by Brianna Marshall
As a second-year SLIS student, I’ve talked to quite a few new students in my program who are anxious about securing library jobs. I can understand how they feel; after all, one year ago I was a freshly-minted SLIS student. I had never gotten paid to work in a library. I came to library school with the sage advice of my mentor, a very recent library school grad, ringing in my ears. She had conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that I should work as much as I could while going to school to build my resume. Because of her, I came to library school knowing I needed to jump right in—-but that didn’t make the process any easier.
By now I’ve held several jobs and it has led me to realize that my real education happens when I go to work every day. I view my coursework as something to get through; if my classes are enjoyable it’s a plus. I have taken enthralling classes, practical classes, boring classes, and enragingly irrelevant classes. They’ve fallen all over the spectrum. So while I attempt to do well in them, my main priority is working as much as is feasible. I firmly believe that library jobs should always trump coursework because if you do not work, you will not get a job in a library upon graduating. We could squabble about the particulars (maybe you could get a paraprofessional position without experience) but I don’t think it’s contestable. The library job market is intensely competitive and the more library experience you have, the better off you will be.
With that said, the following are a few tips I have for new students looking to work while in library school.
Reconsider “waiting to settle in” before getting a job.
I’m not trying to be callous: I understand the hectic nature of moving a few days before classes start, unpacking, dealing with a new living situation, navigating an unknown city and campus. At times, applying for jobs seems like it can hang out on the back burner as you switch to survival mode for the foreseeable future. However, I’m always wary when I hear this because it’s altogether too easy to let a month, then a semester, slip by. By the time you begin applying for student jobs, you may realize that it takes longer to land a student job than you initially thought. If you are pursuing the average MLS-seeking timeline of 2 years, that’s a significant chunk of a fabulous window of opportunity that you end up not working!
Be enthusiastic…and not too picky.
Especially if you are coming to library school without prior library experience, you’d better plan to bust out the charm. Just like competition for professional positions, competition for student positions is fierce (at least at my university). Personality and enthusiasm means a lot. Also, don’t be too selective in the jobs you are applying to. If you want to be an archivist upon graduation, of course apply for any and all archives jobs that come up… but for your first semester, grab whatever position you can in the library system rather than holding out for the “perfect” job. In my library, the common wisdom is that it is easier to get a job you love after you have another job in the system. You’re seen as less of a wild card that way.
Be aware of the difference between being too picky and settling, though. You very well might need to initially take a non-library job or a less-than-ideal library job (book reshelver, for instance) to pay the rent, but stay actively on the lookout for library jobs. Don’t let a temporary setback become a barrier to building a strong resume that will make you competitive for professional jobs.
Have a resume, CV, and sample cover letter on cloud storage.
I would recommend Dropbox or Google Docs for this purpose. At the very least, include your resume as an attachment archived on your email account. There is power in having access to this document any time and place you can get on the internet; instead of an arduous process, updating these documents becomes simple and no longer tied to location. At my institution, sometimes supervisors for widely coveted jobs like reference assistant stop accepting applications after a window of only a few hours, so time is of the essence. You don’t want to have to either start from scratch since you’re at school all day or chance it by waiting until you get home to apply. The cover letter will need to be tweaked, but I always find it much easier to adjust one that is already created than to start from scratch on a blank page.
Find your balance.
Everyone comes into library school with a different set of responsibilities that then affect their classes, work, and life for the duration of their program. Work within your own circumstances to determine the workload you’re comfortable with—-preferably one that allows you to maintain your classes, personal responsibilities, and some semblance of life satisfaction.
A big distraction to finding this balance can be comparing yourself to your peers. Keeping up with what they are doing and taking inspiration from their accomplishments can be a great motivator but it can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, especially during the beginning of your library school career. Challenge yourself without getting bogged down by comparisons.
I believe that amazing growth is possible in library school, but it requires toughening up. Learn to get comfortable going through every step in the job application process: the giddiness you feel when you see that job posting, the whirlwind compilation of application materials, the nervewracking interview you leave not knowing if it went well or not. A few days later, if you get the dreaded email that you haven’t been selected for a position, compose a short, gracious response thanking the person for considering you. Then immediately archive that junk! After all, you don’t need it poisoning your inbox and bruising up your ego every time you glance at it. Allow yourself to mourn the loss of that perfect student job that you fell so hard for. Rejection rarely fails to sting (even after you have other successes keeping you buoyant) but keep in mind that everyone, even those library heroes you put up on a pedestal, has experienced it. I try to remind myself that success is often just another word for tenacity. So keep applying… before you know it a job will stick!