Overcoming the “Lack of Experience” Factor
by Genny Carter

Starting all over again near the bottom of the professional career ladder, especially after many years in
another profession, presents a definite challenge. Despite all the discussion about the “graying of the
profession,” in reality the job market for librarians is fairly tight in most places. In the current economic
climate, it is likely to become even tighter as those in charge of funding seek ways to stretch their
budgets. A quick survey of library publications reveals situations such as the Mesa (Arizona) Public
School District laying off 87 teacher-librarians, or the Bridgeport (Connecticut) mayor proposing a 25%
cut in the library budget. For those with little or no previous library work experience, getting relevant,
worthwhile experience is crucial. Prospective librarians can succeed in this difficult climate with some
extra effort, creative planning, and networking.

Previous Non-Library Experience

Let me summarize my pre-library career to provide context for my efforts to compensate for my lack of
library experience. For fifteen years, I was a teacher.  I taught Spanish and history in public high schools
for nine years, followed by four years of high-energy, activity-laden elementary school Spanish and two
years as a teaching assistant in history at a university.  

Like many public school teachers, I burned out. I actually burned out twice. The first time, after five years
of high school teaching while I was still in my twenties, I took a job at a Club Med in Mexico for a while. I
followed that with a couple of years of nonprofit youth outreach work, two years of graduate school in
history, and four years of teaching elementary school Spanish. Family issues necessitated a move back
to my home state of Tennessee and a return to public high school teaching. I love to teach, and with no
false modesty, I will assert that I am a very good teacher. However, as the school got rougher, fights in
the hall more numerous, and the ineffective bureaucracy more frustrating, I decided to change careers –
while I still had the energy, the desire, and the courage to start over.

Creating Library Experience

My original plan upon beginning my Master’s in Information Sciences was to become an academic
reference librarian. Academia beckoned with an intellectual challenge that I had missed and the
promise of a safer, if still bureaucratic, working environment. While I realized that my teaching ability and
my ability to speak Spanish were – and still are – marketable skills, I also recognized that I had no library
work experience at all. In order to compete for a job upon graduation, I needed to spend the two years of
my degree program acquiring as much relevant experience and knowledge as I could, meeting and
learning from a wide variety of librarians.   

Most LIS programs provide guidance and facilitate opportunities for their students to work in libraries. By
nature and calling, most librarians want to help people find the information and resources that they
need. Seek them out – and ask!  The graduate program I attended at the University of Tennessee
encourages students to get out of the classroom and to get practical, meaningful experience. While I
was a student, I completed two fantastic practicum semesters at Vanderbilt University – one in reference
and one in government information at the main undergraduate library. My academic libraries class
required us to write a real-life style grant application, so I consulted another local college, Belmont
University, and interviewed people there for the project.  I worked with the Country Music Hall of Fame
and Museum on a project for my collection development class. For my digital libraries class, I worked
with a sheet music collection at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA). I also worked 10
hours per week as a student digitization assistant at the UT library on an IMLS grant project. In each
instance, I gained practical, résumé- and interview-worthy experience as well as valuable knowledge
from the people with whom I had the opportunity to work.  

In addition to projects, part-time jobs, practicums, and volunteering, my involvement in state and national
professional organizations proved to be a critical element in my success in finding both my first and
second library positions. Significantly lower student membership rates make it less expensive to explore
diverse library organizations while you are in graduate school. My interests led me to the Tennessee
Library Association (TLA) as well as the American Library Association (ALA) and several of its parts: the
New Members Round Table (NMRT), the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), and the
Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). I read (or at least skimmed) all the publications I
received as a member of these organizations. Looking at the job announcements I found there gave me
a good idea of what I needed to do to build a compelling résumé.  

Conferences are a fantastic place to encounter people who are great sources of information on the
latest trends and issues in the library world and are also very willing to help young professionals. I went
to the TLA and ALA conferences and met more incredible people, and learned not only from the people
and the programs, but also from the exhibits and the host cities. Find committees that match your
interests and volunteer. ALA’s New Members Round Table, as the name indicates, is especially
welcoming to students and new librarians.  One of my mentors at Vanderbilt recommended me for an
internship with the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Telecommunications for ALA's Committee on Legislation,
which proved to be a tremendous opportunity to learn about important issues, participate in the process,
and observe first-hand how ALA committees work.

Synergy and Serendipity

You never know which of your experiences, and which of the connections you make, will lead you to a
position. In my case, several converged to pave the way for my first library job, which was working on a
statewide IMLS grant digitization project. I met a librarian who worked at our state library through our
mutual involvement with TLA, the state library association. As we discussed digitization projects, and my
student job, he mentioned that the state library was going to be involved with an upcoming statewide
digital libraries grant project. A few days later, he emailed and asked me to send him my résumé, which
he gave to the assistant state archivist, Wayne Moore, who soon went to a planning meeting for the
statewide IMLS grant. At that meeting, Dr. Moore encountered five people who already knew me – one of
my professors, two people from my student digitization grant job, one from my practicum work at
Vanderbilt, and one from TLA. I'm glad they had nice things to say about me!

A few weeks later, Dr. Moore invited me to the state library to learn about the upcoming grant, which led
to the opportunity to do my digital libraries class project there. A few months later, he offered me my first
professional library position – the new IMLS digitization grant job, with the title "digitization and content
specialist" and a rank of assistant professor. Even though I was based at the state library, I was
employed officially by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and I had the opportunity to travel around
for several months to dozens of libraries, museums, and archives and scan their historical treasures. It
was a fabulous learning experience, and one that allowed me to meet many librarians, archivists, and
other interesting people.  

Serendipity? Yes, to some extent I benefited from being in the right places at the right time. But my
experiences as a student had set the stage for the entire chain of events to unfold.

My efforts in obtaining that all-important library experience provided me with much more than a list of
items to fill my cover letter and résumé.  As my time on the grant came to an end, several people whom I
had met through my job and through associations contacted me about new positions, often before they
were posted.  The informal network of friends and acquaintances that I had built (and continue to build)
proved its value once more. Even as my first job in the library world ended, it provided me with the
experience and contacts that led to my current position at the Tennessee State Library and Archives,
where I now work as the public relations and data coordinator. Although I trained to be an academic
librarian, I'm excited about the possibilities I have to work with public libraries throughout my state and
the opportunities I'll have to develop new skills and connections that will prepare me for my next position
... whenever and wherever that may be.  

Seek Out Opportunities

Any good LIS program should encourage you to get out into the library world outside the university – so
take advantage of it! I believe the key is to seek out opportunities to learn from people both within and
outside of your university program. Use practicums, projects, part-time jobs, and volunteering to explore
and discover the types of environments and professional work that you enjoy. Make connections –
network. Seek out mentors who can advise you and clue you in on those things you don't find in
textbooks. Keep an open mind. Ask questions.  Keep a positive attitude, be flexible, and be willing to
consider alternatives to any one prescribed career path. The jobs are out there, but they just might not be
where you think you'll find them.  

About the Author:

Genny Carter is the Public Relations and Data Coordinator at the Tennessee State Library and Archives
in Nashville, Tennessee.

Article published June 2008

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors
Career Strategies for Librarians