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Career Strategies for Librarians
Making a Lateral Move
by Shaundra Walker

So you’ve finally secured your first professional library position.  You’ve been on the job for a few years
now and have sufficiently learned the ropes.  You’re thinking it may be a good time to see what other
opportunities exist.  You conduct a search but can’t find any positions that would be a promotion -- only
positions similar in title and rank to your current position.

Is it ever OK to make what appears to be a lateral move?  I believe so.  After working in my first
professional position for three years, I made the decision to transfer to another entry-level position.  What
appeared to be a lateral move turned out to be a much better opportunity.

Settling In

When I graduated from library school in 2002, the libraries in my geographical area weren’t exactly
overflowing with available professional positions.  Although I was willing to apply all over the state, I
could find very few positions that matched my skill and experience level.  Luckily, I discovered an entry-
level position at a small academic institution that just happened to be located in my home town.  The
salary and benefits for the position were low.  I actually took a pay cut and lost the retirement benefits
from my job as a secretary at a local non-profit organization.  Yet I was eager to move into my first
professional position.

Because the library was small, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a variety of areas.  My
initial responsibilities involved reference, circulation and management of the student assistants.  The
library environment was flexible enough so that I could pursue other projects and areas of interest.  I was
able to gain a wide variety of skills that really spruced up my resume.  The salary eventually improved
and the college offered retirement benefits to employees after two years of service.  The campus was
small, quaint and close enough to my house that I could run home for lunch or take care of other
personal business on my break.   Miles away from the big city where I attended library school, traffic was
non-existent and it took me only seven to ten minutes to arrive to campus.  Overall, it was a good fit.

Feeling the “Itch”

Early in my career, a mentor advised me to map out a strategy outlining my career goals and
aspirations.  I realized that it was essential to develop skills and abilities that would assist me in
achieving my long-range goal of directing a small academic library.  In addition to joining the appropriate
professional associations and seeking professional development opportunities, I started looking for any
opportunities in my current position that would help me meet my career goals.   

Before I knew it, nearly three years had passed.  I started to feel a strange itch to expand my horizons, to
see what else was out there.  I began regularly browsing the online library ads in my state and even
ventured onto a few national search sites, just to get a feel for current position offerings and
expectations. To say the least, the results were eye-opening.   

Venturing Out Again

Most of the non-entry level positions that I saw advertised emphasized two qualities: leadership and
management skills or potential.   Most positions also asked for experience in areas such as collection
development and faculty liaison work, opportunities that weren’t available in my current position.  As
much as I liked my work, I began to realize that it wasn’t providing me with the skills that I needed for
long-term success.   At our institution, collection development was driven entirely by the faculty and the
library director, and there were few, if any, opportunities to perform liaison-type work.   

Venturing out into the job market after three years was somewhat intimidating.  Having survived my first
academic library interview, I wasn’t too excited by the prospect of another.  Finally, I mustered up the
courage to dust off my resume and start looking for positions.  This time, I didn’t look solely at position
titles or years of experience required.  I paid more attention to job responsibilities, and particularly to
those aspects of the job that would enhance my current skill set and aid me in meeting my long-range
goals.

I decided to apply for an entry-level position at a medium-sized, public liberal arts university not far from
my hometown. Following a brief phone interview, I received an invitation for a formal interview.  The
experience that I gained in my first position proved to be valuable.  The search committee was
impressed with my well-rounded skills and ability to multitask.  Within a few weeks, I received a job offer.

Decisions, Decisions

On first glance, the position appeared to be much like the position I currently held.  After three years in an
entry-level position, I’d hoped to move into a different role.  Along with the new job would come a forty-five
minute commute and an unfamiliar environment.  The salary was only slightly more than I was already
earning.  However, the opportunity to gain new skills was extremely attractive.  Although the position was
geared toward new librarians, it offered the chance to work in collection development and to serve as a
liaison with an academic department.  I was impressed with the library’s governance structure and the
participatory management style.

I decided to take the job.  Due to the forty mile commute, my days are a little longer. The city and college
are new to me, so I’ve gotten lost more than once or twice.  The people are friendly, yet unfamiliar.  
Nevertheless, I feel like it was the right move for me, at the right time.   

Because the university and the library are larger, I have more opportunities to collaborate with
colleagues as well as to seek professional development opportunities.  Another benefit of working at a
larger institution is that my job responsibilities are more defined and focused.  Although I enjoyed
multitasking in my previous position, wearing so many hats made it difficult at times to feel as if I was
making real progress in certain areas.  My new position focuses on instruction and reference and I can
already see my skills improving.

Is it ever wise to make a lateral move?   Compare and contrast the two positions to make the best
decision.

Think hard about your long-range career goals.  Examine each position based on how it fits into your
plan. Does the new position offer opportunities to gain new skills and abilities?  Could you possibly add
a skill to your resume that is currently lacking, such as web design, collection development or
leadership?
Closely inspect the benefits offered by both institutions.  Not only is it important to scrutinize health
insurance and retirement plans, but pay close attention to benefits such as sick leave policies and
professional development funding.  One reward that I’ve found in working at a larger university is the
wealth of free in-house training opportunities.  In the short time that I’ve been in my current position, I’ve
been able to participate in two professional development workshops, one focusing on assessment in
higher education, another on infusing technology into instruction.  As a bonus for participating in both
programs, I’ve received free use of a PDA and an iPod for the duration of my employment.     
Think about the things that are most important to you.  Is it quality of life, family, professional growth, or a
combination of several things?  Realize that your values are likely to change throughout your career.  At
this stage in my life, I’m single with no children, so my time is very flexible.  Creating a work/life balance
is important, but I’m presently comfortable with the scale being tipped a little more towards work.  I see
myself in career-building mode right now, willing to make the necessary sacrifices, such as commuting
to work, in exchange for the experience that I’m gaining. I’m confident that those sacrifices will pay off in
the long run.  
Look at the Big Picture

Unlike some of our parents, our generation is unlikely to stay in one job until retirement.  While Baby
Boomers climbed the career ladder, Generation X’ers and Millennials are now busy mapping career
paths.  In evaluating any library job offer, focus less on job titles and years of experience required and
more on skill sets and opportunities.  Build a portfolio of skills and experiences that will translate into
better opportunities in the future.  What appears to be a lateral move may actually be a new destination
along the path to the position of your dreams.

About the Author:

Shaundra Walker is an Instruction & Reference Librarian at Georgia College & State University in
Milledgeville, Georgia.  

Article published Jan 2006

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necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.