Monday, November 10, 2008

NYLA: What Else Can You Do with a Library Degree?

I attended the New York Library Association conference on November 7 because a couple of colleagues and I did a morning session on preserving State government information found online (which I’ll blog about later). I stayed around for the afternoon sessions, and I’m glad I did.

“What Else Can You Do with a Library Degree?” brought together four librarians who now work outside of public and academic settings:
  • Patti McCall is a librarian employed by a chemical and pharmaceutical research firm.
  • Polly-Aida Farrington does technology training, project management, and Web site consulting.
  • Jane Oliver is a grant writer.
  • Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer was until recently the librarian/archivist at a museum.

After the four panelists introduced themselves, they took questions from the audience. The ensuing discussion was really wide-ranging, resists easy summary, and contained lots of good information and advice. In lieu of adding my own commentary (apart from noting that all of the advice the panelists dispensed was exceptionally good), I'll simply recap:

Grant-writing coursework: Joan Oliver recommended the Grantsmanship Center, which offers weeklong courses throughout the country, and the Foundation Center in New York City. She also indicated that anyone interested in the field should start reading the Chronicle of Philanthropy and look at GuideStar, an online service that allows you to see philanthropies’ financial data. (Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer noted that GuideStar is also a good resource for researching prospective non-profit employers.)

Making the transition to being self-employed: Polly Farrington took advantage of a retirement buyout and thus had a year’s salary and three years of benefits, but now purchases insurance through a small business association. Joan Oliver, who gets insurance via her local Chamber of Commerce, was laid off and realized that her experience administering grant projects gave her the insight needed to write grant applications. Polly Farrington initially saw contract work as something to do while she searched for a “real job,” but eventually realized that she was doing well on her own.

Marketing one’s services: When Joan Oliver began seeking contract work as a grants writer, she sent out letters outlining her grant-writing experience to entities throughout the country -- the only marketing work she’s ever gone. Polly Farrington, who sent out an initial message to friends and colleagues indicating that she was seeking short-term work, uses Flickr, Facebook, other social networking tools, and her blog to market herself and occasionally contacts people who are doing projects that interest her. However, both of them get work largely through word of mouth.

Whether academic librarians need a second master’s degree: Patti McCall felt that having a second master’s degree in history worked to her advantage when she was seeking an academic library job, but didn’t see it as a requirement. Polly Farrington, who had also worked in an academic library, did not have a second master’s degree. Both of them encouraged audience members to respond to job ads even if their qualifications didn’t perfectly match those outlined in the ads; not submitting a resume is the only sure-fire way not to get hired.

Learning the technical jargon needed to work in a special library: Patti McCall indicated that most of the reference requests she received actually concerned medical issues (her employer does a substantial amount of pharmaceutical research) but learned chemical terminology by asking chemists, attending the chemistry librarians’ meeting at the Special Libraries Association meeting, and attending chemists’ professional meetings.

Whether it’s better for new graduates to keep pursuing unpaid internships or take less-than-desirable (or non-library) first jobs: Patti McCall indicated that graduates who can continue working as an intern ought to do so, but most people need to eat. Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer said that it ought to be possible to work at a job that pays the bills and volunteer or intern in one’s spare time. McCall and Polly Farrington also emphasized the importance of developing a functionally oriented resume that highlights how skills learned in one field (e.g., customer-service skills developed in the retail world) apply to library work; a functionally oriented resume can also smooth the transition from librarianship to another field.

Finding volunteer opportunities: In response to audience members who had been rebuffed when they sought volunteer work, Patti McCall stated that working with volunteers does take staff time, that other opportunities are out there, and that joining a professional association would probably be helpful. Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer noted that at most libraries, someone is in charge of volunteers and interns and that identifying this person might take a little effort. Polly Farrington suggested looking outside of libraries; it might be possible to do library-type work for, e.g., a theater company -- and to get good experience and a good reference as a result of this work. A member of the audience commented that he was initially rebuffed by a non-profit when he sought to do volunteer work, but the non-profit was willing to have him do a for-credit independent study; he ended up paying the organization to work for it, but got good experience doing it.

Getting an archival position: In response to a question from a student who specialized in archives and records management while in graduate school but couldn’t find a professional archival position, Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer stated that there are relatively few archival jobs (and even fewer curatorial positions) and that it might not be possible to secure one’s dream job right out of school. Moving into archives will likely require a substantial amount of practical experience, which can be obtained by volunteering, interning, taking archival continuing education courses, and joining professional associations.

Records management and competitive research: Patti McCall, whose own graduate coursework focused on archives and records management and worked as a municipal government records manager before taking an academic library position, noted that RM and competitive research are also open to librarians (who can learn more about RM by taking New York State Archives workshops). She is currently responsible for doing RM work at her firm because she made it a point to emphasize its legal and practical importance to her employer, and her RM activities will ultimately feed into her employer’s development of an enterprise content management system. She also does some competitive research (i.e., examines the status and activities of her employers’ competitors), which is is frequently done by librarians. She’s adding value to the firm, and getting to know more people within it.

Joining professional associations: all four panelists repeatedly emphasized the importance of becoming active in professional associations, which provide opportunities for networking, taking continuing education courses, and moving into new areas of specialization. Patti McCall emphasized that, in her experience, new graduates who were actively involved in professional associations were much more likely to find jobs than those who weren’t. Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer noted that her involvement in archival professional groups helped her to make the transition from being a public librarian and a children’s librarian to being an archivist and special librarian and can help one avoid being "pigeonholed" within the library/archival world.

Blogs and e-portfolios: Polly Farrington stated that anyone seeking a job that requires maintenance of a blog or other social networking resource must be able to demonstrate that s/he has the skills needed to do so; maintaining a blog, etc., is a must. Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer maintains a password-protected Word Press blog with an e-portfolio that contains sample work and scanned letters of recommendation, and includes the URL and password when writing thank-you notes following job interviews.

Web development courses: Polly Farrington suggested taking NYLA workshops and joining the International Webmasters Association/HTML Writers Guild, which offers courses that will develop key skills and offers discounts to its members.

Library Science courses: when asked which courses they could take if they were currently enrolled in an MLS/MIS program, the panelists mentioned courses in government documents, management, research, any kind of computer-related topic, and metadata.

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