A floater’s perspective.

By Catie Roche

You have worked hard to earn your masters degree and now you are looking for a place to begin your professional career. Unfortunately, the recent economic downturn has made fewer library jobs and they are harder to obtain. Public libraries are funded by tax revenues, and all of the woes that plague the economic landscape contribute to a tightening of county government budgets. As a result, many systems have already instituted a hiring freeze, or are even contemplating cutting jobs. To make matters worse, many library jobs are filled by people who already are employed within the system. Competition is tough. One way to improve your chances of getting hired is to apply for positions that require a little bit more creativity and flexibility. Although challenging, the rewards can be great. A non-traditional job can be a goldmine of opportunity.

I work as a floater librarian for The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC). When I first started with PLCMC, I had just finished my degree and I worked as a temporary employee. After six months, the rules changed and temporary employees could only work 19 ½ hours a week. I left and took a full time job with a private educational institution as a solo librarian. I stuck it out at my new job for a year, but I knew that the solo career wasn’t for me. I wanted to go back to the progressive urban library system where I started. About that time, a position was advertised for a floater librarian. I had seen this position advertised before but I never applied for it because I was a little bit afraid. This time, I thought I should go for it. I really wanted to get back in the system and the floater position was full time and included benefits. I was hired and now I have a great job and I’m in a good position to move into a permanent spot when the time is right.

Floaters are librarians who are trained to work at any service desk and can be assigned to various branches throughout the system as needed. We have three floaters at PLCMC and we each work at seven or eight of our 24 branches. The floater positions provide coverage when other staff members are away because of training, outreach, or vacation leave. Branch supervisors request the floaters to cover staffing shortages. After the requests are compiled, each floater gets a schedule for the next month. Last minute changes are rare, but we are flexible and able to pitch in where needed at a moment’s notice.

Variety is the spice of life, and floaters get plenty. I do a little bit of everything, but I think that the floaters’ greatest contribution is the ability to function on all of our service desks. Whether working in circulation, children’s services, or adult reference, I know that I can provide quality service at our customer’s point of need. Floating allows me to work with many more people within our system than I would if I was only at one location. I enjoy meeting everyone at my assigned branches and having the opportunity to share the workday with them. A big reward of the floater position is that I feel special wherever I go. One of the best parts of the job is having people tell me, “We’re so glad you’re here today!”

Working as a floater does have some pitfalls. You have less control over your work time than you would if you worked full time at one branch. You have to be prepared to help out with ongoing projects within the branch so be careful to allow extra time for your own projects and don’t over schedule yourself. Also, it’s easy to feel like you are occupying someone else’s workspace which can be a little uncomfortable.

When you float, you are not part of the branch staff’s routine, so you have to make your own routine. To be successful you have to be able to tolerate uncertainty and have the ability to adapt rapidly to change. Your co-workers don’t see you every day and they may not understand your job. For instance, some staff members don’t realize that the floaters are bona fide librarians and work full time jobs.

The floaters move throughout a number of branches so having tact and discretion are important. When I am assigned to a branch, I am there to assist the regular staff. I conform to the procedures that they have established. Every library is different and a little sensitivity goes a long way.

Another important tip- Be proactive. If you want meaningful projects, you have to find them and promote them yourself. Always make yourself available to help out. Just being on hand and willing to take on a project provides a lot of opportunities to learn and develop your skills. Ask questions and get to know your co-workers and managers. Let people know what you are interested in and they will help you achieve your goals. For example, the children’s services supervisor at one branch is training me in children’s programming, at another branch a seasoned library staffer is helping me put together a program featuring speakers from the local quilters’ guild, and I am planning an outreach program next month for senior citizens because I volunteered to substitute for another librarian.

Over all, the floater position can be a ton of fun. Learn to trust your professional judgment and summon the self confidence to promote your value to the organization to your co-workers. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn as much as you can. It’s astonishing how willing people are to help you. When the time is right, you will be perfectly poised to move into your next job. At that time you will have the benefit of knowing what you want and where you want to make your mark.