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.
*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?