A Substitute Librarian’s Survival Guide

by Laura Miller
previously published 12/29/14

A Substitute Librarian’s Survival Guide

laura millerI have been a substitute librarian since February 2007 and find my work very rewarding.  I work in two different public library systems and both systems have me working in multiple library branches- wherever the need for a substitute is. I love the variety of working at different libraries and seeing the different ways libraries do things. Some libraries I’ve  worked in are very large, urban libraries; others are small rural ones. The libraries have different patron demographics and collection strengths. Regardless of where I work, it’s always an interesting and educational experience, and I get to meet lots of wonderful people.

What is Subbing Like?

In both library systems, my work includes a large variety of tasks. My major duties include providing reference services, readers’ advisory, technology instruction, and directional assistance to the public. I staff both the adult and the youth services information desks as needed. I frequently sub at a large downtown branch where I also get to do more subject-specific reference. At some of the branches I may assist the support staff with basic circulation duties (checking materials in and out, fine payment, or pulling items to fulfill holds). Other duties include collection development (making suggestions for purchase, weeding materials), creating displays, and helping out with program set-up or with group visits. I also fill in for the youth services librarian and do the storytime when s/he is absent.

Is Subbing for Me?

Variety is one of the biggest advantages of working as a substitute librarian in a multi-branch public library system. By working at various branches, one can see how different libraries do things, work with various patron demographics, get to know various communities, and get to know and network with numerous librarians.

By subbing in multiple library branches, I get a better sense of the library system as a whole and how each branch fits into the picture. Although there are system-wide policies that apply to each branch, the individual branches also have their own in-house policies. This helps me see that there are multiple approaches to doing things and what works well in one branch may not work as well elsewhere. The branches may also have different collection strengths, programs, facilities, etc. This can be advantage when making referrals. For instance I know which branches tend to have the shortest waits on computers or which branches have a strong urban fiction collection. By working at various branches, I discover things about them that may not be apparent from just reading about it on the website.

Another advantage is flexibility in scheduling. I can choose which shifts to take or not take, or which library branches I prefer to accept shifts from. Vacation time is easy to schedule since I’m not required to work any particular dates or times.

Subbing can be used as an entry point for librarians- to see if the profession is for them and it’s a great way to gain experience. It can be a stepping stone towards full-time, regular employment. Many full-time public librarians have started their library careers by subbing.

One of the biggest downsides to subbing is the irregularity in work hours. The number of work hours can vary widely from week to week. In the library systems I have worked in, librarian substitutes have an upper limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work and this is well under full-time hours. Since substitutes are not guaranteed any given amount of hours, they are typically not eligible for benefits. Also the hourly pay rate for substitutes may be slightly lower than regular librarians, even with the same job title. Depending on the library system and the state of the economy, a substitute librarian may or may not feel  comfortable with subbing as the sole source of income. Some substitutes may find that they need to  take on an additional job to feel comfortable financially. Substitutes are often needed during less ‘desirable’ times such as weekends, just before and after holidays, or evenings. Substitutes who are available and  willing to work during these times have the greatest likelihood of getting more hours, as do those who  are willing to fill last-minute vacancies.

Lack of continuity is another potential disadvantage to subbing. Working in multiple branches can be potentially stressful as each library has its own employees, layout, policies, patron demographics, and atmosphere. It can sometimes be challenging to keep all of this information straight, especially if it’s a library one subs at less frequently. I find that I get to know a lot of employees but probably don’t get to know them as well as someone who regularly works at the same branch.

Professional development opportunities for substitutes may be more limited for substitutes compared to regular employees. Substitutes are typically not reimbursed for library conferences or for continuing education courses. On the job, certain opportunities may be limited as well. For example, serving on committees and workforces may be limited to regular employees. I enjoy programming and outreach but find these opportunities limited since the libraries typically prefer a staff member who is regularly at a certain branch and is available to plan and implement all stages of the program.

Where Do I Find Librarian Substitute Jobs?

Hiring depends on the library system and not all library systems hire substitutes.  Of those that do, most commonly substitute positions are posted like permanent jobs are.  Some systems only take applications when there are openings available while some will always accept applications.  The prospective applicant should contact the HR department of the respective library system regarding application policies.  Some library systems create a potential ‘sub pool’ from applicants for a regular librarian position. That’s how I got one my substitute jobs. Although I didn’t get the regular position I applied for, I was still considered a strong candidate and a few months later I got a call asking if I would be interested in subbing. While this article is geared towards substitutes working in public libraries, there are also some academic libraries that hire substitutes.

Once you’re hired as a substitute, you may be notified of shifts via email, phone, or via an online scheduling system such as AESOP or a combination of these. One of the library systems I sub in uses AESOP for posting substitute vacancies. The first person to accept the shift gets it. It’s good to check your email, phone messages or online scheduling system frequently for potential shifts.

Keeping on Top of Things

How do I manage to keep the information from all of the libraries I sub at straight?

I make a ‘cheat sheet’ for each library branch and store them in my Google Drive account. This allows me to quickly find pertinent information I should know about each of the libraries. Some of the library branches may already have a ‘cheat sheet’ for subs at the information desk. In addition, most library branches have a notebook where answers to frequently asked questions can be found such as those pertaining to library policies or community resources.

Prior to a shift, I check my work email to see if there are important announcements or a message from staff I will be working with. I also check the library’s website to see if there are any programs or events I should be aware of. If feasible, I visit the library branch before subbing there if it will be my first time working there. I interview the library staff to find pertinent things I should know and also walk around each section of the library to learn its layout.

Some key things to know or ask:

How to access the building prior to library opening (if applicable)

Opening and closing procedures

Where to store personal belongings

Break times

How to report work hours

Library layout- where things are located (books, media, periodicals, computers, restrooms, etc.)

Emergency information: equipment, emergency procedures, emergency manual

What programs are taking place today or in the near future? What times? Where in the library?

Who am I subbing for? What’s the reason for their absence (if known)?

Who will I be working with? Who is the supervisor? Who is the current person in charge?

Any in-house policies unique to this library?

Any other pertinent information I should be aware of?


About the Author Laura Miller received her MLIS from Dominican University in 2006 and has worked as a substitute  librarian in public libraries since February 2007.  She currently works in the Hennepin County and Carver County library systems and has previously substituted in Anoka County library. She is a member of Minnesota Library Association and blogs at http://laurastoolkit.blogspot.com   Her interests include reference services, readers’ advisory, library programming, and new technologies in libraries. Outside of the library, she enjoys reading, board games, theater, and camping.

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of T160K.org, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 


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