Let me give you a little background before I get started: I finished library school in May 2006. I started my first library job in May 2012. What did I do in those six years? For five of them, I traveled in the United States, working seasonal, non-library jobs. (My reasons for traveling aren't relevant to this post, but I'm glad I went.) From August 2010 to April 2012 I searched for a library job.
When I began applying for library jobs, I realized the application skills needed were different than those I knew. I began to think of seasonal work as a previous career and applying for library jobs as a career change. The process of applying to libraries felt more formal than I was used to and I was unsure if my application materials hit the mark. In a case of getting in my own way, I am shy about showing people my work, so I didn't ask for help. Instead, I read advice from all over the Internet and made mistakes that make me cringe even today. Avoid my mistake and ask for help from people who know what they are doing.
That, of course, means you must know people who know what they are doing. When my last seasonal job ended, I was determined to get into a library, one way or another. I asked at a local community college about volunteering and was given the director's contact information. Intellectually, I know library directors are just people, but emotionally, I dislike using the phone, never mind calling "scary" people. I called anyway, stuttering something by way of opening. She quickly grasped the situation, "You want to get your foot in the door."
I blushed at how crass it sounded, but agreed. On September 1, they set me at the reference desk, signed me into a computer, and left me on my own. I spent hours getting familiar with the collection or running searches in the databases. When I saw something I thought I could do, I asked, and normally received permission.
I greeted each staff member every time I came in. Initiating small talk is difficult for me, but in time they began speaking to me first. After a few weeks, the library director gave me projects. Things progressed from there and when, over a year later, they needed a temporary librarian, they asked me. Moreover, I developed a working relationship with a librarian who has worked in both public and academic libraries and has recently been on hiring committees. He gave me advice on interviewing, but I was too uncomfortable to ask him to look over my written application materials.
Through creating volunteer opportunities for myself, I learned that when you want to do something, formulate a plan that will require minimal effort from the organization, decide what you can offer the organization, and then ask. Sometimes, when you present your plan, the answer is no. Sometimes, the answer is yes, but things don't work out satisfactorily. Sometimes, things work out better than expected. The only way to find out is to try.
I was getting library experience and developing professional relationships. Now I had to convince people that I wasn't a job hopper. If anyone took the time to look at my job titles, they could see that the jobs were designed to end after a few months, but if they only looked at the dates, all they would see is an average of two jobs a year. Maybe nobody cared, but I worried about how all those dates looked. Applications that required only a cover letter and résumé were a boon. I could put the focus on my skills. Applications that required a complete work history meant I listed over 20 jobs in 10 years. I can't help but think some automated system or human resources person took a look at that, labeled me as unreliable, and tossed my application. Maybe it didn't happen, but I wonder.
Most frustrating were enticing openings that required the applicant to have graduated in a specific year. Once, I wrote a cover letter, making the case that I qualified as a recent graduate, regardless of my degree date. The day after the opening was posted, it was taken down, so I never got to find out if my argument was convincing.
Personally, I'm glad I took the time to travel. Professionally, it might not have been a good choice. I could argue for all the things I learned about working with people or quickly adapting to new situations, but realistically, I don't think those skills without recent library experience are enough. [Editor’s note: This isn’t across the board. If you can sell yourself in the cover letter, explain how you’re a good candidate even though you might not fit their listed requirements, and show how you’ll be an asset, you could still get a call. I’ve seen it happen.]
I don't have any sure-fire answers on how to get hired, but I will emphasize this: decide what you want to do and find a way to do it. Try to make things easy on the people you ask for help, but find a way to do what you want. The way you find might not be what you first envisioned, but take what you can get. The process might take months longer than you want; keep asking until you find a way in.
Is it easy? No. Will you occasionally feel you've made a fool of yourself? Probably. Is the benefit from success worth the mistakes? Yes. Now, I'm not saying be obnoxious or be a salesperson. Use your best judgment on how hard to push. Even so, if you have a plan of what you do and don't want and can explain how your help will benefit the organization, eventually, you should find someone who says yes. Transitioning between careers is hard. Don't underestimate how difficult it will be, but if you want to work in a library, find a way to work in a library.
Jill Hames is a public services librarian at a small town library. She has her own blog, The Learning Librarian.