Advice for New Librarians

I thought this was the funniest e-mail when it came through on the Library Underground list on March 10, 2004. Every once in a while something reminds me to look for it again. Somehow it's only posted on two other Internet sites, so I thought I'd add it here.


For new librarians in public libraries, some career advice from a bunch of veterans sitting around having one too many beers. Thank goodness one of us was sober enough to take notes! This message may be freely disseminated provided it remains intact and no one dishonestly claims authorship. The authors are anonymous and intend to stay that way.

  1. Your undergraduate degree or previous experience is irrelevant. If your background is English, you'll be assigned to the Science Department. Fluent in a second language? Your collection development responsibilities will be Hollywood videos. Want to work with children? You'll do cataloging. Your acquisitions expertise will get you assigned to the bookmobile.
  2. Forget the publish-or-perish law of academia. In public libraries, it is publish-AND-perish. Do not publish anything as an entry-level librarian, except what you have been asked to contribute to the library newsletter, until after your first promotion.
    Attracting favorable outside attention too soon irritates your supervisors, who labor long and hard in the unglamorous administrative trenches with no public recognition. They feel resentful when their subordinates develop name recognition or independent reputations.
  3. You can never suck up too much. Loyalty often counts for more than competence. Be punctual, be perky, be passive, and don't ask tough questions. If you get called a "poor team player," it means your boss dislikes you but has no objective basis for criticizing your performance. Start looking for another job.
  4. Tread carefully when ordering books with sexual themes or illustrations. Remember that not all censorship challenges come from outside: if your support staff objects to typing the order or shelving the book, your administrators might not back you up the way they would with an outside challenge.
  5. Never forget that the public library is a political creature. It must satisfy its board and its funders. In addition, there are always those jockeying for their next promotion. These political tensions and alliances can be subtle and difficult to discern but they are there and potentially treacherous.
  6. In spite of its deserved reputation as a profession where eccentrics, nerds, free-thinkers, and "alternative" people of all kinds can find refuge, public libraries can still be bastions of gender conformity. As in other fields, male librarians often float to the top. Female librarians are often promoted based on how well they do femininity (attractiveness, wardrobe, ability to follow orders) rather than how well they do librarianship.
  7. Does administration ask for your input? Consider it a formality. They want cheerleaders, not critics.
    They've spent long years in tedious career purgatory, waiting for another lifer to retire or die so that they can advance to where they can launch their own policies and projects. They're not interested in yours.
  8. Public libraries with low turnover and a civil service system where promotion is restricted to insiders are more likely to be followers than leaders in the field. This is because those with the freshest training and most energy, the new hires, have the least power and the longest wait to attain a position that allows them to innovate.
  9. Exercise caution when seeking employment within 50-100 miles of a library school. Unlike places far from library schools, which must work hard to recruit and retain librarians, cities with library schools in town do not have to treat their staff especially well because they are easily replaced with the many new graduates saturating the local market.
  10. If your library is not unionized, start one.
    Historically, it is the most reliable way to elevate the traditionally dismal librarian salary.