Career Strategies for Librarians
A Day in the Life of a Library Associate for Learning Commons
by Amanda Youngbar

I’m the Library Associate for Learning Commons at the Albert S. Cook Library of Towson University, the
second-largest public university in Maryland, known for its education and nursing programs. I am the
only staff member among the faculty librarians in the Research and Instruction department. I’m usually
scheduled for the reference desk 6 hours per day in two 3-hour shifts. While on the desk, I answer
questions face-to-face and by phone, IM, and text.  

What kind of questions do I get?

Reference is a grab bag, so I answer quite a variety of questions. Students need to print things, from
syllabi to term papers and from transcripts to resumes.
  • “How do I print?” is a question I hear constantly.

Directional questions are another staple:
  • “Where’s the restroom?” At some point in time, everyone will need to find those facilities.
  • “Where’s student computing?”
  • “Where can I get tutored in math?”
  • “Can you proofread my paper?”
  • “Where can I fax something?” When your library is housed in a building with other student
    services and you’re the first person students see, you are bound to get questions about the other
    services in your building.
  • “Where’s HQ1154 .B88 1990?” People who are new to the building are going to be unfamiliar
    with its layout and may not know where the stacks are located or realize that the floor they walked
    in on is the third floor, not thefirst.

Then there are reference questions. At the beginning of the semester, known item searches are popular:
  • “Do you have the textbook for my class?” These questions prompt explanations that, no, we don’t
    collect textbooks, but sometimes we do have a title, so it doesn’t hurt to check.

Then there are research questions.
  • “Can you help me find peer-reviewed empirical research articles?”
  • “I need statistics on the number of immigrants from Trinidad.”
  • “I’m researching how doctors test for birth defects.”
  • “I’m looking primary sources on the topic of birth control.”

If I don’t know how to answer a question, I ask one of the faculty librarians.  Within our department there
are 16 subject area liaison librarians. Each librarian specializes in different subject areas instructing,
collecting, and otherwise supporting the information needs of those disciplines.  

What else do I do?  

When I’m off the desk, I still answer reference questions by IM and text, but that’s not all I do. By
volunteering for projects, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about many other facets of library work. I attend
monthly meetings of our Marketing Committee, which keeps me up-to-date on how the library is
promoting itself and its services. I have also volunteered to write for the library’s newsletter, to create
displays, and to help with the creation of library videos. Volunteering for these additional activities
enriches my experience and develops my abilities. More importantly, it involves me in the collaborative
culture of the library. Volunteerism allows you to pick and choose the professional activities in which you
would like to engage and that are of most interest to you. It allows you to work with other like-minded
people who are similarly engaged with the activities they have selected for themselves.

How did I garner the skills to answer such questions?

In high school I worked for my local public library shelving books.  I’ve also worked circulation and
reference at public libraries and circulation in another academic library, where I provided reference
assistance in the evening and on weekends.  Even a job as simple as shelving books prepares you for
the reference desk. Knowing how to find a book on the shelf is a basic question, but it is a question
users often have. As a page, you know where every collection is kept and where the bathrooms are; you
have the directional portion of reference questions down. Plus, you learn what types of questions get
directed to the reference desk because you are referring people there.

Based on my experience, here’s some advice I have for other students preparing for library careers.

Don’t discount non-library world work.

My work experience outside of the library has been beneficial to me as well. During my undergrad years I
worked at the local grocery store. I started as a cashier, but was promoted to customer service clerk.
Both positions involve customer service, but being a customer service clerk has a lot in common with
reference. In both positions you need to be friendly and realize that you’re working with the public.
Thinking back, I realize I was utilizing elements of ALA’s Reference & User Services Association’s
“Behavioral Guidelines for Reference and Information Service Providers.” Remaining courteous, friendly,
and calm demonstrates approachability. I showed interest by always paying attention to my current
customer and treating their needs and concerns as important. I asked clarifying questions. If the
shopper asked, “Where do you keep the tomatoes?” I would respond, “Are you looking for fresh or
canned tomatoes?” Thanking customers and wishing them a good day is follow-up. These customer
service skills are also a large of portion of providing reference.

For a few years I worked as a temp. This type of employment cultivates skills that are transferable to the
library environment as well. As a temp, you may be working somewhere one day, one week, one month,
or one year. You need to be able to quickly master the tasks you have been handed. Part of learning
quickly is being able to determine who can answer your questions or where you can find the answer on
your own. This demonstrates search skills, but also cultivates an ability to navigate organizational
structure and knowledge. Changing job and industry from day to day or week to week requires flexibility.
As libraries change in response to user need and technological innovation, their staff members have to
be flexible as well. The library environment today requires continual learning.

Commit to lifelong learning.

I am currently pursuing my MLIS through an online program in the School of Information Studies at
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  When I graduate from library school, I will remain a student. Working
in libraries is making a commitment to lifelong learning. In answering reference questions, you learn
bits and pieces about a wide variety of subjects. As new sources become available, you need to learn
how to use them. As new technologies are developed, you need to learn how they work and how the
library can utilize them. If you’re a subject liaison, you may need to teach yourself the content of your
subject area. If you work in cataloging, you will need to keep up to date with cataloging and metadata
standards. If you want to be relevant, you need to commit to learning.

Give it some time (and a little bit of luck).

I applied for and interviewed for a number of reference positions before getting this job offer. When I didn’
t get those other jobs, I contacted my interviewers and asked, “What could I have done differently? How
could I improve my interview skills?” I was told I interviewed well; there were just other candidates who
were just as qualified.It was the luck of the draw. This is important to keep in mind as you apply and
interview for positions: there are many qualified candidates (especially in the current economic climate)
for the positions that are open.  It may take a few interviews before you luck out.  Persevere. Don’t give up

The job is not the only thing for which you may have to wait. You may be surprised at the length of time
that elapses between the time you apply and the time you interview. For my current position, I applied in
May and did not get called back until October. In the intervening months, I assumed I had been crossed
off the list of candidates for this position. In October I had a phone interview and then an in-person
interview in late November. I was called back mid-December and started the position in January. I
wouldn’t suggest setting your hopes on a position if you don’t hear back for months, but do leave
yourself open to being surprised.

Don’t just take my word for it.

You’re on the path to becoming a librarian. Do your research. Read more on sites like www.LIScareer.com.
Read books on different job opportunities for librarians. Read the library want ads; see what skills are
requested. Read the professional literature to find out about the state of the profession and emerging
trends. Ask questions of your professors, mentors, colleagues, and fellow students to determine their
opinions and experiences. What has been their library career path? But don’t forget about more general
skills: read about how to interview, as well as how to format and write your resume or CV and cover
letter. You’re an information professional. Do your research and use that information effectively. Library
skills are life skills; put those skills to work for you.

About the Author

Amanda Youngbar is Library Associate for Learning Commons at Towson University and is pursuing her
MLIS online through the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She
holds a Master’s in Liberal Studies from Loyola University Maryland and a Bachelor’s in Women’s
Studies from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Article published  Nov 2012

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.