Librarian is never an entry level position

Sometimes I hear people getting annoyed about “entry-level” librarian job postings that ask for experience.

And I get it. Entry-level jobs are by definition jobs that don’t require experience.   

But here’s the thing, librarian positions just aren’t entry-level.  The niche of the librarian in the library shouldn’t be filled by a greenie who’s done nothing but go to school.  School can teach some of the skills you need to be a librarian, but not all of them.

I am a non-supervising librarian in a public library.  Nevertheless, I get asked for direction all the time.  When other staff have questions, they often ask me.  Sometimes these are fairly simple librarian problems, for example a spine label that is a little strange.  But frequently they bring me customer service judgement calls, such as “I think I saw a patron with a big bag of weed, what should we do?” or “Can I make an exception and let this guy into the library with his bike?”  These kinds of questions require not just library schooling, but experience.  

Experience builds common sense, street smarts, and the confidence that’s required to authoritatively answer these kinds of things.  Library school provides a theoretical foundation, an underlying direction behind decisions.  But it doesn’t help you look a patron in the eye and say, “You do know we don’t allow snacking in the library, right?”   

The traditional structure of libraries, rightly or wrongly, gives rank and authority to librarians.  It has put me in a position where I have more authority than a library assistant who’s got over a decade of experience.  It means that if there’s an incident when I close, I stay behind to talk to the police.  It means when the men’s toilet overflows on a Sunday, I get to decide if we lock up the whole bathroom.  

You need to have experience to make these decisions.  Without it, you can’t properly assess the potential fallout, or the far ranging effects. Without experience, you won’t know when to say “I’m right about this” and when to ask for advice from that library assistant who’s been here for over a decade, or the page, or the security guard.  Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

This particular combination of self-confidence and on-the-ground understanding is only built through hands-on practice.

It’s not a bad thing that there are no entry-level librarian positions.  It’s good.  It means that we’re getting librarians with the skills needed to do their jobs properly.  It means we’re getting librarians who can make better libraries, for customers and for staff.

Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

*This is all from my public librarian perspective of course.  For all I know, there are tons of entry-level academic jobs. All academic librarians do is put their feet up and read journal articles, right?

18 responses

  1. It can indeed be challenging to train up a “newbie”, but how does one get the experience to begin with? Possibly past employment in customer service, or some other problem solving type of job might count in theory, but the library jobs I have been seeing often specifically ask for 3-5 years full-time library experience, (as well as a specific skill set you could only get during aforementioned 3-5 years full-time library experience). Also, academic libraries are looking for 3-5 years full-time library experience as well, and generally require a 2nd Master’s degree. An interesting and curious conundrum. A currently full-time employed librarian that I know of was offered 6 different positions after he graduated with his M.L.I.S. The main difference between him and myself seems to be that he graduated just a few years earlier, before the economy really tanked. One could argue that to gain experience an unemployed holder of a M.L.I.S. should take any position they can in a library, but I would state they run the risk of being considered “overqualified”, or they might run into the same issue of lack of library experience.

    • Speaking from a skills-librarians-need perspective, rather than a getting-hired perspective, I think that some combination of working as a page, clerk, or LA, doing an internship or two, and maybe having done some retail,would impart the experience needed to do a librarian job.
      I agree that in our tighter economy, the amount of competition out there has made it easier for libraries to ask for candidates to meet more requirements. Employers can set a higher bar and have it met.
      As for what librarians without experience should do to get hired, well, depends on the librarian, depends on the employer. If I were looking for a job and didn’t have experience, I’d be looking at non-librarian library jobs.

  2. My mid-sized academic library hired two “entry-level” librarians last year, one in public and one in technical services. The applications that we short-listed mentioned teaching online as an adjunct, year as grad assistant in library, staff job in library, semester internship in library, or specific course projects such as including link to video tutorial or LibGuide or metadata crosswalk. One thing I like is indication that person has behind-the-scenes exposure to library, so they connect theory with day-to-day work.

  3. I think the complaint is more about the difficulty in finding positions that don’t specifically require professional experience or post-MLS experience (often two years). If you’re fresh out of library school, then you most likely don’t have “professional” library experience but you may have many years of experience in a different library position. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a new librarian to have some previous experience in a library, but I also think it’s unfortunate when employers will only accept experience at the professional level.

    • That is exactly my problem. I have 17 years of experience in an academic library, some post-MLS paraprofessional experience, a second Master’s degree but I am still not qualified because I can’t find an “entry level” professional library position that will afford me that experience. It is very frustrating.

      • You may want to take your 17 years of academic library experience and your two graduate degrees to the world of consulting, where you can often get more money and respect. Establishing yourself as a well-known, in high-demand consultant may even give you the name recognition to effectively compete for those “entry-level” librarian positions–if that is truly your end-game.

    • Yes, that is a more problematic issue.
      There are a lot of people that graduate from library school without any actual library experience, however, believe it or not. The MLIS can seem like an opportunity to easily slip into a new career just by going to school – a golden ticket for people who love being educated and want something more fulfilling.

  4. Pingback: Further Questions: Would you hire someone for a librarian position if s/he had no library experience? | Hiring Librarians

  5. I got my first postion as staff at an academic library. To get that position I worked retail selling computers for a year, volunteered at a special collections, and started a MLIS. While there I served on several hiring committees and for each staff position we had around 60 applicants. Having volunteered at a library was almost mandatory to get an interview at our library.

    After working as staff for three years, I finished my MLIS, applied for around 40 positions and within a week of finishing my MLIS was offered a professional position elsewhere. I accepted the position and moved two states away to begin working.

    The current job market for librarians is terrible. I’ve seen librarians who have remarkable experience and knowledge spend three monthes trying to find a position. You have to be able to seperate yourself from everyone else.

    In my experience for Staff Positions what makes you stand out from the 60 other people applying is having ALL of the following:
    Customer service experience.
    Library experience
    IT experience

    For professional positions the following is what I was told helped me stand out from the 70 other applications for an entry level position.
    Managerial experience.
    Speaking at professional conferences
    IT experience
    Library experience
    Developing and Leading New Library Programs/Projects.

    -A librarian in his 20’s

  6. Thanks for the attempt. For me this reads as managerial navel-gazing. The problem with telling people that they need ‘experience’ to get entry level jobs, is that ‘experience’ is not quantifiable in any systematic way- meaning in effect, that any broad advice about it is either too general to be useful, or to anecdotal to be broadly applicable. Perhaps this is why we receive so much advice on the subject, it’s like speculating on a unified field theory. Like the LA you mention, I have almost a decade of paraprofessional library experience, I’ve worked in tons of libraries, public, academic, and special in two states- usually in circulation or cataloging. I finished my M-ISLT last may, and have been looking for a job in St. Louis, MO ever since. I am currently employed at a small library with no room for advancement, although my director has offered to write me a recommendation. I already have various skill sets that are relevant to most of the jobs to which I am applying. The job market is absolutely terrible, and I frankly find it irresponsible to insinuate that my lack of professional experience is the only thing holding me back. I’ve vetted my resume, done networking, all of that.

    I like the idea of librarian solidarity (the spirit, I think, in which this article was written) and mentoring one another, imparting our experiences, etc. I am not overly fond of asking people who have already spent thousands of dollars on school to work for free. Most of us are not able to work unpaid internships, unless we are supported by a working partner, or live at home with our parents. None of us pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, not really. It always takes someone giving you a chance on your application/interview. That’s partly controllable by you the applicant, but partly it isn’t. It’s who you know, how you present yourself, and a myriad other things. The previous comment reads like sage advice, and an I-did-it-so-can-you story, which is great, but after awhile I think we need to hear the other side as well. Sure many qualified people get hired, but there are also (as Brandon mentions) ranks of highly qualified, highly motivated humans out there who may indeed be getting passed over for superficial reasons. I think that sometimes management is a little too proud of itself for raising the stakes time and again without providing much more in the way of incentive.

    • It sounds like you have experience, so I would certainly not try to insinuate that your lack of experience is holding you back.
      I agree that the job market is terrible, and that there are lots of people with all sorts of awesome skills that are getting passed over.
      I’m not a manager, by the way, so it’s just librarian navel gazing?

    • Joe K, may I ask a few questions? After almost a decade of working “in tons of libraries,” why did you even pursue an M-ISLT? You apparently managed to do just fine in the library world without one. Yes, the job market for librarians is terrible. But you should have known that before you spent time and/ or money pursuing that degree, right?

  7. I hope you were being facetious with that remark at the end about academic librarians. I was on board with you up until then. I got my “entry level” position because I have a law degree, a library degree, five years of experience as a practicing attorney, several library internships under my belt, experience working in Europe as a lawyer and doing human rights advocacy in Africa, and because I speak three languages and have basic reading understanding of several more. All (except maybe the work I did in Africa, which was unusual) were requirements for this “entry level” position.

    • I figured. 🙂 I think in academia there’s an argument to be made for prior experience outside the library… in law libraries, anyway, a JD is usually required. I can’t imagine doing my job without one, although I know a couple of reference librarians without JDs who seem to manage fine after a few years of experience. But to teach, you must have gone through law school yourself, or you’re not going to get it. And my practice experience informs my work and how I relate to the students and faculty more than anything else. I would never hire someone who hadn’t practiced or taken the bar, if I were a director… but I’m not yet. Honestly, we get a ton of applications for entry level jobs from people who have great library and law school records, but no legal practice on their resume, no substantial law experience, and only a couple of library internships. I have to wonder what a person like that is going to bring to a law school faculty position. That’s not to minimize general library skills or the skills you might gain in internships or even retail positions, but at a certain level in academia, you do need to relate to the students in faculty and have a real understanding of their substantive area. So I guess I kind of understand the hefty entry level requirements, even though they certainly don’t make it easy to find positions for which you feel qualified to apply.

  8. The problem with this is that an MLIS plus seven years paraprofessional experience does not seem to be sufficient to make the leap into professional librarianship either. You have to be a librarian to be a librarian, but to get a job being a librarian, you already have to be one, otherwise you have no professional library experience. It’s the job connecting paraprofessional + education with professional positions that we’re all looking for. That’s entry level.

    • Exactly my problem. I worked at a large academic library. I had extensive knowledge of the ILS system and technical services. But none of it matters. It’s almost like you would have been better off at an unpaid internship serving coffee because when you are a paraprofessional at an academic library you are viewed as an idiot and believed to be incapable of doing anything else. I am also good with technology (although are you really required to be an IT person as a librarian? If I had those kind of skills I would not be in librarianship. However I can do the mundane tasks that IT people are usually bothered with.

      It’s really quite ridiculous. A bit like saying that you have to be a practicing MD before you get your medical degree.

  9. I graduated over a year ago with an MLIS, have four years of customer service and am unable to get a library job. I am caught in that horrible just-graduated loop of need the experience but can’t get the experience because I can’t get a job to get the experience. I apply anyway, hoping to get an interview where I can put myself out there but nothing. It’s extremely frustrating.

    I agree with Joe’s statements “I am currently employed at a small library with no room for advancement, although my director has offered to write me a recommendation. I already have various skill sets that are relevant to most of the jobs to which I am applying. The job market is absolutely terrible, and I frankly find it irresponsible to insinuate that my lack of professional experience is the only thing holding me back. I’ve vetted my resume, done networking, all of that.”

    This is exactly my problem. I have the knowledge, my current front desk job offers zero advancement, my boss says she’ll write me a glowing recommendation but I can’t get anywhere. It’s like employers see that I work front desk admissions for a museum and look no farther and give me no chance to actually show what I know. It sucks.

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