Changing Your Career Path: Lessons learned from transitioning from a public to an academic library


By: Maggie Shawcross, Health Sciences Librarian, University of Northern Colorado

Before obtaining my current position as an academic Health Sciences Librarian and Assistant Professor, I worked in a public library as an Adult Services Librarian, and I worked as a Consumer Health Librarian at a hospital library. I want to share my perspective of transitioning from a public to an academic library. Everyone has a different experience, and I hope that you learn from what I have to share.

Before starting your search, it is important for you to ask yourself why you want to work in an academic library. From my library experience, I learned that I enjoyed delving into deep research questions, specifically those related to health. This along with the possibility of working with college students, helping them be successful, and getting the opportunity to do research really solidified my reasons for seeking out an academic librarian position. Knowing this I took courses, as part of my library degree, to prepare me to work in an academic library and later to complete a practicum with the Health Sciences Librarian at a university library.

A position at an academic library didn’t happen immediately after graduation for me. My inability to get a job at an academic library was most likely caused by several factors including, but not limited to, my unwillingness to relocate, a competitive job market, and my lack of experience in an academic setting. Unable to find work at a library I returned to my previous career as a health educator. When I was working as a health educator, I made sure to connect and work closely with libraries knowing that I would eventually return to libraries.

After a couple of years, I was back working in a library. As an Adult Services Librarian, my work was focused on health programming and building community partnerships, both of which would be useful when applying for my current position. Eventually, I saw the job posting for my current position. I applied and went through the interview process.

University library

From my experience, I would suggest that you consider the following when looking to transition to an academic library from a public library:

  • Availability of jobs: Are you willing to move? Recognize that your willingness to move will increase the number of jobs available to you.
  • Identify the transferable skill and knowledge sets that you have obtained from your work experience and then relate it to the expectations of the position you are applying for.
  • Recognize that the process of applying at an academic institution is different from a public library. The applications require a cover letter, curriculum vitae, transcripts, and a list of references. The process to review the materials also has a longer timeline.
  • The interview process: In an academic setting there will be a minimum of two interviews: a phone interview and a longer on-site interview, usually one day long. You will need to research the position as you need to be able to intelligently address their expectations and needs in the cover letter and interview(s).
  • Lastly, look for opportunities to gain skills sought out by and keep up to date with trends in academic libraries. This can include following academic librarians on Twitter, reading ACRL publications, or by applying for Adjunct Librarian positions.

One resource that was very helpful was, “How to Stay Afloat in the Academic Library Job Pool”, edited by Teresa Y. Neeley. Neeley walks you through the entire application process from beginning to end. My current position has proven to be rewarding and exciting and I would highly encourage anyone looking to transition from public to academic to do so, especially as public librarians bring a new perspective as well as relevant experiences such as programming and community collaboration that is sought after by college and university libraries.


Neely, T. Y. (2011). How to stay afloat in the academic library pool. Chicago: American Library Association.