A weeklong feature for those bookish types considering a career in the library sciences, or just curious about what it means to be a librarian.
If you're a librarian or someone with another kind of bookish job, and you're interested in being interviewed -- please email me!
Today's interviewee is Jo, an Assistant Department Head in the Adult Department at a public library who's had her MLS for 5 years. She also blogs at Fluidity of Time!
First off, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Let’s see …. This is actually the hardest question, because I don’t usually talk a lot about myself. I’ve been a Librarian for 5 years now, working at my local public library (which is great, because I have a really short commute). I’ve always been a book addict (that’s my term for it, at least), so working in a library is a great thing, and also a bad thing, because my stack of books to be read is always growing. Outside of my life at the library, I’ve got a great husband, and a couple of bunnies – and a piano that I’m meaning to start sitting at again (I’ve taken lessons since I was 5, stopped when I was in grad school, and now need to get myself back on track again).
Did you always want to be a librarian? What first drew you to the career? What other options did you consider?
When I was in high school, I worked in my school library (working off my scholarship), but I never thought about being a Librarian. Instead, I was putting all my effort towards law school, so I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, took the LSAT, and then paused to really think about law school. Instead of going to law school, I started working at a law firm --- and soon discovered that as much as I liked my job, I wasn’t sure if law school was for me. I spent about 10 years in law firms (and working for about 2 years part-time at my library) until one day, the idea of library school was suggested to me. I had no idea there was “library school”, but when I really thought about it, the idea of becoming a librarian really appealed to me. My current law firm job made me feel like I never helped anyone – and being a librarian, depending on where you’re working and what kind of library, is all about helping people in some way. So, it really all started to click for me. And, I admit – the lure of being surrounded by books had appeal, as well.
How is the current economic market and the transition to digital media affecting traditional libraries? I’ve heard that it’s a difficult field to enter right now, because of a lack of available positions – would you encourage people to pursue it, or possibly take a different path?
I can only speak for my own experience in a public library, but librarianship now and what it was even 10 years ago are very different. There’s more technology now, whether it’s in how we process our materials, to how we serve our patrons. We do offer downloadable materials at our library, and I think that being able to offer another form of a book (a digital version) is really great. It allows us to basically add to our physical collection, which is really helpful. I think that for traditional libraries, like public libraries, it’s going to be important to stay on top of trends, like digital media, and be at the forefront of some of the decision-making. Example: when HarperCollins decided earlier this year to limit how many checkouts they would allow on their materials, libraries seemed to be slow to react – and I think libraries should be more pro-active, rather than re-active, in these kinds of situations.
When I was in library school, all the professors would tell us – “your timing is great right now – so many librarians will be retiring” --- and then, the economy hasn’t really picked up. What I have observed, frankly, is that a lot of staff hang on like barnacles to their jobs – they aren’t retiring until they absolutely have to (and their cold fingers are pried off their book carts). The other thing that I think affects this is that the library world is very different than the business world that I was used to --- people are not fired as quickly in “libraryland” as they might be in, say, a regular office --- and this means that some people might stay in their jobs for a long time, even if they might not be doing the best possible work.
I will say this: getting a job in a library, fresh out of library school, with no experience, is going to be very difficult. You will be up against a lot of people with library experience, who are vying for the same jobs, because of the economy. However, if you are really interested in librarianship, I would offer these tips:
- Look around at all the different kinds of libraries there are, to see if some of them really interest you. Most people think of public libraries, or college libraries – but there are all kinds of libraries out there: specialized, corporate, even prison libraries (although I’m not sure how appealing that is to a lot of people). There are firms that employ librarians as researchers --- they pay people to find information, and those kinds of positions, while they require a lot of skill, do pay quite well. Cataloging work is also something that is needed, and those positions don’t work with the public most of the time (perfect for those who are shy). Archivist work is also something to consider, especially since digitization of materials has been growing.
- Get some kind of experience, especially before or while you are in library school. You can always spin your experience to relate to library work (which is what I did, to a degree, since I changed careers completely). Don’t just go to school and not work --- you need some kind of experience. Just going to school doesn’t impress potential employers.
- Don’t go for an MLS if you want to become a librarian just because you like books. Books are only a part of what being a librarian is all about. If you really love books, that’s great – but there’s a lot more to it than that.
What is a typical day like for you?
I always start by checking my email – I need to know if there are any computer issues to look forward to, see if there is anything I need to give priority to, etc. Then, it’s out to the Reference Desk for most of my day --- which means booting up our public pcs and getting those all ready to go, making sure the scanner is connected, filling the paper trays (yes, yes, very glamorous). Then, when we open, the day really starts. We don’t always get bombarded by patrons first thing, unless it’s a Sunday (we are open for a few hours on Sundays, and it is always crazy-busy). The fun thing about working in a public library is that you never know what someone is going to ask you. So, I handle all sorts of questions – can you get these books from another library, do you have this/that, how do I find articles, etc. We always take the opportunity to show patrons more than one source if they need something for research, so we’ll show them our books, but then give them a quick demo of a database, so they can come at a topic with lots of materials. We have a great online language tool, so I find I demo that for people at least 3-4 times per week. And …. we handle all sorts of questions from people who need computer help. These range from getting someone’s browser open, to trouble-shooting printing jobs, and formatting documents in Word. Or, getting the volume to work (usually, the person has their headphones in the wrong jack, so this is an easy fix).
In addition to helping anyone who comes in, calls, emails, or IMs, I do almost all of my other work at the desk --- preparing for the two discussion groups I facilitate, preparing for any classes I have coming up (or developing new ones), and ordering books for the collection. Our department handles all the materials for the adult area (we have a children’s section, which is separate), and each of us has several areas we take care of, including our Reference materials. Technically, this is called “collection development,” and I really enjoy it. Collection development means constantly reading review journals, reviews in newspapers, blogs – any source you can think of to get information about what we have in our collection. Book bloggers are awesome for finding out about new books, and also to get opinions on books (as opposed to what professional reviewers might say). It also means monitoring statistics, seeing how materials are doing, and figuring out what to add or take out of the collection. I handle books in both nonfiction and fiction, but we have other staff who handle our AV materials (CDs, DVDs, videogames, etc). I do have about an hour or so off the Reference Desk every day, at my desk in the office, and that’s where I usually work on things that I really need to concentrate on, like our schedule, etc.
Whew! Sorry that was so long! As you can see, depending on your position, there’s a lot that happens in a typical day!
What is your favorite part of the job? Your least favorite?
I really love it when I’m able to help someone, and they’re happy. Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding a website, or some information, or showing them how to put in bullet points in a document. I also love it when someone comes in and says something like, “I’ve read this, this, and this…. and I need something new” or “My son/daughter loved Twilight, but they have no idea what to read now” --- LOVE these kinds of questions! I really enjoy having the opportunity to walk with the person and suggest things, pull things off the shelves, and basically, talk books. I consider myself a bit of a “book pusher” – I try to make sure that people walk away with at least 1-2 choices that they think they’re going to like, and it’s fun to talk with people about what they’re reading.
Least favorite part of the job: when our public PCs are acting up, or we have a server down, or our scanner doesn’t want to cooperate. People expect that things are always going to work perfectly, and when they don’t, people can sometimes get a bit testy. The worst people are the ones who seem to imply that our staff have somehow made all of the problems happen – as if we would enjoy doing that. Computers by nature can be fickle, but when you throw in a grouchy person, it’s not a good combination. Seriously, if I could wave a magic wand and make everything work perfectly, I totally would!!
What does being the Assistant Department Head entail? What are some of the different departments? How is an adult librarian different from a regular librarian or a teen librarian?
Our library is divided into different departments: Administrative (which is our Director, Assistant Director, etc), Cataloging, Circulation, Adult Services, and Youth Services. There is a hierarchy (going from the top down): Director, Assistant Director, Department Heads, Assistant Department Heads, and the rest of the staff. There are divisions for staff – like clerks, pages, etc.
I’m not sure how an adult librarian would be different from a regular librarian – but I suppose it would depend on how a particular library is divided up. We don’t have teen librarians because we aren’t a very large library, but I’ve been to some libraries where they do have them. Some of the differences might be that teen librarians might only handle ordering teen books, and they would do teen-oriented programming, as opposed to, say, adult classes (like basic email), or ordering reference materials. Our youth librarians do a lot of programming for a wide range of ages of children, like storytimes, and crafts, and our adult librarians don’t do that. It’s also something that depends on where in a library, you are. There are librarians on our staff who work in cataloging, and that’s completely different than what our department handles.
Being an Assistant Department Head isn’t too different from being a regular librarian in our department, but it’s more responsibility -- I do have supervisory duties, and extra things that I take care of. I’m basically my boss’ right hand, so we work together on a lot of projects, and when she’s not here, I’m basically the go-to person.
You mentioned that you teach classes. What kind of classes do you teach? Does it require any different/additional training?
I teach classes on all sorts of things --- basic email (because, believe it or not, there are still people who don’t have email, or who might have it and have no idea how to use it), basic Internet skills, job-searching strategies, basic Word – and I’m working on some new classes on blogging, and digital photo editing (using online tools). I don’t have a certificate from Microsoft, but from my previous work experience, I have a strong background in Microsoft products. I don’t believe you necessarily need any training in teaching certain kinds of things --- knowledge is important, but patience is really the key. I’ve worked hard to make my classes informative, but fun.
Can you tell us what it was like earning your Library and Information Studies degree?
Um…. A small slice of hell? Ok. That doesn’t sound very nice, and I don’t want to scare anyone. However, it was a lot of work, and at the time, made for a lot of stress.
When I was getting my degree, they didn’t offer online classes, so I went to class at night, after work (at a really hellish job). The worst semester was my second one, where I took on two heavy classes, against the advice of my advisor (I was sure I could handle it and by the time the semester ended, I felt like a demon had taken over my personality). I think that if I had been able to take online classes, instead of having to drive back and forth, it would have been really nice. However, the face-to-face time that you get in a physical class can really be important, so if you’re thinking of getting your degree online, consider if you can take at least one class where you’re actually there with other people.
I did spend my last semester doing what is called a “practicum”, which is basically an internship, at a library near home. That was actually really interesting, and it was basically a second job (with a large project added on to it, that I worked on on my own time). By the time I finished school, I was more than ready to get that degree in my hand and look for a job --- the sheer hatred of my current office job was what drove me to work so hard to get the degree (that, and I paid for it all myself – which is a great motivator on its own).
I did enjoy some of my classes a lot – like my Reference class, and Reader’s Advisory – those were cool, and didn’t feel like work at all. However, other classes, like Database Searching (which involved a lot of time spent on a program called Dialog) weren’t as fun. And cataloging? Cataloging kicked my butt – I came out of it with a healthy respect for catalogers, and the knowledge that I will never want to be a cataloger.
What books are you currently recommending to your patrons?
Everyone is talking about George R.R. Martin right now, because his newest book came out (and the HBO series based on his books are popular). So, I’ve been talking about his books. But, I’ve also been mentioning the new Anniversary Edition of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that just came out (I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman). I just read The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin, which I really liked, so I’ve been recommending that one, too.
Any additional comments?
I hope that anything I said here didn’t sound like I was rambling on too much, or make people shy away from library school. Even though it was scary to completely change careers, and getting my master’s degree meant a lot of work, I love what I do, and I’m happy with the decisions I made. And, if anyone is thinking of library school – definitely sending positive wishes your way. :)
For more about Jo:
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Jo! It's really helpful to hear exactly what you're getting into if you decide to pursue an MLS!
In case you missed yesterday's interview, head here to see what Sara Slack has to say about being a university librarian and owning your own publishing house! And don't forget to come back tomorrow for another interview!