I barely read Librarian Wannabes anymore, although I am still subscribed to a daily digest. It’s not that the list is not a good resource anymore, it’s just that I have been through a few cycles already of people asking the same questions: “is the labor market dried up?” “how much on-the-job experience do I need?” “what’s the best school?” “is it better to do in-person or online?” etc. These are all very important questions, I am sure, but there are always enough people to chime in on these discussions and my responses still haven’t changed that much.
Today I saw John Gant’s excellent letter on Job seeking for librarians and it inspired me to attempt the next level — that is to offer meaningful advice to students about what (in my view) is important in the professional realm.
The challenge here, however, is that I have a major advantage over the “librarian wannabe” and I definitely want to acknowledge this. A wannabe has to deal with a level of uncertainty that I have now probably (and thankfully) forgotten. When I was a wannabe, I just wanted people to tell me that my job was guaranteed after I graduated. And, of course, no one could — so I’d come up with other questions instead — “are librarians going to retire en masse in the future?” “Does my paraprofessional experience mean anything to the workplace?” Aka: “What is the future oh great professional swami?”
Of course, the best that anyone in my position can do to help out with uncertainty is to sing a few verses of “Que Sera Sera.” There are so many factors that apply when careers and the people who want them encounter each other, that it is hard to comment.
It seems to me that every class is going to have its individuals who will excel in library school but, for one reason or another, will not find a job. Some of the factors will be individual — for instance, a person will lack social skills, making them perform poorly in interviews. Some factors, unfortunately, will be social or cultural — for example, while one might hope that discrimination does not exist in the workplace, men still dominate technical librarianship. Others will be based on what people are willing to do versus what work actually exists.
In the end, the labor market will always appear tight to those who cannot find a job and the people who do love these people will not say otherwise because doing so amounts to saying “you aren’t cut out for the job.”
Those who get jobs will always think that it was their own individual success that got them there, rather than some external factor. Those who do not get jobs will see external factors (like the labor market) as the most important. It is absolutely impossible to be objective on this front.
So, I ask myself, how can I be helpful here? Well, one thing I have done is talked to both students and professionals and I can relay some differences between what gets the idea of “librarian” into a prospective student and how the professional actually behaves. I will do this by headlining a few things I have heard from the “spanking new” library school student and how well it meshes with my experience (and the experiences of other professionals).
But first I want to make two things clear. 1) I am generalizing. Exceptions abound and I am glad for that. However, I am willing to guess that even the “exceptions” will know one or more librarian wannabes who fit into my generalization. 2) That students have a rosy view of their librarianship future doesn’t mean that we are going to have a horrible workforce. Part of going to school is testing one’s perception of something versus the real thing. In no way am I trying to imply that library school students are naive or otherwise missing the point. In fact, I think the rosiness is something to cherish in librarians. I just want to point out that the visions are rosy, and do my part to make sure the rosiness is tempered with plain old common sense.
So here goes — what do library school students seem to think, and what “yeah buts” do I have to add to them?
- “I like Things to Be Organized, therefore I will be a Successful Librarian”
YEAH BUT #1: you have to get used to the idea that you will be dealing with other people’s messes all the time. If you can’t live with a mess, you better learn to fast. A library that is always perfectly organized is one that no one uses and that is a bad thing.
YEAH BUT #2: managing and organizing information is always 3 parts organizing people to the one part organizing stuff. If you do not want to think about people when you organize stuff, you probably have to re-think your choice of becoming a librarian.
- “I got into Librarianship because I Like Books”
YEAH BUT #1: I did a little reading myself over vacation. Besides that, I can’t really tell you the last work of fiction I read. Being a librarian is definitely not being a “professional reader.” You read articles, blogs, reviews, reports, and maybe some management tomes if you are lucky. But your book-reading days are going to take a serious hit. See if you can change your love of books into a love of book-lovers, then you are going to be cooking with gas.
YEAH BUT #2: Do you love other information technologies as well? The way something is displayed is not as important as what is being displayed. You better be ready for a world full of wikipedias, blogs, YouTube and the like to go along with the hard copies.
- “I worked towards my Master/PhD/Post-doctorate in X and then I thought I wanted to become an academic librarian instead.”
YEAH BUT #1: You probably will notice alot of people in your class are saying the exact same thing. Many of them already have the PhD. How is your resume going to be more impressive than theirs? Don’t you think you need a fall-back?
YEAH BUT #2: librarianship is not proxy-academia. Will you be able to reconcile the service aspects of the job with the [not as prestigious as professors] research and teaching aspects?
- “I Love Kids and Kids’ Books.”
YEAH BUT #1: Do you love parents and the books that parents want their kids to read also? How about teachers? Cub Scout/Girl Guide Masters? As a professional, you will probably be talking to these folks more than you will be talking to the kids in their care. Your staff will be doing the puppetshows & storytimes most likely.
YEAH BUT #2: Do you love foul-mouthed, kissing-in-public teenagers that will also visit your children’s department? Can you be calm, assertive, and positive among teens of all shapes and sizes? Can you insist on respect while at the same time show it consistently?
YEAH BUT #3: Can you mediate (and be fair doing it) when the adult parents of children and teenagers come to loggerheads?
- “I got into Librarianship because I feel strongly about Censorship/Privacy/Intellectual Property etc.”
YEAH BUT #1: Can you show sufficient empathy for the parent, public servant, political official, or pundit who disagrees with you while at the same time using solid evidence to support your views?
YEAH BUT #2: Can you consistently take challenges to your assumptions as seriously as if it was cancer? Can you take a step back from your beliefs and identify problems in the broad view?
YEAH BUT #3: Could you accept that a higher body may require you to implement policies with which you do not agree? Can you tell the difference between a “toe the line” situation and a “blow the whistle” situation? Can you speak truth to power, while accepting that by becoming a public servant, you give up power for the benefit of anonymity in public affairs.
- “I like the idea of being one of the world’s only subversive professions left.”
YEAH BUT: Can you inspire other subversives too?
That’s a general list of some things that I think librarian wannabes should think about while they go to school. I’m not worried that wannabes have rosy expectations of the profession, because I believe that most wannabes can re-shape their perception when they see they are deluded. At the same time, there should be a tinge of these rosy concepts sitting in their heads as well. Notice, that I used “YEAH BUT” rather than simply declaring the beliefs as mythical. There is truth in such beliefs as “librarians protect the public from censorship,” but there’s also the reality that no subject is clear-cut and grey areas abound inside every subject.
And how is all this related to the labor market? Well, I guess the point is that you just have to forget about the labor market for a bit and ask “is this what I really want?” If you can’t deal with the sort of realities I describe here, you are doing no one a favor by toughing it out through school. If you can deal with these realities and still keep that rosy understanding of libraries then the labor market is just one of many barriers that stand in the way between you and your idea job. The problem then is just a matter of how to get beyond the barriers.