Toughing It Out in a Tight Job Market

Hands-on advice to help you stand out during a job search

December 10, 2012


You’re all alone—with thousands of other information professionals—pursuing a library job in a down economy. If not for sheer stubbornness and hard-won self-respect, you might consider a career in the fast food industry.

But don’t despair, said David Connolly, who compiles ALA’s JobLIST, a resource for career advice and job search information. The market is back to pre-2008, he said. “We may be treading water, but at least, it’s not getting worse.” In fact, according to Connolly, experienced librarians can anticipate a relatively strong job market because the first wave of baby boomers is retiring from such top-level library positions as director and department head. This trend should peak between 2015 and 2019. “There will be a trickle-down effect favoring promotions,” said Connolly, “although some libraries are not filling entry-level positions due to budgetary problems.”

So the advice for job searchers is compromise—in salary, work environment, and/or geographic location. For instance, consider academic library positions in the Midwest, where there is less competition because of fewer sought-after locations and subject-expert applicants.


While compromise usually eases the way for job searchers, it does have limitations—unlike brand promotion. Brand promotion means marketing what you stand for—your skills, accomplishments, and knowledge.

Start by becoming active on social media sites and forums. Communicate a personal message of honesty and integrity that also underscores your strengths and goals. Because employers will google your name as a quick check on reputation, beat them to it and delete what reflects on you negatively. But don’t censor yourself unduly; the goal is to be as professional as possible.

“Add your comments to a successful, well-read blog,” suggests Connolly. “Or go on LinkedIn or Twitter and start or contribute to discussions.” (ALA’s JobLIST has a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.)

First, however, enhance your image in three key areas: track record, technology, and teamwork.

“Prove your value”

If your résumé includes salaried or volunteer experience in public, academic, school, or special libraries, take a bow. Then work on “quantifying your accomplishments,” said Connolly. “Don’t just give job descriptions: Document your contributions and prove your value.” Highlight specific projects, activities, and results. Also, make certain you spotlight transferable skills such as customer service, project management, or supervision. “Sometimes you can misstate something on your résumé, neglecting to translate the experience [to the library environment],” he said.

But what if after all that, your gas meter still veers toward empty? That’s easy—fill ’er up! Demonstrate your creativity and set up a library collection at your church, temple, hobby club, or community nonprofit. Or organize an information database for a medium-size business, hospital, or law firm. In no time at all, you will be mining those projects for treasure.

Been away from libraries more than two years? Update your skills with an online or in-person library science program offering the Certificate of Advanced Study. For instance, Drexel University in Philadelphia offers an online post-master’s digital libraries program. Make sure to get an internship or field experience as part of the curriculum. And while you’re at it, get published in a few professional journals.

Rev up your inner geek

Technology know-how is a definite plus for employers. Demonstrate any knowledge of web design, computer languages, or e-resources you may have. Create a personal e-portfolio, blog, or website. Film a YouTube video or post digital work-related photos online. List social media sites, blogs, and discussion groups you participate in.

Not sure how computer literate you need to be? Visit a library environment similar to that of your ideal job and learn about the staff’s digital proficiencies. Then study these skills on your own, ask a friend or family member to teach you, or take some courses.


You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: Network, network, network. Start with social media sites, then move on to email discussion lists, state/national library conferences, and committee work. Volunteer to help out during a conference—work the reception area and chat with everyone. Set a reasonable goal of exchanging business cards with “X” number of contacts, and follow up with short notes or emails. “It’s as critical as a cover letter or a description of your skills,” said Connolly, who noted he got his current job six years ago through networking. “Someone who vets you will help you get more than that six-second glance at your résumé.”

If you have a specialty, offer to do a workshop or give a lecture. Showcase your talents and share. Look for opportunities to present at conference poster sessions. These can lead to publishing opportunities or cementing relationships that ultimately bear fruit. The more you provide solutions, the more people will appreciate, remember, and reward you.

Pile on the positives

Although much of the job hunting literature emphasizes projecting positive attitudes—such as enthusiasm, confidence, and flexibility—exhibiting an upbeat attitude can be difficult if you’re feeling discouraged. Try these tips:

  1. List as many of your transferable skills (such as keeping accurate records, evaluating job performances, budgeting, etc.) as possible.
  2. Contact three people (past supervisors, instructors) who can vouch for your competence. Discuss your ideal job and listen as they tie your abilities and strengths to this position.
  3. Don’t discount the importance of fitting in. Are you cooperative? Do you pitch in and help? Do you speak well of your colleagues?
  4. Service with a smile: Note the times when you have gone the extra mile to locate a document or made certain a customer or patron received prompt, fair service.
  5. Learn on the fly. Not yet convinced of your innate talent for innovation and self-starting? Draw on your memory. Remember that first newsletter you spun out on Microsoft Publisher? What about those reading lists for busy parents that you compiled?

Show and tell

“A cover letter is the first thing that gets [an employer’s] attention,” said Connolly. “It’s an opportunity to go beyond the bullet points and tell a compelling story.” Avoid universal guidelines or “it will look like just another letter the press pumped out,” he said. Instead, jump-start your brain at a site like to find examples of successful cover letters that landed people actual jobs. “Stick to the traditional,” he said. “For example, don’t open with a joke.”

By putting together an attention-getting cover letter and a solid, well-executed, proofread résumé, you can make that important first cut. To produce a targeted résumé, read the job description carefully and use your past projects to showcase the various skills and knowledge the job calls for.

Employers also look for soft skills such as leadership and cooperation. For instance, if you assisted with library instruction at a community college, consider yourself a digital content curator with teaching skills. Also, check out websites the prospective employer hosts. This will help you understand the work climate or culture so you can slant your résumé appropriately.

“If an applicant is applying for a position where he can easily visit, it would be a good idea to visit the library several times at different times of the day,” said Beatrice Calvin, program officer for ALA’s Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment.

Make sure to follow instructions, she advised. If a job posting asks for three copies of a résumé and no telephone inquiries, take these directions seriously or you may be screened out.

The telephone or in-person interview is the final step in the hiring process. At this stage, employers are more apt to consider dress and demeanor as deal breakers. Preparation is vital. Choose clothes that scream conservative professional and rehearse answers to typical questions, such as how you would handle an irate patron or deal with argumentative college students. Know what services the library provides and what its patron demographic looks like. And make sure you can ask one or two good questions regarding library issues. Above all, project a quiet air of respectability and responsibility.

At the same time, “let your real personality shine,” added Calvin. “Today, more employers are hiring for fit—someone who will fit into their work culture and with the people already on staff. So don’t put on a front and go for what you may believe to be a ‘traditional’ librarian demeanor. Often employers are looking for something different anyway.”

If it looks like a duck …

Widening your definition of “library” may put you on the inside track to a job offer. Standard library skills involve gathering, organizing, and analyzing data, but look beyond their use in government and college-sponsored environments. Industries like business, publishing, and government also embrace these skills. Human resources people may not use typical library science jargon, but they want people practiced at accessing and storing information. Job postings may use such descriptors as “knowledge services director,” “information director,” “literature scientist,” “researcher,” “database specialist,” or “web developer.”

Do not automatically eliminate these positions from your list. Your skills and background may be all the credentials you need. According to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, corporate positions will grow over the next few years because of the need for computer database managers and information organizers.

Although the economy may take a few years to bounce back, resilience and resolution can turn a weak job market into a bright future. Aim for jobs that interest and challenge. Remember: A good fit is important, but the best fit offers room to grow.


  • MLIS/MLS degree
  • Knowledge of HTML and other computer languages
  • Visibility in the community
  • Subject expertise/master’s degree
  • A flexible, winning personality



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