Career Strategies for Librarians
Surviving Jobs You Loathe
by Timothy Ferguson
It is not inevitable that, at some point in your career, you will have a job you loathe, but many library
students and graduates have a story about the terrible jobs they did before what they are doing now. In
recent discussion on the ALIA New Grad list, the correspondents hammered out the strategy that forms
the basis of this article. No method that will work for everyone: but several of the correspondents have
followed a similar program to change their situations, and others might find it useful.
Check that the job is the problem
As an initial precaution, make sure that it is the job which has you down, and that you aren’t depressed
in a medical sense. Depression is one of the most common medical conditions among white-collar
workers. If you are suffering depression based on something other than environmental stress, no
amount of changing the job you are in, or changing jobs, will affect how you feel.
Work out what you want
Many library students don’t have a clear idea of what section of the industry they want to work in, and
therefore take jobs after graduation based on factors other than their enjoyment of the work they’ll be
doing. This isn’t a terrible thing, but it’s a choice that needs to be made consciously, so that new
graduates are not shocked by the difference between what most library students are trained for and what
most new graduates actually do.
This discrepancy between their training and tasks can demoralise new librarians. Most graduates are
highly-trained, idealistic individuals. Most entry-level library jobs are menial and clerical roles performed
by rote. The process of evaluating branches of the industry, then deciding which interests you, may help
stave off early dissatisfaction.
Decide where you want to be
Early in your career, empowerment can come from deciding where you want to be, and what you are
willing to do to get there. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to work in a field of librarianship that
doesn’t interest you, or in a role that doesn’t fulfill you. This, of itself, won’t make your job soul-crushing.
The mistake to avoid is drifting into parts of the profession where you do work that you hate, with no clear
idea of where to go next.
The author works in a predominantly agrarian state in Australia, where new library graduates can be
divided into three groups: employed paraprofessionals formalising their qualification before seeking
promotion; those who stick to the cities as temporary workers until they get a break; and those who go to
tiny country towns to get their break. How happy the average member of each group is, it can be
suggested on an anecdotal basis, depends not on their employment, but on their planning.
The three groups described above have obvious differences in terms of their satisfaction. The group
with the highest morale are the paraprofessionals, who have a job and a plan. They may not like their
current job much, but they have experience and a newly-minted degree, and they seem as a group to
think that things will work out in time. The urban temporary workers seem to be the middle group; they
don’t have secure employment, but they aren’t stuck in jobs they hate either. The group with the lowest
morale are those who drift into the bush towns because they need a job, rather than because they want
to work in small towns, and then feel stuck and hopeless. It’s interesting to note that just having a
stable job isn’t enough for some rural library workers, who move back to the cities in casual or
temporary roles. It’s also interesting to note that librarians doing identical work who know they are going
bush for a year before going back to the city seem happier with their work.
To recap: it’s important to decide on where you want to be, and how you want to get there. This gives a
sense of control and a glimmer of hope if your job turns out to be soul-destroying.
Several of the respondents on the mailing list described a similar mental strategy for dealing with their
job, which I’ll call dissociation. Dissociation is a strategy that lets you survive your loathsome job now,
while you are working on one of the other strategies to ameliorate its soul-crushing properties. It
involves entering a mental state where your hands are continuing to perform your tasks with very
minimal supervision by your brain, so that your attention can wander to a more pleasant subject.
This strategy seems to work best for people who are creative but disciplined, because they can distract
themselves by planning lengthy processes. Examples include laying out thesis chapters, composing
poetry, and working out dinner recipes for the rest of the week. This process can also involve
daydreaming about football, naval battles and women – or so I’ve heard.
If you know you are going to be using a lot of dissociation to get through your working days, you should
prepare, because the strategy can stall when you are too bored to think of anything to daydream about.
Read avidly. Collect tasks to ponder. If you listen to the radio at work, choose a channel with stimulating
commentators rather than music. You can tell how well dissociation is going by how much time has
passed between your glances at the clock.
Attempt to change the job
This solution is the simplest one, so it’s likely the one you tried before you read this article. How you can
change your job is such a workplace-specific process that this article really can’t guide you, beyond
noting that you should ask a senior staff member in your organisation to give you ideas.
Attempt to love the job
People can love the most bizarre and unpleasant jobs. If your job is bizarre and unpleasant, perhaps
you are just mad enough to like it. I’m going to go autobiographical on you in the next paragraph, but
there’s a moral.
My soul-crushing job was working as an inserter in a newspaper printery. The work was horrible: injuries
so common as to be inevitable, lifting heavy weights for hours on end, night shift work that destroyed
your social life, work performed in the social isolation of hearing protection. Some of my co-workers
loved it. One I recall, named Tracey, explained her love of the job to me. She was a single mother, and
her son was kindergarten age. Our job allowed her to be financially independent and to be home when
her boy was. She was saving to go to technical college when her son was primary school age. Our job
gave her the money to solve her immediate problems, a sense that she was doing right by her son, and
hope for a better job later. Even with the pulled muscles, paper-cut tattoos and pandemic caffeine
abuse, she loved the job which I hated so much that ten years later I’m writing an article about how bad it
Here’s the moral that was promised earlier: if you can find a way to convince yourself that your job is
laudable and leads to better things, you learn you can stand it. How do garbage men stand being
garbage men? They tell themselves “It’s good money, and gives me plenty of time for fishing” -- at
least, mine does. Try to find a fresh way of looking at your work that makes it both important and part of
your progress to something better.
A recent survey in Australia indicates that slightly over 20% of the workforce has downshifted during their
career. This strategy is less popular in the United States where a majority of this website’s readers are,
so a brief review may be useful. It might also explain to more experienced graduates why they hate their
Downshifting is the technical term for the act of taking a job that pays less but allows greater social
benefits, like more family or recreational time. Downshifting in Australia is closely linked to seachanging
(the accelerating habit of baby boomers to move from the urban areas to regional coastal areas), but the
two are separable, and downshifting is an important strategy in pyramidal industries like librarianship.
Librarianship, as an industry, rewards competence with boredom and money rather than enjoyable
tasks. Most graduates enter the profession because they are social people who like interacting with
others. As a librarian becomes more accomplished, they spend an increasing amount of time
performing managerial tasks, until many of the finest librarians spend only tiny slivers of their working
week interacting with the clients that attracted them into the industry. Many find that they have no solid
training in management, or that their skills are rusty, because there has been a lengthy break between
their degree and their assumption of managerial roles.
Dr Lauren Peter, a Canadian sociologist, first described this situation in The Peter Principle, in which he
suggested that every employee tends to rise to a level where they lack competence and then stay there
until they burn out. His prescription was that people should choose to do jobs that were a few steps
below their level of competence, and if they were already above their competence level, that they should
step back down the ladder. Downshifting is precisely this response, if you accept the desire to put up
with long hours of boring work as a competency.
Downshifting is particularly important for graduates testing out the industry. To move between the
branches of the industry, it is sometimes useful to drop down a rung. It’s one way of fleeing a soul-
crushing job without leaving the industry.
Take a break
A final strategy suggested on the list was leaving the industry for a time. This doesn’t help you compile
the three, or five, or ten years’ experience many selection criteria request, but if it’s your sanity or your
job, there’s nothing wrong with retreating from the industry until a position you prefer becomes vacant.
When temporarily leaving the industry, it’s useful to move into a field where you use skills that relate to
the type of librarianship you’d like to be doing when you come back. This can vary enormously, from IT
support through customer service to childcare – the goal is to develop the sorts of transferable skills
which librarians with more direct career paths have not developed, so that you are distinctive and
competitive in later selection processes.
The strategy provided above has the following stages:
Work out what you want, and how to get it.
Survive for now: dissociate and pamper.
Try to change the job: ask a mentor how.
Try to love the job: find a way to see it as noble.
Take a pay cut if you need to: shift down or across if you need to.
Leave the industry if you must: become distinctive while you are gone.
About the Author:
Timothy Ferguson (MB(AdM), BA (Hons (Hist)), Gdip(Info Stud)) is an Australian librarian who has
temped in all sorts of places, gone bush and recently moved to Gold Coast Library Service to take up a
position for new graduates in a downshift. He’s writing a thesis on net fanfic libraries and a book on
13th century Italian folklore. His soul-crushing jobs involved newspapers and fruit.
Article published March 2004
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.