Career Strategies for Librarians
Weary Helper: From Private Investigator to Librarian
by Felicia A. Smith
In today’s workplace, libraries are constantly evolving and introducing new technologies. But librarians
themselves are changing dramatically as well. There are an increasing number of next generation
employees referred to as “Generation X librarians.” There is much written about Gen X-ers. I will discuss
yet another group of librarians. While obtaining my library science degree, a good portion of my
classmates were changing careers, like I was. My classmates included Gen-X-ers but also, to my
surprise, a few doctors, nurses and lawyers. Most of the librarians I met changed careers as a result of
burnout in their previous fields, which were mainly service professions. Nevertheless, these
professionals still had an overwhelming desire to help people. I have labeled these people “Weary
Helpers” since that was how I described myself in that situation.
Librarians need to be equipped to meet the new demands of librarianship. Library science programs
are trying to prepare the next generation of librarians for the changing nature of the profession. In the
new millennium, employment security is quickly evolving into "employability security" -- the knowledge
that employees possess the competencies required in a changing market and the flexibility to adjust
appropriately. I transitioned into the library profession seamlessly from the criminal investigation field
because I had transferable skills.
I was previously employed as a Certified Criminal Defense Private Investigator. Now I am a professional
librarian. Whenever librarians discover my previous job title, they immediately ask why I would leave
such an intriguing field to become a librarian.
I must begin by explaining that the two jobs are not quite as contrary as one might think. Basically, both
jobs require effective searching skills. Both jobs require accuracy and a great deal of thought. Both
require attention to detail. Both are customer-focused. Clearly one is more dangerous than the other; I
have not decided which! Both demand that you equip yourself with the appropriate tools and knowledge
to succeed. I was required to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a firearm at all times while working as a
private investigator. As a librarian, I am required to have knowledge of databases and print resources at
As an investigator, I’d file and locate court documents; as a librarian, I’ve filed claims for missing serials
and located requested information. These two seemingly disparate activities demonstrate a common
transferable skill: information retrieval.
Similarly, as an investigator, I’d call for backup when I met resistance while serving subpoenas. As a
librarian working in public libraries, I’ve called security when I had stalkers. The transferable skill: clearly
identifying when I need help from my teammates.
As an investigator, I’ve sat silently for hours, intensely focused on a target, during stakeouts. As a
librarian, I’ve sat quietly for hours, awaiting questions at reference desks. Both require self discipline.
As an investigator, I’ve been told that I “do not look like an investigator”; in my new career, I am still told
that I “do not look like a librarian.” In both fields, I add a measure of “diversity” to a field with
preconceived notions of what those professionals should look like.
As an investigator, I’ve ensured the safety of my Principal during bodyguard assignments. As a librarian,
I’ve ensured the confidentiality of patrons while working in a hospital library. My remarkable transferable
skill is my reliability.
After a year of working as a private investigator, my father finally convinced me that being an investigator
was too dangerous, especially since our firm exclusively handled murder and drug investigations for
criminal defense cases. So I transitioned into the field of librarianship as a way to utilize my research
ability and to retain the satisfaction of helping people. I knew I wanted to work in an academic library, but
was not sure in what capacity.
I began my library career in a hospital library. After completing my graduate studies in library science, I
was fortunate enough to become a Librarian-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame. As a
resident, I will rotate through different library departments, garnering valuable experience in various
positions so that I will be able to make an educated choice about my career path. I am beginning in the
law library. This residency is helpful, since I as an adult still ponder: “What do I want to be when I grow
I have heard motivational speakers suggest people should pursue careers that are similar to things they
do for enjoyment. It seems logical that the way you spend your leisure time reflects your desires. OK …
what do I do for fun? I read, naturally. All right then … what specific books have I read recently? I just read
Assata: an Autobiography. Before that I read:
Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood
Riot and Remembrance: the Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy.
Strange Fruit: Biography of a Song
Trial of Ruby McCollum: The True-Crime Story That Shook the Foundations of the Segregationist South
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
Looking at the list of items I read for enjoyment, they clearly deal with legal and minority historical
themes. My preferred reading also deals with topics which are not well known. I learned that sometimes,
concerted efforts were made to ensure these topics were not documented. In Riot and Remembrance:
the Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, the author exposes an elaborate cover-up by governing officials. I
am not a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes people are actually out to get you!
I believe as a minority working in a law library, my commitment to finding such obscure historical events
will allow for greater diversity in information available for patrons. One book I read is truly rare and less
well known. In fact, there are a measly 30 libraries that own this book, according to WorldCat, a global
catalog. The title is Trial of Ruby McCollum: the True-Crime Story That Shook the Foundations of the
Segregationist South. This was a fascinating legal case. Ruby was the wife of a wealthy African-
American gambler known as “Bolita Sam.” She was pregnant a second time by her white physician and
senator-elect lover. Sam threatened to shoot her if she had another white baby. Her lover threatened to
shoot her if she aborted his child. Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, Ruby decided that
her only way out of this quagmire was to murder her lover. This story has it all: lies, adultery, murder, and
a bizarre legal proceeding.
It became clear to me that my interests revolve around injustices suffered by minorities, especially those
that have fallen by the wayside of history’s highway. So the answer to what do I do for fun would be: I dig
for legal facts mainly concerning obscure minority topics. This pastime is not just a passion of mine, but
also an inspiration for me. These stories remind me of the way life used to be and force me to view
current events more critically. They reinforce my personal commitment to contribute positively to our
community. A staggering amount of minority stories have been omitted from history books. It is up to
those of us who are fortunate enough to learn about our predecessors to preserve those accounts for
This contemplation has helped me to see the need to be vigilant in including minority stories in library
collections as well as my personal collection. I share these stories with my younger relatives and youth
with whom I volunteer. After soul searching in the stacks, I have been reinvigorated and I have a renewed
From this observation, I deduced that I am interested in working in collection development, with an
emphasis on material concerning minorities. I am interested in being able to provide access to these
stories as a reference librarian. I am conveniently working in the Kresge Law Library, which is a perfect
fit. This residency has allowed me to conduct my soul searching in the stacks. I recommend people
interested in librarianship embark upon a similar introspection and follow their passions as they decide
on a career path. In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “The mind is the man, and knowledge is the mind; a
man is but what he knoweth.”
About the Author:
Felicia A. Smith is a Librarian-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. She
was formerly a Certified Criminal Defense Private Investigator, and then became the Technical Services
Librarian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.
Article published Feb 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.