Career Strategies for Librarians
A Permanent Alternative: Temporary, Part-Time Library Work
by Jennifer Johnston
When I entered library school in 2001, I did so with the impression that jobs would be plentiful after
graduation. I was wrong—incredibly wrong! By the time I graduated in December 2003, my husband
and I had moved to southern California, an isolated area one to two hours away from Los Angeles, Palm
Springs, or any other major city where librarian positions were bountiful. I first thought I’d commute, but
soon learned that this was not an option for this terrified-of-California-freeways librarian!
Library employment had also become more competitive. Due to the souring state budget in California,
many libraries chiseled their staff down to a bare minimum; others cancelled searches for previously
advertised positions. Those libraries able to continue their hiring process sometimes had more than
200 interested applicants.
Fortunately, I’ve found that temporary, part-time library jobs can be a good substitute until a full-time
position opens up. I now have two such positions. There are some drawbacks, but overall, this type of
work offers many advantages to librarians.
Benefits of Temporary, Part-Time Library Employment
Flexible schedules are a wonderful aspect of temporary library work. In many cases, the library will
accommodate the librarian’s availability. This flexibility offers librarians more time to attend professional
development workshops, tend to families or take a nice, lengthy vacation! My schedule has given me the
chance to do all of these things, as well as work on writing for publication.
Another great advantage to temporary work is the ability to “test out” environments. If you’ve worked or
interned at a public library but think you might like to try an academic environment, part-time employment
is an excellent option.
Temping can also be useful in better defining the type of academic library environment in which you
might like to work. For instance, with my two part-time jobs, I’ve been able to better discern the
differences between tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, and this knowledge will certainly help
me make future employment decisions.
Temporary, part-time library work also offers the perfect environment to apply the skills and knowledge
acquired in library school. I average about 300 hours at the reference desk each school quarter, and
though at times this can be tiring, I don’t know a better way to become familiar with industry ratios,
California statutes, and the Social Sciences Citation Index! At one university, I teach bibliographic
instruction to undergraduate students and have initiated several projects, including an online
bibliography of the library’s art prints and a faculty book exhibit. These activities have certainly helped
strengthen my resume and solidify my love of librarianship.
And the Disadvantages
Temporary jobs can sometimes impede professional progress if your position is in only one area of the
library. For example, I sometimes worry that my reference duties keep me from learning other areas of
librarianship, such as collection development, acquisitions, or management. However, you can
overcome this limitation by working with your supervisor to see if there are any projects available to
expand your current role. You can also think up your own project ideas to present to your supervisor
when you feel comfortable.
Another disconcerting factor is feeling “out of the loop.” Because a part-time schedule might include
erratic shifts—working three hours one day, eight hours the next, then having two weeks off for a quarter
break—it’s very easy to feel excluded from communication among regular library staff. One way to stay
on top of things and feel more involved is to subscribe to your library’s news forum, if they have one. Also
inquire whether your email can be included in essential messages to library staff.
The biggest disadvantage to temporary, part-time work is the little security it provides. Often there are no
benefits such as health insurance, sick and vacation leave, or paid retirement. (One exception is being
hired through a staffing agency, which does sometimes offer benefits to employees). Most part-time
employees are also not reimbursed for attending professional development classes or conferences,
placing a taxing strain on the librarian who has to dip into his or her own pocket to attend these
functions. There are also no guarantees that your job will be there next year, or even next month.
Because of the bleak financial situation in California, my position at one university was in jeopardy; they
have since found funding to re-hire me next fall, but who knows if I’ll dodge the next budget bullet!
How to Nab These Positions
Although there were no full-time jobs available, I found myself in an extremely fortunate situation when I
graduated from library school: the institution I had interned at during my last semester offered me a
position from their part-time pool after another librarian left. It was simply good timing. So when I
decided to look for another part-time job in addition to my present one, I didn’t know where to begin. After
several months, I finally realized some methods are better than others when scouting for this type of
Though they are a good resource when looking for other professional jobs, newspaper classifieds rarely
contain advertisements for part-time librarians. Library employment web sites, like Rachel Singer
Gordon’s Lisjobs.com, sometimes include temporary part-time work - but I’ve found the best place to
start is by going to libraries’ individual web sites. Do a web search to compile a list of local public,
academic, and special library home pages - or save some time by using Libweb.com, where much of
the work has been done for you.
Keep in mind that you can also contact libraries directly and inquire whether they need part-time
assistance. I know several people who have successfully done this. Staffing agencies are another
alternative; they usually hire librarians for temporary assignments. Most agencies are in larger cities,
though, so if you’re as geographically challenged as I was, this won’t be the best option.
They certainly aren’t for everyone, but temporary part-time jobs can be invaluable for the flexibility offered,
contacts made, and experience gained.
For those graduating from library school or making a career shift, this type of work presents
opportunities to experiment with different types of library environments or build upon skills and
knowledge already acquired. Part-time employment also outnumbers full-time positions in many areas,
making it a viable option for many librarians—especially if the full-time jobs are a hundred miles away.
About the Author:
Jennifer Johnston works as a part-time reference librarian at both California State University in San
Bernardino and Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga. Visit her website at www.
Article published August 2004
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