Building Your Librarianship Portfolio: Embracing What Pops Up Along Your Career Path

A colleague and I were sharing our career path histories. Although we obtained our MLS degrees in the same year, our career paths have had different trajectories. Like my colleague, many librarians work their entire professional life within one type of library. I have worked in different types of libraries – public, corporate and academic – which results in becoming a “new” librarian with each career choice I made.

I work in an architecture library where I’m surrounded by construction terminology, and I realized that building a professional portfolio is like constructing a multi-story building. Both projects require a solid foundation to support the structure as each additional story is added. It’s taken decades to construct my multi-story, career and it’s still not finished.

My first job was working in the children’s department at a suburban public library. Shelving returned books was one of my routine duties, and many of the items were pop-up picture books. When you open a pop-up book, a cleverly constructed three-dimensional object springs off the page.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that library job would provide the foundation for building my professional portfolio by providing experience with customer service, circulation activities, copy cataloging, children’s storytime and answering basic reference questions.

My manager remarked that I had a natural curiosity and commitment to customer service so I should consider becoming a librarian. I was horrified at her suggestion! Why would anyone want to be a librarian? Certainly, not me, I wanted to be an investigative journalist writing articles for national publication.

My former manager’s assessment was correct, and I now had an MLS.

I moved to a metropolitan public library system. As an assistant branch manager, I was still conducting storytimes, answering reference questions and developing collections but I was also supervising staff and responsible for a facility. My position helped construct the next level of my portfolio by providing supervisory, budgeting, management, and community relations experience.

My career path took an unplanned detour away from public libraries, and I jumped into a corporate library environment directing an engineering design firm library.

The core librarianship competencies I honed while working in the public library helped prepare me for a vastly different environment grounded in science and design.  Acquisitions, cataloging, circulation and reference were all components I could quickly complete which provided time to focus on building an unfamiliar subject expertise.

Delving into new subject content can be overwhelming but builds the next layer of knowledge to diversify my portfolio. The pop-up books that were always a familiar sight were replaced with 3D architectural models which I jokingly referred to as pop-ups for adults.

If you successfully hone your skills and expand your subject knowledge, you will find yourself seamlessly embedded within your user groups to the point when they often forget you don’t share the same college degree.  My corporate librarianship shifted from answering reference inquiries to providing research services. I enjoyed collaborating with staff to provide literature reviews, market research and other tasks associated with conference presentations and publishing.

This experience helped to create another layer within my portfolio by providing in-depth subject expertise in civil engineering, architecture, and planning. This leadership position tossed in the skills of strategic planning, creating vision and serving as a change agent.

My current position as an academic librarian utilizes my public librarianship and management skills and blends in my subject expertise and research skills acquired from my corporate library job. Navigating the unfamiliar, new world of being tenure track is the next story in constructing my professional portfolio.

To gain familiarity with my new environment and responsibilities, I spent time sorting through files and collections. In a locked storage room, I discovered two books that appeared to be different from the other books on the shelf. I flipped open the books and immediately started laughing.

Much to my delight, the books contained elaborate three-dimensional paper models of architectural buildings – pop-ups! Both pop-up books sit prominently on my library office shelves.

We may tend to think that only recent MLIS graduate are “new” because they are new to the field, but there are plenty of opportunities to be “new” throughout your librarianship career. It’s been a quarter of a century since I earned an MLS degree, but I’m one of the “newest” academic librarians at my institution. The pop-up books are a visual reminder of my 35-year journey through various library environments that transformed a book-shelving teenager into an academic librarian who writes articles for national publication.


Tina P. Franks has 25 years of experience as a professional librarian and offers a unique perspective to working in public, corporate and academic libraries.  Her research areas include librarian mobility and customer service models, including using techniques from corporate America in libraries to build customer trust, build professional success, and create library sustainability.




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