reference as I can in children’s reference?

Q: Do you have any suggestions for what to highlight and emphasize in my resume and cover letter to show that I can work just as effectively in adult reference as I can in children’s reference?

Q: I am a librarian currently looking for full-time public library work. Although I love working with kids and single-handedly run my library’s children’s department, my current position is only part-time. A full-time position in adult reference has just opened up in my area, and I am interested in applying. I have experience with working at the adult reference desk and took classes in graduate school in working with an adult patron base, but most of my 4 1/2 years of library experience come from working in children’s departments. Do you have any suggestions for what to highlight and emphasize in my resume and cover letter to show that I can work just as effectively in adult reference as I can in children’s reference? Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

TA: This can be a tricky transition, moving from the children’s department to adult reference (although I have seen some adults in my lifetime behave much worse than children!).  You’re wise to acknowledge there’s a difference and to think about ways to make the transition, like your previous work experience and coursework—be sure to highlight these in your application materials.   Additionally, think about the transferable skills you’ve gained over the last several years working in the children’s department.  Have you managed a budget?  Supervised employees, students or volunteers?  Created a desk schedule and delegated work? Examined new products and trained others on how to use them?  Have you worked with parents on how to meet the literacy needs of their children?  Make your resume and cover letter an invitation to talk more about your interest in the position and your ability to do the work.  Also know that as an internal candidate, you’ve got a professional network inside the organization.  Be sure to make a positive impression in all of your interactions and have people prepared to speak positively on your behalf.