Questions prompted by my search for a new library job

I’m job-hunting at the moment, and I’ve noticed that the whole business is fantastic for generating questions.

Sometimes it’s pretty wearing, as a lot of these questions take the form of endlessly second-guessing myself. Things like: “If I apply for x job, will I look ambitious and highly-motivated, or will I look like I’m totally out of touch with reality? If I apply for y job, will I seem flexible or desperate? If I propose that a library change xyz as part of my interview, will I look like I have a lot of initiative, or will I just seem a bit presumptuous? If I make reference to a library’s Annual Plan and associated literature in my selection criteria, will I look like I’ve done my research, or like someone who has no ideas of her own?”

Being a contrarian comes about as naturally to me as respiration and reblogging cat videos, so I find I’m great at being able to make arguments for either side, all the while knowing deep down that context, rather than an absolute law one way or the other, is really the deciding factor. I’ve decided there’s no point being hard on myself: it’s a highly competitive industry and looking for work is stressful, so I’m not surprised to find myself asking these kinds of questions.

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Mastering a heavy bass drop is a standard component of today’s LIS degrees – via the Harry Ransom Centre – click for source

A few weeks ago I attended an ALIA New Grads interview skills session, held at the always-bustling RMIT CBD campus library. All three of the speakers – Hugh Rundle, Darren Ryan and Yasmin Moore – offered up extremely practical advice, which was great for me as interviewing is not my strong suit (which to my mind represents a peculiar mental hurdle – in a non-job-interview setting I’m actually great at talking about libraries and answering strangers’ important questions.)

Some of my job-search questions were answered during the presentations, and some of them during the discussion period which followed. On reflection though, the true value of attending was not in the questions answered, but the questions posed.

Yasmin Moore made reference to Michael Carney and Holger Aman’s presentation at the 2014 ALIA National Conference, Librarians don’t read on the job, a qualitative survey about librarianship, which featured 6 questions:

What were you doing before you became a librarian?

What made you decide to become a librarian?

What did you expect librarianship to be like when you first considered it?

Did your studies change your expectations?

How does your current experience as a qualified librarian compare to your expectations?

Is there anything you now wish you knew when you decided to enter the profession?

Moore encouraged all attendees to reflect on these questions as a means of preparing ourselves for our job search, and of clarifying our own goals, motivations and expectations (even if only to ourselves). These are fantastic questions, and having finished my degree in July, it was really helpful to be prompted to think seriously about where I’ve been in libraries, what I’ve learned, and how the experiences stack up against my expectations.

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Tech-savvy librarians embrace mobile computing  – via Wikimedia – click for source

I feel like I had a fairly well-rounded and contemporary idea of what librarianship constituted when I began my degree, but this was largely due to having already worked in libraries for several years. Still, there are a few things I know now which I wish I’d been able to tell myself back when I started studying.

A few relate to studying in general, i.e.:

1. Studying part time while working will be much, much harder than you think. Consider your life eaten. Accept it now

2. If you’re struggling with something, figure out how it relates to something you already know about. (My fine arts degree got me through my database design unit. I wish I’d figured this one out at the start of semester, instead of 2/3 of the way through)

3. Post graduate level studies demand a meticulous approach to keeping track of your citations/references/sources. You don’t want to spend a lot of time being this dork: Where did I read that awesome thing about x? I think it was on someone’s blog, but how did I get there? Maybe via Moodle? But was it for this unit? Was it even this semester? etc.

I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that playing detective to track down that one thing about x is so irritating, or the fact that being even slightly organised about things means that it’s totally avoidable. (A little plug for RefMe here. If I’d known about it earlier in my degree, I’d probably have graduated with a little bit more hair)

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Actual photo of me before I started my LIS degree – via Wellcome Library – click for source

And some to librarianship specifically:

1. Your perception of librarianship as being a profession which welcomes you has more to do with your being white, cis and able-bodied than you are fully cognizant of. Educate yourself: do your own research, and listen

2. You might think you’re open-minded about what constitutes data or information or knowledge, but odds are, your dominant paradigms for thinking about them still revolve around knowledge-as-object and knowledge-as-resource. So you know, look into that as well

3. Your “soft skills” – listening, reflecting, communicating, empathising etc – are an essential component of being an excellent librarian. Don’t ignore or under-value them.

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Zine-makers hanging out in the makerspace – via Wellcome Images – click for source

The other question I was asked that night came from a colleague – the deeply cool and supremely hard-working Romany Manuell – who simply asked me, “what is your dream job?”

It’s a simple question, but not one I expected to be asked, so I was caught off-guard and found it difficult to answer. The characteristics of my dream job are closely connected to Carney and Aman’s second question: What made you decide to become a librarian? I thought about all the aspects of librarianship which attracted me in the first place: advocacy, creativity, social inclusion, community building – my dream job would have a lot of that. Defining it beyond naming these characteristics? I have some ideas, but given how much librarianship is changing, I’m not so sure how useful it is to get caught up in specifics.

Meanwhile, spending some time defining these desirable characteristics doesn’t make the dream job materialise, but I’ve found it helps to keep me focused when I’m writing selection criteria. I think it also opens up possibilities beyond libraries – our skills transfer extremely well to other industries/roles, and if we can identify desirable characteristics in other fields, we can perhaps cast a wider net while we’re job hunting. (see: Non-traditional jobs for librarians61 Non-librarian jobs for LIS grads and Alternative carreers for LIS grads.)

Which brings me to the questions that I’m currently asking myself: What do I have to offer? What kind of workplace do I want? On what am I willing and not willing to compromise? Where am I trying to get to?

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Is my resume truly complete if I’ve omitted the many Googlewhacks I got back in 2002? via Wellcome Images – click for source

Again, the answers seem pretty variable and reliant on numerous other factors. It’s something of a double edged sword – I think asking these questions can be both invigorating and dispiriting, depending on how the job search is going. Being able to discern the useful questions from the irrelevant ones is a skill not so far removed from those I’d lean on for a reference enquiry. So perhaps there’s value in mentally reclassifying a job search as a form of professional development…?

And with that in mind, here are some truly helpful resources I’ve come across while I’ve been looking for library work:

And to anyone else asking these kinds of questions at the moment, good luck. I hope you turn up some useful answers.

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