When I started my MLIS, I imagined myself as a public services/reference librarian in a community college setting (where I had already experienced as a student worker) or at a traditional university library. I was open to other options, of course, but I didn’t have the full scope of what that could be yet.
Thanks to a great professor, I discovered the world of special libraries. I became comfortable with the idea of working outside a typical library setting, but I admit that I especially loved the idea of working in an academic special library--it seemed like the perfect hybrid of my interests. Thus, I sought varying experiences during grad school - I held simultaneous assistantships/student jobs at the main campus library and the science and engineering library, and pursued an internship at an academic health science library.
Near the end of my program, I learned of a paid internship opportunity in an academic military library that had the potential to turn into a full time job after graduation. I had never considered working in military libraries before, but only because I hadn’t realized they existed. When I questioned whether or not I should apply, since I had no experience with the subject matter, I got some all-around great advice from my special libraries instructor/mentor (who had witnessed others getting hired through this internship program over the years): “It’s an entry-level position. They’re not hiring for your military resource knowledge; they want someone with a good attitude and a willingness to learn. You’re intelligent, you’re capable, and you should absolutely go for it.” Long story short, I interviewed and was offered the internship, which did convert to a full time position after graduation. This was the start of what has become, so far, my academic military librarian career.
So how does working in this type of atmosphere differ from your typical university library? Well, like any library, it depends on the mission of your organization/community. Here are two differing examples from my work history.
The academic library for Air University on Maxwell Air Force Base (which is known as “the educational center of the Air Force”) is geared toward students who are already airmen. These airmen pursue various levels of professional military education (PME)--ranging from an 8 week course for captains to master’s and PhD level degrees in military/airpower subjects for higher ranking officers. These programs are very specialized, and the resources and databases reflect that. I had to obtain a security clearance to work in the library, since we housed classified materials onsite. No information literacy classes are taught; students receive “library briefings” and library tours from their program liaisons at the beginning of their coursework, and continue to work with their assigned liaisons throughout their respective programs. There is a continuously staffed reference desk where all patrons can seek help, but most in-depth reference questions are referred to the student’s library liaison, with that librarian working one-on-one with the student.
At my new organization, the United States Military Academy (West Point), the student population consists solely of undergraduates, or cadets, who are commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Army after graduation. While the resources the library provides are much closer to a typical academic library (less military specialization than Air University), the cadets maintain a much different college life than a typical undergraduate. Almost every hour of their day is regimented and accounted for (down to eating breakfast and lunch with the other 4,000 cadets--yes, at the same time), so we have to squeeze in instruction and outreach wherever/however we can. Another difference is that students can’t even enter the library in civilian clothes. We have a reference desk that is continuously staffed with reference librarians who are on-call in the morning and at the desk in the evening--for now. We have liaison librarians for each academic department--mine is Physics and Nuclear Engineering, thanks to my experience at the science and engineering library--and we attempt to embed ourselves with department office hours and in courses, while collaborating with faculty on collection development. We’re constantly brainstorming new approaches to take within our framework of cadet time limitations, faculty buy-in (or lack thereof), and other obstacles, so... fairly standard academic librarianship, with some caveats.
So, if you’re intrigued by the idea of pursuing a similar path, but wondering what exactly you’d be getting yourself into, here are some of the biggest differences you’ll find:
- There is no such thing as tenure in the academic sense - faculty status for librarians would mean being hired as contract faculty, with a teaching load and everything that entails. Most military librarians are either GS (general schedule) federal employees, though they can also be NAF (non-appropriated fund) employees or contractors. However, at the libraries where I’ve worked, professional development and travel are both encouraged and supported--when there is funding for it. THAT is a whole other post.
- There are typically no student workers - only librarians and library technicians. Sometimes interns will be allowed.
- Along similar lines, there are no “community” users - most military installations do not allow unescorted civilians, and most installations have a separate, community/general purpose library for those with a military affiliation (spouses, children, etc.).
- Adopting the latest technologies can be very difficult, depending on Department of Defense/your military service’s guidelines, and can take years...by which time the tech is long outdated.
- Speaking of technology, sometimes websites are arbitrarily blocked. At the Air Force base, I couldn’t read most blogs on my work computer (for some inexplicable reason). Since I read a LOT of blogs for professional development, I’ll admit this was a bit maddening to me.
- Contracting. In my positions, I haven’t dealt with any kind of purchasing with government contracts--which are basically your most complicated vendor transaction x 1000. I don’t know much about what this entails because everyone always seems to be rendered speechless after those meetings.
In spite of the differences/challenges, I love the unexpected turn my career has taken. Every day I drive up to armed military police, flash my government ID, help undergrads who sometimes parachute out of helicopters next to the library, and brainstorm ways to drop info lit knowledge on them. So, young librarians, if you’re still intrigued: watch for DOD-specific opportunities within the federal government, especially the Pathways Program; check out the SLA Military Libraries Division and its awesome conference stipend for students; and always feel free to reach out to those of us academics who are just a little bit “special.”
Lauren Dodd Hall is an Access Services and Reference Librarian at the United States Military Academy Library, West Point, NY. She graduated from the University of Alabama SLIS program in 2011, and was a proud member of the original Hack Library School team. Reach out to her any time via Twitter – @laurendodd – or through her website, http://laurendhall.com.