Career Strategies for Librarians
How I Got My Dream Library Job
by Ignacio J. Ferrer-Vinent
I am in my fifth month of my new job as a tenure-track science reference/instruction librarian at an
academic library. As it turns out, this is exactly the type of position I wanted. How did I get my dream
job? It was not easy. It was not direct. It followed a tortuous path that began when I made a career
change and started library school.
Choose the area of librarianship and type of library
As I took my first library school course, I knew that being an information broker was my goal. After all, I
enjoyed searching for information, and it would be nice to be my own boss. However, it soon became
clear to me that information brokering was going to take more than that: business skills, marketing,
networking, etc. This was not why I went into librarianship.
Public librarianship was my next goal. Having spent many hours at my local library, I knew that public
libraries are large repositories of important information. Unfortunately, the thought of being asked trivia
questions by some patrons, using the Dewey Decimal System, or even worse, trying to fulfill the
demands of children terrified me.
Narrowing my choices down to either special or academic was the next obvious step. I had three library-
related part-time jobs while going to school, which meant I was almost working full-time. Two positions
were in academic libraries, which I enjoyed, but I wondered if I was missing something by not having
exposure to a special library setting.
I did two independent studies in special library settings: in one I worked with reference at a prestigious
special science library; in the other, I cataloged a private collection of marketing resources for a
university professor. Both were enjoyable and interesting. I learned a lot, and these two experiences
served me well on my resume. It was possible that I might have found my niche: special libraries. But
was I sure? After all, I liked my part-time jobs at academic libraries.
To be sure of my decision, I requested a practicum at the busiest academic reference desk in the state
(serving about 46,000 students for three institutions of higher learning, from vocational through Ph.D.
programs), which would give me significant academic library experience. Not only did I want to try
reference, but I also wanted to interact with subject specialists, to consult with the science and
engineering bibliographer, and to be exposed to bibliographic instruction. This practicum was lots of
work but a great experience. I loved the work and the setting. This was it for me!
Making other experiences count
I have briefly explained how I used self-reflection, internship, independent study, and a practicum to
decide what I wanted to do with my library degree. But really, the question is: how do you get your dream
Course work, Presentations, and Publications
I tried to make courses work for me and, in fact, to make them count twice. In practically every class I
took, I prepared at least one large project with a paper and a class presentation. And, of course, I also
did an M.L.I.S. capstone project and paper. These projects were a great source of insight for me into
different aspects of librarianship and guided me to discover my preferences in the field. I tried not to pick
the most expedient project, but rather something that interested me or that could be useful to my local
library, my school, or librarians in general. To make the projects count twice throughout my time at
library school, I chose the best among them and presented one each year at the state library association
conference. I also recommend seeing if you can get any of your papers published. Presentations,
poster sessions, and publications all count as fodder for your resume in addition to giving you
experience. In the academic library setting, that can give you the little extra “plus” you need when
competing for an entry level position.
Library assistant work experience
It is difficult to get a library job, period. It is almost impossible without any on-the-job experience,
especially if you are restricted geographically or by field preference, as I chose to be. One way to obtain
hands-on experience is to get part-time library work. As I mentioned before, I was lucky enough to find a
couple of academic library jobs while in school. Neither of these was completely related to what I do
now; however, through these jobs I obtained experience in library automation systems, circulation, ILL,
technical services, and cataloging. I learned a lot about government documents, law materials, and
general reference. When I began, my responsibilities were very menial; by the end of my years in those
jobs, I was doing librarian work. So don’t be afraid to accept higher responsibility in your part-time or
temporary library jobs – it will pay off.
One more item that I mention with hesitation – volunteering. I never did it. I felt that the work done by
volunteers in most libraries should be done by a paid person. I do know of some students who used
this avenue successfully to gain experience or to obtain a job. Just do not become a permanent
Temporary librarian work
Sometimes it is difficult to find the job you want in any field. In my case, I was looking for a reference
librarian job in an academic setting in my own fiscally challenged metropolitan area. Many advertised
librarian positions had a stream of 100-200 applicants. If you have mobility and “pickiness” problems
like I did, you might be forced to take temporary positions for a while (see “From Temporary to
Permanent – Making the Best of Your Time as a Temp” by Rachel Bridgewater). I kept my best part-time
library assistant job while I looked for a librarian job. Luckily, the head of reference from my practicum
setting offered me a 10 hour per week temporary job at their reference desk. This temporary position
kept being renewed every year. Finally, university finances and attrition in the department made it
possible for the library to open a permanent position. I applied and was hired!
Yes, you have to deal with co-workers. As a matter of fact, you have to interact with them daily. In your
part-time or temporary jobs, try to get along with your co-workers and do not alienate them. Try to make
friends, or to at least be civil. Do not be drawn into gossip. There is no magic to this advice, nor is it self-
serving; this is the way everyone should conduct themselves in any job. People should get along. It will
make life at work more pleasant and productive for everyone. It may also bring you positive comments if
you ask your supervisor or a co-worker to write you a letter of reference later.
To be honest, networking is not one of my strong suits. However, attending conferences and
participating in association work are great ways to see librarians, get to know them, and have them get
to know you. Join professional groups in your area of interest and those associated with your part-time
or temporary positions. Go to their meetings and talk to others with similar interests. Most associations
offer student memberships at highly reduced rates.
All those degrees
Academic libraries usually want candidates with dual degrees: MLIS (or equivalent) and another
graduate degree in a separate discipline. Just having those degrees does not mean you are a shoo-in
for any job, but it does not hurt. For me, it took a while to get my dream job even with those degrees.
After reading all this advice, you might feel overwhelmed – it may seem there are too many things to do
to get where you want to be. Don’t be discouraged. Most of these ideas complement each other and
can be done almost seamlessly and at the same time.
You want to be a librarian, so you’ll have to go to library school. While in school, make use of
coursework, internships, independent studies, and practicums to learn what you like and dislike and to
gain desired experience. Don’t just accept any class assignment, but rather try to anticipate and create
your own to fit your needs and interests. Coursework is not just for grades, but also to learn something
new. Make use of class projects and your capstone or thesis to publish and present while still in
school. Most of these experiences can be added to your resume.
Add further experience to your resume by working part-time in libraries while going to school. Become
friends with your co-workers.
And if you are not mobile or you are picky, be patient. You’ll get there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ignacio J. Ferrer-Vinent is the Science Reference/Instruction Librarian at Auraria Library in Denver,
Colorado. He received his M.L.I.S. from The University of Denver and his M.S. and Ph.D. in physical
chemistry from The University of Miami.