Career Strategies for Librarians
Working Overseas as a Librarian for the United States or Non-governmental Organizations
In my last article for www.LIScareer.com, I wrote about working overseas as a librarian in a private school or
university <http://www.liscareer.com/petit_overseas_academic.htm>. In this article, I focus on international
jobs with the US Federal Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the United
Nations. Please note that this is not an exhaustive summary of opportunities available abroad for
Americans, but I do hope it will get you started.
The United States federal government employs many librarians who work overseas, including with the
State Department and military. The best way to find these jobs is to search USAJOBS <http://www.
usajobs.gov/> for the word “librarian.” The transparency required of the federal government means you
can often find job information, including salary ranges, beyond what is listed in the job description.
The United States Department of State hires librarians, called Information Resource Officers (IROs), to
work at American embassies in large cities like Cairo, Nairobi, New Delhi, and Mexico City; they also
rotate through Washington, DC. IROs manage embassy libraries and are responsible for smaller
libraries in regional embassies. Working in an embassy can require extensive travel and frequent
reassignment to new posts. The State Department generally hires IROs in batches; the position was
posted most recently in January 2009. I know several people who applied, and most were rejected
immediately. Those who made the first several rounds are still in the application process a year later,
and if they are assigned overseas, will go first to DC for training for several months. Successful
candidates may not arrive at their first embassy post until two years or more after application. It’s a long
and competitive process and the job may not be open again for several years.
Some librarians also apply to work for the State Department as Foreign Service Officers <http://careers.
state.gov/officer/index.html> (FSOs). While you will not be working as a librarian, your graduate degree
and training may be an advantage.
Working for the State Department, whether as an IRO or FSO, requires frequent international moves,
sometimes to places you may not choose or like. Both routes require testing and interviews in DC or
another international post (sometimes at your own travel expense) as well as security and medical
clearances. These jobs become a lifestyle as much as a career. The pay and benefits are good to
excellent (IROs are on a higher pay scale). Typically your spouse/partner and children go with you, and
the government provides you with housing and international private schooling for your kids. It’s important
to remember that as a State Department employee, you represent the US federal government ,
regardless of your personal feelings about the the President or Secretary of State.
Another option may be to work overseas for the US Military, which maintains libraries on military bases
all over the world. These libraries function like small public libraries: they serve the servicemen and
women and their families, including spouses and children. Their holdings will reflect this diversity. Some
small libraries have no professional libraries on staff, while others have only one MLS-trained librarian,
who is expected to perform a variety of technical and public services. Typically these positions come with
expatriate benefits like housing or a housing allowance, and the salary is comfortable given the location
The military also runs K-12 schools overseas, for soldiers’ children, and these schools employ
librarians. The job is similar to working as a school librarian in the United States and may require a
teaching certification. These schools are coordinated by the Department of Defense Education Activity <
http://www.dodea.edu/home/>, and you can find job descriptions and hiring information on their website.
The United Nations needs librarians too, in New York City and around the world. Americans benefit from
their knowledge of English, one of the working languages of the United Nations, but another language
can help, both in getting and having the job. The UN job site <http://unjobs.org/> is the best resource for
finding employment with the United Nations.
Other large NGOs, like the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, may also hire
librarians to work overseas. You likely will need more than an MLS in hand to be competitive: NGOs may
be looking for people with international or development experience or with specific skills in libraries or
languages. The best way to find these jobs is to visit the organizations’ websites.
Other opportunities may be short-term. Some libraries in developing countries may be looking for
experienced librarians to volunteer for a short period of time, possibly to serve in a rotating position or to
help set up a library. You can expect to incur some of your own expenses in such a situation. Some of
these jobs and opportunities may be posted to the IFLA job list <http://www.ifla.org/en/mailing-lists>.
Some librarians find work overseas during sabbaticals. A librarian may directly contact the overseas
library to see if they are interested in a term-limited volunteer.
Other librarians have done job exchanges with partner librarians overseas. Lisjobs.com maintains a
helpful list of organizations of job exchange programs <http://www.lisjobs.com/jobseekers/non-us.asp>
Another option for academic librarians may be found through the Fulbright Program, which facilitates the
placement of American academics overseas in short-term positions of a few weeks to one year; they
also support the placement of international academics in the US for similar periods of time. Though we
typically think of Fulbright scholars as teaching and research faculty, there are some opportunities for
librarians. Visit the website for the Fulbright Program <http://www.iie.org/fulbright/> for more information.
Of course, not every librarian working overseas is affiliated with a school, NGO, or government. Some
librarians may find work as librarians for corporations, for example with a large, multinational corporation
or oil company. The paths to overseas work are as varied as the people in them.
Regardless of the job, it may not be easy to find a position overseas, and, if you do, it can be a challenge
to live away from your home country. But you never know when opportunities might arise if you leave
yourself open to them. And, as I mentioned in my first article, I never met anyone overseas who wish they
had traveled less and stayed home more.
About the Author
Joan Petit is the Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at Portland State University in Portland,
Oregon. She spent two years in Cairo, Egypt while working for the American University in Cairo. She
appreciates the help of Casey Grimmer at the American University in Cairo and Rose Jackson at
Portland State University with this article.
Article published August 2010
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.