Working Outside the MLS Box

Many of my library school classmates have been unable to find employment within a library. They have their MLS, they graduated with honors and 4.0 GPA’s, and many have library experience. When I started graduate school, there was the promise of an aging librarian exodus. We were told by professional organizations, graduate school professors, and fellow librarians that by graduation we should all find employment within libraries, especially since between 25-28% of “current working [ALA] membership base will have retired.”

ALA table

“You’re going to help fill the bursting librarian retirement bubble!” we were told, and darn it if we didn’t believe that! Then life happened, the increase in retirement age happened, and we began to slowly realize that the library jobs were just not there. Many academic libraries began cutting back on staff, school libraries began hiring part-time employees who barely had their GED’s to replace “card-carrying” librarians, and public libraries saw budgets slashed repeatedly. It was around this time that I began to notice that many of the librarians I had known were jumping ship to non-library jobs. Many of the academic librarians still remained within an academic environment, but they began to look at positions outside of the library-realm in order to remain employed.

I had never really considered anything outside of librarianship. I knew that health sciences librarianship was what I wanted, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to motivate myself in my position. In what I would consider a life-altering decision, I decided to leave the library and took a position in the School of Medicine instead. While my new position has been great, the decision to leave was not something I took lightly. I know that for many of my classmates, leaving the library after getting your MLS would be considered sacrilegious, but it is those people who really need to expand their professional horizons.

Many MLSers have begun to take positions in other organizations. While this doesn’t mean they have to give up on their dreams of becoming full-fledged librarians, it does mean that they may have to take a break from librarianing for awhile. These hiatuses can end up being far more positive than they originally thought, especially if they are able to find a position in an up-and-coming company peddling innovative ideas. On the INALJ site, the entire left sidebar is filled with “keywords for job searching.” Position titles like: User Experience Designer, Project Analyst, Digital Asset Manager, Content Strategist, and MakerSpace Facilitator may not jump out at MLS grads as positions they are qualified for, but they absolutely could be!

Let’s take the first position, User Experience Designer, for example. When looking at the “desirable skills” for a UXD, one might see:

  • research techniques
  • ethnography and discovery
  • user modeling
  • information architecture and information design
  • project/time management
  • stakeholder management
  • visual communication
  • public speaking and presenting
  • interpersonal skills (collaboration, team-building)
  • database principles, tools and technologies
  • understanding of software and hardware development processes
  • proficiency in PowerPoint, Adobe Creative Suite
  • knowledge of file formats
  • knowledge of existing and new technologies and constraints
  • understanding of basic computer programming principles, tools, and technologies
  • usability skills

Now, I only pulled some of the more general qualifications, but looking at this, one could very well assume that they were looking for someone with a library science background. While several of the other core skills listed: ethnography and discovery; user modeling; product design; interaction design; and interface design are not necessarily skills taught in library school, they are skills that can be acquired. Those who took graphic design, psychology, sociology, fine art, or communications as undergraduates would already have a solid foundation on which to build a solid career as a User Experience Designer. In fact, journalism undergrads may have knowledge of page layout and composition, and even Visio. All of the skills learned in library school, plus any additional skills retained from undergraduate courses would be ideal for UXD work.

Let’s try another one shall we? How about Content Strategist! Some qualifications are:

  • Understanding how to create a search optimization plan for content
  • Create taxonomies/nomenclature lists and definitions
  • Perform gap analyses
  • Help with CMS selection
  • Experience with content management systems and databases
  • Fluency in Microsoft Windows-based desktop applications
  • Write web content
  • Develop, maintain, and enforce editorial style guidelines
  • Assess, catalog, and organize web site content
  • Search engine optimization research
  • Content aggregation and data sourcing
  • Editorial skills
  • Understanding of general information architecture
  • Copy writing, proofreading, editing and fact checking
  • Tagging and classifying
  • Accessibility optimization
  • Social media savvy
  • Outreach and promotions oriented

Wow! That sounds like a job a tech savvy librarian could totally do, and do really well! If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this was a position within a library. A career as a content strategist was never discussed in library school, neither was user experience designer or project analyst. However, the degree I received in library school does prepare me for careers in those fields. It can seem rather blasphemous to say that someone with an MLS shouldn’t work in a library, but with the limited number of library positions available it can be beneficial for a library school graduate to work in a related field under a position within a library system comes along.

I was lucky enough to start out in libraries, but have since moved on to medical education where I use the skills I learned in graduate school almost daily. I have applied, been interviewed, and been offered several library positions, but none of them have been the perfect fit. I have found that the current state of libraries (especially academic) is a little scary, and I would rather stay in a stable position that I really enjoy than leave for an unknown.

Most people go to graduate school for library and information science because they want to work in libraries, but I think this can be incredibly short-sighted and often misguided. Having an open-mind to other careers that utilize similar skill sets would provide MLS grads with a plethora of opportunities and would, perhaps, help to revamp MLS courses. In the future I hope that LIS schools show students that there is a world of career possibilities, and that the library isn’t their only option.

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