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Career Advice

Tips for becoming an academic librarian


As recent graduates, we know that a library and information studies program, or equivalent, can pass in a whirlwind. Exploring immensely diverse career paths, selecting courses to fit a myriad of future possibilities, and gaining practical experience are all essential and challenging in their own right. What are you likely to face when you enter the profession? There is no right answer to this question, but as recent graduates and new academic librarians, we wanted to explore our similar experiences and see how they relate to those from different perspectives.

We’ve embarked on a research study that examines the transition process from LIS education to academic librarianship in Canada. Using surveys and interviews, our study analyzes data collected from three groups: LIS students and recent graduates, new academic librarians, and hiring managers and supervisors. Several interesting themes are emerging from the data that provide some valuable insight into the priorities, expectations and challenges associated with making the transition from LIS student to academic librarian.

LIS students are often told they need to not only understand theory and methodology, but also gain the practical skills required to work as a librarian. Many LIS programs are integrating experiential learning opportunities into the curriculum, while practicum and internships are actively encouraged, if not required. The value of practical experience and a contextual understanding of different workplaces cannot be understated, and both were clearly identified in our research results as priorities for new librarians.

In our study, we asked each of the participant groups to list the top five skills they felt were necessary to succeed as an academic librarian. Four of the top five skills that were identified by all three participant groups include interpersonal, instruction and change management skills, as well as experience with and an understanding of technology. Outliers include reference skills, which were identified by students and new graduates, while both new librarians and supervising librarians listed communication skills in the top five.

Interpersonal skills can encompass a variety of abilities that are essential to managing professional relationships with a variety of people who have different backgrounds, skills and personalities. The ability to collaborate with others, develop a professional identity, resolve conflict and remain sensitive to diverse groups will all come into play as a librarian. Instruction skills, such as knowledge of instruction methodologies and experience with one-on-one and classroom teaching, can be difficult to develop before gaining professional experience. Shadowing librarians as they teach, seeking opportunities to create workshops as part of practicums, internships, or student associations, and taking instruction methodology courses are some of the many strategies to support learning in this area.

Technology, again, encompasses a wide range of abilities, from specific skills such as web design to being comfortable experimenting with new technologies and engaging in self-directed learning to explore new trends. Skills related to all aspects of technology are in high demand and can often provide excellent examples of concrete, demonstrable skills to employers.

Finally, as the dynamic of the academic environment is constantly shifting, the ability to adapt becomes essential, but also provides opportunities to acquire new skills and develop as a professional. The significant overlap in top skills between all three participant groups should provide some relief for LIS students and job seekers considering academic librarianship, as it demonstrates that the expectations they have match well with the skills deemed valuable by new librarians and essential by supervisors.

To complement the list of top skills from all three participant groups, we asked new academic librarians to identify the skills they felt they were lacking when they started their positions. The results include skills pertaining to collections management, instruction, research, navigating institutional structure and politics, and liaison. Some of these skills relate to duties that are contextually dependent. Each institution has its own collections processes and liaison practices. The politics and internal structure of each institution will be different, too, and research requirements or allowances are often dependant on the terms of the collective agreement or contract. That said, identifying these skills as priority areas is an important first step in helping all members of the LIS community explore strategies to support skills development in students and new librarians.

What can we take away from these findings? Context is important and gaining insights can be essential for current students and recent graduates. Practical experience can be gained through a number of avenues, including job shadowing, practicums, internships, networking and volunteering – be creative! Reaching out to and connecting with practitioners in the field can help new professionals gain important contextual insights into the realities of academic librarianship. Librarians are in the business of sharing information and whether you reach out in person, by email, on Twitter, or through formal or informal mentorship programs, all involved are likely to learn a lot.

Catherine McGoveran is a government information librarian at the University of Ottawa. Laura Thorne is the communications, marketing and assessment librarian at University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

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  1. Holly-Anne Decker-Gold / December 9, 2015 at 21:05

    How about librarians who’d like to transition from special libraries to academic libraries in mid-career?

  2. John D. Blackwell / December 10, 2015 at 10:50

    Academic librarianship is a highly rewarding career. This profession opens opportunities for contributing to the academic community in a diversity of ways, be it instruction, reference, collection development, cataloguing, technological and online innovation, research, editing, publishing or administration – or, as is typically the case, a combination of these.

    One of the strengths of academic librarianship, both in training and experience, is that it professionally equips an individual to deal comfortably with faculty and researchers in a broad range of disciplines and, more generally, with information challenges in a multitude of contexts. As a result, an increasing number of academic librarians are moving seamlessly into other professional fields inside and outside the academy, and others are becoming self-employed consultants.

    Anyone entering academic librarianship should keep in mind that the qualification is highly transportable and adaptable. In the 21st century, academic librarianship is yours to take in whatever direction motivates you.