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Career Pathways: Making the most of a first job

CareerPathways

Hey, y’all! Welcome back to this new series that’s about how my career evolved and what I’ve learned and can share with other new library professionals. If you haven’t read the first post about choosing an MLIS program, you can do that here.

Today, I’m talking about my weird and wonderful first library gig.

It began with volunteering.

I’d just enrolled in an MLIS program when I went into my public library for the first time to ask for a volunteer application. Although I’d lived in the town for six months, I’d never signed up for a library card because I found the rules online and learned that I didn’t qualify for free membership because I lived a quarter mile outside the city limits. In order to get a card, I would have needed to pay $55 for a year and it was money that I didn’t have as a struggling newlywed in a new place. If I was accepted as a volunteer, I could have a library card for free and access to professionals who might be good resources to me, so this was a win win.

I filled out the application in the library and worked up some nerve to tell the librarian at the reference desk that I’d just enrolled in library school. She went from apathetic to happy immediately and introduced me to the volunteer supervisor. I made a good impression when I told her I’d love to do anything that was helpful.

Anything helpful, as it turned out, was shelf-reading for two hours twice a week. Most volunteers hated the work, and since they were mostly retired women, they had a more difficult time reaching high and low shelves. It made sense for me to inherit the job and I actually didn’t mind. I dressed well, wore a volunteer pin, and listened to music while I worked. I was on time and reliable, and I called if I wasn’t going to come in. Sometimes I got to talk to the staff about projects for school and we had some interesting conversations.

A few months in, I was offered a part-time job in circulation and I was thrilled when it paid $16 an hour. I thought I was rich. A year into my marriage and life away from home, I finally had enough money for some small luxuries like date nights and more expensive groceries.

Circulation is a good place to start.

A lot of library professionals I know started out in circulation positions and I think that’s actually a great beginning in libraries. The circulation desk is often the first greeting place, sets the tone for customer service in the library, and controls access for better or worse.

It was the only place in that small-town library where there was more than one person working in a single type of position, so I had co-workers who became close peers to me. Everyone I worked with was much older, but both of the other women at circulation were retired from other careers and became work-moms to me.

Still, there was a lot I didn’t like.

This particular library reflected its local government in a lot of ways. I learned that the town council was pretty controlling of our policies and thus, we had very strict rules. We were never allowed to negotiate or waive fines. If someone had fines, there was no way for them to use the library. If they were from out of town, they could only pay a steep price to use a guest computer. Our membership fees were hefty and our town limits were small, so there were a lot of times when potential new patrons were turned away.

I learned very quickly that I personally hate working for a library where I’m forced to say no and restrict access all day long. It made me miserable, but, at the time, I accepted it as standard in public libraries.

When I started an internship with a major library system an hour away, I found out I was wrong. This particular library was the anomaly, while most others were at least somewhat more lenient.

(I’m not including this first library in my next post about types of libraries I’ve worked for because it is so bizarre in libraryland. I’ve only seen this in small communities where there happen to be a lot of wealthy retirees and tourists as the main users.)

I made the best of things, but I wasn’t being given any kind of help in learning new skills outside of circulation, so the internship was something I sought out to fill that void.

The intern days.

Like most library internships, mine was unpaid. I drove to a major library system an hour away once a week where I’d signed up to learn more about adult services and reference skills. It was the best thing I could have done at the time because I was paired with an amazing branch manager who really cared to meet with me and help me learn exactly what I wanted. She gave me meaningful projects and all the staff at the branch were helpful and kind to me. They treated me like a temporary part of their staff. I even went to a staff meeting with them one week at the manager’s suggestion.

I made exhibits, reading lists, activities for families and kids, and observed lots of programs. I also got the experience I needed with basic reference.

Where my circulation job made me wonder if I would always be miserable in libraries, my internship showed me that every system was different and I would just need to find the right home.

Back to the small-town library.

My internship was being completed at the same time I was working in circulation. While also being in school full-time, it was a lot of work, but it was well worth it when my employer learned that I had some new skills and could handle the reference desk part-time. After another librarian left to raise a new baby, I was moved into a part-time librarian position.

This made me slightly happier at work because I wasn’t the one telling people “no” quite as often. Around the same time, a new supervisor came into her job and I used some of my newfound confidence in my career goals to ask to sit down with her and talk about what I wanted from the position. I knew she and I would get along well when she agreed to sit down with me and really listened to me. I told her I’d like to be more involved with programs and that I would like her help in building skills I would need to move into a full-time position. I was honest and told her that I didn’t even know enough to ask for what I needed.

She did help me. Looking back on it, I think she knew before I did that I would be a children’s librarian. She had me help with displays and as soon as she saw that I like being creative, she set me up with making more in the children’s department. From there, I made bookmarks with tips for learning activities for parents, but what really changed the game was our director’s insistence that everyone receive ECRR training.

Learning about early literacy and ECRR changed my whole career path. I was so intrigued right away by child development and the wealth of research that it opened up. I loved learning about it. The developmental psychology! The social emotional learning! The behavioral science! I wanted it all.

With all this new training and a new push from our director to do more outreach, I was tasked with doing storytimes in neighborhood daycares. It was another love at first sight kind of experience for me. To learn how to even do a storytime, I did a lot of googling for examples and that lead me toooo…STORYTIME UNDERGROUND! AND OTHER YOUTH SERVICES BLOGS! Not only was there a lot for me to learn, but there was a whole community online for me!

I was thrilled. I was making flannel sets at home, and learning all the finger plays, and reading so much. For the first time, I felt like a real librarian. I started actually talking to my director when I saw her in the break room. She learned my name and sometimes listened to my ideas and thought they were good. I got invited to staff meetings for the first time. I’d broken through a wall…at least in my mind.

But what about a full-time job with, you know…benefits?

In reality, I couldn’t figure out how to talk to my supervisor about ways to move up or make more money. We talked about how I couldn’t have more hours in the position I was in. I knew we didn’t have openings very often, but when we did have one, my boss encouraged me to apply.

I have to tell you something really embarrassing now. I didn’t know how to apply for an internal job. To make matters worse, there was no online application for this town. I had to walk to the Human Resources building and ask for a paper application, which I then filled out and returned in person. But…was that it? Was I supposed to attach a resume or cover letter? The woman who took my application said nothing. Neither did my supervisor. Ever.

I wasn’t interviewed and I never got any feedback from anyone. I was so hurt and humiliated that I decided to never apply for another job there, even if one opened up in the near future.

(As a hiring manager today, I look back on that experience and I promise myself to always do better by young professionals in my department or library. I proactively talk with my team about the skills they need to keep developing and help them work on their resumes and applications for other jobs. Even when someone wants to go for a promotion in our department and I can’t help them because of sticky HR issues, I send them to someone who can help.)

When I had one more semester left in my MLIS program, my partner was up for re-enlistment in the military and we had to decide together if he should or shouldn’t. Military life had kept us afloat in our first years of marriage. It was the only reason we could pay rent, or eat, or see a doctor. Military life has huge benefits, but my partner wasn’t happy and that made me unhappy. It also complicated our married life by forcing us apart for long periods of time, and, since I grew up with a dad in the military, I was pretty tired of that life.

We took a gamble and decided it was time for him to get out. It meant that in three months, we’d lose our main source of income and security and I’d have to find a full-time gig by then so that he could go back to school and pursue a new career, too.

It wasn’t perfect. My partner took advantage of unemployment, and, since he enrolled in school right away, we got some benefits from the GI Bill that helped us keep paying our rent. In the meantime, I was applying for every full-time library position I could find. It was tough, and I think my age (I was 24 and have always looked younger than I am) and inexperience knocked me out of the running for librarian positions at that stage.

It wound up taking about four or five months, but I finally got a full-time job as a library assistant. My partner transferred schools to the new city where I would be working and we were off. We paid our deposits on a townhouse rental with a credit card we had to take out to move. That first full-time gig was just $28k a year, but the benefits were great. My partner got a part-time job to help make ends meet.

I’ll be talking about that job in our next installment in this series.

TLDR;

  • Volunteering can sometimes lead to a job opportunity. Treat the time with care.
  • If you’re not learning what you need to keep growing from your job, try:
    • Asking your supervisor for help
    • Seeking out other learning opportunities like volunteer work or internships
    • Doing some extra research
  • Not all libraries are the same. Don’t lose heart if your first job makes you miserable.
  • Be open to projects outside your career goals. You might be surprised.

 

Did this post help you? It took around 2 hours of my personal time to share with you. If you would like to send me a dollar for my time, I would not be opposed. 

Career Pathways: How to choose a MLIS program

CareerPathways

“I guess what I’m asking is, how did you get your job?”

After working with a local school librarian for months, I’d endured some awkward probing from him. He asked me where I went to school and where else I’d worked. To be honest, I wrote it all off as a weird way of trying to be friends, or maybe even harmless flirting. I never thought that he was looking at me and wondering how I was qualified before this question popped out of his mouth with all the grace of a runaway train.

I’d just finished two sessions of summer learning talks and had three more to go. I think I rattled off something about how I had management experience and some experience in training and presenting for other librarians–a key part of my job. He nodded his head, but kept looking at me sort of absently, as if the pieces still weren’t coming together. I decided I wasn’t going to read my resume to him and made myself busy with checking my work email.

It was not a great exchange. To this day, my working relationship with this person is more stilted and careful than before The Question. Mostly, I came away wishing that I had a better response ready. I wish that I was more comfortable and confident in listing my qualifications and talking about the career path that led me to managing a children’s department in the main library of a major urban system. This probably isn’t the last time I’m going to field this question. So, I want to get some experience talking about my career  path with a more sympathetic audience–meaning all of you dear readers.

If you’re just joining me, you might not know that most of the content here is from my first few years in a professional library position. I started blogging when I was a full-time library assistant and I continued through my work as a rural branch manager. I wanted to give some perspective about what it’s like in the beginning of a career as a youth services librarian. I didn’t have a lot of other examples of newbies in the blogging world, but I knew I wasn’t alone and I wanted to leave a trail for other new librarians to find and to say, “Phew, okay. I’m not the only one making mistakes and this is normal for where I am in my career development.”

Now that I’ve progressed in my career and I’m reclining in a more peaceful stage, I want to stay true to that motivation by continuing to talk to early career librarians. I’m starting a series about all the factors that have driven my career so far in hopes that it will help some new librarian, even if we’re only comparing experiences.

Welcome to How to Choose a MLIS program. In future posts, I’ll be writing about the types of libraries I have worked for and the characteristics of each, the reasons I chose them, and the reasons I left them.

Also, as I move through my career timeline, I’m going to talk about my personal reasons for making career decisions, because those were just as important as my professional reasons and I don’t see many other professionals talking about that.

Some background:

I chose to go to grad school and pursue an MLIS during my senior year of undergrad. I was majoring in Creative Writing and focused on creative non-fiction. In the beginning, I wanted to be a journalist in the style of Nora Ephron. (Give me a first-person piece all day long, please.) I landed a couple of internships with local publications and found out that the road to that kind of creativity in journalism was…practically a deer trail in a remote forest, accessible only by hiking for three days with a map and a compass.

It was really unlikely for that to be my experience in journalism, and trying it would leave me financially unstable for a long time. So I went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a career that I would love and would also leave me with some time and energy for writing in my free time. Adding to my list of needs, my partner and I were getting married the next year. He was in the military, so I would need a career with jobs all over the country in case we moved a lot.

I landed on libraries because I loved the public service aspect and the idea of helping people with information and books. I’d worked in bookstores during college, mostly for minimum wage and in unhappy, abusive retail environments, but I worked in the children’s section and knew our stock like the back of my hand. My co-workers marveled at how I could find everything and make recommendations like it was nothing. It seemed like a natural progression for me to move into libraries, but I actually thought, initially, that I wanted to work with adults.

I graduated, took my GRE while I was working a horrible temp job (making what I thought was a BIG $11.50 an hour) and living with my parents, saving money for my upcoming wedding. After my nuptials, I moved to a new small town with my partner and I enrolled in grad school right away. For money, I struggled to find a job for months before I worked for a consignment store where the owner paid me $7 an hour completely under the table. Truly legit adulting.

How I chose my first program:

The first university I attended wasn’t for me. I chose it after talking to two academic librarians I knew in my hometown about their experiences in the profession and what I could expect from grad school. They both recommended this first program to me because it was inexpensive and they’d had a good experience as in-person students. I chose it based, not only not their recommendation, but also because it was the only fully online program in my state at the time. It was an hour away from the small town where I lived and in a major city. It was the program that was closest to me physically, which also came in handy. It checked a lot of boxes on paper. As a new student, when I enrolled in classes, I was one of the last to sign up and one of the online courses I needed in my first semester was full. The instructor couldn’t be reached, so I wound up taking one class in person and two online.

Things went downhill from there. I found out on my first day of class that I wasn’t allowed to park on campus as a grad student and would need to walk, at night, for several blocks in a high-crime area. My in-person instructor took a personal phone call in the middle of class, and talked in front of the class for five minutes. Another instructor I had online was on vacation during the first week of class and didn’t send any indication to his students that our class wouldn’t start for another week. When we tried calling him, we learned he had given us the wrong phone number in our syllabus and only found out he was gone because I called another instructor to ask about it.

I was also disappointed in the lack of financial aid I received from the university. My partner and I were not earning very much, but I didn’t receive any aid based on need.

I was only in the program for two weeks, but everyone I interacted with left me wanting more from my experience. I dropped out and took a financial blow for it when I was charged with $1200 for tuition. I wish I had known more about finances at the time because I should have negotiated that down, but I didn’t. (Yes, you can negotiate your tuition and fees.) I eventually paid it off when my partner made some bonus money.

When you know better, you do better.

There were only three schools in my state that offered a MLIS program and I just eliminated one as a possibility. The second was a very well-known program that was designed to be three years and was…quite expensive. Most MLIS programs are two years, so despite the school’s reputation for excellence, I didn’t think it would outweigh the expense and delay in starting my career as an MLIS-toting professional.

The third school almost had to be good enough, but I was willing to look outside the state if necessary. It had some online courses, but I knew I might be taking some courses in person and driving an hour and a half to get there. I emailed a faculty advisor and asked some questions about what I could expect from faculty, the resources they provided, and what courses would be best for me going into public libraries. I had my suspicions that it was going to be focused on academia after seeing that many of the elective courses were geared towards that. The advisor responded to me quickly and warmly. She acknowledged that the program leaned a little more heavily toward academia, but that she and other professors would be eager and willing to help me make connections with public libraries. She also said they were working on adding more courses for a public library focus and were committed to diversifying their faculty and student body. I found out that the program offered diversity scholarships, which I didn’t qualify for or want, but it was nice to hear. I visited the school, met with an instructor, and got a good feeling.

I submitted a FAFSA and was happily surprised that I received some need-based grants that helped me with tuition.

I enrolled. After my first semester, the school introduced a fully online program, so I only had to take one course in person. My experience as an online student was good, mostly because I found my peer connections with professionals I knew locally. I was getting on-the-job experience while I was studying by volunteering at my local public library and interning for a major urban system an hour away. I had good communication with my professors and when I told them that I was using resources available in my local public library because those were most applicable to me, they all understood, with one notable exception. During a reference course, my instructor once sent me a pretty harsh email basically asserting that I wasn’t trying hard enough because I used public library databases and resources. He ultimately gave me a high grade and gushed about my final project, which was based on local history sources we had at the library where I volunteered.

Do online degrees hold you back?

Honestly, no one has ever asked me in an interview if my degree was online or in person. No one has ever asked about my MLIS program experience at all. It’s a line in my resume that checks a necessary box and employers care way more about job experience.

If you live in a big state and you aren’t currently located in a major city, chances are that an online program is a better fit for you than trying to drive for hours to a university three days a week. Online programs are also really handy for people with children and/or full-time jobs with fluctuating hours. They’re quite common now and I think anyone who looks down on them is unreasonable.

I think creating connections for myself locally was pivotal, though. I worked hard in class, but I worked just as hard to be professional, dependable, and assertive as a volunteer and intern. I was offered a part-time job in the library where I volunteered after a few months (earning $16 an hour in circulation, no less), and was eventually promoted to become a part-time librarian there. During my internship, I met a mentor who gave me great career advice and continued to check in with me after my internship ended. My internship gave me my first experience at designing and running programs. It was huge for me and helped me get that promotion to become a part-time librarian.

By contrast, I knew people who went to more expensive, renowned, traditional schools, but never tried to get on-the-job experience during their studies and were shocked that they couldn’t get full-time librarian jobs right away.

There’s definitely something to be said for the peer networks you develop in traditional programs and completing a rigorous degree is always something to be very proud of, but there’s no career advantage in public libraryland except for people who work really hard on the job.

TLDR;

  • Submit FAFSAs to multiple schools and compare the aid they offer. Negotiate if there’s one you really want to go to, but another school made a better offer.
  • Visit campuses. Meet with advisors and instructors. Read reviews or ask former students.
  • If you do find yourself in a program that leaves you wanting more, find a new one. It happens, unfortunately.
  • Don’t shy away from online programs. They’re great.
  • Get on-the-job experience, even if you’re only volunteering.
  • Let no experience be beneath you. Anything could turn into good experience or a paying gig.

That’s it for this week. See you next time!

Did this post help you? It took around 2 hours of my personal time to share with you. If you would like to send me a dollar for my time, I would not be opposed.