Q: Will my concentration in library school limit my job prospects?

Q: Will my concentration in library school limit my job prospects?

This answer is provided by our guest author, Rachel Kuhn Stinehelfer.

Q: I recently started library school and I am required to pick a specific track, or focus, within the program: cataloging, reference, information technology,  school librarianship, archives, or law librarianship. For the last year, I have worked in a government law library where I shelve and update  the collection as well as provide some reference assistance to patrons.  I love my job – especially the reference part.  Originally, I entered library school  thinking I would focus on reference. Now, after having finished one term of library school, I’m wondering if concentrating on reference will pigeonhole me  into being qualified for only reference positions when I finish my degree.  Since I’m getting reference experience in my job, should I still plan on making  it my academic focus?  Reference is my favorite, but should I pick something else to be more well-rounded in the job search?  If I concentrate on reference,  will I ever have any business applying for a job in cataloging, for example? Thank you for your wisdom and insight!

RKS: From reading your letter it sounds like you really love reference and law librarianship, so I think the question comes down to – would you want to be a  cataloger?  If you love reference, you should focus on reference. I doubt you would want to apply for a cataloging job if you are really a public services  person as those are two very different positions.  That being said, I think that cataloging is fundamental to understanding library catalogs and metadata so be sure to explore many of the courses available to you. Having work experience and an academic focus in a specific area, rather than being a  jack-of-all-trades, will make you a stronger candidate.

SM: I agree with everything Rachel said. Don’t worry about being pigeonholed before you’ve even started applying for positions. Do what you love, focus on what interests you, and get as much experience as possible. Potential employers will be more impressed with your experience and skills than your concentration in library school (trust me). One of the benefits of working (in a library) during library school, is discovering what you like to do and what  kind of role you would like to pursue after you get your degree. After you’ve worked for a while, you just might feel like you want to change roles, or look for something different — many people do! — and it might not be as difficult as you imagine.  Check out this article that Tiffany and I wrote to address questions and concerns similar to yours:

How do I get there from here? Changing jobs, changing roles, changing institutions
by Susanne Markgren and Tiffany Allen
C&RL News, December 2004, Vol. 65, No. 11

Q: How can I avoid being pigeonholed?

Q: How can I avoid being pigeonholed?

Q: I am an MLIS student with one class left before graduation. My school is new and still undergoing the accreditation process, so I want to wait until we are accredited before I finish. I have a good job in a library, so I can afford to do this for a little while, but I want to “spend my time wisely.” I would like to pursue another master’s degree to open up more opportunities for me in a research library, but I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into one subject area. I have an undergraduate degree in Physics and a Doctorate of Chiropractic (I’m a career-changer), so I have a strong background in physical and biological sciences. However, I don’t want to work on a hard-core science degree, because I don’t think my brain could take it. Help!

SM: You have an interesting, and enviable, dilemma. How nice to be able to pursue an additional degree while working and getting much- needed experience at a job you like. Since you have a significant academic background in the sciences, I can understand your concern about being pigeonholed by potential employers. However, I think you are underestimating the power of work experience.

As you start applying for librarian positions, your work experience will resonate louder than the subject of your degrees – undergraduate or graduate. What you are doing now in your job – the experience you are obtaining, and the skills you are learning – will be invaluable in attaining that first professional position.

Getting your second master’s after you earn your library degree offers you some freedom of choice. Since you are already planning on being a librarian and are already working in a library, you won’t have the added stress of wondering if you will be employable. And, since you are gainfully employed and seem to have the time to pursue another degree, you can explore many different options and programs – with the one exception that they be either local or virtual, since you cannot leave your job. Don’t worry too much about filling a gap in your education or skill set; you will learn most of your skills on the job.

Pigeonholing exists in librarianship, as in other professions. From my own experience working in different libraries, applying for librarian positions, and being involved in search committees, though, it happens more with the abundance or lack of qualifying work experience and skills than with degrees. If your degree is in the humanities and you apply for a position in a science library, you have a good chance of getting the job – if you have relevant work experience and skills. Likewise, if you have worked in science libraries for years and want to make a switch to a humanities library, you might have a hard time, even if you have a humanities degree.

Since it sounds like you will not be pursuing a subject specialist position, and you are not inclined to get a second master’s degree in a scientific field, let me offer a few suggestions:

  • Go for something that is more user-defined, like a master’s in liberal arts, or a master’s in American studies. These degrees are not as rigid as others, and allow you to take classes from many different disciplines as you define your own path.
  • Go for something that has always interested you, no matter what it is. You are free to take on anything without the added concern and stress of finding a job in that field – since you are already planning on being a librarian. Be adventurous in your pursuit of higher education.
  • Go for something that will potentially be useful to you in your dream job. If you would like to work in reference and instruction, then look into master’s programs in a specific subject area (for those specialist/bibliographer positions) or dealing with education or instructional design. If you would like to work in technical services or web design, then some kind of computer science degree (it doesn’t have to be hard-core) would definitely come in handy. If you want to work as a cataloger, then a language degree would be useful. How about writing, management, communications, or design? Librarianship deals with all of these subjects, in some aspect or another.
  • Go and talk to people – your boss, coworkers, fellow library students, the career center at your library school, or someone in a department of study you may be considering. Ask them what they would recommend, and how their degrees have helped to shape their careers. You might get some new ideas, or learn about exciting programs you hadn’t thought of before.
  • Go and look at job ads for positions that interest you, and see which qualifications are required and which are preferred.
  • Finally, go easy on yourself. Make it fun! Any degree program needs to fit into your schedule and allow you time for both work and play. A highly competitive and stressful program is probably not what you have in mind. So take into consideration the time commitment, the requirements of the program, how it will fit into your schedule. Most importantly, enjoy yourself!

Additional Resources:

Peterson’s Graduate Planner

USNews.com’s E-Learning Guide


Choosing Your Major, by Mary Lou Taylor

Escape Your Pigeonhole, by Cheryl Dahle