Career Strategies for Librarians
International Librarianship: Getting There from Here
by Robin Kear
Working as a librarian abroad can be a thrilling, wonderful, eye-opening experience. If you are so
inclined to pursue this unique brand of librarianship, please let me be your guide. There are many ways
to find a librarian position overseas, whether you are looking for a short-term experience or a long-term
lifestyle. My own foray into international librarianship was a six-month United Nations internship last year
in Nairobi, Kenya.
I would like to share lessons learned and tips that will make you marketable. Then you can find yourself
leaving friends, family, and everything you know behind, and flying off to your dream job in East Timor.
Okay, maybe not East Timor, but some other place you dream about, like Thailand or France.
Before You Go
Decide if this type of lifestyle is right for you. It may be better for you to start off with a short-term
experience abroad before jumping into that job at the American Embassy in India. Ask yourself these
basic questions: Do you enjoy traveling? Do you dream of cultures and places you haven’t seen? Can
you be alone? Does your home library include any used (read: well-thumbed and dirty) Lonely Planet
books? Do you find yourself saying ‘oh, I want to go there or see that’ when someone is describing a
faraway place? Are you comfortable in unknown places and situations?
Talk to those you know who have lived abroad and ask what they thought of the experience. Practice
armchair traveling or do the real thing. Read the regular feature “Jobs of a Lifetime” published in College
& Research Libraries News; the jobs are often international in nature. Read the library journals of other
countries and look up their national associations. Shadow an international librarianship listserv. In the
end, listen to your heart and intuition. Can living and working abroad as a librarian make you happy?
Skills That Will Help You Get the Job
Generally, the type of person willing to apply for a job overseas is the type of person who will do well in
the environment. In some situations, those doing the hiring do not actually meet the candidate; it is
prohibitively expensive to fly your top two picks halfway around the globe. Therefore, it is necessary to sell
yourself well in your email, Web site, resume, cover letter, and, hopefully, your resultant phone interview.
For international organizations based in the United States, you are more likely to have the chance for a
Knowledge of a foreign language or two is very helpful. Although much of the world uses English as a
common language, an aptitude for learning languages is a definite plus. The specific language
necessary depends on where you want to go. For example, the official languages of the United Nations
are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Unofficially, the true working languages are
English, French, and Spanish. Because of colonization, trade, and imperialism, many countries around
the world use English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese as first, second, or third languages.
Those hiring should perceive that you are internationally minded. Explain why you want to work abroad
and what in your background prepares you to be successful. Evidence of travel outside the United States
is an indication that you enjoy new cultures and would stay in the position if hired. Demonstrated
knowledge of international politics, concerns, perceptions, and issues will also show that you are
interested in life outside the United States. Join IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations
and Institutions), ISKO (International Society for Knowledge Organization), and/or the ALA-IRRT
(American Library Association International Relations Round Table).
You should have some library experience, whether it is professional or para-professional. Navigating the
profession is hard enough without learning new cultures, customs, and languages at the same time.
Many times you are the representative of the entire American library profession so you need to have a
feel for the profession as a whole. If you work in a developing country, you will need to apply practical,
basic library and organizational skills. Knowledge of how things were done before our current
technological age is helpful if your library can’t afford computers and Internet access.
Getting Your Feet Wet
I consider positions of less than one year to be short-term experiences. Examples of this type of are
internships, library exchanges, travel provided through grants, and some academic cruise ships. If you
are creative and perseverant, some grants will allow you to travel to libraries abroad in the name of
Some places to look for short-term positions:
IFLA LIBJOBS listserv: http://www.ifla.org/II/lists/libjobs.htm
This listserv lists international jobs, some permanent and others short-term. This is where I found the
posting for my internship in Kenya.
World Library Partnership: http://worldlibraries.org/itw/southafrica/saprogram.shtml
This is a 4-week volunteer program, usually in the summer. In 2004, volunteers will be working in South
Africa. Note: This is an unpaid experience. “Since 1998, 125 volunteers have worked with many libraries
in Zimbabwe, Honduras and South Africa.”
Librarian Exchanges: http://www.cilip.org.uk/jobs_careers/libex.html and http://www.ala.
The first URL is a librarian exchange program facilitated by the British group, Chartered Institute of
Library and Information Professionals, and the second URL is the exchange committee of ALA-IRRT.
Both sites have useful links and ways to look for funding.
Internships: http://www.idealist.org and http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/internships.htm
Although unpaid and airfare is usually not included, internships are a great short-term work experience.
Food and board are sometimes included and you may be able to negotiate terms. You have to decide if it
is worth it for you. Idealist.org lists many opportunities and the United Nations accepts applications from
students. During library school, the end of your program is a great time to apply.
Foundation Center: http://www.fdncenter.org/collections/
The Foundation Center is a good place to start looking for grants. They have useful information on their
site and the URL above lists libraries around the U.S. that have cooperating collections. The libraries
listed will have full access to the Foundation Center database and supplemental materials.
University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea: http://www.semesteratsea.com/
The University of Pittsburgh’s worldwide cruising program hires an assistant librarian each semester
but you must have professional experience. (The librarian comes from the University.)
Diving In Headfirst
Are you ready to be an expat (expatriate)? This is employment of an indefinite duration that indicates a
lifestyle choice. Examples of this type are positions in the military, Foreign Service, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), United Nations, universities with international campuses, and foreign
universities. Internationally, our kind of job is listed as researcher, information manager, and other titles,
not just as librarian.
Some places to look for long-term positions:
IFLA LIBJOBS listserv: http://www.ifla.org/II/lists/libjobs.htm
This is a good place to find out about long-term positions, as they are posted and available. International
employers commonly use this listserv to recruit candidates.
United Nations Secretariat: https://jobs.un.org/release1/vacancy/vacancy.asp
Librarian jobs are listed under Information Management. The UN classification for jobs is G=general,
FS=Field Service, P=professional, D=director. For example, P starts with P-1, professional level one, and
goes to P-5, professional level five; the pay scale goes up accordingly. (Always apply for the “P”
positions, not the “G” ones. If you enter the UN system as a G it is almost impossible to move to P.)
Jobs at NGOs: http://www.careerframes.com/links_main_intl/ngo_links.htm
This Web site is a good place to start looking for jobs in the big NGOs like the World Bank, IMF, OECD,
and NATO. They also have international jobs listed by country and type. There are also many smaller
NGOs not listed here that look for researchers and information managers. Try http://www.idealist.org for
jobs and internships at smaller non-profits in the U.S. and around the world.
Civilian Jobs in the Military: http://jobsearch.usajobs.opm.gov/
Searching USAJOBS can be tricky, but they do have a location search called “Throughout the World” that
will list all civilian jobs available internationally in the military and other government agencies.
Foreign Service: http://www.careers.state.gov/
While these jobs are tangentially related to librarianship, our skills are transferable for the public
diplomacy track where officers manage cultural and information programs. You will need to pass the
Foreign Service exam, oral assessment, background check, and medical clearance to be eligible to
serve around the world.
Peace Corps: http://www.peacecorps.gov
This is the old stand-by for a rewarding international experience. A two-year volunteer commitment is
required. “Peace Corps Volunteers work in the following areas: education, youth outreach, and
community development; health and HIV/AIDS; agriculture and environment; business development; and
information technology.” While there is not a specific library category, many skills gained in the Peace
Corps are transferable to our profession.
International Librarianship in Academe:
Look in the Chronicle of Higher Education for jobs abroad with universities. International positions are
also listed with ALA. University jobs abroad are listed on the IFLA LIBJOBS listserv (see above).
International Schools Service provides recruitment for over 200 schools and corporations around the
Ways to Get There
The United Nations offers a shortcut into its professional level positions known as the National
Competitive Recruitment Examinations Programme. You must be under 32 years old to compete and
your country and profession must be under-represented in the UN to be eligible. For the last three years,
the United States and librarianship has been under-represented and therefore eligible for the NCRE. If
you pass the written test and interview, you are placed on a list of qualified applicants for professional
librarian positions and almost guaranteed to receive the jobs as they open.
If you do want a professional job in the United States before pursuing an international career, there are
things you can do to prepare. Look for libraries that have exchange programs with sister libraries
abroad. Universities often have a relationship with one or more foreign learning institutions. Look for a
job that allows time flexibility; academic tenure often allows you to take a semester off for research.
Universities usually offer in-house grants to faculty for professional development.
Keep your eyes open. A librarian job open aboard the Queen Mary II or at the McMurdo Station in
Antarctica may come once in a lifetime.
Things to Keep in Mind
Living in a foreign country is not all wonderful experiences and friendly people. The choice to work
internationally leaves you without a country. Everything familiar disappears, and you miss it terribly at
first, but eventually your new surroundings become your home. It is hard to sustain a marriage and
family unless your partner has the same type of job or is willing to wait for you to finish your crazy
adventures. There is much poverty and suffering in the world and as a resident, not a tourist, you are
more likely to see and be affected by these.
There are many dangerous places in the world. Safety is always an issue for strangers in a strange
land, but especially for Americans. Americans and Europeans do end up as targets for the outlet of
negative feelings towards Western culture, sometimes justifiably so. That being said, places are almost
never as bad as the outsider imagines them to be. People still live their daily lives and if you are open,
courteous, and respectful of custom, most likely no harm will ever come to you.
If you work abroad in a developing country, your technology skills may not stay up to date. Sometimes it
seemed like I had taken a step backward; CD-ROM’s are still a relevant technology, Internet access is
usually spotty and painfully slow, governmental infrastructure is inadequate, and power outages are
common. Many of the developed countries “hot, new” technologies will completely sidestep some
places in the world.
Choosing to live and work in Kenya was the best thing I ever did and I highly recommend the experience.
With an international job or internship as a home base, you will be able to travel to new places, meet
new cultures, hear new languages, and experience something extraordinary every day. Some things are
a given: you will use your library skills to help others, you will be an outsider looking in, you will contribute
to others’ perception of America, and you will be changed in ways you never imagined. The rest is up to
United Nations National Competitive Recruitment Exam: http://www.un.org/Depts/OHRM/examin/exam.
Jobs of a Lifetime: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlissues/acrlrecruiting/recruitingprofession.htm
International Librarianship listservs: http://www.ala.org/ala/iro/iroactivities/discussionlists.htm
Idealist.org, international organizations, consultancies, jobs and internships listed: http://www.idealist.
About the Author
Robin Kear is currently a reference librarian at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Related
article: "A Librarian in Nairobi" p. 10: http://slisweb.sjsu.
edu/people/alumni/news_events/newsletters/AN5_1.pdf. Check out her blog of Africa experiences: http:
Article published June 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.