MLIS Career Pathways: A Look at Academic Librarianship

iStudent Blog

Published: November 17, 2021 by Leslie Parry

Last month the iSchool Student Services team hosted a new Lunch and Learn Workshop as part of their ongoing series on MLIS pathways. The topic was academic librarianship and featured School of Information faculty members Dr. Deborah Hicks, Alison Johnson and Dr. Linda Main. What makes this pathway unique? As Taryn Reiner, student support specialist, explains, “Academic libraries are found in institutions of higher education – in community colleges, private colleges, major universities or specialized research institutes.” They employ about 26,000 professional librarians and account for 48 percent of the positions analyzed in the most recent MLIS Skills at Work report. The roles and responsibilities of academic librarians are diverse; they include instruction, research support, project management, technical services, reference and outreach. Over the course of the hour-long program, the panel shared their thoughts on the classes, skillsets and experiences that can best prepare students for work in this field. 


“There’s no one kind of academic librarian,” Dr. Main says. “You need to put together a variety of skillsets and possibly advance into different areas throughout the library as your career moves forward.” While certain skills are fundamental to the profession – such as communication, leadership and information literacy - she encourages students to be forward-looking, especially when it comes to technology. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual and augmented reality will become integral to education and teaching tools, so knowledge in this area may help candidates stand out in the job market. Even her area of expertise, early printed books, involves a keen understanding of technological tools. “Increasingly nowadays the big focus is access. The library is not just the building there. It’s giving access to a very wide number of people,” she says. “Because of technology and tremendous tools that have been developed, we can look at collections in academic libraries and museums and other places and we can see [manuscripts] in tremendous detail because of digitization and the way that they’re curated.”

Another critical area of focus, Johnson says, is user experience. From system design to physical spaces, signage to websites, academic librarians regularly make decisions about how patrons interact with the library and its resources. Dr. Hicks adds that understanding the needs of patrons, especially in a university setting, is essential. “We tend to think of students as users, but faculty are equally as important. They’re just slightly more invisible; they don’t come and use the physical spaces in the same way.” Knowledge of data services, digital humanities, and OER, all of which are more faculty-focused, is vital. In addition, academic librarians have to be adaptable to the needs of different disciplines. What may be relevant to the history department may not apply at all to philosophy. Academic librarianship requires “a lot of flexibility and a lot of willingness to learn how other disciplines think and interact with information,” Dr. Hicks says. “Learning those intricate differences is really important.”


Beyond the foundation courses recommended by the iSchool, Dr. Main encourages students to take classes in digital humanities, digital preservation and curation, OER, data services and information visualization. Dr. Hicks recommends INFO 282, Community Leadership, which she teaches. The curriculum, she says, not only puts your collaborative leadership skills into practice but the projects can be included on a CV and discussed in a job interview.  

iSchool Student Services outreach specialist Sheila Gurtu encourages students to review the most recent MLIS Skills at Work report. “Map the job skills that you see to iSchool courses that you’ve taken, or internship or volunteer experiences that you’ve completed, to see where there might be gaps between your own skills and the targeted positions you’re looking at.” The MLIS Student Success Planner can help you map out your coursework.

Dr. Hicks also suggests taking on leadership roles while in school, such as joining a student group or presenting at a conference. This kind of participation demonstrates that you’re interested in the profession. “You’re sharing your insights, you’re sharing your work, and you’re learning to talk about it professionally as well,” she says. Plus, the inclusion of a conference presentation on your CV or resume will attract attention. For students who are interested, she recommends the College of Professional and Global Education Online Student Conference in February. Presentation proposals are due by November 19.


Sample academic library jobs from the Spring 2021 MLIS Skills at Work report include Research & Student Services Librarian, Archival Processing Manager, Business Librarian, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian, and Library Director. Gurtu suggests taking a deep dive into the iSchool’s Career Environments page for academic libraries as well. This will give you a sense of what to expect in terms of job titles, responsibilities, salaries, and institutional organization. “Early in your program here with us, create job alerts on Indeed or other aggregators with keywords, so you can see positions available in your area,” she recommends. Advanced degrees may be preferred for some positions, so if you have a subject master’s, be ready to discuss your transferable knowledge. If you don’t have relevant experience, opportunities such as internships and volunteer positions can help give you a competitive edge. 

While you’re in school, Johnson says, keep an eye out for library support positions, especially if you work full-time and can’t do an internship. These entry-level positions are “a good way to get a foot in the door,” she says, and “are really important to keep the library functioning.”

“It’s really amazing, the diversity of things that you can do in academic libraries,” she adds. “It was one of my favorite things about it. Even in one specific position, there’s such a wide variety of tasks you can do.” Whether you’re managing staff, designing systems, or providing bibliographic support, “This is a great place for people who are curious and love to learn. There’s endless learning in academic libraries.”


Right On!

Excellent article. I can absolutely attest to the fact that technology and user experience are definitely some of the top skills graduating librarians should have!

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