In a perfect world, you started your MLIS with dreams of becoming a children’s librarian with the best storytime in town, or perhaps an academic subject librarian who publishes in the top journals. You found a steady job that checked all of your boxes, and off you went to have a great career. We aren’t living in a perfect world, however, and many of us end up changing our minds about the type of librarian we want to be. Whether it’s because the job wasn’t what we thought, our ambitions changed, or we just want to try something new, some of us decide to make the jump from public to academic, or vice versa.
When I decided to make the switch from my public librarian position into the academic librarian world, I was surprised how much push back and questioning I got. Did I think I was ready for the rigours of academic life? Did I have the skills and knowledge to be on the tenure track? Wouldn’t I miss the kids at the public library? (Spoiler: yes, I do!) The questions made me wonder why some librarians think academic and public libraries require such different knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to be successful. We all know that academic and public libraries can differ significantly in their mission, collections, and services. Should that stop us from making the jump? Now that I’ve been an academic librarian for nearly two years, I wanted to share my thoughts for those who may be considering the switch, but are worried they won’t make the cut. Since I made the switch from public to academic, that’s what I’ll be focusing on, but you can take the advice the other direction as well!
Public libraries cannot be siloed from their communities. They can’t afford to be. As a public librarian, I worked with members of our community, businesses, and the city government on everything from summer reading giveaways to having the animal shelter bring cats to an adoption party. Public librarians are great at selling the value of their library and convincing the community to work with them on a variety of projects. Academic librarians have to collaborate as well, just in different ways. I’ve reached across campus to different departments to try and pool efforts on initiatives, expand knowledge of the library’s resources, and create innovative programs to support student success. Can you convince a company to give you gift cards for door prizes? Use that ability to create a cross-campus collaboration!
- ‘Soft’ Skills
Yes, these days I spend far more time in an office than on a reference desk. Patrons make appointments for consults, and I guest lecture about 10-15 times a semester. Even with the reduced facetime, the people skills I learned at the public library have been beyond helpful. Although libraries vary, at my previous job, I was on the reference desk nearly 40 hours a week. I had to be ‘on’ that entire time; helpful, cheerful, and patient. How does that help at the academic library? Do you know how many committee meetings I go to a week? Service is a major tenet of academic librarianship, and to be honest, I’m one of those who actually loves it, but chairing teams and herding cats can test even the most patient of librarians.
- Subject Knowledge
As a subject librarian, I am expected to be an expert in helping students locate and use business databases and other resources. If you look at job postings for subject librarians, they will usually ask for some coursework, a degree, or experience in that specific subject. If you’re a public librarian, even if you don’t have access to the ‘big’ databases or journals, you probably still have subject-specific ones that you can become familiar with. The great thing about being a public librarian is you get to help with all kinds of questions, which means you have experience helping in so many different areas. Your experience runs the gamut from helping a patron find books on business plans to helping high school students find scholarly articles for a research paper. All of these knowledge transactions add up to a rich, varied experience you can point to as examples of your flexibility and wide range of knowledge
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which you can translate your skills from one type of library to another. My hope is that if you do want to make a move, this list might help lessen your fears, and you can gather together all the amazing and crazy experiences you’ve had into a stellar application.
Jennifer Wilhelm (NMRT Board Member) has been a Business Librarian at Texas A&M University since 2018. She previously worked as an Adult Reference Librarian at the Bryan + College Station Public library system and continues to work collaboratively with the public library on programs and projects. Her research topics center on informal STEM in libraries and collaborating with university career centers to improve students’ job search capabilities.