Friday, 19 August 2011

Go west, young librarian

I’m not a qualified librarian, but I’ve spent the last 19 years studying, researching, or teaching in the library sector, in a number of guises. I’m also a library campaigner and advocate, with interests in library funding and public perception issues. And I've worked on reference (this was a very long time ago now, before the web et al) and lugged books around a library.

From observation, and many conversations over many gin and tonics, there’s a lot of advice I’d like to pass on to library school students. Use social media to keep up to date with things librariana and find like-minded people; try new tech, but with a critical mind; advocate; don't restrict yourself to one narrow niche of librarianship; stay positive.

Straight On

But the most important thing I'd like to urge is ... try not to geographically limit yourself when job hunting. Okay, I'm perhaps biased in that I like travel (59 trips abroad, including 11 to the USA). But, although I've added slightly to global warming, my only regret is that I haven't travelled more and lost out on the possibilities to meet more people, see more things, and eat more ... calories. Cuisine, I meant cuisine.

There’s been an assumption for many years that librarian positions would remain plentiful. Sometimes, this assumption is limited to public libraries; other times, depending on the context, to the wider information, private and public sectors. The “baby boomer” generation of librarians would rapidly retire, leaving a critical shortage of vacancies.

Two head for America, one comes back

Hasn’t happened. Why? Partially as many are clinging on and delaying retirement till as late as possible. Partially as public libraries in particular are contracting. Partially as library schools produce an astonishing number, many tens of thousands, of qualified librarians every year, most seeking ... employment as a librarian. That shortage of vacancies hasn’t happened. And unless you somehow avoid all news and library media, you’ll probably be aware that it’s unlikely to happen, for a long while at the very least. Waiting for local positions may involve a very long wait.

A tweet from a few days ago (this article is a not a criticism of that tweet, btw) reads:


Not a good situation, but not an extreme example.

A regularly heard sentiment from library school students is that they like the town or city that they are studying in, and they want to stay there after qualifying, getting a local job and transforming from bohemian student to bohemian librarian. Moving is expensive, and a pain. There may be local romance, and relocation could lead to heartache. Roots may have been put down. So after completing their masters, they’ll look locally for employment. That may be nice, but there’s two problems with this. There’s probably a lot of other alumni from the library school in the locality, and they’ll be fighting you for every position that comes up. (And as they are previous alumni, they’ve probably got you beat on the experience front.) Note the public library position in the midwest last year, which received (according to what one of the [many] disappointed prospective librarians was told) over 400 applications. 400?!

And also, while you’re waiting to get a job locally - you’ll be unemployed. Although you may love Ann Arbor, Austin, Bloomington, Madison, Seattle or wherever you are, it’s a little harder to love a place when you haven’t got an income.

Sandpipers Wake

My better half is now the Systems Librarian of a midwest academic college, and on tenure track. She achieved this partially by having no issue with relocating, leaving library school in Wisconsin to bag an academic library position in southern Ohio, then relocating a few years later to Iowa. She’s still in her twenties. This wouldn’t have happened without a willingness to relocate.

… which is another point - relocation has lots of upsides. You can make a fresh start. Meet new people. Avoid people you dislike, as you won’t be seeing them any more. And leave behind the things you don’t like. The heat of the south getting to you? Look for positions in New England, Seattle, or across the border (the Canadian one, doh!). Don’t like the snowy cold winters? Move in the other direction. Don’t like the “Everyone knows who’s slept with everyone else” gossip nature of your small town? Head for Chicago, New York or LA. Hate the anonymity of the city; head into the rural plains. Try new experiences, restaurants, cuisines, events, things to see and do. New beaches to swim off, forests to walk through, vistas to photograph. Encounter different cultures - even in the same country. Especially in the cultural fondue pot that is the USA. Many sayings are trite and suspect, but “Travel broadens the mind...” is one of the better ones.

Train Tracks After the Blizzard 1-27-11_

And relocating also gives you a better frame of reference. You now have another place that you may like, or not like, but can compare with other places. If you don’t like where you’ve moved to … then look for something else, somewhere else. It’s not a failure; it’s an adventure. And all the time, you are banking both work experience, and life experience.

So, if you can, consider widening your job search to as far as possible. And if you can’t, then are the hurdles genuine? “The children are at junior school...” - that’s genuine. “I’m looking after elderly parents” also makes relocation very difficult, if not impossible.

nature (songe - cheminement)

But “My partner won’t understand...” - well, maybe he or she needs to be flexible, especially as your income, career and self-worth may depend on it. “I like the apartment I currently rent...” - you may like a new one more, and a new job may make the day you can buy your own place come more quickly. “It’s a long drive and gas is expensive...” - look, I’m European and when Americans say this to us, we just laugh, point at petrol prices in our continent and tell you to do the calculations.

And as for saying (and I’ve heard this) “I can’t move because it would unsettle my cats”...

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