One of the major benefits of completing your LIS degree offline and on campus is that it embeds you into a network of colleagues that you can compare notes with about the library game. When I’ve spoken with my classmates from UNC, organizational fit has been by far the most interesting thing to discuss. And yet, I never see it listed amongst the common advice for library students, and it was one of the things I considered least during the job search. When I went on campus for interviews, I was so anxious to demonstrate my worth that I never stopped to cast a critical eye back across the table and ask: is this the right institution for me? I ended up at an organization that was right for me, but this was due more to luck than as a result of any discernment on my part during my job search.
I think this is a sign of a larger problem – the dehumanizing nature of the academic job search is causing entry-level librarians to doubt their worth and jump at the first opportunity that avails itself. In this post, you’ll find my reflections after year one of librarianship on how you can make an educated decision on which job to take, and whether an organization will be a good fit for you.
The job market for entry level academic librarian positions is competitive, and to land a job out of graduate school you’re going to need practical work experience to complement your MLS degree. However, if you’re a competitive candidate, it’s important to remember that even as a rookie, you as a well-qualified candidate have value to add to an organization. If you’ve put in the work to get reps as a GA, intern, or library assistant, you have agency. Exercise your right as an agent to apply for positions that will be self-actualizing. As a graduate student, you likely spent too many nights keeping yourself awake on caffeine and then drinking yourself to sleep to settle for anything less. But finding the right job for you is more than finding the ideal job description – it’s also finding an organization that will mesh with your personality and provide you with an environment to grow as a professional. Unfortunately, determining whether a particular job at an institution will be a good fit for you during an interview is easier said than done. Interviews are almost endemically artificial, and you can be sure everyone is going to put on their best demeanor (even if that still isn’t pleasant). Moreover, at large institutions, many of the people you meet during your campus visit may work in entirely different divisions.
However, there are still things you can do to figure out fit beyond crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. If I was prepping for entry level interviews again, I would spend more time investigating what the librarians at the organization were doing. Google can be a wonderful tool here. What kind of scholarly activity are they engaged in? What professional organizations do they belong to? What are they doing on campus outside of the library? Does any of it look like the kind of stuff you’d want to do too? One of the best things an institution can offer in terms of fit is potential partners for research and collaboration. The worst thing I can imagine is working at an institution where your interactions with coworkers are limited to staff meetings and switching off at the reference desk. Find a place where your colleagues will rebound your missed shots, and pass it out to someone who can bang home a three for you.
I bring up missed shots, rebounds, and passes because I think basketball can be a useful metaphor for understanding the importance of fit in the workplace. Basketball, much like librarianship and the academy in general, is a team sport where even transcendent superstars need quality teammates to succeed. LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet, spent seven years of his life languishing on the Cleveland Cavaliers, a historically inept franchise that by the grace of bouncing balls won the right to select James in the NBA Draft. When entering the NBA, James did not have the choice of what team to join – if James wanted to play in the NBA, he was compelled to play for the Cavaliers for at least the first seven years of his career. The franchise unequivocally failed to make the most of James, providing poor supervisors and colleagues. This failure stunted his development as a professional, as he was not provided with older teammates that could serve as mentors or quality younger teammates with whom he could grow alongside. After these seven years, LeBron was free to sign with any other team in the league. In the Miami Heat, LeBron found an organization that had stable and visionary leadership, as well as coworkers that shared his dedicated to excellence and hard work. After four years with the Miami Heat, LeBron has appeared in four NBA championships, winning two, and being recognized as the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player both times.
During my first year as a professional, I’ve become convinced that an early career librarian’s development is, in no small part, contingent upon the environment in which he or she begins that career. Joining an organization filled with “me first” librarians out to leave practice early, get their own shots up during games, and point the finger after losses will lead to disillusionment and frustration, forcing an early career librarian into an existential choice – do I give in to the temptation to settle for mediocrity, or do I go elsewhere and find my Miami Heat? The answer, to me, is obvious: you owe it to yourself to find a place where your talents will be maximized. Too many LIS graduate students are viewing themselves as NBA Rookies entering the draft: “I’m just going to go wherever I get selected, bide my time, and wait til I’m a free agent and have some leverage to figure out where I really want to be.” For aspiring librarians who have been in the gym and getting shots up, this is the wrong approach. If your game tape (CV) shows that you’re a baller, you’re going to get offered a job. But your job search isn’t the draft – that first job offer is not binding. Rather, as an on the market librarian, you are a free agent looking for the right organization. It’s up to you to decide where you’re going to take your talents.
Alex Carroll is a science librarian at an academic research library in the Mid-Atlantic. He earned his M.S.L.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2013, and holds a B.A. in History from James Madison University. His research interests include improving information literacy instruction for undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences. In his spare time, he enjoys IPAs and watching the Tar Heels. He can be contacted at alexanderj.carroll at gmail dot com.