Navigating the Horrible Valley of Librarian Job Searches

Last year, I was approached by someone who wanted me to contribute to their new librarian website. Flattered, I jumped at the chance. I began trading emails with the site’s owner and looking at his site. We talked about what his site’s purpose was and I, respectfully, gave him some design critiques. I also invited him to provide a reciprocal  contribution to this site.

At the same time I was also preparing a presentation for the 2017 Missouri Library Association conference. I took the opportunity to flesh out the ideas I was going to be discussing in my presentation for this new site. Even though what I submitted was much longer than asked for the site owner seemed ecstatic and posted the piece without delay. I again offered to host a posting by the site owner but was ignored.

You’ll notice that I’m not posting the URL for the site in question. That’s because as far as I can tell the site no longer exists. Furthermore, I never got that reciprocal post. This is the “negative experience” referenced in the Contributors page. Below is a version of that recently rediscovered post edited for this site. I thought now would be a good time to resurrect it since I’ve not been able to write anything new, lately. Enjoy.


There are few activities that we participate in in our lives that are more humiliating and depressing than searching for a job. We scour the internet hoping against hope that some desirable organization in some desirable location will have just the right open position that meets our pay requirements, experience, values, and skills. Occasionally, we find those, but usually we have to settle for something that’s just “good enough.”

Once we finally find that good enough position, there is the usually obnoxious and occasionally degrading process of actually applying for the job. If you’re lucky, all you have to do is email them your resume and cover letter. In my experience, however, it’s usually worse. Usually, you have to spend ninety minutes filling out an online application that contains all of the information in your carefully constructed resume, then uploading your actual resume, and you still have to write the cover letter.

Oh, the cover letter. In three to five paragraphs introduce yourself to a stranger, explain how you meet all twelve required qualifications, plus three of the preferred qualifications, and explain why you want to work for this particular wonderful organization that you probably just heard of for the first time. Also, do so in a punchy dynamic way that doesn’t waste anyone’s time because the people sorting through these things don’t have time to read them, anyway. And keep it to one page.

The system sucks.

It’s really amazing that anyone ever gets a job that they’re happy with.

I got my first library job in 2005; my first full-time job in 2008. I was able to use that job to go to library school for only 25% of tuition, beginning in 2011. I finally graduated in 2015 and spent two-and-a-half years applying for jobs across the country before finally landing a better job 1,600 miles away from home. This “better job,” by the way, is STILL not a “professional” librarian job. That’s now more than thirteen years’ experience and three-and-a-half years after my Master’s degree and I still don’t have “Librarian” printed on my official business cards.

Finding a job is hard. No one should blame you if you simply give up and become a Lyft driver, instead. But if you want to stick it out there are opportunities, even if they’re not the ones you dreamed about. In 2017 I moderated a roundtable discussion at the Missouri Library Association’s annual conference called, “Job Seekers’ Support Group: Navigating the Horrible Valley of Library Job Searching.” I had the idea at the 2016 conference when I saw a need as a frustrated library graduate in a dead-end job. When they asked for session ideas for the following year I submitted. Then, I forgot about it. Then, I got a job a third of the way across the country.

While this session wasn’t your traditional conference presentation, I did prepare a few slides for conversation aids. I’ll take the opportunity, here, to elaborate on my points; hopefully to the benefit of everyone.

MY BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS

  • Application forms: Discussed above.
  • Lack of salary range posting/”salary commensurate with experience”: Most of us have a bare minimum that we can earn to preserve the relative financial health of our family. Not posting the range, especially when it’s a publicly funded organization, just makes it look like they’re ashamed of the number they are actually offering. Furthermore, can anyone properly define “commensurate with experience”?
  • HR Black Hole: More than half of all job applications are not responded to in any way.
  • Disingenuous Interviewers: The St. Louis County Library once scheduled a telephone interview with me that lasted approximately thirty seconds and was no more than three questions long. Even if the interviews are cursory, because HR policy requires a minimum number, hiring managers should show their prospective employees some simple human dignity and not waste their time.
  • Demanding 3+ years of professional experience for entry-level work: This is common across all professions, but made worse by the market glut in librarianship.
  • Post mortem second guessing: Probably worse than anything else for our self-esteem is the critical introspection we do after the interview. “How did I fail?” “What did I say wrong?” etc. Ninety percent of the time your personal performance has nothing to do with your employability for that position.
  • Being abandoned at the airport: All would-be employers owe you basic human dignity. If they can’t get their act together, it’s not a place you want to work, anyway. Also, don’t apply to work at the University of Cincinnati, who abandoned me at the airport.

MY BIGGEST MISTAKES

  • Bad attitude/Bad-mouthing my current employer: I worked in a toxic workplace, and that fact would occasionally come off of me in waves of despair and desperation. Do everything you can to not badmouth your current employer, no matter how awful it is. If nothing else, stick to the facts, and not your feelings.
  • Not sending “Thank you” notes: I’m skeptical of the efficacy of “Thank you” notes, but I never got a job in which I did not send them.
  • Not updating your Resume/CV with correct information: If they can’t find you, they can’t hire you.
  • Not asking questions: It doesn’t matter how well you think you understand the job or the organization. If you don’t ask questions you will seem arrogant or disinterested. Both are bad. If nothing else, ask questions to reiterate your understanding of the position.
  • Not taking notes: Much like asking questions, taking notes shows your interest and engagement in the position and organization.
  • Not reading job postings closely enough: Make sure you know EXACTLY what position you are interviewing for, not some broad description of the type of job.
  • Presentations too broad: When asked to give a presentation, be sure to show that you have deep knowledge of a particular topic, not just that you only understand the broad concepts.
  • Getting too emotional: Similar to the bad-mouthing caution; being unable to control your emotions will show you as someone who can’t handle stressful situations.

BEST ADVICE

  • DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY: Capitalized because I can’t say it loudly enough. Your personal worth has nothing to do with whether or not you got the job.
  • Dress for the job you want: I wore a tie for every single job I ever interviewed for, and a suit for every in-person interview. How one dresses always advertises two things: 1) What you think of yourself, and 2) What you think of others. If you want to be treated with respect, dress in such a way that shows respect.
  • Never say “no” to an interview: Even if it’s not exactly the job you want, there is nothing that can replace interview experience. You never have to take any job offered to you.
  • Be flexible/Apply outside your comfort zone, within reason: We all started out on this journey knowing exactly the kind of librarian we wanted to be. The fact is there are probably other areas in which we could be happy or successful. Take a risk.
  • Make them say “no” to you: Don’t do their work for them. You have nothing to lose by trying for a job. Present your best self with confidence and place the ball in their court.
  • Search nationwide: This may be the hardest piece of advice. The facts are that there are far more librarians than library positions. That job at your child’s elementary school may not open up, or you may not get it. If you are going to be successful you MUST apply for jobs outside your geographic area. If you can’t do that then I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time and your money getting that library degree.
  • Don’t give up: Any library job is better than no library job. If you keep at it, and take every opportunity to learn new skills and improve the ones you already have, then you will get something somewhere.

Hopefully, now that I’ve been able to get a better job than I had when I submitted the session idea gives me some credibility. Hopefully, this post will help someone else struggling to endure in their job search. There is currently no reason for me to look for a job, thankfully, but there likely will come a time when I’m ready to move on and need to enter the fray again. I can only hope that I can remember these lessons when the time comes.

To reiterate, my most important advice that I can give is

  1. Don’t take it personally.
  2. Be flexible.
  3. Look nationwide.

I want you to be successful, too. To end I’ll paraphrase the greatest philosopher of my life: Kermit the Frog. Life’s like a movie. Make your own ending. Keep believing. Keep pretending. I did just what I set out to do. You can, too.

3 Comments on “Navigating the Horrible Valley of Librarian Job Searches

  1. I would say even apply for positions you know may not be the best fit for you and the potential employer because the employer may remember you for a different position better suited for your talents and then ask you to apply. Even if not hired in this circumstance, it is always good to be remembered.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A La Carte: Winter 2019 – CILIP London

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