Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


March 2004

Vol VIII Issue III

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University of Washington
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First Year Librarians Tell it Like it Is

By Jennie Westlund, MLIS Evening
Of the half dozen PLA programs I attended, one of the best was “First-Year Librarianship: An Exploration of What’s Working and Where We’re Going.” As an MLIS student who will be seeking her first professional job in a few months, this program was timely.

Ria Newhouse (Hancock County PL) and April Spisak (Clark County PL), presented the results of their recent survey of new or first year librarians. The inspiration for the survey came to one of the panelists, when, performing her own job as a new librarian, she found herself considering “Everything that Grad Schools Don’t Offer that Librarians Need to Know.” Newhouse and Spisak designed the survey to collect data on job satisfaction, relevance of graduate education coursework to “the real world,” and to solicit ideas on what an employer/supervisor could do to improve the new librarian’s situation, if improvement was needed.

The new librarians who responded to the survey are, for the most part, happy in their jobs, but have some complaints. Many noted the lack of certain MLIS courses that would have been beneficial. These include cataloging, patron services (how to deal with difficult patrons, collection development for specific groups, and conflict management), budgeting, programming, readers’ advisory, and advanced reference skills. Many of the respondents do not feel comfortable conducting reference interviews or in planning and presenting programs. Some complained that coursework focused too much on theory and not enough on practical matters. (A subject my classmates and I have NEVER discussed.) When competing with other job applicants, some feel that they would have been given more consideration if they had had practical experience to offer to a potential employer.

On the positive side, many respondents reported that they find satisfaction in the act of assisting patrons to find needed information. They enjoy teaching patrons new skills and in receiving instant positive feedback. New librarians reported finding challenge in developing programs, helping kids and teens, developing their library’s collections, and, overall, in having a positive impact on people’s lives. However, while many new librarians enjoy their jobs, they couldn’t see themselves working their way into management positions – the traditional career track. Many envisioned longer hours, low compensation, and too much distance between themselves and what brought them into the profession – the patrons.

Some respondents stated that if librarian salaries didn’t increase, they didn’t plan long term careers as public librarians. Many are saddled with repayment of not only graduate degree loans, but also undergraduate degree loans, with barely enough to get by each month. Many new librarians are not members of two career families, as was traditionally the case, and making it as a single person on a beginning librarian’s salary is difficult for some. Some are working two (or more) jobs to support themselves.

Many of those conducting job searches complained about the lack of jobs, and wondered about those “openings in the future” that had been promised. It seems that many career librarians of retirement age have stayed on the job, because of the country’s economic downturn. Consequently, many new librarians find themselves in competition with more experienced librarians. Many don’t have the required experience to obtain that first job. The presenters asked, “Are we setting up new librarians to fail?”

The third panelist, Sally Porter of King County Library System, acknowledged that the economic climate changed in 2001 and that many librarians postponed retirement, increasing competition for new graduates trying to land their first professional job. She added that all library systems are trying to do more with less, and staff training budgets have been affected, along with other areas. Many library managers are not able to provide desk coverage that will allow their staff members to attend the training that IS offered. She agreed that librarians should earn a living wage.

Porter said that KCLS has responded to the needs of new professionals, and to those considering librarianship, in several ways. Student librarian positions offer training and experience in working with patrons, conducting reference interviews, planning and presenting programs, and offer exposure to collection development and information technology services, among other areas. KCLS recently launched a tuition reimbursement program for staff members, and encourages MLIS students to do directed fieldwork in a KCLS community library. (I am nearing the end of my own ten weeks of fieldwork on a public library reference desk and can testify that the experience has been valuable.) KCLS is developing a competency-based hiring process which could open doors for new librarians who have competed unsuccessfully with experienced librarians. The hiring process will factor in a candidate’s competencies (which may be developed outside of the context of a professional position), in addition to on-the-job experience. She added that the bureaucratic issues and morale problems about which first year librarians complained were not exclusive to the first year on the job.

Sally encouraged candidates to thoroughly research the libraries they were interested in. Being able to speak intelligently about a library’s vision or mission makes a strong impression in an interview. She also urged candidates to ask interviewers: “What are the library’s service priorities?” “What does the average week on the job look like?” “How are decisions made?” Make an effort to learn about the community. Visit the library beforehand. See how staff members interact with the patrons, and with each other. All of these things will give you a better idea of how well the job would fit, and tell you if you would be happy in that setting. And, she added, if you don’t feel good about a job once you have it, consider what suggestions you could make, and what changes you might be able to implement. Whatever you do, retain your personal integrity and the passion that brought you to the profession. Life, she said, is too short to be bitter, angry or resentful about where you work. If you can’t change it, move on.

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