by Lauren Bourdages, Head Editor, INALJ Ontario
How I try to compete with Masters holding Librarians as a Library Technician
As someone actively looking for a full time position, preferably in a library related to education in some way, I’ve noticed something about the current job market in our industry. It’s not a new piece of knowledge, not something no one has noticed before, but I think it’s important to point out that I’ve realised and experienced it and that I know I’m not the only one who has.
First things first I’ll point out what I’ve noticed about LIS jobs in Canada. They come in 3 tiers.
1. Librarian positions usually involving supervision/management, budgetary, or policy responsibilities and requiring a Masters degree.
2. Library Technician positions, generally front-line, hands-on and without higher level responsibilities. These positions ask for a Library Technician diploma.
3. Non-education based positions, things like paging and data entry, they don’t ask for a library education but they are the type of position where it could/would be advantageous to have one.
Out of that knowledge I made my discovery, that we have a new reality facing us in the LIS industry in Canada. It’s no secret that the current economic climate means that those who have been in the industry for years aren’t retiring, they’re staying on, and that means that all of those openings we were told there would be haven’t actually opened up. Because of that we’re faced with fierce competition for the positions that do come up, and that’s where the problems start. Because of the scarcity of Librarian positions and the requirement that those positions be filled by people with years of library experience, Masters holding Librarians are now applying for positions that have always traditionally gone to Library Technicians in the past as though they are entry-level librarian positions.
That trend has caused hardships and blowback on those of us holding Library Technician diplomas. Where in the past I and other Library Technician graduates would have only been competing with more experienced Library Technicians for positions we’re now competing with not only more experienced LITs but with Masters holding Librarians. I can tell you from experience that if a Library knows it can get someone with a Masters for the same price it can get someone with an LIT diploma, it’s going to go with the Masters holder. It’s depressing and disheartening, but it’s true.
We can compete though. It’s tougher and it’s harder but I believe that it can be done. I believe wholeheartedly that Library Technicians are valuable and that we can hold our own competing with our Masters holding compatriots. To do that though there are a few things we have to do and remember:
1. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom
It’s reality now, a Library Technician is more than likely going to have to start off in at least one position where the diploma isn’t even required. Accept that and embrace it and that’s how you’ll be successful. Don’t complain that you have a diploma and that you’re working in a position that doesn’t require it. Find ways to use your education to improve your workplace. For example, the position I am in right now didn’t require a Library Technician diploma but it’s definitely a role suited to a Library Technician. I manage a fundraising database and I’m implementing records management procedures where none existed before, my organisation needs that and without my Library & Information background I wouldn’t be able to provide it. Don’t be turned off by a job posting that only requires a high school diploma, or doesn’t specifically ask for a Library Technician diploma. Look at the duties and responsibilities, look to see if they are related to what we all learned in our programs.
It won’t be a glamourous job, and it probably won’t be what you envisioned as your ideal first job out of school, but it will help you to build experience and that’s what you need in order to compete for those “dream” positions.
2. Only apply for jobs you’re actually qualified for
You’ve heard this piece of advice from every career blog you’ve read, every career centre workshop you’ve been too and for good reason, it’s the truth. You should only ever be applying for positions that you’re qualified for. If you don’t have experience in at least 75% of the jobs areas of responsibility you shouldn’t be applying for the position. Even more important for Library Technicians, DON’T apply for positions that specifically state that they are seeking someone with an ALA Accredited Masters degree or equivalent. They will not consider a College diploma as equivalent no matter how similar our educations actually are, you will look naive and like you don’t understand the industry or hiring.
That being said if a posting only asks for a formal education in library and information science OF COURSE you should apply for it! Emphasize the value of your diploma, that’s what cover letters are for, for selling how your education and experience meets the needs of their position! Also as I mentioned above in number 1, don’t be afraid to apply for positions that only ask or a high school diploma, as I’ve learned from both experience and anecdotes from my network, there are a lot of LIS industry employers, and non-LIS industry employers who could use us, that don’t actually know that the Library & Information Technician diploma exists, or if they do know they don’t understand it. We are the only ones who can change that. If Library Technicians don’t loudly come together and advocate for ourselves no one else is going to.
3. Make friends and influence people
A.K.A networking. I personally hate the word networking and the connotations of it. I am socially awkward sometimes so networking in the traditional sense can be awkward for me. I love to connect with people in our industry though and have discussions with them; and I like making friends who I have things in common with. One thing I have found that has helped me figure out how to network better is my passion for advocating for Library Technicians and my innate ability to explain things to people. As the daughter of a highly regarded and skilled salesman I have been developing from a young age the ability to sell what I’m talking about, so I do that when I’m talking to LIS pros. I swing the topic around to the fact that I’m a Library Technicians and then I get them into a discussion talking about the similarities and differences between librarians and library technicians. It works for me and I think it’s a tip that can work for you all too.
4. Become a known quantity/Volunteer strategically
Two other good pieces of advice I’ve had from multiple sources that I actively use and that have worked for me. If you know there’s an organisation where you want to work you need to make yourself known there BEFORE a job opens up. There are two ways to go about doing that, arrange to do your field work with them, or find a volunteer position with them. Either way you’re getting into the organisation, meeting the people, getting an understanding of their culture, and basically your time there is like a prolonged job interview. That was how I got my job at the Waterloo Public Library. I’d been applying to positions with them for a year with varying degrees of unsuccess, and then I finally got off my butt and filled out a volunteer application. I started spending 2 hours a week preparing and filing the holds. I did this for 3 months before I was hired on as a Library Page and I know for a fact that the fact that I was already volunteering at the branch I wanted to work at was what clinched the job for me.
That being said it’s not a guarantee, be prepared for that. Being a known quantity doesn’t ALWAYS help you get the position over someone with more experience, but at least that way you really do know you gave it your absolute all and that’s important to me, to know I did everything I could to try and get that job.
5. Broaden your horizons
Niche interests and specialties are important, of course they are how could they not be? I myself have two niche interest areas that I consider my specialty, educational libraries, including programming, curriculum support, instruction and collection development; and information management. Those aren’t the only two things I can do though, they’re just the two I am most interested in. I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself and you shouldn’t either. In this market and climate we have to be prepared for whatever LIS related position comes up and that means having a varied body of experience. You have at least 2 field placements in your LIT program. Use them wisely. Don’t go into a library that is the same type as one you already have experience in.
For example, I already had experience volunteering in multiple school libraries, so even though a school library or academic library is where I’d REALLY love to be for my employment I didn’t use my field placements to get more experience in them. I went into a special library for the first one, and a non-traditional information position for the second. Combined with volunteer and work experience in a public library I feel that I’ve developed a body of experience that shows I am capable of adapting to whatever type of LIS environment I am put into. I’ve now worked with 3 very different Integrated Library Software systems, I know that I could be introduced to a new one tomorrow and that I would have very little issue learning how to use it effectively.
Also important, by varying your experiences you’re learning not only what you like but also what you don’t like. You could be plugging away in the belief that you absolutely want to work as a Children’s Programmer or a School Library Technician, but if you’ve only ever worked with adults and haven’t ever actually led a program than you could get in front of that group of kids and realise you absolutely hate it. You don’t want to be in that position.
6. Speak to specific experience
Last but certainly not least. Another piece of career advice that is so common and prevalent that I think we actually start to forget it or at least take it for granted. You absolutely need to showcase EXACTLY how you have specific experience relating to EVERY position that you’re applying for. If they’re looking for someone who can spin saucers on poles for 45 minutes straight without dropping them and you’ve done it for 50, SAY THAT. If you can show that you have exactly what experience they’re looking for you leave them without any reason at all to select a Masters holding Librarian because they have more education and training. Customise every cover letter and every resume.
I never use the same resume. I tweak every single one because I want the skills and accomplishments I’m showcasing to always be 100% relevant to the position I’m applying for, specifically to the wording in their job posting. Say it the way they say it, it helps them to understand your experience as it relates to them.