Changing Tracks | Careers

The term librarian embraces many kinds of jobs, and often the first place someone lands isn’t the perfect fit.

Voices of experience on switching roles or types of libraries

The term librarian embraces many kinds of jobs, and often the first place someone lands isn’t the perfect fit. Browsing the classifieds can turn up postings that pique a library worker’s interest but may be in another type of library from the one where they’re currently employed, or the job description may comprise a different skill set. These librarians we spoke with have all made a midstream jump, and they share their insight on what it took to move into a new branch of the field.

Preparing for the Shift

As someone who’s made the change from metadata librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to high school librarian with Fairfax County Schools, Springfield, VA, Lisa Koch recommends first taking time for self-reflection. “What is it about your past position that you liked? What are you looking for in your new position? What can you do now to connect your present position to the future?” While the fundamentals of librarianship will inform job descriptions across the field, she notes that there can also be “important differences” that deserve consideration. Addressing gaps in knowledge or experience through volunteering, part-time work, and professional development will be worth the time. “You will have a better sense of potential concerns your [future] employer may have and identify potential areas of growth,” says Koch.

FROM HIGHER ED TO HIGH SCHOOL Former University of California, Santa Barbara metadata librarian Lisa Koch (ctr.), now a high school librarian for Fairfax County Schools, VA, in the library with the “amazing” teachers of Robert E. Lee H.S., Springfield

Getting involved with professional organizations relevant to the new direction their career search took them was crucial for many librarians. When Liisa Sjoblom, formerly a tenure-track academic librarian with the Murphy Library at University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, decided to move closer to her aging parents and applied for a nearby position with Deschutes Public Library, Bend, OR, she “immediately got involved” with her state library association. “I attended the annual conference and went to sessions related to public library work,” Sjoblom says. “I also took a crash course in readers’ advisory since this was not a large part of my activities at the university.” Dustin Fife, on the opposite side of the coin from Sjoblom, moved from the directorship of a small public library to director of library services at Western State Colorado University. He also cites the value of his involvement at the state level. “I was President-elect of the Utah Library Association when I was making my transition,” Fife, a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker, notes, saying that holding this position “was essential to my success. [While still a public librarian] I had collaborated with many academic librarians and had built a network in all types of libraries.”

Personal networking was a critical component in Aaron Collie’s jump from academia to working in a corporate library. “A lot of times we only think about networking in relation to job searches as giving someone an inside edge,” Collie says, “but there are many other ways a professional network can help. I was having difficulty making up my mind about taking the leap from an academic library to a corporate/financial setting...but it only took a couple of words from someone [whom] I respected to help me make up my mind.” After he’d been hired as the new FRASER Digital Library Manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Collie’s network continued to pay dividends. “My new boss shared with me she’d received a couple of kind notes from mutual colleagues regarding my hiring,” he recalls, which set a very positive tone for his transition into a new specialization.

Marlee Givens, librarian for modern languages and library learning consultant with Georgia Tech Library, Atlanta, recommends using professional networks to bone up on current issues in the new specialty; she recalls that at one juncture she was applying for a repository project manager position and so spoke with her contacts in the same field to make sure she could “comfortably discuss issues and concerns” with the search committee during the interview process. “When you move into your new area of librarianship you will have questions, and building a support network is invaluable,” notes Koch.

In addition to in-person connections, social media also afford a variety of networking opportunities. “I was able to draw on the expertise and advice of librarians I know on Twitter who had worked in similar roles,” says Rosie Hare, currently learning resources development manager with the Cleveland College of Art and Design, located in Middlesbrough, England. She shares that “all of my experience had been in bigger institutions, rather than smaller specialist ones, so it was good to get some tips from others who had worked in art and design institutions.” Givens used LinkedIn as a way to keep in touch with librarians she met while working for a nonprofit library consortium, which led to a future job change. “I discovered the repository project manager position there, when it was posted by one of my connections.”

Translating your Skills

Changing tracks likely means revamping a résumé or CV to reflect future goals best. Koch recommends being “an advocate for yourself. No one is going to connect the dots of your past positions to your future goals for you.” Helene Williams, former academic librarian and now senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s iSchool, wanted to make the move into MLS instruction to bridge the gap she saw between the theory of library school and the everyday practices of frontline librarianship. She adapted her résumé in two ways: “First, I cut down significantly the lists of library committees and service activities and kept the focus on the instruction and content tasks [from her previous roles]. Second, I made sure to explain library jargon and spell out acronyms, as many faculty in iSchools aren’t library-focused.”

Hare says that keeping an updated skills-based CV was useful when she was changing track. “I tailored my skills to the…specifications of the job I’m applying for,” she says, noting that “in the UK, most institutions require you to fill in application forms rather than submit a CV, so I try to arrange the forms under the skills/competencies [the hiring institution] is looking for and write examples of how I match. I always focus more on my ability to meet the criteria rather than worry too much about the job itself.” Hare’s new post was her first management role, “so I just made sure that I highlighted all the skills and abilities that I had to be able to manage, rather than talking about actual management experience.” As Collie hoped to shift into special libraries, he knew “nobody wanted to see my 300-page tenure dossier. I was fairly certain my academic vita would look padded to a corporate HR office, so I did my best to whittle it down to just a few pages.” Collie was sure to get his agile project management credentials (CSM and CSPO from the Scrum Alliance) “front and center” on his new résumé, as he knew “a corporate office would know what those were.”

A well-crafted cover letter is key to helping future employers see the connection from previous experience to the job on the table; Givens “starts with the responsibilities and qualifications from the position posting, and I describe specific parts of my experience that most closely match these.... This requires creative thinking and a good understanding of what the new job will require.” A cover letter can also communicate why you’re looking in a new direction. Emily Ferrier, senior librarian at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, MA, says that in addition to updating her résumé with the pertinent skills from her legal librarianship position, she also “used my cover letter to explain why I was looking to change course in my career and why that organization was the right one for me.”

Interviewing

“I have never applied for a job that I thought I was qualified for,” says Juliane Schneider, team lead for eagle-i, an open access, open source network of research resources. “I’ve applied for jobs that I wanted to do and was fascinated by.” In order to best advocate for herself and represent her skills and experiences as a good fit for a new role, Schneider uses the interview “as a chance for a discussion instead of a yes/no Q&A session.” She does research on the job, the institution, and its mission, finding commonalities with her previous experience as well as areas she is unfamiliar with, to prepare for the interview process.

Ferrier also established common ground between past and future positions in her interview and was forthcoming about areas where she could potentially need development. “I was transparent about only [having] worked in virtual libraries, so working with students and faculty in a library space was going to be new to me, and I asked for mentorship in that regard. I found it helpful to be as transparent as I could be where the jobs overlap, what would be new, and why that excited me.” Fife also recommends being open about the discrepancies between previous and potential jobs: “Do not pretend that your organization’s differences do not matter by trying to force everything into a particular box,” he says. “Focus on skills that all institutions want. For example, I showed how I could be innovative in any situation and how I had worked with all types of library professionals.” When Collie was in his interview, he felt like communication was going well, “but some details were lost—on both sides.” To establish common ground, he asked questions so that “even if I didn’t understand how a particular project had come together, I could recognize the ingredients and ask directly about those.”

Katherine Stephan, who moved from a public library in Norwich, UK, to become research support librarian at Liverpool’s John Moores University, shares some of the best advice she received when considering a career change: “My boss at the time said, you have loads of experience, make sure you talk about it,” including job experience outside the library field. “That’s the crux of it,” Stephan says. “You just need to fit the context [of your experience] with the correct question.” Koch was sure to interpret her experiences from academia to a new context in a school library. “Working with exhibits parallels making library displays; giving research orientations to scholars and school groups parallels student orientations. Focus on how you are unique, creative, and adaptable,” she says. “Your differences can set you apart.”

Jumping In

In communicating her transferable skills, Ferrier let her prospective employees know “I would immediately be able to hit the ground running.” Her move was lateral, meaning she did not have to start at entry level, though “I did take a significant pay cut.” It was worth the loss, she says, to find a job setting that was less isolating than her previous position, where “I would go entire days without talking to anyone at all.... I needed to be around other people and wanted to find a way to apply my specialized technical knowledge in a more relaxed atmosphere.” While at times her new position “felt like starting over,” Ferrier had negotiated for professional development time and budget to get up to speed. “If you can’t get those guarantees [for professional development support], run away, it’s not worth it!” she advises.

Koch’s shift into school librarianship required significant professional development, particularly a return to school to earn her teaching credentials. “I got a lot out of those classes,” she says, “but the time and expense were a hurdle.” Her school district did take her previous experience into consideration when negotiating salary. Now, Koch appreciates the “deeply fulfilling” aspects of working with students. “I feel grateful to be part of their journey, to foster their curiosity and witness their growth,” she says. “I think trying out different areas of librarianship makes the bigger picture clearer.”

STARTING OVER

For Williams, moving into her iSchool position did require an entry-level beginning, despite having a long, established career in libraries. “That was difficult,” she says, “as I needed to build credibility with a whole new group of colleagues. At first, I taught as an adjunct, then on a one-year contract, then a three-year contract,” which resulted in her promotion to senior lecturer. Sjoblom also experienced a downshift in seniority. “I had been a manager in my previous [tenure-track academic] position,” she notes, but moving into public libraries remained the right choice despite the return to entry level. Not only did she find the family connection she had been missing, “the atmosphere of a public library speaks more to my skill set and interests.”

When Stephan moved into her new library, she spent two years as a night-team supervisor, offering both a cut in pay and distance from mainstream library work. Regardless, she knew “that this [job] was an ‘in’ in a new organization,” in a city to which she and her husband had just recently relocated and where library jobs were few and far between. While a supervisor, she was encouraged to apply for a liaison librarian position and was offered the job; a year later, she landed her current academic librarian position. She credits the encouragement of others as well as her own curiosity for her success in transferring from public libraries to academic. “If you would have told me five years ago that I would be teaching people about bibliometrics, open access, and promotion research and developing training sessions as a research support librarian, I would have said you were crazy!” says Stephan. “Adapt, change, be curious: you might find there’s another job out there for you.”

It was a lack of opportunity to move forward in her previous positions that led Schneider to look to other areas of the information field. “I now have a much higher salary than I ever imagined I would, because the only way to get a big salary jump any more is to change jobs, usually outside your current institution,” she says. Her CV is now “very interesting” and represents a “wide variety of skills.” When asked what her advice is for others considering a leap, she enthusiastically notes, “Do it! There is nothing like jumping in and learning on the job.”

April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library System in Central Oregon

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