Voices from the Field
Interviews with Information Professionals and Special Librarians
In the summer of 2015, five special librarians were gracious enough to answer several questions about the nature of their work. The following interviews are broken into two parts: the first features three librarians who have had long and varied careers in special libraries and information centers, the second features two recent graduates (class of 2011 & 2015) of the SJSU iSchool who are working in non-traditional library environments. Their insights and experiences provide valuable lessons on what it means to be a special librarian in today’s ever-changing information climate.
Interviews with mid and late career special librarians
How long have you been in this field as an information professional?
Librarian 1: 36 years
Librarian 2: Since 1983
Librarian 3: Since 1996
What was your first job in this field (for example, job title, type of organization, duties)?
Librarian 1: Assistant librarian at a community college library as one of two professional librarians on staff. Our positions were considered professional staff and not faculty. I was responsible for all operations of the library including cataloging, circulation, audiovisual reserves, collection development, selective depository library collection, managing acquisitions and other budgets, supervisor of work study and other students, and supervisor of 2 full-time staff.
Librarian 2: I began library-related work at a job at Mills College. I worked in the Art Department as a Curator of Visual Arts. That meant I managed an Art Library for the Art History faculty and students. I had no professional degree or library experience at the time. I had a subject degree (BA in Art History) and experience working in photography, which were two of the criteria needed for that particular job. My first professional job after completing my MLS was as Information Specialist in a corporate library. My duties included reference work, doing online research for tech employees, working at a reference desk, and managing a serials collection of 800 titles. In about nine months I was promoted to Supervisor of Research Services, where I had a team of about 5 Information Specialists reporting to me.
I have not worked in a corporate library environment since 1995. Primarily I work in Insights organizations in Marketing departments in large corporate enterprises.
Librarian 3: After graduating, I started working for a startup in Silicon Valley. Another SJSU library school graduate posted the job to the listserv and I was hired based on the HTML skills and library background I had gained in school. It was a very small startup working with HP on process management and some Ecommerce projects. I mostly reviewed the documentation and did QA.
Tell me a little about your current position – What is a typical day like for you?
Librarian 1: I have worked in two corporate special libraries where one had a large team of people and the other a small team of people. I now work as chief librarian and curator in a cultural institution (museum) library where I am the only full-time person on staff. I supervise a full-time archivist as well as a number of volunteers consisting of library graduate students and a mix of undergraduate and post-graduate people.
As a solo librarian, a typical day consists of juggling tactical and strategic responsibilities and ensuring that key priorities of the institution are interwoven with dealing with the large amount of daily work required. The biggest challenge is having limited resources, especially a very small budget, while trying to bring the library into the 21st century. I work daily on changing the perception of the library as an active participant in current institutional goals and activities instead of a supposed warehouse of old things all available on the Internet. I am juggling with space limitations for the physical collection requiring diligent weeding while embarking on digitization of print and audiovisual materials. I am also dealing with a huge backlog of cataloging including re-classification of several thousand books from Dewey to Library of Congress classification. The rewards include seeing progress on all fronts almost daily and never having a boring day. Using technology to enhance awareness of content and increase productivity of services demonstrates to researchers and senior management alike that library and archives services are important components to their and the organization’s success.
Librarian 2: My current title is Senior Manager, Customer and Partner Insights. I do primary market research studies for a software company in the Silicon Valley. Project management is a big part of this position as is knowledge of primary market research methods, and being able to advise internal clients on how to achieve their research goals. I develop strategic insights based on primary market research findings and advise company leaders on the interpretation and application of those findings.
My primary job rewards come from creating insights and understanding from original studies when secondary research does not cover the level of information needed to understand the market opportunity or customer needs.
Librarian 3: My current title is Senior Systems Librarian. I troubleshoot library software issues and help librarians with our software in their day-to-day work. On a typical day, I answer emails and phone calls reporting issues from our customers, and troubleshoot them until I can fix the issues myself or pass them to our programmers to fix at the software level.
I very much enjoy helping our customers, knowing that I am helping libraries make their collections available to an ever larger and more diverse and technical population. Our office culture is also very collaborative, so any of us can ask any of our colleagues for help or ideas any time.
What can MLIS students expect regarding salary and job tenure in a work environment such as your organization’s?
Librarian 1: Salaries in special libraries are as varied as can be imagined. Corporate librarians typically are paid more than similar library positions elsewhere, but with that usually is higher expectations and more demanding workloads. A beginning corporate librarian is often paid more compared to starting salaries at most academic or public libraries. However, as with any position in a corporation, the position may not have the assured longevity that was once the case. Cultural institutions have relatively lower salaries, but the work itself is very satisfying.
Librarian 2: In my particular field, salary ranges are more in the range of a person with an MBA, not an MLIS. MLIS students would not be hired into this role unless they had an MBA or significant business background that qualifies them. I have had 15+ years of “on-the-job” experience that qualifies me, but not having an MBA is a bit of a weakness on my resume.
Marketing is a corporate function that is vulnerable to reorganizations. It pays well but can be susceptible to reorgs and layoffs. Right now there is a big demand for Customer Insights employees, especially if you know analytics.
Librarian 3: I believe most MLIS staff starting here in the tech support department will start at around $50,000. As a senior person in my group, I feel secure in my position, but I do not have a good sense of where the company or my group will be in the next couple of years.
What courses, advanced degree(s), skills and/or experience would be helpful to enter this field?
Librarian 1: The job market is slowly expanding and people with a mix of traditional education combined with technology knowledge and experience have a stronger chance of being hired than others. It is important to examine what education and experience is being asked for in job descriptions of interest to a particular person in order to gauge what would be helpful. I have a science undergraduate degree combined with two master’s degrees, one in education focused on instructional technology, and one in library science/records management. All of that has been useful in the many job opportunities I have had over time.
Librarian 2: Look for entry-level positions working in secondary research with the information that is on a company-wide portal. An MBA, or courses and experience in Economics, Math, Analytics, Marketing, or other business-related content is very useful. There is a huge demand for data analytics people, and it pays very well. If you can get experience at that…it is a great and hirable background to have.
Librarian 3: I was hired with no UNIX or library experience, either of which would have helped me quite a bit with the learning curve. As it is, I think I would have had a much tougher time understanding what I was doing without the knowledge I retained from my cataloging class. I wish I had had more practical library experience, and more basic computing experience as well (command line level).
What did you wish you had known before you started?
Librarian 1: I wish I had known the importance of added business management training and skills in a second language. Each would have been assets earlier in my career, but I have gained bits of both over time.
Librarian 2: If you want to work in business outside of libraries or information management, augment your resume with real on-the-job work.
Librarian 3: If there is anything I have learned from working here, it’s that librarians can apply the knowledge and skills they learn in library school to any job if they’re willing to keep on learning afterward.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Librarian 1: I think it is important for anyone looking to work in the field of librarianship and information management to ignore the naysayers and pursue their interests. While even some experienced librarians question why someone would pursue the profession, there are amazing opportunities available with good salaries if the possibilities are examined instead of the traditional role descriptions and restrictions.
Librarian 2: Don’t be afraid to dive in and take on projects outside the boundaries of your educational experience. That has been one of the keys to my working in alternative careers and positions. Your knowledge management skills are valuable and you should think about how you can leverage them. Always try to think about how your skills map to other business needs within the organization in which you work…and don’t be afraid to take on additional work. Also – professional networking is critical to your career and work life. Start early and build those relationships over time. They pay off in terms of the quality of your professional life. Networking is a give and take. If someone helps you, try to think of ways you can reciprocate and pay it forward by helping someone else.
Interviews with recent graduates
How did you begin this work?
Librarian 1: I got an internship last year with a big tech company in Silicon Valley. It was my first special library position.
Librarian 2: Having worked in the public sector before and during LIS studies, I wanted to try a completely different arena for an internship. With a life-long curiosity in technology, I applied for and accepted an internship at a large software company in Silicon Valley. From there, I gained real-life experience as an information professional in a business setting. I also discovered I enjoyed working in a special library.
The internship ran from fall 2010 through spring 2011. Shortly before graduating, I received a full-time offer from the software company, where I work to this day. Internships do lead to jobs.
What was your first job – for example, job title, kind of organization, duties?
Librarian 1: First job in libraries? I’m not sure how to answer this! I’m still not employed full-time, so I’m still waiting for my first “real” job.
Librarian 2: My first special libraries-related job title: Market Insights Intern. The term “Market Insights” was totally new to me at the time. I learned it indicated actionable market information or intelligence about a given industry.
When starting out, be fearless about asking questions of any kind, including those involving terminology. Learning a profession’s vocabulary helps you gain common ground quickly.
What is your current job/title?
Librarian 1: I work part-time as a Knowledge Coordinator at an ad tech company in Silicon Valley.
Librarian 2: My current job title is Senior Analyst, Global Market Insights. I am part of a 10-person team that provides IT market and industry data to the entire company. Our team is comprised of experts that:
- conduct primary research on customers, products, marketing efforts
- calculate market size, share, and forecasting numbers
- consult on and broker access to secondary research
- create competitive intelligence
On this team, I am the only librarian. I manage an online library that provides IT market information to all employees. My role involves curating a collection of industry analyst reports, news, blogs, white papers; conducting training and outreach activities; creating dashboards that highlight key insights; overseeing UI developments to our portal; interfacing with the third party that hosts our library; fielding secondary research questions from internal customers; and aiding subscription renewals from firms like Forrester, Gartner, and IDC. It is a variety-filled job, which invigorates me.
From these efforts, 1 in 3 employees (out of 20,000) are now registered users of the library. I enjoy working on a resource gaining value in our company, helping inform business decisions through data.
Tell me a little about your current position – What is a typical day like for you?
Librarian 1: I just work one day a week at the moment. I work independently most of the day on projects that I’m assigned. I meet with my co-worker, the Knowledge Manager at my company, for help with projects, advice, to bounce ideas, and to get new projects from her. I usually meet in the afternoon with my manager so I can update him on the status of my projects and talk about strategies and upcoming projects. At the moment, I’m working on a project to organize the Confluence wiki for the Engineering and Product teams. This involves assessing the content, contacting page authors to get them to update content, archiving obviously outdated information, adding labels to content, creating hierarchies and doing general maintenance on the site.
Librarian 2: Since our library is open 24/7 and used by employees worldwide, a typical day begins by addressing research questions from European and Asia-Pacific customers that arrived during the night. From there, I may work on long-term UI improvements to our portal; update a web page; troubleshoot an access problem; conduct a training session for new users; guide other customers to needed information via reference interviews by phone, instant messenger, email; market a new data source on our company’s chat platform; work on a subscription renewal; attend a team meeting. No two days are alike, which I enjoy.
What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards of your current position?
Librarian 1: The biggest challenges have been trying to figure out how to go about accomplishing goals when there are no rule books! I’m mostly on my own in this role, so I’ve had to figure out best practices on my own. It’s also been challenging to get things done when I’m only in one day a week and I don’t know many of the people that I’m trying to help. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out who to contact about what, how to accomplish things without stepping on anyone’s toes, and whether I have the authority to change things. I’m figuring it out as I go along. This is also one of the rewards, however, since I am pretty autonomous in a lot of ways. I’ve been able to pick and choose things to work on, and since no one else is doing what I’m doing, I’ve found that most people will accept changes that I make without too much resistance. They are mostly just really appreciative that someone is taking ownership of knowledge management for their team.
Librarian 2: Being a solo librarian carries with it autonomy and influence, but I miss brainstorming with fellow librarians. I find connecting with colleagues via the Special Libraries Association, market analysis conferences, and online forums critical to addressing challenges.
Please describe your current work environment.
Librarian 1: I work in a large, open plan floor. It’s a really nice office. Fully stocked kitchens on all floors, catered lunches, weekly happy hours, bright office with sit-stand desks for everyone. They really look after their employees.
Librarian 2: Although some technology companies still maintain physical libraries, most are completely virtual. As such, I work in an office environment. On my desk, you will find a laptop; a big monitor; phone; reference books; notepad; and fun essentials like little toys and snacks. I am surrounded by teammates with diverse skill sets, which is invigorating. My patrons are fellow employees, seeking information to address critical business issues. My main clientele are product managers, product marketers, and company strategists. I also serve sales and, to some extent, engineers, HR, legal.
Can you talk about salary ranges? What can MLIS students expect regarding salary and job tenure in a work environment such as your organization’s?
Librarian 1: I’m being paid hourly right now, in the $30-$40 per hour range. This is apparently standard in the tech industry for someone with a master’s degree, and I was really lucky to have a female manager who was adamant that I earn as much as anyone else with a master’s (even though most other people in the company with masters’ degrees are in the engineering field). I have spoken with other special librarians in the Bay Area who have advised me to aim for $80-$85K for a full-time position; we’ll see if that’s what happens!
Librarian 2: Starting salaries vary greatly, depending on industry, location, and job skills/experience. To understand salary ranges in your geographic region and for your particular position, consult the SLA Salary Survey. Purchase personal salary reports from sites like salary.com. Network with special librarians – particularly hiring managers and new grads – to discuss the type of compensation you could expect.
Depending on the company, you might also see annual bonuses, stock options, competitive retirement savings, vacation, and healthcare packages, or other monetary rewards like a signing bonus or coverage of relocation fees.
Currently, how secure do you feel positions are in your field?
Librarian 1: I feel pretty secure. Silicon Valley is booming right now, and I feel that there’s a good chance that I’ll find something full time once I start looking more seriously. For now, I’m pretty secure in my part-time job. I’m not sure that they will hire me on full- time, however, since the company is in a hiring freeze right now. Plus, I am not sure that I would want a full-time job there; the commute is really tough for me.
Librarian 2: Because our work is often considered a “cost” to a business, special librarians consistently need to prove their worth for job tenure. Leaders who understand that information services translate into better productivity, more loyal customer base, and stronger competitive advantage – along with managers and individual contributors who make knowledge work invaluable to a company – create job security. Without that support, job protection dwindles.
What kind of positions are available at entry-level?
Librarian 1: I can’t really answer this right now – I’m trying to figure it out myself! It does seem like entry-level positions are definitely out there, though.
Librarian 2: Special librarians can be embedded into business departments or part of a centralized information services group. Look beyond the word “librarian” when searching jobs, because you will rarely find it. Entry-level positions can carry the title of associate, specialist, or analyst in areas like knowledge management, database design, user experience research, market analysis, competitive intelligence, etc.
How did you start working here?
Librarian 1: I met my co-worker, the Knowledge Manager, at the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey. We started talking over email, and I asked her about her job and what exactly she does. After a few emails back and forth, she mentioned that they were looking for an intern and asked if I’d be interested. I talked to her on the phone, and that was it!
What skills or experience are necessary to enter this field?
Librarian 1: Organization, the ability to make decisions and communicate effectively, motivation to start projects and see them through to the end even when no one is following up with you.
Librarian 2: Experience with database querying and design; online searching; reference and information services; cataloging and classification; and information technology tools/applications will serve you well. I use the techniques taught in these MLIS classes regularly.
Good personal and professional qualities to possess include an innate, persistent curiosity to learn; desire to progress and improve; flexibility; strong listening, speaking, and written communication skills; aptitude to engage with a variety of people.
What did you wish you had known before you started?
Librarian 1: Gosh, I took this position mostly because I didn’t know anything about knowledge management! I didn’t even really understand what a knowledge base was! I can’t think of anything offhand; I went into it expecting to learn a lot, and I definitely have. Maybe I have been surprised by how much I need to work with other people to get things done. It’s no good making unilateral changes that surprise or annoy people; it’s important to get input and buy-in first.
Librarian 2: I graduated iSchool in SJSU’s largest MLIS class to-date. With so many students looking for work and my nominal experience in a special library, I undervalued my abilities and accepted a compensation package that ended up being well below the industry standard. I worked hard to elevate my salary, with the help of supportive management.
Avoid selling yourself short. Your skills remain relevant, distinctive, and valuable-even if you are entering a new field.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Librarian 1: My best advice is to reach out to people who have jobs that you think sound interesting, or that you want to find out more about. You never know where it might lead. Conferences are a fantastic place to meet people; your classmates and alumni of the school are great resources. I’ve even found people on LinkedIn who have jobs that sound interesting and contacted them to ask about what they do. Ask questions! The best thing about librarians is that we generally are really friendly people who actually want to help.
Librarian 2: Intern, work, or volunteer in the field as much as you can while attending iSchool. Students who train in libraries throughout their master’s degree amplify the benefits of their studies. They internalize teachings because they can practice what they learn. They gain life-long connections with colleagues in the information profession. This kind of career preparation helps lead to employment, allowing you to activate your education upon graduation.
Practitioner Interview Podcasts
For a more recent perspective on various aspects of special librarianship in a high-powered environment, check out also the podcast interview with Shelley Saindon, senior team manager for the Information Center of the Charles Schwab & Co Headquarters in San Francisco. Also, the interview with Beth Maser, president of History Associates, provides a fascinating overview of the history, records, and archives work her group takes on for a wide range of clients, including corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, and large libraries.
Learn more about special and alternative library careers via these iSchool alumni profiles: