Career Strategies for Librarians
What I Wish I Had Learned in Library School: A Public Librarian’s Perspective
by Nancy Larrabee
I am proud to be a library school graduate. My education gave me strong research skills, a chance to
network with other people interested in the same field, and a foundation in the principles and philosophy
of our profession.
However, fourteen years later, as I look back on my career as a public librarian, I would say there are
certain key areas such as scheduling, collection development, budgeting, troubleshooting office
equipment and computers, and customer service that should be more fully integrated in a library school
education. Granted, the educational format has changed greatly due to web resources since I received
my master’s degree back in 1993. But as long as there are public libraries, librarians will face these
New librarians need to bring some viable skills to the table. To this end, library schools need to update
their curricula every semester in order to stay current and useful.
There is too much competition for our users’ attention these days. They are accustomed to customer-
centered experiences with large bookstore chains, so we must also provide excellent service when they
come to the library. What does good service entail? How do you teach service? Excellent customer
service does come instinctively to some people; others must work at it. For some insight and advice,
take a look at Fresh Customer Service by Michael Brown (Acanthus, 2007).
An important part of reference work is knowing how to welcome patrons to the library. Librarians should
not be busy talking to their colleagues with their backs to the door.
Teachers in library school should stress the importance of good customer service. For example, they
could ask students to write a paper comparing customer service in a variety of industries. They could
also use role-playing exercises that focus not on the answer to the question, but on how the student
would plan to deliver the answer.
Attention to detail and follow-up are two key components of good customer service. Learning how to
connect a patron with information is important. Making sure patrons go away satisfied, knowing more
than when they came in, is another important facet of good service. New librarians need to learn to
pursue questions further so they can provide more detailed and thorough answers. A librarian’s pursuit
of knowledge should not end with the patron leaving the library. A new librarian could jot down the
questions he or she is asked in a notebook to do additional research or to discuss with more
As I have learned over the years, there are very few original questions. Questions have the tendency to
get repeated in various ways by patrons, so a librarian could ask follow-up questions to better
understand the intent of the question. However, there is a fine line between providing excellent service
and being too intrusive in patrons’ lives.
Customer service has to be emphasized more in library school or we as librarians will fail to get patrons
in the door to the library.
Librarians truly need to compete with the Geek Squad. When I have a hand inside the copier searching
for the stray piece of paper that has been jamming the machine all day, I think to myself, “I sure never
learned this in library school!” We have to be the experts at knowing how the library’s machines work.
Patrons will not be impressed if you say, ”Sorry, no can do.” Also, service calls can get expensive, so it
will benefit you and your library if you know how to make basic repairs yourself.
Teachers in library school need to emphasize this nuts-and-bolts approach, and librarians must
maintain this attitude throughout their careers.
Computers stall, go blank, and freeze. Librarians need to be able to handle these problems
competently. Patrons look to the librarian as the authority—the one to turn to. You cannot let the patron
down. As more of our reference materials go online, our reliance on the web increases, and computers
become more and more of a vital link. When a computer does not work and the librarian is unable to
solve the problem, the patron will go elsewhere to continue searching the web.
A librarian should keep up with technology by taking advantage of the resources available online. Read
blogs; ask for help via Google. Most likely, someone else has been in a similar situation, and finding out
what worked for them could lead you to a solution for your problem.
It has also surprised me how much patrons rely on the library for their copying needs. Though stores
may have better deals, many people like to do their copying while checking out their books or waiting for
story time to be over. Copiers are a service the library provides for the public. Librarians need to be able
to back that service up. Librarians need to learn quickly how to find paper jams and change toner
Library schools need to emphasize technology troubleshooting by having demos in class. Have
speakers come in to train students.
SCHEDULING & STAFFING
Scheduling and staffing are such major issues that library school instructors should discuss them
rather than expecting new librarians to learn about them on the job. Staffing is like a game at times as
you must try to accommodate meetings, programs, and vacations. A librarian assigned the task of
scheduling needs to immerse him- or herself in the needs of the department. He or she must balance
the needs with the numbers in the budget. A new librarian must be a careful observer of how much staff
is needed at various times throughout the day. New librarians should question, discuss, and critique
the process in order to develop their mastery of scheduling staff. As a librarian gets more experience
and proficient at scheduling, more and more tasks will be given to him or her. Scheduling is not a task
you can put off; in my case, it makes up the majority of my day-to-day responsibilities.
Is there scheduling software available that would help streamline your staff efforts and be worth the
cost? Not too long ago, I had to switch from doing the schedule via paper to a software program. My
supervisor literally had to hide the paper schedule from me to force me to learn the computer program.
Today, I realize the software has a lot more benefits than the old way of doing things.
When I was in library school, we read a lot of articles about how to manage problems in a public library.
I remember doing a group project where we met with the director of a local public library and did a needs
assessment. However, I did not get any experience with actual staffing or budgetary concerns. Since
new librarians are often quickly placed in a supervisory role, library school students should be given
mock staffs and budgets as group projects to help them master the art of scheduling.
Professors in library school should check the shelves of their local libraries for great books on
leadership such as Good to Great by Jim Collins (HarperCollins, 2001) or First, Break all the Rules by
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Assigned readings on management
should not just come from the library literature; there are great leaders out there in the business world
who can teach library school students a great deal.
A former director at my library used to stress cross-training staff constantly. Why? Because it made her
staff more valuable, and the schedule would benefit from the flexibility allowed by the cross-training. As
librarians we often go to library school intending to focus on one area; instead, it would be to our benefit
as professionals to be cross-trained, so we could run an Internet class for seniors one day and do a
children’s story hour the next.
New librarians should learn more in school about crunching numbers. Learning spreadsheet software
and basic statistics should be mandatory for all library school students. There is never enough staff
because there is never enough in the budget. How do you manage? Knowing how to create a budget
and spread spending throughout the year is a key to being successful in a public library. As a new
librarian it is imperative to be aware of your library’s finances. Like staff scheduling, budgeting is
something we cannot ignore on the job, so it also should not be ignored in our training.
Library school professors should invite MBAs and CPAs to come speak to students about the basics of
Librarians need to think about what people want and how to balance patron demand with the overall
focus and long-term needs of the collection. Should librarians be subject specialists when it comes to
the ordering process? How do you want your collection to look as a whole? How much of your collection
should be circulating on a daily basis? How do you raise your circulation figures? These are all key
questions librarians need to be able to answer; a library school education should teach students how to
think about them. What resources should you use when you are assigned to order books in a subject
you have no experience whatsoever in?
As an exercise, library school students should be given an imaginary budget and asked to buy a certain
number of books, and justify their choices.
Realizing the library’s responsibility to the community is an important first step in collection
development. You need to build a collection that is useful to your patrons.
Library schools should teach students basic techniques for ordering materials for public libraries and
require them to write book reviews. New librarians should be given more training about planning how to
give their patrons the materials they want.
A few years ago, I supervised a library school student doing his internship at my library. Together we
devised a very interesting curriculum for learning how things work in a busy public library. He rotated
departments every two weeks, from Adult Reference, to Children’s, to Technical Services, to Circulation,
and to our Cybermobile. This was the ultimate on-the-job experience. He also worked at night and on
the weekends to get a true feeling of public library service.
All library schools should require students to do an internship regardless of their choice of specialty in
the field. All library school students should expect the opportunity to do an internship in multiple
libraries, not just one.
Those who teach library school need to integrate themselves more closely with professionals working in
the field. I remember one library school class coming to the library where I work. I was proud that they
were coming in to assess my reference collection. However, I was dismayed that the handouts they had
been given showed a horrendous stereotypical picture of a librarian on the cover. Humor is good, but
how does that move our field forward?
While it is important for students in any field to learn about theory and philosophy, giving them the
necessary skills to succeed in their jobs is foremost.
About the Author:
Nancy Larrabee has been the Head of Information Services at the Greenburgh Public Library in
Elmsford, New York, since 2001.
Article published Nov 2007
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.