Looking for a Career in Public Libraries? The SJSU iSchool has the Inside Scoop with Career Webinars

iStudent Blog

Published: May 10, 2017

If you’re just about to graduate and are looking for a career in public libraries, then not only do we have a lot in common, but we are both interested in what it takes to make ourselves stand out as an exceptional job candidate. Earlier this spring, Jesse Walker-Lanz, the Adult and Digital Services Administrator for the County Library of Los Angeles gave a presentation entitled “How to Interview & Find Career Success in Public Libraries.”

Walker-Lanz began the presentation with a little bit about his job history (which wasn’t just in libraries).  He also highlighted programs offered by the Los Angeles Public Library system and what they are looking for in prospective employees. The library administrator’s library career started when he was just a teenager, helping out with the children’s summer reading program at the local library of his hometown in Ohio. Walker-Lanz studied psychology during his undergraduate time, but then then went on to wait tables and work in retail. After a little soul-searching and prodding by his former library colleagues, he decided to go to graduate school to become a librarian. As Walker-Lanz talked about the qualities that hiring managers look for in potential public library employees, he noted the importance of excellent customer service skills and cited his experience in both retail and restaurants as being elemental in creating his sense of customer service. As a waiter, his paycheck depended on exceptional customer service.

Looking for a Career in Public Libraries? The SJSU iSchool has the Inside Scoop with Career Webinars

After Walker-Lanz moved to Los Angeles County, he worked his way up through job titles and eventually become the branch manager of the West Hollywood library, noting the exceptionally dynamic and diverse population he helped serve there. From branch manager, he went on to working in library administration for the Los Angeles County library system—one of the largest in the country. “Working in big libraries gives you the ability to work on really big projects,” said Walker-Lanz. Kindle circulation in the Los Angeles County Library System for instance, is at over 1,000 devices amongst nearly 80 branches. Due to the size of the library system, there are a wide variety of professional development opportunities as well, including a substantial budget to send employees to conferences and training sessions.

Like SJSU iSchool Director Dr. Sandra Hirsh, Walker-Lanz stressed the importance of internships and was quick to point out the benefits of being an intern with the Los Angeles County Library system. Benefit number one is the experience, followed closely by benefit number two—being paid. Walker-Lantz is a big believer in mentorship as well. With such a large number of employees, there are more people who might fit the bill. “There’s a great opportunity to find mentors within the organization,” said Walker-Lantz. “You can find someone you look up to that you don’t necessarily report to.”

So what are hiring managers looking for? Well, Walker-Lanz asked around at the Library Administrators’ office and came up with a few (okay, a lot) of helpful answers. He asked three questions specifically:

  • What skills and characteristics are you most interested in seeing in an entry-level Librarian candidate?
  • What advice would you give an MLIS student who’s considering going into Public Libraries?
  • What words of wisdom would you offer someone interviewing for their first Librarian position?

It was all I could do not to fast-forward through the presentation to get the answers and immediately run down and interview in my own public library system (after I fill out the application and they call me, of course). Needless to say, I listened carefully and took copious notes—which I am sharing here with you!

First characteristic: Flexibility. Said one person Walker-Lanz interviewed, “Public libraries offer a wealth and breadth of opportunities where skills can be acquired, tested, and honed.” Any librarian or information professional needs to be flexible and capable of meeting change head-on with a spirit of confidence and flexibility. With technology moving and evolving at such a rapid pace, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the changes. Walker-Lanz cited the wide variety of opportunities—with different populations, in different environments and planning different kinds of programming—all within the realm of public libraries. “Keeping an open mind and being willing to work in different kinds of libraries,” said Walker-Lanz, “will definitely make you a more desirable candidate.”

Most commonly mentioned by hiring managers were good, old-fashioned people skills (such as approachability, being a good communicator and thoughtful listener), followed by customer service skills. A librarian should like books, but that’s really not enough. Good librarians need to have excellent customer service skills and be able to interact with a diverse range of library patrons.

Hiring managers are looking for candidates who are enthusiastic about their profession and serving the public. Libraries want people who are innovative, creative, and willing to share their ideas with their colleagues. As with any job, do your research before the interview. Really, it should be done even before you fill out an application and write a specific and personable cover letter. The slide right after minute 29 during the presentation even read, “Do your research! You are a librarian…” Mentioned on the same slide were tips including: visit the actual library, visit the library’s website, talk to a librarian who works in a public library, follow the library’s social media, and find out what you can about the community.

Whether you’re actively looking for a job in public libraries, you’re just starting your coursework at the iSchool and thinking about a career in public libraries, or even if you’re currently working in a public library system and you want to know how you can further your career and try out different opportunities, you should definitely take a listen to this Career Webinar. SJSU School of Information brings in experts from a variety of different library and information professions to give you real-life examples of what each career field is like and the best ways to get noticed as you apply for jobs in these fields.

image courtesy of Stuart Miles