How To Become a 21st Century Librarian

Before deciding librarianship is right for you, make sure you understand what today’s librarians do all day. If you want quiet and lots of time to read, think again. Today’s libraries are full of collegial, and sometimes even downright noisy, collaboration, creation, and community activities, and are as much about technology as print on paper. Modern librarians need to be comfortable and conversant with technology, be willing and able to speak in public, and possess people skills and a commitment to lifelong learning, as the profession and the expertise necessary for success are constantly changing.

Before deciding librarianship is right for you, make sure you understand what today’s librarians do all day. If you want quiet and lots of time to read, think again. Today’s libraries are full of collegial, and sometimes even downright noisy, collaboration, creation, and community activities, and are as much about technology as print on paper. Modern librarians need to be comfortable and conversant with technology, be willing and able to speak in public, and possess people skills and a commitment to lifelong learning, as the profession and the expertise necessary for success are constantly changing. (For example, this article, one of LJ’s most perennially popular, has been revised three times and changed significantly in less than a decade.) A good place to start is at the source: talk to working librarians in different types of libraries to find out why they entered the profession, whether their initial perceptions match the reality of library work, and what they do—and enjoy doing—in their jobs. Our impulse to share information extends to sharing information on the profession itself. Another great resource is the book So You Want to Be A Librarian. Recently “unglued” by ebook startup which uses crowdfunding to apply Creative Commons licenses to existing works, the ebook is available to download for free. Because technology is so interwoven with librarianship, some of the most interesting conversations occur online. Following the email lists, blogs, and social media feeds where librarians interact with each other is a good place to start. A few blogs to consider are listed in the sidebar at right. To find and sign up for email lists, visit On Twitter, Gretchen Caserotti, Assistant Director for Public Services at Darien, CT’s public library and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker, suggests following conference hashtags to find interesting folks, as well as the weekly #LibChat discussion. Likewise, on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, see which groups savvy voices are contributing to, and join up. Tumblr can be a great place to see where library memes pick up speed, and though FriendFeed in general may be a social network whose time has largely passed, it continues to host the active Library Society of the World.

Learning the Library

Most professional-level librarian positions require a master’s degree in library and information science from a program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). These are variously referred to as an MLS, MLIS, MSIS, MSLS, MA in LIS, or MS in LIS). For example, a recent study of academic job postings found that 90 percent of them required an ALA-accredited MLS. Non-MLS positions are usually paraprofessional-level and in most libraries pay less, although some smaller or rural institutions are staffed mainly or entirely by non-MLS workers, and some of these are one-person shows. (If you find yourself in—or running!—one of these institutions without the degree or experience, consult Pam MacKellar’s The Accidental Librarian and Herbert Laundau’s The Small Public Library Survival Guide.) Sometimes someone works their way up through the ranks of a library without the degree, such as Julie Hildebrand, director of Independence Public Library, KS, LJ’s 2012 Best Small Library winner. But despite her position of authority and national kudos, Hildebrand still plans to go back and get her MLS. If you’re not sure whether you want to be a librarian, taking a paraprofessional position is one way to find out before you invest a lot of money and time in the degree. As Kristen Corby, head librarian, Periodicals, Arts & Recreation Division, New Orleans Public Library, told LJ in 2009, “It really seems like the path I happened to take is the ideal one—work for several years as a paraprofessional, make sure you really like the job, learn a lot about library procedures, then go to library school and get the ‘big picture.”

Branching Out

It’s not absolutely necessary to figure out what kind of librarian you want to be before you start library school, but knowing helps, since different career paths have different education perquisites. The main branches of librarianship are:
  • School librarians (sometimes called school media specialists). Often required to have a state teacher or media certification in addition to the MLS: Check your state’s requirements. Librarians in private schools may not be required to be certified, but jobs are less plentiful and pay may also be lower. More information on School Librarianship can be found via American Association of School Librarians, “Have You Considered a Career as a School Librarian?” or in at LJ’s sister magazine, School Library Journal.
  • Academic librarians range from supporting two year community colleges through major research universities. While, according to a recent study, most academic library jobs still require an MLS, and only an MLS, there is something of a trend toward hiring subject specialists with advanced degrees in their subjects, instead of or in addition to a degree in library science, perhaps partially driven by an excess of PhDs who cannot get tenured positions as teaching faculty and turn to “alt-ed” career pathways. More information on academic librarianship can be found via the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Association of Research Libraries.
  • Public librarians are probably most people’s default image of librarianship. But they vary much depending on the needs and resources of the communities they serve. In addition to the Public Library Association, which runs the whole gamut, visit the Urban Libraries Council on the one hand and the Association for Small and Rural Libraries on the other to see the full range of experiences available to you.
  • Special librarians are often all but invisible to the general public. Special libraries are found in corporations and other specialized environments, encompassing subgroups such as medical and law librarians. Previous experience or a specialized degree will help you break into one of these fields, making special librarianship an especially good choice for a second career. Many special librarians/information specialists also now work with information outside the typical library setting and have a nonlibrary job title, ranging from knowledge manager to taxonomist. Find more at the Special Libraries Association.

Choosing the Right Library School for You

ALA provides a list of accredited programs and guidelines for choosing a school. Some schools, such as the University of Michigan, have refocused as schools of information rather than LIS schools. If you choose to concentrate on newer information-related areas like human-computer interaction, informatics, or social computing, or if you envision using your information skills in a nontraditional career path, you might choose one of these programs. Those who are sure they plan to use their information skills in an alternative field might also worry less about ALA accreditation and investigate top-notch but non-ALA accredited schools, such as UC–Berkeley’s School of Information. These days, when choosing an MLS program, one of the first questions to ask is “online or off? Or a hybrid?” Many schools provide distance education options, and employers are generally accepting of these degrees: some even explicitly appreciate the technological skills gained by graduates from online programs. When considering online programs, important questions to ask are:
  • Does the program require an on-campus orientation or other in-person visit, or can it be completed entirely online?
  • Are the classes “synchronous”, requiring all students to be online at the same time, asynchronous, or both?
  • What are the technological requirements of the program?
When comparing MLS program websites and literature, the basics are:
  • Areas of focus. Some schools offer only a general or a school media degree; others offer concentrations in everything from archives and records management to digital preservation.
  • Course listings. If possible, in addition to the general listing of courses, get hold of the actual offerings for a couple of semesters and make sure that class that appealed to you actually runs.
  • Admission and graduation requirements. If you are attending library school part time while working [in or out of a library], check how many years you have to complete the degree. Another important question is whether there is a thesis requirement, what GPA you must have had as an undergraduate, and whether you must take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE).
  • Campus life [if you’re planning on attending in person].
In addition, look up the names of the professors teaching in the program and see what and where they are publishing. If you’re not sure what to make of what you find, you can always ask a librarian. As Aaron Schmidt, principal at Influx Library User Experience Consulting, points out, another important thing to ask about is you’re your library school’s placement rate (how many of its graduates find jobs). For more unofficial information on library schools, your best source is probably online forums where students and recent grads hang out. Questions about particular schools, their focus, their professors, or the quality of their distance education programs come up quite often. Join discussion lists like NEWLIB-L or the Library Grrrls community on LiveJournal. Another active community is I Need A Library Job (INALJ); see LJ's interview with founder Naomi House for more information.

Paying for School

Grad school is expensive, and while librarianship is an emotionally rewarding profession, it’s not necessarily a very lucrative one. Keep costs in mind when choosing your library school. Fortunately, a variety of help is available. ALA’s “Financial Assistance for Library and Information Studies,” an annual directory of awards and assistance from multiple sources, is a good place to start. You can also find scholarship listings at the scholarships page. Other resources include:
  • The school itself Check with the financial aid office at the school(s) where you’ve been accepted, or even where you’re considering applying, and ask if they offer work study, grants, and/or scholarships.
  • State libraries and/or state library associations. Every state has one, and they often offer substantial scholarships for those intending to work in public libraries in that state for a certain period of time (generally about two years) postgraduation.
  • National library organizations also offer scholarships to those intending to specialize in particular subfields of librarianship or to members of underrepresented groups. In addition to ALA, that includes the association listed under the different types of librarianship above. For example, the Fritz Schwartz Serials Education Scholarship offers a $3000 scholarship to a library/information science graduate student who demonstrates excellence in scholarship and the potential for accomplishment in a serials career, and the ALA Spectrum Scholarship annually provides up to 50 students from racial and ethnic underrepresented groups with a $5,000 tuition scholarship and $1,500 in professional development funds as they pursue a master's degree in library and information science.
  • Your employer. If you currently work in a library or at an academic institution, ask your human resources department what type of tuition assistance, reimbursement, or breaks are available. If you work in a corporation, see if it has a policy of providing tuition assistance for certain degrees, and be prepared to make the case for them to fund yours. Make sure you check the fine print: your workplace may, for example, pay for you to earn a degree on the condition that you keep a certain GPA and stay with the institution a certain number of years postgraduation.
  • 529 Savings Plans. Although 529 college savings plans are usually thought of as a way for parents to pay for their children’s college education, they can be used to save for your own education and for graduate school as well. Earnings in 529 plans are not subject to federal tax, or, in most cases, state tax. Each state offers its own plan. For more information, visit the SEC website or the College Savings Plan Network.

Making the Most of Library School

The two keys to making yourself marketable postgraduation are getting professionally involved, and gaining library experience. Start by seeing if your school facilitates internships or offers a practicum experience. As Corby said, “Newbie MLSs who come into a job with no real knowledge of actual library work take a long time to train and, in my experience, are often surprised and disillusioned about the reality of the work versus the coursework in library school.” There are internships, as well as scholarships, targeted at underrepresented groups as well as particular specialties. For example, as Toni Samek, Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, and LJ’s 2007 Teaching Award winner points out, the Association of Research Libraries’ Career Enhancement Program includes an internship at an ARL member library. Another new option for getting real-world experience while in school are courses that include community engagement in the class itself. Martin B. Wolske, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science’s Center for Digital Inclusion and LJ’s 2011 Teaching Award winner, told LJ, “Students continually comment on how valuable the projects done with community that are incorporated into my classes have been as they go out into the field.” Whether your school provides such opportunities or not, approach a local library and ask whether you can work or volunteer while attending school. Volunteering doesn’t have to mean shelving books: libraries are often open to programming presented by third parties. You could offer to teach introductory computer workshops, for example. To get professionally involved as a student, join a professional association or two. ALA offers reduced rates for students, as do many state and local organizations (which are often more affordable in general). As Lisa Grimm, former assistant archivist, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections, PA, and now Operations Manager at Elsevier, suggests, “It’s a small field, and keeping yourself in circulation is always useful. Someone who interviewed you and liked you but gave a job to someone else may be able to introduce you to someone else who is about to post your perfect position.” Get involved in your school’s student chapter, and look into joining groups like NMRT, ALA’s round table for students and new professionals. NMRT focuses on those who have been ALA members less than ten years. Among its offerings: a résumé review service, conference orientations and socials, and guaranteed committee appointments. Brian C. Gray, head of reference and engineering librarian, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, explains, “I started locally first by submitting content to my library school’s discussion list and volunteering as an officer for the SLA Student Group at my school. While in school, my Student Group involvement and name recognition from the list participation snowballed into working with the Cleveland SLA Chapter, receiving an SLA scholarship, and being selected to an SLA committee at its annual meeting.” Wolske also advises that students look for opportunities to participate in ongoing research. “Grant writing and outcome-based evaluations of programs are becoming common requirements to fund new initiatives at libraries, and participating in research while in the program can provide an important edge after graduation,” he explained. And while the MLS is all that most jobs require, it’s not the end of available library education. Post-masters certificate programs in various specialties can help differentiate you from other entry level applicants, or help mid-career librarians brush up on new developments and qualify to switch fields or apply for a promotion.

Finding a Job

Many new entrants to the library job market are frustrated by a lack of entry-level positions, particularly in desirable geographic locations (and at a desirable wage). It caused a big, angry buzz in the library world when Forbes selected the MLS as the worst master’s degree for jobs, but they had their reasons. The economic downturn had the same effect on libraries as everything else—as governments found themselves collecting fewer tax dollars, public and school libraries have seen cutbacks even as the fraying social safety net has sent more patrons to the library looking for help applying for jobs and/or unemployment benefits. However, there are recent signs of recovery. LJ’s Placements & Salaries Survey 2012 saw a solid five percent increase in starting salaries and more full time jobs compared to temporary or part-time ones. Many library ballot questions passed in the November 2012 elections, LJ’s 2013 budget survey found modest gains, and we’re even starting to see libraries such as Houston, TX, which previously had to cut staff and hours hiring them back. Caserotti told LJ, “I find there are many more job postings than even a year ago!” She should know—between when she spoke to LJ and when this article was published, she accepted a new position as Director at Meridian Library District in Idaho.

Flexibility Pays Off

One key to finding a position is flexibility. Geographic flexibility is, of course, not always possible for people with family or other commitments, but those who can move and are willing to start out in smaller, less-well-paying, rural, or less popular locations will have a leg up in the job hunt. In particular, regions with one or more library schools tend to have large numbers of applicants for most entry-level positions. Valerie J. Doyle, former director, Pontiac Public Library, IL, said, “There is no lack of entry-level jobs. There is a definite lack of people willing to take them and pay their dues. I recently hired a youth services librarian. Great entry-level job for a new grad and many applied. When it came down to it, though, they were not willing to drive a few hours for an interview [or] accept a salary that was low but a decent wage for where the job was.... Be willing to move. You can find that perfect job where you want it after a couple of years; better than working for McDonald’s while waiting.” Beyond geography, other kinds of flexibility can help as well. Neely Tang, Senior Assistant Librarian, Management Library, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, wanted academic library work but ended up accepting a business research position for a law firm, saying that, “in the end, the skills I learned at school prepared me to be effective at my job in just a few short months. That job helped me land my current position in public services at an academic institution.” And sometimes, that less-than-perfect job turns your career in an unexpected but welcome direction. As Samantha Cordaro McCoy, local history librarian, Franklin Lakes Public Library, NJ, puts it, “I had my heart set on working as an art librarian after graduation but found that the public library job I took ended up being my ideal job!” And of course, those who are willing to compromise on salary will have more positions to choose from as well, though that must be balanced against the knowledge that those who initially accept lower-paying jobs may remain disadvantaged later in life as a Raises and bonuses typically are given as a percentage of salary, so what starts out as a small difference can be compounded over a long professional career. A 2010 study conducted by George Mason and Temple Universities across all industries estimated that a difference of $5,000 early in your career can end up costing you as much as $600,000 over 40 years of employment. Library Journal’s annual Placements & Salaries survey benchmarks salaries in various jobs for new librarians, so you have a basis for comparison.

Look Here

Start your online job hunt is at national sites such as, ALA’s JobLIST, I Need A Library Job (INALJ), and LJ’s own JobZone. Academic library jobs are often listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education and on Inside Higher Ed. For jobs near you, state libraries and/or associations, nearby library schools, and local library systems often list jobs: find resources near you. Those interested in specific types of librarianship should check the specialized job banks hosted by the national association for that subfield of librarianship. Of both geographic and field-specific sites, Rick Block, Metadata Librarian at Seattle University and LJ’s 2008 Teaching Award winner, says, “I often see jobs posted here that don’t make it to the big sites.” Also be sure to join—and participate on—one or more email discussion lists in your subject interest and/or geographical area. Employers often post positions to targeted lists to attract a specific type of candidate. And if employers know you from your online conversations, this can in itself give you an advantage when applying. Twitter is also an emerging source for job leads: you can follow @needalibraryjob, @LibInfoSciJobs, @libgig_jobs, @ALA_JobLIST,@LibraryPosition, @tmj_usa_library, and similar accounts. And don’t neglect job boards that aren’t library specific, such as Monster, Indeed, and LinkedIn.

Building your network

The best way to connect with open positions is to build a network of colleagues who look out for your best interests. You want them to know you are job hunting and drop your name when someone mentions a pertinent opportunity, give you good references and forward possibilities to you. Not all jobs are actually posted—many are filled through word of mouth. But remember, you have a mutual responsibility to help others. A successful network flows both ways. Membership in library associations and attendance at workshops or conferences is one of the best ways to building your personal network—and demonstrate your professional commitment to potential employers. Brian C. Gray, head of reference and engineering librarian, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, says of his job hunt, “I think my key to success was showing a commitment to the profession, beyond just getting a piece of paper that said MLIS. I was already involved in several professional associations, attended workshops outside my library school, participated in professional lists, and remained focused on my desire to work with scientific information.” Conferences also often offer placement centers; you can register to get your information in front of employers and get some practice interviewing at these events. Those you interact with virtually are as likely to provide useful contacts as those you meet in person. Join one or more email lists in your area of interest; participate in forums; jump into the conversation if you have useful information to impart or can help answer a colleague’s question. Robin Bradford, Collection Development Librarian at the Indianapolis Public Library, says, “It is much easier to do now, especially for people who are initially shy, with the Internet. You can build relationships with people via Twitter and then when you meet in person, it’s like you have known them for some time. Less awkward, and more connections. Also, you can work on projects together. Always remember, however, that the library community can be very small. Online flame wars, bad conference behavior, and generally being a jerk can (and will) haunt you forever. “ As Gray explains, “Maximize your visibility while minimizing your chances of rejection due to others’ possible bias. For example, post on lists/forums, have a webpage or other web presence, but avoid statements that can be misjudged. Remove the drinking photos, Google your own name, etc.” In addition to following others’ blogs, Bradford recommends creating your own blog about your area(s) of interest. “The more you write and research,” she says, “the more intelligently you can speak about these things in an interview. “

The Application

There is a ton of information available in print and online about how to craft an effective resume and cover letter, and make a good impression at an interview. Librarianship is no exception: seek that information out and take it to heart. In particular, do your research on the institution you’re seeking to join: Visit the building (if it’s accessible) and its website, look at its collections, find out what programs and services it offers. Then, craft your message, both in the cover letter and in the questions and answers you give at the interview, to show how you are a good fit for it, specifically. As Jenica P. Rogers, director of libraries at the State University of New York at Potsdam and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, explains, “My biggest piece of advice to new job seekers would be to always tailor your cover letter to the position description in the ad. Nothing causes a hiring committee to lose interest faster than a generic cover letter that just lists a candidate’s work experience. Use the cover letter to tell the committee why you are the perfect fit for this job, not just a job.” Rogers also offers questions to ask your interviewers. One great resource for cover letter inspiration is Open Cover Letters, which posts real cover letters of successful library job applicants (with the identifying information redacted). And for interview prep, Hiring Librarians debuted a similar resource, a spreadsheet of interview questions asked in real library job interviews. You can even tailor your references to the position by keeping in touch with the people you’ve asked to be references, providing them with up-to-date CVs and wording of the job ads you’ve applied to, Samek suggests. Consider setting up an online portfolio, where you can keep an ongoing record of your accomplishments and point employers to examples of your work. The Library Career People provide tips on how to do so here. If asked about a skill you don’t yet possess, be honest yet enthusiastic. Colleen S. Harris, Head of Access Services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lupton Library in Chattanooga, TN, suggests that “if you don’t know something, say that. Don’t attempt to make things up (you look foolish). Say something to the effect of ‘I haven’t had the opportunity to X, but I’m a fast learner, have done (similar thing if applicable), and look forward to expanding my skill set.’” A couple of points specific to academic librarianship: for academic jobs you use a Curriculum Vitae rather than a resume. Academic interviews, also, can be long processes involving meals, tours, and presentations; remember to remain “on” and professional during these activities, not just the actual interview. Try to locate information on the publications and activities of search committee members and bring these up during the interview if you can do so naturally. Don’t forget to highlight transferable skills from non-library experience. Have you worked in a bookstore? In a customer service position? Supervised others? Managed a project? Written a grant? Think broadly about all of your applicable experience. Tasha Squires, former young adult librarian, Fountaindale Public Library, Bolingbrook, IL, says: “My previous work with teens really helped sell me. As librarians, so much of what we do is work with people. If you can show how past work experiences put you into contact with people and what tactics you used for problem-solving, interviewers will realize how adaptable you are.”

Tons of titles

In large part due to the influence of technology, the number and type of jobs in libraries is rapidly proliferating. In the academic field alone, a recent study found 30 titles listed in job ads, compared to 22 in 1996 and only 12 in 1988. Job functions such as digital humanities specialist, scholarly communications specialist, or data curator might not have existed a few years ago. This list of "real job titles" for librarians and information professionals will give you an idea of the breadth of positions out there.

Free-ranging librarians

Increasingly, librarians are found working outside any kind of library, yet bringing the skills, ethics, and connection to the greater field of librarianship to bear in roles such as knowledge management, data mining, or competitive intelligence. “be flexible in the type of institution you’ll work for. Libraries aren’t the only organizations that hire librarians,” says Block. Vendors who sell to libraries, for instance, often seek people with library training and/or experience. But increasingly, librarians are being hired by institutions that don’t seem directly connected to the library world at all, such as user experience, information architecture/systems, data management, and metadata positions. Says Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University, CA, “SJSU SLIS has placed graduates at NASA facilities, museums and other out of the ordinary locations.”
“As the role of the embedded librarian continues to develop,” says Wolske, collaborations between librarians and other professionals, such as health workers, are yielding new benefits. He continued, “As the locations where MLIS students are placed expands, we see more students who come to graduate school not to change their career, but to develop an information specialization to support their existing career.
Some librarians choose to strike out on their own as independent information professionals and run research, indexing, records management, database, training, or other information-related businesses, though this is a move best made by those with some years of experience as a librarian; it takes time to build up the skills and contacts necessary. Find more at the Association of Independent Information Professionals.

  Photo: Busy all day at the Customer Service Desk by Howard County Library System, Attribution-ShareAlike License
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"Academic librarians range from supporting two year community colleges through major research universities." Academic librarians are not support staff. Many of us are faculty who develop curriculum and teach credit-bearing classes. In addition we take an active role in campus governance through committee involvement. Please get over this inferiority complex and stop seeing yourselves as "support staff."

Posted : Aug 15, 2013 04:02

Amir Latif

Very informative and impressive article. Thanks

Posted : Jun 28, 2013 11:24

dan cawley

Libraries are awesome. The pay is great and jobs are easy to find. It's quiet, you dont have much to do, and, best of all, you get to read books all day!

Posted : May 11, 2013 02:57


Don't waste your money. I love the library, graduated library school with straight A's as a reference librarian in 2008. Took every tech class available from the second highest rank library school in the US. County and State Budget cuts and hiring of librarian assistance and low pay this field is not worth considering if you enjoying trying to raise a family. It is a shame. The student loans will burden you for years while you work in other fields. Don't bother. This is a good article,but libraries were never quiet. They were always buzzing and alive as a community.

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 12:53

Priscilla Shontz

I'd just like to add this resource in case it proves useful: ( offers practical career advice contributed by a variety of librarians and information professionals. Rich Murray and I have written or edited several books dealing with career development for librarians, the most recent being What Do Employers Want? A Guide for Library Science Students (Libraries Unlimited, 2012). We aren't currently adding new content to the site but we hope that the advice continues to prove useful to the library community.

Posted : Apr 17, 2013 02:16


Those thinking about becoming a public librarian, especially in an urban area, should consider registering for the Urban Librarians United conference on April 5th. You will learn a lot about public librarianship in the day-to-day, as well as get the chance to network with some of the best.

Posted : Mar 22, 2013 12:23


We love seeing our unglued ebook featured here! (I'm the librarian at We hope lots of people will download Lauren Pressley's useful book. We also want to point out that its CC BY-SA license allows for you to modify it (as long as your modifications are also available under a similar license). The source code for the epub file is here: You're welcome to update the content; add chapters that address more aspects of librarianship; or go to town on it with your graphic design or software skills. We're really interested in seeing creative things people can do with the ebook genre; the epub file offers many possibilities that people are only beginning to explore. Have fun! And happy librarianing.

Posted : Mar 21, 2013 08:45



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