Stories they don’t tell in grad school: “winning”

I’ve always been career-driven. As a child, I had all sorts of dreams about what I would do for a living and how I would change the world with my work. For a very long time, I was determined to be a zoologist. When my poor math skills kept me from realizing that dream, I tried my hand at editing and journalism. Those didn’t turn out to be great fits for me, either. After some time of reflection and in my senior year of undergrad, I came to the conclusion that public libraries would be the perfect environment for me. I’d always loved reading, the library, and building relationships with people. When I considered how public service would help me build up communities, I put my full heart into it. I started grad school and simultaneously began building experience.

My path to fulfillment as a librarian has been…maybe a little unusual. At least, it’s not very much like the stories I heard during my studies. (You know. The ones with panelists describing how to search for a job and perfect your resume and such.) So, I’m sharing my path to my first job as a full-time librarian, in hopes that it will be encouraging to others who are finding the road to be full of unexpected developments.

My goals upon being accepted into grad school:

1. Start volunteering and, hopefully, develop a relationship with a library that might employ me and help me with school projects.

2. Get to know different kinds of libraries by interning.

3. Decide what area of public librarianship is best for me.

4. Gain all the knowledge EVER from school.

5. Land a full-time gig upon graduating (on time) or shortly after.

What actually happened.

(Note: I actually did accomplish a lot of these things. It’s just that the things I learned and the places these steps took me were not what I imagined.)

1. I did find an opportunity to volunteer and that did become a part-time job. At first, I was a part-time circulation assistant, but after several months of that, I was promoted to part-time librarian. I gained lots and lots of experience from this job and was able to take leadership on some projects that later made me really stand out. However, I found that I didn’t pair well with the policies and philosophies in that library, so I looked elsewhere for a place to become my work home.

2. Because I was working part-time for a small, municipal library, I chose to intern with a large, urban system. This was also amazing for me because I added even more experience to my resume in spearheading a major project. Maybe even more important, though, I found that the system I interned with had philosophies exactly like my own. If I hadn’t taken that internship, I may never have learned that not all public libraries are the same and I would have continued to feel discouraged by workplace. That internship gave me hope that there would be a library just right for me somewhere.

3. The internship also helped me greatly with this. I had an up close view of the differences between working with adults, teens, and children. I had lots of conversations with librarians from all departments and learned that, if we’re being honest, no one has more fun than a youth services librarian. Also, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone works harder. Storytime is not for the faint of heart. It’s a storytelling presentation that takes planning and a good understanding of child development. Working with teens is similarly difficult as it’s often hard to say what programs will be a hit with them and attendance tends to be dodgy. It takes a lot of dedication to create a successful run of teen programs. What really made the decision easy for me is that, in my experience, adults are actually pretty predictable. Someone will always need help with the fax machine. Someone will always want you to morph into a wizard and “fix” the internet. Young people always surprise. Working with them challenges you to think creatively and keep trying new things.

Having decided this, I talked with my work supervisor and she began finding ways for me to help with children’s programs. She also gave me a great tool when she sent me for training in Every Child Ready to Read. (MLIS instructors, if you’re reading this, please start offering this training in a class, preferably alongside storytime training.)

4. School did not give me all the knowledge I needed. In fact, I only use a small fraction of skills and information I learned about in grad school. If you’re a public librarian, you probably know too well that MLIS programs do a sorry job of preparing students for our field as they tend to be skewed toward academic librarianship. Here’s a short list of things I wish we had discussed:

  • Managing relationships with patrons and community organizations (especially dealing with problem people)
  • Child (and parent) management
  • Reference resources only as they pertain to NC Live (the all-in-one online reference center available to all NC public libraries)
  • Troubleshooting technology
  • Child development as it pertains to literacy

These are all things you’re expected to know about going into a job as a youth services librarian. If you’re not fortunate enough to work while you study, you’re at a significant disadvantage in a market that’s already very competitive. In my state, full-time jobs for youth services librarians are pretty few and far between. To give you an idea, if you go to our state library’s listing of library jobs (which displays something like 75% of all librarian jobs in the state), you’ll only see 4 out of 50 positions currently fit the bill. I’ve been browsing that page for probably two years now and I can tell you, that’s actually a little high. There are usually only 2, maybe 3. Somewhere between 5-10% of all openings in our state are youth services positions. Get ready to work hard for that gig, is all I’m saying.

5. The stories I heard in grad school had me thinking that people almost always had their dream job as they walked across the stage at graduation. I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you it didn’t come that easily for me. This is a long story, so pull up a chair.

Like I said, I had a gig working part-time and gained some valuable experience there, but that library wasn’t my dream job. In December of 2012 (it’s been a year?!), my husband felt that it may be time to leave military service and go back to school. His enlistment was up and it was clear to us that for him to finish a bachelor’s degree, he needed a lot more time than what his job was allowing. I was 75% finished with my MLIS, so after a whole lot of thought and careful consideration, we decided to follow our gut. We decided our service to the military was done and took the leap of faith that I would find a job soon after graduating or even before.

I spent six months spending every free moment applying for jobs nationwide. I had around a dozen interviews, but nothing really came through for me. Finally, in June, I applied for a full-time library assistant position and received the job offer with much glee. The library I came to work for had a a huge array of programs for children and a more diverse population, so I had opportunities to grow by leaps and bounds when I accepted the job. Still, sharing the news with instructors led to some pretty underwhelming reactions. It made me feel less successful in their eyes that I was a para-professional, even if I was certain I could grow there.

Still, I came into my new position with a lot of hope and determination to show leadership and dedication. I took on new projects and created new partnerships for our library, forging relationships with patrons we were never able to reach before. However, I knew almost immediately that this library wasn’t quite right for me either. (I talk about why here.) So…I interviewed for another position in a neighboring county. It was an equivalent position but it was in a smaller library that was part of nice-sized rural system–the kind of place I wanted to be. After meeting the team that interviewed me, I was also convinced that their philosophies matched my own as well, and I had a feeling of belonging when I was with them.

Well, I didn’t get the job. I can’t lie to you. I was devastated. Months went by and suddenly I received a call from one of the people who interviewed me. She was calling to tell me about another position that was opening and encouraged me to apply, saying how sorry she was that I wasn’t hired before. I was really touched but told her that I couldn’t take a part-time position like the one she was describing. She understood and mentioned that there might be something opening up in the future. She left off by asking me to keep my eyes peeled. By this time, I was used to being disappointed over prospective positions so to be honest, I put it out of my mind to protect myself. I couldn’t get my hopes up too much that there might be a future with them when they had met me and said no once before. I kept looking for other positions and applying.

Shortly after interviewing for another position with a system I felt sure I could like, I received another call from the lady who was so hopeful for me. This time, there was a full-time position opening up as a librarian supervising two branches. She said she was recommending me for the position and I should apply as soon as possible…so I did. While I was waiting, I received a job offer from the library I had interviewed with before knowing about this job. I was torn because it was a team that clearly believed in me and wanted me the first time around. When I thought about it, though, I could remember so clearly how I felt like I belonged with the other library. My gut told me to turn down the job offer and try as hard as I could for the uncertain job.

Interview time rolled around once again and for the first time ever, I arrived late to an interview. It was mortifying and it was totally my fault for not being more prepared for traffic, but on the way there, I calmed myself by knowing that it was going to happen and that I would just have to work really hard to knock it out of the park. The extra time in traffic helped me prepare what I was going to say even more. I did the absolute best that I could in that interview and really let my personality shine.

I got a call later that day telling me that I was the number one pick for that position, and that after clearing my references and a drug test, I would be hired. That was yesterday.

So, in the longest post ever…here’s how I would sum up what I hope you can learn from my experience.

1. Realize that an MLIS is not enough. Especially if you’re trying to get into youth services, you’ll need experience and training above and beyond anything they can teach in the classroom. Plus, that experience will help you know what kind of library is really for you. It would be horrible to complete a master’s degree and find out you don’t even like librarianship. Look for opportunities to work, volunteer, and intern as a student.

2. Show leadership. Find out what you really love and then own it. Put yourself forward for taking on new projects and create something that has never been done before. This will help define you in the job market and help you stand out to employers.

3. Let your personality show. This is a personal preference of mine, so take this advice with a grain of salt. When I write my cover letter, I pick stories from my experiences that demonstrate things I really value about myself. I’m not just listing my qualifications, I’m helping employers get to know me as a person and potential teammate. Similarly, when I go to interview, I really try to ask questions that help me get to know the people and the library I would be working with. I ask them about what they like to read, what their favorite thing is about the library they work for, and the philosophy they put into customer service. Even if I don’t get the job, I’ll have some kind of knowledge of the people working there that may form into a relationship when I’m a colleague.

4. Don’t view “winning” as an end result of getting a certain job or, especially, a certain salary; winning is when you continue to grow. When I found para-professional work, I was proud of myself because I knew that even for that position, I was one applicant out of more than 100. I wasn’t even the only MLIS that applied. I hated that there were a lot of people who didn’t celebrate with me as much as I’d hoped. I’ve been able to grow so much as a para-professional in charge of a range of programs and storytimes–much more even than I would have been able to as a part-time librarian. Don’t automatically turn down an opportunity to grow because it’s not the exact position you wanted or feel you should have at this stage. Growing is growing is growing and looks infinitely better on a resume than stagnating.

5. Follow your heart. Trust your instincts. Go with your gut. My story is strange in that a “no” turned into a “yes,” but it’s because between that no and yes, I kept believing in myself and taking myself places I had never been before (rather like the Starship Enterprise). I really believe that if you stick to your guns and you never stop moving forward, good things will eventually happen.

The end.

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