Q: I want to move into a technical services role, but I’m intimidated by the job postings. How can I become qualified for a systems or cataloging position?

Q: I want to move into a technical services role, but I’m intimidated by the job postings. How can I become qualified for a systems or cataloging position?

Q: I have been a librarian “on the front lines” for 6 years and I want to switch to technical services. I have taken web (XHTML, CSS) and beginning programming (JAVA, C++) courses and I am currently taking a cataloging course. When time permits, I volunteer in technical services at two area libraries. However, when I peruse job postings for catalogers, systems librarians, etc., I get overwhelmed by all the qualifications listed and feel I will never be truly qualified for any of these positions. Any advice to help in pursuing this library career change would be greatly appreciated.

A: Great question! This dilemma affects many librarians who desire to make a role change and are lacking in relevant experience. I moved from a reference role into a systems role (at a past job) because I became frustrated with the ILS (integrated library system), and wanted to update its look and functionality. The person who was in that role had shifted her attention to something else, and was actually happy to let me take over. I was working in a small, specialized, academic library at the time and I was able to acquire on-the-job experience over time.

First, decide on which area you want to focus on, cataloging or systems. Although both are in technical services, they are quite different. The primary role of a systems person is maintaining the ILS and troubleshooting technical problems, for several different systems. The primary role of a cataloger is cataloging, using one or two different systems and managing bibliographic access to materials. Each role will require a different set of skills and experience. The systems person will need to understand some cataloging in order to make sure the system is running smoothly and doing everything it can do for the cataloger. Since I am speaking from personal experience, I will talk mainly about systems, but similar information can be applied to cataloging positions.

To be qualified for a systems librarian position, you need experience. This is why you don’t see postings for entry-level systems librarians. I have seen the job postings that you mention and I always wonder if the employers are getting any applicants who have all of the requirements…. doubtful. I also know of several libraries who have hired non-librarians for their systems roles, probably because they could not find MLS holders with the specific computer programming experience they desired.

Second, the role of the systems librarian can vary greatly by size of institution. So think about where you would like to be.

Larger institutions (university libraries, public library systems, large corporations, etc.) will most likely need more people with very specific skills and expertise, because they have more systems to manage and more people to serve. They expect a systems person to be able to develop something unique for their user population and/or environment, if they cannot find it commercially. Larger institutions usually have several people, with differing skills, working in a systems department where they typically focus on the ILS and other systems that work with the ILS. Jobs in larger institutions may offer a better opportunity for specialization, experimentation and training.

Smaller institutions will most likely need fewer people with diverse skills.  Small libraries are often largely dependent on commercial systems, which offer both hosting and service, so the systems librarian (who is usually on his or her own) may not need to know any programming languages or be required to develop anything new for the user population. This is good, because many systems librarians are also expected to do reference, collection development and instruction. Systems people who work in smaller institutions often find themselves in charge of everything digital and computer-related including the web site, course management systems, software and hardware, and electronic resources. Jobs in smaller institutions will offer lots of variety.

Third, don’t despair just yet. You will get the experience you need, but it might take time. Clearly you are motivated, so keep doing what you’re doing: volunteering and taking classes, if you can. Specific web and programming skills will definitely boost your qualifications. Start small and local — use your current job to get experience now. Talk to your supervisor and let her or him know that you are interested in doing more technical services tasks. Are there people you can learn from in your current job, people who can mentor you and teach you about specific systems? Knowledge of an ILS is usually a requirement for systems (and cataloging) positions. See what you can learn about the one in your current library and the one where you volunteer.

And finally, look closely at the requirements and the preferred skills for the job at hand. If you have all the requirements, then by all means apply. Don’t let the preferred list (which can be quite long) discourage or deter you. Best of luck!

Extra Info:

Hiring a systems librarian
By Dorothea Salo

The Accidental Systems Librarian
By Rachel Singer Gordon

Systems Librarian Jobs & Careers from SimplyHired

Cataloging Jobs & Careers from SimplyHired

The Whimsy of Cataloging
By Richard A. Murray

Cataloging Futures

How do I get there from here? Changing jobs, changing roles, changing institutions
By Susanne Markgren and Tiffany Allen

Q: Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

Q: Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

Q: I have a MS in Library and Information Studies, and two years of professional experience, mostly in reference and public services. Two years ago I decided to return to school for a second masters degree in linguistics. During this time I have held a job in the English department as a writing tutor, which I have enjoyed, but my joy in life does not come from teaching. I have been rather successful in my studies, and considered a PhD, but it is not for me. As I near completion of this degree, I need to consider my professional options. I would like to return to libraries and I am interested in working in technical services, specifically cataloging. I have had limited experience in the past with cataloging and indexing, but I like this kind of work. I think my strengths in this area are my analytic skills and knowledge of semantics/taxonomies. Of course, being interested is a plus, and I have obtained great people skills and an understanding of how patrons view library catalogs from my public services experience. Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

SM: The first thing that comes to mind – and you’ve heard it all before – is: get some experience, any experience. You think you know what you want, which is the first step in getting there, but how can you be sure without first getting a taste of what the job entails?

Cataloging can be a tedious, sometimes monotonous, and potentially lonely job. It typically requires long hours of inputting, uploading and editing data. It calls for precision, organization, and knowledge of many separate, but inter-related things like classification systems, subject headings, MARC, Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), authority control, catalog environments, databases, and metadata. It can also be very rewarding and challenging, especially for analytically-minded people. It is more tangible and more structured than its somewhat amorphous counterpart, public services, and it involves a close (and hopefully comfortable) relationship with technology. It can be exciting and fast-paced as well, because there are always new technologies, new systems, new rules, and new ways of access that all relate to the cataloger’s role.

Like you mentioned, your interest in cataloging is a good start, and your previous library experience along with your second masters, in the “study of language” no less, should help you out in your job search. The only piece you are lacking is the relevant cataloging experience, so don’t despair just yet. Cataloging, although a learned skill that involves knowledge of many distinct systems and technologies, is done differently everywhere. You can know the basics, but each library will have its own way of cataloging specific items, its own integrated library system, and perhaps its own classification system. Even the most experienced cataloger needs time to adjust and learn in a new environment, and training is expected for any new position.

To get started, immerse yourself in all things cataloging: talk to catalogers, join e-mail lists and associations, read books and articles, and search for useful web sites. If you have no experience, practice a little by cataloging your own books, CDs, or DVDs, using whatever resources you can get your hands on. Also, keep in mind that cataloging comes in many flavors, and in larger institutions catalogers typically work with only one or two material types, which could be monographs, serials, photographs, rare books, manuscripts, audiovisuals, or online resources (to name a few). If you are interested in a particular kind of cataloging, then you may want to use “material type” to narrow your search.

There are entry-level cataloging positions that require little to no experience. However, since cataloging is so structured and based on sets of rules, previous experience may be an even more important requirement than for public service positions. Some job ads say “advanced coursework in cataloging required” (or preferred) in lieu of experience. This is where some extracurricular classes may help. See if there are any opportunities in your area, or look for online classes to help develop your skills and your resume.

Finally, rework your resume to emphasize your analytical skills and experience, including cataloging classes and any related job experience. Show potential employers that you are truly interested in cataloging!

These web sites may be useful:

TA: Transitioning from one type of position to another, or even from one type of library to another, is sometimes a difficult proposition. You can, however, take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Susanne’s advice about immersing yourself in all things cataloging is especially pertinent. Join lists, talk to catalogers, maybe do an informational interview or two. (For a quick article on informational interviews, see Carole Martin’s “Informational Interviewing: The Neglected Job Search Tool.”) If possible, try to get some experience; even volunteering in a cataloging department would give you some experience and perhaps a glance into what life would be like as a cataloger.

Secondly, without knowing your personal situation, I am not sure how viable an option this would be, but you may want to consider taking a class or two in cataloging. Basic cataloging and advanced cataloging, offered in most library schools, would certainly cover both the basic principles of cataloging, as well as some of the higher level details (and specialties) in cataloging. You would have the opportunity to work with Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems, MARC format, and different types of materials (monographs, serials, CD-ROMs, video, electronic resources, just to name a few…). Current coursework would not only indicate a strong interest to future employers, but would also give you the fundamental skill set and vocabulary used in the day-to-day work.

Finally, I strongly believe that power is all in the spin. If you can express enthusiasm for the profession and a strong interest in cataloging, as well as highlight your transferable skills and abilities when applying for a position (knowledge of how patrons view the catalog, formal education in linguistics, analytical skills, and knowledge of semantics/taxonomies), you will be a viable applicant for any cataloging position. You may want to refer to the March 1, 2004 issue of ICT. In the career column of that issue, Susanne and I discussed moving from a special library to an academic library; you’ll find some helpful information there about transitioning from one specialty to another, and some tips on assessing skill sets, job searching, and applying and interviewing for positions. Best of luck!