On Getting a Library Job, if You Haven’t Already Had One

by Chelsea Kirkland

This is a story about how I found my first paid library job. But it’s also about finding my professional self through an exploration of professional ethics and personal convictions. As it turns out, the two are much more strongly linked than I originally thought.

As I work my way through my MLIS, I’ve fielded a number of questions from friends and acquaintances about my goals for librarianship. As I close in on my last semester at SLIS, I’m noticing that my answer has drastically changed from a mumbly, enthused-but-left-open-ended kind of explanation of my professional goals, to a much more focused one. Now, when people ask me about my intentions as an information professional, I feel the need to delve into the story of how I got into library school, what I’ve learned since, and how that has had an impact on my work and my aspirations. Interestingly, this evolved outlook seems to have come together shortly before I got my first paid library job. I don’t think this is a coincidence, but I might have a couple of years ago when I started SLIS. Thinking back and wishing I could have heard a similar tale then, I’m sharing mine in hopes that it resonates with others at different points in their SLIS paths.

When I started library school, my sole library experience was as a patron; I hadn’t really considered becoming a librarian until some of my friends expressed their positive experiences in the SJSU SLIS program. At the time I started my MLIS, I had been working in a coffee shop for a couple of years after having graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in International Development Studies. I learned and grew in my undergraduate studies, but no solid career path came together for me (as seems to be the experience of many who pursue humanities majors). However, I had developed what I consider to be a radical perspective: a focus on critical thinking, which meant embracing multiple perspectives and nuances, humility, and tirelessly questioning everything.

But my education experience had not been relevant to my paid work experience—work was work and unrelated to intellectual pursuits. I thought librarianship would be a solid long-term job: my initial impression was that I wouldn’t have to sell anything to anyone, and I would be providing a valuable resource. I was enticed by the idea of having authentic interactions with people on a regular basis. I considered it a good job, but not a calling. I also didn’t go in to library school with the intention of working as a librarian immediately. I wanted spontaneity and exploration for as long as possible, and was hoping that a library degree would afford me an agreeable career to fall back on once I got all that out of my system. I really had no designs in terms of applying my personal ethics to the job; I just wanted a job that sucked less, to be frank.

I began to feel more and more that librarianship really could be my calling.

At about the same time I was considering SLIS, I was also beginning to dedicate more and more of my time and energy to projects that I respected and wanted to support. Namely, I became a certified rape crisis counselor, and I started volunteering at the local radical Infoshop—a community space complete with a small lending library and zine archive, as well as a number of free resources.

So I would say that upon entering library school, I had a strong, growing sense of personal ethics, but no solid ideas about professional ethics. In my first semester, though, I learned through my LIBR 200 class about LIS values and ethics, and was floored. When I learned about codes of ethics like ALA’s and their commitment to intellectual freedom, patron privacy, and accessibility, I was inspired. These values seemed to make a lot of sense along with my ideas about critical thinking and I began to feel more and more that librarianship really could be my calling.

But ultimately, there were exciting professional ethics and then there was the prospect of paying the bills. After knocking out a few grueling full-time semesters, I was still working in the coffee shop. Whispers of the threat of not being able to get a library job with no actual work experience had wormed their way into my brain. After a few semesters, I started to worry, and really had to rethink my angle and my career timeline. So, I began applying for library jobs. But, as we all know, pickings are slim, so I applied for any and all—corporate libraries, law libraries, and temp agencies. I decided I shouldn’t be picky about finding a work environment that suited me until I got some experience under my belt.

I sought out library opportunities that resonated with my personal values.

As I was applying for these jobs and consistently not hearing back from prospective employers, I was also thinking to myself, “Well, if I can’t get a paid job, at least I can get the next best thing: unpaid experience.” Perhaps unpaid experience was particularly appealing to me because I had many potential volunteer options. I sought out library opportunities that resonated with my personal values. I began volunteering in the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library, where I got a feel for the value of public libraries in communities. At the Long Haul Infoshop, I began working on cataloging the zine archive, a sizable, haphazardly-organized archive of 15,000 independently published pamphlets and periodicals, chronicling a certain subculture in an inspiring and unique way. The project became invaluable to my library education: it gave me hands-on experience with planning, management, cataloging, grant-writing, training, and more. The project allowed me to have great control over the process and in decision-making, an opportunity that I might not have been able to enjoy in other library settings. I also completed an internship working with the Native American Studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley, in which I updated their online resource guides and website. Additionally, I was afforded the unique opportunity to attend a conference about the politics and history of Ethnic Studies in the university and to consider the position of power that archivists/keepers of the cultural record hold over certain communities and their history. I also continued working as a rape crisis counselor, where I honed active listening skills and gave clients referrals to essential resources, which, I found out in my LIBR 210 Reference class, actually seemed to be relevant to the reference interview techniques used by librarians.

So, when, in my sea of applications for corporate law libraries and temp gigs (which didn’t particularly interest me), I found a job posting for the Library Coordinator at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), my interest was piqued. CIIS is a small school focusing on integral, non-traditional education, where most students pursue graduate degrees ranging from Comparative Spirituality and Somatic Psychology to Cultural Anthropology (with a post-colonial, feminist perspective). I can definitely appreciate the alternative learning environment and culture. The interview was nerve-racking: the whole team of five librarians were present. They asked a lot of questions about my volunteer experience. Interviews haven’t historically been my strong suit, and the group interview definitely made me nervous. I thought I tanked.

But I got the job! My coworker later told me that my colleagues were impressed with my richness of experience, and that they conduct group interviews with the whole library staff because determining whether a prospective employee is going to fit in with the institutional culture is very important to them. That made sense to me, and I started to feel like this job was really going to be a good fit. As I’ve settled into the job, I’ve learned that this is a good place for me where I can learn a lot and continue to grow professionally. For example, the institute hosts a conference called Expanding the Circle, about queer issues and representation in higher education, at which my boss presented about libraries providing resources to support the coming-out process. This conference gave me an introduction to relevant issues in higher education, made me feel connected to academia from a staff perspective, and situated the institute and my job there within issues that are very relevant to my own life. I also recently attended a staff retreat for the institute, where we had an un-conference for faculty and staff to discuss issues that feel relevant to them in an open, fluid way. I had a very positive experience and again felt reinforced in my connection with the institute.

Continued focus on projects that reflect your personal values will not only improve your resume, but will also reflect the professional values of the field.

In the end, all of the other jobs that I applied for probably would not have been the right work environment for me, and I probably wouldn’t have been the right employee for the job. In the meantime, I developed relevant skills and experiences in settings that I value. When the right job came up, it was clear that it was right for me. I want to continue to seek out different work experiences in the future. The experience that I gain will work to reinforce what I’ve already done. Although other people’s stories might not end up just like mine, I believe that continued focus on projects that reflect your personal values will not only improve your resume, but will also reflect the professional values of the field. The point here is, don’t give up hope! The ethics that we harbor as information professionals are, in many ways, about hope: hope in the future of information, the way people use it, and the way it can positively impact our communities. I’ve learned that this hope and its accompaniment, conviction, should be reflected cohesively in our work and defended fervently if we are to keep moving forward with the truly inspirational values we extol.