Thursday, August 21, 2014

So You Want to Be a Corporate Librarian?, by Leslie Howerton-Hicks


Like most corporate librarians I didn’t go to library school to become a soulless corporate drone (joking, I am pretty sure I have a soul). My background is in archaeology and museum studies, and I have always been interested in the more specialized side of librarianship. I always envisioned myself in a universities special collection or a museum, not a corporation.

During my MILS program at the University of South Florida (Go Bulls!), I landed a job at Hess working at their in-house technical library. Hess is an international oil company that specializes in exploration and production (E&P). The patrons of the Hess Technical Library are mostly the geologists, chemists, and engineers at the Houston E&P office, but also those who work at offices around the world.  I went into the Hess job just grateful to be getting paid library experience. I knew next to nothing about corporate libraries, so I thought I’d be working with a bunch of uptight oil obsessed men. I was wrong. Hess employs a diverse workforce in their Houston office as well as their offices around the world. I loved providing reference services to all our researchers around the globe.  I learned so much about their areas. I was hooked. This whole new world of librarianship had opened up for me and I thrived in the corporate culture. I loved the diversity of the tasks I got to perform, and I got to do it all… reference, cataloguing, outreach, project management, and archiving.

I left Hess in 2011 to move back to Oregon for family reasons. When I moved I was determined to find another corporate gig and, after a brief detour into public librarianship, I was lucky enough to land my current role. I am the Footwear Materials Librarian at a large footwear and athletic company whose WHQ is in Oregon. I will not be modest or lie to you good readers; I have the world’s coolest library job. What does a Footwear Materials Librarian do, you ask? I manage the Materials Center on our campus. I have approx. 15,000 material swatches from all our vendors. That is not including the thousands of shoelaces, webbings, and other components that are also housed in the library. Not only do I have to keep these items organized and searchable by our patrons I have to be a resource for them as well. A big part of my job is providing reference services. You need waterproof leather that has good abrasion and is sourced in Vietnam? Just ask Leslie! I also manage the day to day running of the Material Center, communicate with our raw material vendors, organize library events, and plan a bi-annual Material Show.

On one hand my job is very similar to that of a typical academic librarian; reference services, program development, research help, info literacy, etc.  On the other hand though, it is completely different. Corporate culture can take some getting used to if you have only worked in an academic or public setting. I will be the first one to admit that I work for an amazing company who treats their employees very well. They emphasize the work/life balance and provide many perks and opportunities for their employees. My favorite thing about my company is that we have absolutely no dress code. I come to work every day in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt/sweatshirt and I blend right in.

I will warn you that not all corporate gigs are as good as mine. But they are out there! Many companies have librarian/archivist positions. You just have to look for them. Intel, Ralph Lauren, Fossil, Microsoft, Apple, all have librarian positions. Often positions will not have librarian in the title. Sometime companies do not even know that they want a librarian. I am actually the first MILS degree holding library manager in my position. I knew nothing about materials when I started. They hired me because they wanted their Materials Center run more efficiently and they wanted to increase its use by our community. They thought my past experiences at Hess and academic libraries, as well as my degree, would help them achieve these goals. All my materials knowledge has been learned on the job. I have devoted considerable time to shadowing my co-workers and learning all I can about the materials that are housed in the library. I have visited other materials libraries and talked to anyone I thought had insights. After a year and a half I feel confident giving reference help to all our patrons, but I still learn something new every day.

Does this sound fun to you? Would you too like to become a corporate drone? Here is my best advice:
  • Solo Librarian. As a corporate librarian, you might always be the only librarian in the room. Embrace it! Be prepared for lots of questions about what you do. A lot of times other employees will have no idea that there is a library/librarian position. Building your own network of librarians to bounce ideas off of is very helpful. I have found Twitter is a great resource for this. Twitter librarians are the best.
  • Relationship Building. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this. A huge part of my job is devoted to relationship building, both internally and externally with our material vendors. Corporations are here to make money, and they need to see you as a resource that helps them do that. Be your own advocate! Right after I started I was able to make some very simple changes to the library that drastically increased our usage (current usage is up 38% over last year). I got the idea for these changes by simply talking to our patrons.\
  • Special Library Association (SLA). SLA is by far my favorite professional organization for librarians. Most special librarians and corporate librarians belong to SLA and it is a great place to network. Their professional development resources are also very good. Their conferences are always fun. I have met some of the most interesting people, with the most interesting library jobs through SLA.
  • Enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about your collection and what your company produces. I will admit that even before this job I loved shoes, especially sneakers. I also love running and working out in general, so this job was a great fit. I love all the shoes that we produce and I am super proud when I see a shoe that has a textile on it that I helped a designer pick.

Even though I never planned to be a corporate librarian, I am very happy that I ended up here. I feel like I found my “happy place” in the library world. Every day I go to a job I love, and work with people who are passionate about what they do. If you are interested in this type of work please reach out to us “special” librarians. From my experience we all love talking about what we do and how we do it.

Leslie Howerton-Hicks is the Footwear Materials Librarian at a large Athletic Footwear & Apparel Company based in Oregon. She graduated from the University of South Florida SLIS program in 2011. Reach out to her on Twitter @librarianninja.   


  1. This is exactly the type of job I went to library school for! I envisioned myself a curator of collections, whether for oil or shoes or widgets or gadgets or whatever. I am curious about everything and a master at organization and efficiency. I live in Oregon, too. Any job openings there? :-)

  2. Thinking about it after reading this :)

  3. Hi Leslie,
    I just came across this post. I'm working on a project (happy to share all the details via e-mail) and I'd like to pick your brain. Based off what I've read here, I think you could be a great help to me. Awesome post, by the way. So interesting.

    Hope to speak soon,

    1. Hi Bill! are you on Twitter? I can DM you the best way to contact me.

  4. Hi L, this post kind of clears my mind about career plan! I am new to iSchool (as an international student) and having almost no idea what to do after graduation. I worked as an education consultant in China for almost three years before coming to iSchool in Canada, so corporate librarian seems to fit my background pretty well (I mean, being in a private educational company before & all the consulting work). Thinking about this job now. New term just started and perhaps I will concentrate my following assignments / projects on the special lib / corporate lib side.
    Thx! _Zillah