Charting Choppy Waters: Career Moves in a Sea of Uncertainty
By Heather Kline
Like many librarians, I entered the field for a variety of reasons—I have always been drawn to the library as “the people's university.” I believe in promoting literacy in a variety of ways and helping people find the information they need. I love working with cultural resources in a variety of formats.
However, it took four years of working as a paraprofessional in a university library before my desire to take the plunge into librarianship seemed like a viable option to me. I loved my job, but realized there's only so far up I could go as a paraprofessional. I knew the work would not provide enough of a challenge (or an income) in the long run.
My passions have always included literature, art, and learning about cultural context through books and artifacts. I received my first B.A. in English, but my interests were so wide-ranging that I wasn’t sure what form my education would take. The eclectic mix didn’t suggest an obvious career trajectory.
I decided to enter the master’s program in Museum Studies at the University of Nebraska. It was a small and intensive program, with many opportunities to get involved directly with internships, museum visits, and student associations. Unfortunately, after a rocky budgetary crisis, the university cut the program halfway through the academic year. While I was not able to finish the degree, I did make invaluable connections with fellow students and museum professionals.
I still wanted to get experience working with art collections. During my first internship I cataloged and preserved prints, researched provenance and artists, and was given a good overview of the procedures in a small museum collection. I was doing something that combined my fascination with art with my love of organization and databases. I also volunteered in the archaeology laboratory of the Nebraska State Historical Society documenting and cataloging artifacts. These experiences showed me the kind of work that I wanted to pursue in cultural resource management. I did a lot of contemplation of a career that would allow me to constantly challenge myself intellectually and do work that I found fulfilling. I considered moving for another Museum Studies program, but the job opportunities seemed limited.
During this time, the American Library Association was making a major effort towards recruitment and heavily stressing the “graying of the profession.” I read as much as I could find about the future of librarianship, and the opportunities seemed promising. I knew I loved working in libraries, so I started brainstorming ways to combine what I was doing in my internships with what I was doing in the library.
In the spring of 2005, the University of Alabama began advertising for the first cohort of its completely online MLIS program starting that fall. After only a bit of hesitation, I jumped at the chance. I was awarded the Nebraska Library Commission's 21st Century Librarian Scholarship, which drastically cut the price of tuition. I continued taking art history classes and got a second B.A. degree.
I got a great new job at the University of Nebraska’s Love Library working as the Electronic Resources Associate. The job brought with it both new challenges and opportunities. Because the librarians knew that I was an MLIS student, I was encouraged to get involved in committees. At many times I was able to work on projects at a professional level. I also completed another internship in the Digital Initiatives and Special Collections department of the library, which introduced me to many new people and aspects of information work.
I also became very involved in professional development. I joined as many associations as possible at a student rate, and went to all the local conferences. Not only did I subscribe to library journals and blogs, but I also started my own blog as a way to pursue issues in the field. I tackled issues that both puzzled and interested me, and looked for ways to integrate them into my work and classes. I was an active participant on several electronic discussion lists. I also took classes outside of the traditional MLIS track, such as Metadata.
During this time, I also started thinking seriously about next steps. I was active in the Nebraska Library Association and the New Members Round Table, and I used these avenues to meet Nebraska librarians and hear about job opportunities around the state. But I always had the desire to spread my wings, so to speak. While studying art history, I had also discovered a real passion for the art of the American Southwest. I did my art history thesis on the topic and dreamed of studying it in more depth.
I looked into some opportunities in the Santa Fe area and made connections with librarians at the Georgia O'Keeffe Research Center and the Institute of American Indian Arts to do volunteer or internship projects during the summer. Because I was enrolled in an online program, I was able to be mobile as I finished up my degree. It seemed like a great way to move forward with my experiences and position myself in the right place to find the right job upon graduation. Upon the advice of other students and professionals, I started my job search at the beginning of library school by scoping out the job announcements and determining which jobs sounded most suited to me. During the last six to nine months of my degree, I approached the hunt in earnest by systematically going through online sites and job announcement aggregators regularly and applying for the jobs which fit my specifications. I also attended job fairs at conferences and networked like crazy.
The job search was much more difficult than I imagined. There was a low point in my journey when I started applying for clerical and administrative jobs in Santa Fe as I became more desperate and I wasn't getting any response from the applications I had sent out for professional library positions. I even applied for part-time paraprofessional library jobs. For months, the only offer I received was a job in a medical office with a wage that would barely allow me to survive in Santa Fe.
Finally I got an offer to interview at a well-known local gallery for the position of Registrar. Even though the job was not in a library, it was an obvious fit immediately. I now catalog and manage the database for a large and eclectic collection of Pueblo pottery, historical paintings, and a wide variety of other southwestern art. The gallery also houses a sizeable art library, and I am coordinating a project to reorganize the collection and update the card catalog. I am still a librarian, but I am also working with art. I have found a unique way to combine my experiences and do what I love. This is just one stop along my career path, but I found a way to make the pieces fall into place.
Uncertainty can be uncomfortable and even painful, but it sometimes brings unexpected rewards. The lessons of uncertainty can be invaluable.
These are a few things I learned along the way.
1. Sometimes you just need to set sail.
Take choices and actions into your own hands. It was risky moving to New Mexico without a job, but I knew that it was a great step for my résumé and getting to know great people in the library field in the place where I wanted to live. I believe that being pro-active is necessary for success. Without choice, you end up with a patchwork of lackluster job experiences.
2. It doesn't hurt to have a good map.
Plan, be active in the profession, and learn as much as possible about the field and the different options that are available. Library education is truly what you make of it. Structured coursework is no more than a frame. I continue to immerse myself in professional development opportunities in order to stay connected with the library field. I have maintained my blog to chart my experiences, and I continue to read and comment on library blogs every day. I am still a member of ALA, ARLIS, MPLA, the New Mexico Library Association, and the VRA. I go to conferences regularly and attend workshops on various topics. For those of us not working within the brick and mortar of a traditional library, it is essential to stay connected to our colleagues and our profession.
3. Even with the best map, there's no point expecting a specific outcome.
Charting a course only sets a direction, not a destination. Job-hunting is a nearly Herculean ordeal under the best of circumstances. You will never sell yourself harder in your life. All of your achievements, awards and efforts will be laid out like gold coins, and still you will be rejected repeatedly. It's not like school, where everyone who works hard can reasonably hope to achieve an A. In the job hunt, only one person will get the job, and chances are that it won't be you. Most of us are unaccustomed to such rejection, and it definitely requires developing a resilient character (along with some close friends and family to commiserate).
4. Sending out résumés is like sending out a message in a bottle.
Eventually one will reach land, but it will take some time and may not end up where you expected. It is the response of many job-seekers to become frantic and start sending out résumés blindly, with little consideration of the specific job. I believe this is a mistake. Unless you have the time and interest to write a focused and enthusiastic cover letter for the position which addresses in detail why you possess the best set of skills for each qualification listed, do not waste your time. From bitter experience I can attest that there will be many applications each of us send out with absolute certainty that there could be no possible better candidate for the job. These convictions will be answered 90% of the time with rejection letters (or, more commonly, no response at all). But eventually that hiring committee will share your opinion of the ideal fit, and the connection will be made. Without such enthusiasm from both parties, sending out mass applications is certain failure and a waste of everybody's time.
Although I'm not technically working as a librarian, I couldn't be happier with the way things worked out. The skills that I employ to work with gallery records, information, artifacts and databases, are what I learned in libraries and museums. I'm doing work that I love and learning more about art every day. Best of all, I feel like I have one foot in the library world and one foot in the art world.
In one form or another, I will continue to combine my experiences and look for new opportunities in museums and art libraries. Now more than ever, careers are dynamic and must evolve or die out. But by getting my foot in the door with this first post-graduation job, I now feel that I am in a position of control over my own career. I can make my own choices rather than waiting for the first job offer to present itself. In various ways, we are all moving outside of the traditional scope of duties, spreading our wings, and moving our skill sets into other fields. If information is power, librarians are in a position to take over the world – one career move at a time.