Q: Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?

Q: Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?

Q:  I have been looking for a permanent job in mostly archives and university libraries for nearly three years. I will spare you details of how discouraging the search has been. I have been volunteering for various organizations for those three years doing a few projects as an unpaid librarian for a couple non-profit organizations. Currently on my résumé I list my volunteer and intern experience in a separate section from my professional experience. Someone suggested I list these experiences with the professional and don’t mention that they were volunteer gigs. This feels dishonest somehow. Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?


SM: Yes, yes, yes! Just because you weren’t paid for the work you did doesn’t mean you cannot call it professional experience – especially since it is. You are doing internships to get the experience you need to get you the job you want. This is what internships are designed to do… and some do it better than others.

You should put your most relevant experience up front, regardless of whether you got paid for it. This is especially true for people who don’t have that much current, or recent, library experience under their belts. If it makes you feel better (or less dishonest), rename your heading “Library Experience” and put everything else under “Other Experience” or something similar. And, since we’re talking honestly, I can’t take full credit for this advice. As I was graduating from library school (some oh so many years ago), this is how the director of career development told me to arrange my résumé — more functional than chronological.

As you rework your résumé, don’t lie about what you did, or what your title was — call it an internship, call yourself a volunteer — just make sure to include all the important skills, jobs, projects, systems, technology, tools, etc., that you worked on and used. If you were “hired” as an unpaid librarian, then your title was librarian. You don’t have to mention that you weren’t getting paid, although you may want to mention that the job was temporary.

Here’s the thing: potential employers and hiring committees don’t want to spend a lot of time going over your résumé to try to find applicable experience and skills. So don’t make them search. Highlight your experience and skills that correspond to the requirements of the job by putting them up front, where they can be easily found.

If the job calls for a certain number of years of “professional experience,” then your unpaid work probably won’t be considered as part of this requirement. Typically (although this can differ from job to job) this only applies to people who have held professional positions that required an MLS. But that doesn’t mean that the work you’ve done in your various unpaid positions is not “professional” in nature. Best of luck!


Related, and potentially useful, articles:


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: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to make a career change into the library profession?

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to make a career change into the library profession?

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to make a career change into the library profession? I have my MSIS and much experience in human resources, but I want to make a change into something I am more passionate about…namely, working in a library. I am already volunteering at two special libraries. What else can I do to make myself more marketable? Is an internship my only choice?  Thank you.


TA: The MLS and related experience working in libraries will make you a marketable candidate. Your experience in human resources could also be a real asset if marketed correctly in your application materials.  You want to be careful and balanced with how you present your HR experience.  On one hand, it gives you an advantage when it comes to the supervisory and management aspects of a professional position; on the other hand, you need to be careful that you’re not “pricing yourself out of the market.”  So be sure to talk about your experience and the strengths you would bring to the position, but also make sure you’re framing your application as a career transition.  Try to build on your volunteer experience to see if you can work yourself into a paid position–and experience that will build an attractive resume.

Q: How can I possibly gain some (library) experience while still holding down my current 9-5 job?

Q: How can I possibly gain some (library) experience while still holding down my current 9-5 job?

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

Q: I have an MLIS that I received about 9 years ago. Prior to that, I had about 10 years of experience working as a page, circulation desk worker, supervisor, etc. After receiving my degree, I worked for a year and a half as a reference and systems librarian at a small academic library. Due to a job transfer on my husband’s part, I ended up having to quit that job, and was unable to find a new one in our new location. So I went back to school, and have been working as a web programmer and database designer for the last 5 years.

I really miss working in the library world, and would like to re-enter it. I now live in an area where there are many community colleges. One of the biggest problems I’m finding, though, is that all the job requirements mention wanting “recent” academic library experience — how can I possibly gain some experience while still holding down my current 9-5 job? I don’t see myself getting looked at twice by hiring committees without it, and frankly, I could really use some experience to get back up to speed on library technologies and procedures. I’d be happy to volunteer somewhere, but academic libraries don’t seem real big on volunteers. Is it possible for someone, post-degree, to get an internship? Any suggestions on how to handle this?

RKS: That does sound like a tough position to be in. There are several ways to look at your situation and many opportunities in front of you.

First, I would call a couple of the local community college libraries and ask to speak to the person in charge of hiring or the department head of the area you are most interested in. Set up an informational interview try to see if you can come in person to talk to them and if that is not an option then ask if you could arrange a phone interview. Prepare as if it is a real interview. Have lots of questions (not too many!) and take a copy of your résumé. Look the part – wear a nice outfit and take the conversation seriously. They will be able to talk to you about the job market, their particular library and the skills that they are expecting from a librarian. Be sure to follow up with a handwritten thank you note. All the impressions you are making could lead to a future opportunity.

Second, you mentioned that your skills need updating and refreshing. Taking a class either in person or online would be a real benefit to you – not only will it make your résumé more current, it will show that you are interested in staying current in the profession. You may even make connections that could lead to a job – you just never know.

Third, to your comment about academic libraries not wanting volunteers. I think that is not always the case. Sometimes it has to do with the school’s overall policy, so it is worth a phone call to the libraries you are interested in.

From your perspective it sounds like you are a bit stalled in making that next step, so I hope one or all of these ideas will help you to reach your goal. And good luck!

Two Questions on Getting Experience Through Internships and Volunteering

Two Questions on Getting Experience Through Internships and Volunteering

Q1: I am currently working as an assistant professor and have a doctorate in design that I earned approximately six years ago. I have been teaching and publishing research since then, but I am considering a career change to academic librarianship with future work in an MLIS program. This is partially due to the geographic locations of positions in my current field and a desire for more engagement with peers on a day to day basis.

My question is related to job seeking.  I am wondering if internships in the summer months would suffice as experience, or if I am setting myself up for a difficult job hunting situation without any experience in a library proper. Any advice on my particular situation would be much appreciated.

SM: Internships do count as experience. If you can find one, or create one, do it.

An internship is a great way to start off your career change, without a major commitment or stress from job hunting and interviewing. It is also an excellent way to network with people in the profession, discover the ins and outs of working in libraries, find mentors, and possibly even secure a job down the road.

Internships can be very valuable and rewarding, and may even provide you with more relevant experience than a library job would provide. It will help if you know what kind of experience you need – this could be very specific or quite broad (especially if you’ve never worked in libraries).

You may find that you need to structure your own internship and approach librarians and library directors with your plan.  And by plan, I mean write up something specific that  includes the number of hours you can work, the days of the week you are available, and include some flexibility. If you have an ideal library in mind, or know of someone who holds your dream job, see if that library or person would consider offering you an internship. Many libraries will offer them on a case by case basis, even though they might not advertise them. From my experience, libraries that offer internships are looking for motivated people who can work on specific projects. Internships work best when the tasks are focused (on one or two things) and the intern has (at least some) control over his or her role and pace of learning.

Talk to someone in career services for your local MLS program. They should be able to help you locate existing internships and provide you with guidance in structuring internships in order to get the most out of them. Since you work in academia, and you’ve no doubt spent a lot of time in academic libraries, you probably have an idea of what you would like to do and what kind of librarian role you would like to pursue. Use your subject expertise, your knowledge of academic institutions, and your contacts in academia to explore your options and learn more about your local library and see if they can help you gain the experience you need.

Another option to consider, if you are unable to do (or find) an internship, is to volunteer. The same advice applies to volunteering as to interning. Some places will offer internships only to current students, so find out about volunteer opportunities as well.

Take charge of your own career path and go out there and get the skills and experience you need.  There is no right way to do so, and each person’s path is different. Good luck!

Further Reading:

“Internships are the Appetizers of the Library World So Nibble, Nibble, Nibble…”
by Melissa Aho, Marcia Franklin, Susan Wakefield, and Sara Wakefield
Library Journal, 6/6/2006

Q2: I have my MLS and have worked in the library field for many years. First in special libraries and later in school libraries. When my son finished high school I started work at a local real estate company. A part time position soon turned into full time employment and while I was not entirely happy with the job it did offer some stability. I stuck with it for nearly five years, but when I was laid off in January I began to search for library positions. In this economy there just isn’t much out there at all and I really feel that I need to update my skills.

Recently I have given thought to asking a public librarian for an internship (I have a professional relationship with this woman. I am a chair on a small library friends group). I don’t necessarily want to work in a public library, but exposure to new ideas and roles can’t hurt. What do you suggest? How would you evaluate skills? I do know that I don’t want to be a cataloger — I can’t bear the thought of sitting behind a computer screen all day… any ideas?

TA: There are three suggestions that quickly come to mind:

  1. Prepare a resume and keep it current.
    Include all of your experience, library and real estate. Be sure to draw direct parallels between all of your work experience and the work of your local public library. Real estate work can translate into customer service, familiarity with the local community, etc. Also, be sure to include your service as chair of the friends group — this shows a continued interest in the field, leadership and commitment. Talk about goals as well as achievements.
  2. Approach your public librarian contact and ask to volunteer.
    Be sure to give her your resume, explain that you want to get back into libraries and are looking to update your skills. Explain that you have years of experience to offer, as well as recent research and customer service skills from your experience working in real estate, and leadership experience and ties to this library from your volunteer experience in the friends group.
  3. Don’t limit yourself.
    Statements like “I don’t want to be a cataloger and I can’t bear the thought of sitting behind a computer screen all day” can come across as a little dramatic and demanding when you’re in the asking position. It’s good to know, long term, what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, but when you’re getting started (or re-started), experience is experience. Just because you spend some time cataloging, doesn’t mean it’s a wasted experience. As a matter of fact, a broad-based volunteer experience will help you update your skills across the board, as well as develop a broad support network of librarians.

You may also want to check out our other posts on cover letters, resumes, and transferrable skills:

Q: How do I get back into the workforce after an illness, and being a stay-at-home parent?

Q: I’d like to learn as much as possible about the whole archival process and hopefully move into the archival profession. Is it possible for me to have a career as an archivist despite not having setting out to become one?

Q: Am I overqualified for library positions?

Q: How can I switch from public to corporate librarianship?

Q: How can I find information about making the move from a community college to a four-year college or university?

Q: How do I make my resume work for me?<!–