Career Paths They Don’t Tell You About: Building Experience by Working as a Pool Librarian

Career Paths They Don’t Tell You About: Building Experience by Working as a Pool Librarian

by Emily Weak


When I started library school (with no library experience, mind you), here is how I thought my career would go: I would quit my non-library job within six months, get a paraprofessional job in a library, finish school in two years, apply for librarian jobs, and within a month or two get a nice full time job at a public library, probably working in Teen Services.  Here is how my career has gone: about a year and a half into school, after no success at applying for jobs as a page, clerk, or library assistant, I took an unpaid reference internship at a small, special library.  That job did turn into a part-time position (at the equivalent of clerk level), and then within a few months the library assistant left and I was promoted.  I was there for a year and a half (hanging around even after I finished my degree because I liked it so much, even though it was only part-time), until I was laid off (see my article in the March 2012 Descriptor).  I then spent five months applying to jobs before landing a non-librarian temp gig in a library, and, finally, my first job with the official title librarian.  Except the full title was: Librarian I (Substitute Pool).

Defining “Pool librarian”

A substitute pool librarian is basically what it sounds like.  Many libraries use a similar type of worker, generally indicated by one of the following titles: hourly, on-call, temporary part time, extra help, casual, and, in academic libraries, adjunct.  The unifying theme is that these librarians are not regular employees. They are not guaranteed hours, and usually do not have a regular schedule.  These librarians are generally called in when extra help is needed, due to illness, vacation, or special projects or events. They may take on a position for a certain length of time, as in the case of adjuncts teaching for a semester, but permanence is not promised.  It is advantageous to the library to have a number of workers who may deployed as needed.  This type of worker is also easy on the budget; pool librarians are not generally eligible for labor’s hidden cost: benefits such as health insurance and paid time off. They are also not usually eligible for the pension plan, although the employer may still pay for some sort of retirement fund, particularly if the position is not covered by social security.

Benefits of working in the pool

Why would anyone want to do that? There are actually several benefits.  In my experience, there are three main types of pool librarian: new professionals, people returning to work after time off (e.g. maternity leave), and retired librarians.  For retired librarians who aren’t quite ready to put their feet up forever, it provides a low-commitment, lower effort way to stay involved with beloved library work.  I know one retired branch manager who is delighted to be able to come in twice a week to do storytime. For those returning to work it provides a foot in the door and a flexible schedule.  For example, new moms take only the shifts they want – so can pick and choose those when the babysitter is available. For new professionals such as myself, it helps build experience and networking contacts.

What it’s like

Here’s what the experience is like for me. I work at three different public library systems, all city-based. In one system, I really do function like a substitute.  There is a central scheduling office which sends out emails asking for shift coverage – usually four to six hour shifts at one of the branches.  Requests can be made anywhere from day-of, to months in advance, but most are around a week or two ahead.  There is a pool of about 30 librarians, and the central scheduler attempts to distribute things somewhat equally.  The work is almost entirely reference.  Occasionally there will be special weeding projects, or opportunities to do storytime.  I’ve met a lot of librarians, and helped a wide variety of patrons, but it is a challenge to really develop meaningful working relationships, and chances to build skills in anything other than reference are scarce.

The second system I work for is a single library serving its city.  I actually have a regular shift there three times a month and a weekly shift that will last approximately six to eight weeks while the library is short-handed. In addition I fill in when the full and part time librarians are off at meetings, conferences, vacations, etc. My boss there is encouraging and enthusiastic, and I’ve been able to plan an event, make displays, create booklists, post to Facebook, and even temporarily manage a small collection (the 200s).  In addition to reference work, of course. The smaller size of this system, as well as the regularity of shifts, have offered more opportunity to experience the collegiality of working with other librarians.

The third system I work for is also a multi-branch system.  This system offers more in the way of longer-term shifts.  I spent my first six months working 19 hours a week in the same branch, covering three different vacancies. I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in adult, teen, and children’s services, done copious amounts of “guerilla weeding,” made an instructional video, supervised a video game program, and worked a ton of hours providing, you guessed it, reference service. In this system I’ve made some great relationships, but I still feel a little adrift, as the impermanence of my position negates the possibility of planning longer-term initiatives. For example, I participated in an eBook fair at the second library, and something like that could really do a lot of good at the third.  But I don’t work within an infrastructure that would support me planning and executing it.

On Making a Living

All three systems pay me between $25-$30 an hour.  Between the three systems, I generally work about 29 hours a week.   I do work six days a week once or twice a month, usually when I’m feeling a little panicky about a lightly scheduled future. The lack of hours is due to the fact that I’m very rarely scheduled for a full eight hour day – shifts are usually between four to six hours. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but it may have to do with California laws or union regulations about breaks.  Ironically, this is the first time I’ve been in a union and none of my jobs provide health insurance or even paid time off. I don’t have any kids, and my husband also works, so financially we get by.  One thing I keep in mind is tax-time.  Each job taxes at a lower rate – as if that were my only job.  But of course I’m actually in a higher tax bracket so I invariably owe money come April.  I mitigate it slightly by asking for additional amounts to be held from my checks for both state and federal taxes, but I can’t really ask for a lot because some checks only have one four hour shift.

The Skill-set of a Pool Librarian

Pool librarians need to be good bluffers, fast thinkers, and excellent customer service providers.  They need to be able to thrive on the sheer terror of providing reference service to the unknown – unfamiliar patrons, reference sources in weird places, oddly organized collections, and idiosyncratic library policies. They need to be able to quickly win the heart of the circulation staff, so they can turn to them with large, panicked eyes and get efficient help in finding the recently returned items or in dealing with eccentric patrons. In short, pool librarians need highly polished soft skills and a limber mind. It also helps to be able to ask the right questions.  I started a Facebook group for on-call librarians, and we’ve worked on a shared document with questions to ask at a new library.  Take a look in order to get a more nuanced idea of the kinds of things that a pool librarian needs to learn quickly.

Getting Hired as a Pool Librarian

My sense is that it is easier to get pool work than a permanent position, perhaps because I’ve been hired three times as an pool librarian and never as a permanent one.  Pool librarians don’t always go through the lengthy process it takes to get on an eligible list and then win a position. Some libraries hire pool workers continuously, and some only do special recruitments.  Positions are more transitional, and there is less risk, for both sides, in hiring or working as pool. If an employer hires a dud, that person need not be given shifts. If a library is of interest, I would recommend enquiring how it hires pool workers.

Further Resources

Since I started working in the pools, I’ve become very interested in them.  As I mentioned above, I started a national Facebook group here: I was also able to work with BayNet to create a listserv dedicated to local issues for pool/on-call library workers:

Finally, my research partner Sarah Naumann (another SLIS alum) and I are doing an exploratory study of on-call work in the Bay Area.  You can access our project website here.  If you only want to read a couple out of the many references listed on our bibliography, I recommend the pieces by Laura Miller  and Emily Ford.




Emily Weak earned her MLIS from San Jose State University in May 2011.  She currently works as an Pool librarian, but has been an administrator, cheesemonger, manager, and circus student, among other things. She runs the blog Hiring Librarians (, which features short, mostly anonymous interviews with people who hire librarians, and other library careers content.  She is on LinkedIn here:


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Danielle

    My first official “librarian job” was also as an on-call librarian, an adjunct librarian to be specific. I am now working as a full-time librarian in a public library, however, I continue with my adjunct responsibilities (only once a week for four hours). Why? For the same reasons I took the job in the first place:
    1) You can network, network, network.
    2) Experience- You never know where your life, job, or the economy might take you. That additional experience might make the difference between you and “the other person” applying for the job.
    3) It helps you grow. Most of my experience lies in the public library sector. Working in the academic field really opened my eyes, as to what other trends, knowledge, and skills I need to expand. It also opened my eyes to a different way of doing things. Sometimes we become stubborn in our way of thinking and doing things, often we just do things in a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Working in different libraries forces you to adapt and think outside the box.
    I would highly recommend this as a great starting point for all aspiring librarians.
    FYI: One of the reasons that I earned my current, full-time adult services librarian job was due to the glowing recommendation I received from my supervisor at my adjunct job and the skills I learned, in regards to teaching students, also made a distinct impact on placing me above other candidates.

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