Note: While I had been working on a guest post to send Jessica for some time, I was inspired to respond to a recent post from Abigail Phillips, who wrote, “Librarians with PhDs have so much to offer the practitioner world of librarianship. We just have to figure out how to promote our degree as an advantage not a disadvantage. It sounds weird to say that having a doctorate opens a lot of doors, because it closes almost as many. I wonder if there are other LIS PhDers like me out there.”
For many young librarians — young at heart, if not young in years — librarianship is a career change. Pursuing a library career may come after years committed to academia — perhaps the young librarian has completed a master’s or PhD, and has heard about or experienced too much misery on the dismal job market to invest a single additional second looking for a tenure-track faculty position. That’s what happened to me shortly after the beginning of this century.
Flash back nearly fifteen years: I finished my doctorate in Victorian literature and, after years as a student, I was burned out. I had taken an interesting job with a scholarly non-profit, but I wanted to be back on a university campus. One day I stumbled upon a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Todd Gilman, then as now the English librarian at Yale. In a series of posts, Todd extolled the benefits and challenges of librarianship for PhDs who were looking for a career change. This was a revelation — I wanted to work in higher education, but not as a professor. I wanted to teach, but not to grade. I wanted to work with information, knowledge, and research — but also with people. Within hours of reading Todd’s column, I signed up for an open house at a library science program that was tailored to the schedules of working professionals. In a year and a half, I finished my master’s degree (I was privileged, in a sense, to have had a decent credit rating and to qualify for loans that I’m still paying off.). After a reasonably challenging but not disheartening job search, I began working as a librarian in a position where I support and engage with teaching, learning, and research.
What has changed since then for recent PhDs who are interested in librarianship? What is now known as the alt-ac (for “alternative academic”) movement has reared its desperately needed head. While PhDs in the sciences have always had non-academic opportunities, faculty are now more willing to advise doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences regarding alternative careers, and to direct students to campus resources for “versatile PhDs.” These days, many LIS programs are now wholly or partly online, opening access to far more potential students.
So, if you’re a recently minted PhD, ABD, or MA, and you’ve decided to pivot over to librarianship, what should you do?
Informational interviewing. Ask the librarians you know (and I hope you know them if you’re in a PhD program) about their career paths. Find out how many different kinds of librarianship there are — something I didn’t know when I started. Your doctoral program activities may suggest a career path. Did you teach first-year writing? You may find many of your interests shared by information literacy programs. Did you do descriptive bibliography? You may want to be a cataloguer. Did you edit an open-access journal of graduate student scholarship? Look into being a scholarly communications librarian. Did you develop a digital humanities project? Many libraries are hiring not only DH librarians, but programmers and data visualizers.
Research. You’re good at that. Find out what LIS programs are available in your area. Can you get credit for your PhD coursework? Are you eligible for scholarships from ALA or other professional organizations? Look into opportunities at your current university. Can you job-shadow, intern, or volunteer on a library project? Can you take a temporary or support staff position to learn more about how libraries work as organizations?
Read. You’re very good at that. Read articles in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Portal: Libraries and the Academy, and C&RL News. If you’re here at Letters to a Young Librarian, you’ve already found a great source of advice, but there are many more blogs out there. A few of my favorites are Hack Library School, In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Library BabelFish, ACRLog, and Beerbrarian.
Join and Socially Mediate. What was your specialty in graduate school? There is probably a branch of librarianship focusing on that subject, with its own professional community, including the ACRL Literatures in English Section, SALALM, and (the other) MLA. Many of these groups have their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and provide formal and informal mentoring programs. Your state library association or ACRL chapter could provide networking and grant opportunities. Twitter is a great place to start library-career conversations; every Tuesday evening at 8pm EST is #libchat, and the #altac community is well represented.
Good luck in your career transition. We need you at the library.
Laura Braunstein is the Digital Humanities and English Librarian at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. Find her on Twitter at @laurabrarian.