Career Strategies for Librarians
Gaining Library Work Experience While You're a Student
by Susanna Van Sant
I entered library school with almost no previous experience working in libraries. As a teenager I spent a
few months filing in my local public library, but I knew that wasn't going to get me very far! I wanted to
work in an academic library when I graduated, anyway. I knew I'd need to build the library work
experience part of my resume significantly before I entered the job market.
Unlike a few schools, my program (at the University of Texas at Austin) did not include or require any kind
of internship to earn an MLIS. Nor did the library school have any arrangements with the campus or area
libraries explicitly to help its student gain pre-professional experience. We were on our own to build our
resumes, even though we had a terrific placement office to help us polish them up when we sent out our
I was able, however, to gain much work experience in the campus libraries while I was a library school
student. I strongly believe that being able to send out a resume with as much recent, highly relevant, and
varied library employment history as I was able to gather as a student made a very positive impression
on the people who read my resume as I began applying to professional academic library positions.
If you are in a similar situation, here are some tips I would give you based on my own experiences. But
first of all, apply for almost any library job, performing almost any tasks just to get your foot in the door.
I knew that I eventually wanted to work in the areas of collection management, reference and instruction
in an academic library but I had no prior experience. Before my library school classes even started, I
arrived in town early to apply for jobs in the public services divisions of campus libraries. I indicated my
willingness to do just about anything, and was hired to reshelve books in the reference room of the main
library and also to check in the government documents received. Yes, the jobs were somewhat menial,
and even the man who hired me was sheepish about asking a graduate student in the library school to
do things that they usually hired undergraduates to do, but I insisted that I was willing to do the job.
Through the following means, I was able to turn this position into a springboard to launch a very exciting
and rewarding professional career.
1. Behave professionally.
Take whatever work you are doing quite seriously. Never be late, never not show up. Execute tasks fully,
on time, and to high standards. The people who hire you for that first job could potentially put you in a
different position with greater responsibilities or recommend you for positions elsewhere in the library or
eventually write you a terrific reference letter if you demonstrate your reliability and maturity.
2. Be inquisitive.
Ask many questions of your supervisor, or of any professional librarians around for that matter. Make the
most of your early exposure to how libraries and librarians work. It's rare and a blessing to be new and
inexperienced - no one expects you to know anything, you can ask all the questions you want without fear
of repercussions. I learned so much by simply opening boxes of government documents and asking
questions of the government documents staff about the contents, their sources, how they'd be arranged,
used and made accessible in our collection, etc. By the time I got to my government documents course
and to the reference desk I was pretty familiar with the collection and well-prepared in the basics of how
it worked. Again, the people who hired you for that first job could potentially put you in different positions
with greater responsibilities if you demonstrate your curiosity and your willingness to learn and to grow.
3. Offer to do more than you are asked or expected to do.
Volunteer for additional tasks, expand your job description as much as possible. Don't be afraid to try
new things or afraid to demonstrate your initiative and creative problem-solving skills. Be tactful, but
demonstrate that you are a thinker as much as you are a do-er. Ask if you can attend meetings and
training sessions. The worst that can happen is that you'll be told "no." The best that could happen is that
you'll learn all kinds of things, not to mention broaden your network of contacts and resource people.
4. Say yes.
If you are given chances to work on other projects or take on other work, do it. Even if it's as simple as,
say, delivering a book to another unit, take advantage of that chance to meet other people and to learn
more about how other parts of the library operate. Don't be afraid to test the limits of your knowledge and
abilities, and don't be afraid to test your time management skills - all of which are quite valuable to
Finally, if your personal and financial circumstances permit, try to devote yourself full time to school and
to gaining library experience. Consider taking a loan so that your wages and the number of hours you
work will matter less than the pre-professional experience you can gather. Try to give yourself as much
time as possible in your schedule to adhere to the tips above. It requires hard work and sacrifices, but
the rewards are great.
I was able to advance rather quickly from my humble hourly job as a shelver. If weren't for that first job,
and for my exhibiting the above behaviors, I would have had a much harder time accumulating other
work experience and other pre-professional jobs in the campus libraries. When I entered the job market,
I had a great deal to show for myself and a host of willing references - not to mention some terrific
friends and colleagues.
I wish each of you all the best of luck in your careers.
About the Author:
Susanna Van Sant is the Literatures in English & Linguistics Librarian at the McKeldin Library, University
of Maryland - College Park. She received her MLIS in 1996 after she earned an MA in English from SUNY
Article submitted Dec 2001
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