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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 1

Considering career alternatives

Why should librarians and information professionals consider non-traditional career alternatives, and what are some of the options available?

Why alternatives?

Most of us go into the information field intending to be librarians; the idea of pursuing an alternative path really throws us for a loop. Our gut reactions can range from “why did I spend all the money on my degree just to do something else?” to “I could never do something else, because this is the only thing I’m trained for”.

Sometimes, though, the unexpected path proves the most interesting. Broadening our idea of what constitutes information work allows us to explore unthought of options, allowing us to find the right fit for our skills and ourselves at any given point in our careers. Understanding our skills as both transferable and invaluable expands our options and allows us to influence other fields, just as other fields have influenced our own.

So why might you want to consider an alternative path? Some common reasons include:

  • You see no opportunity for advancement in your institution.
  • You need increased flexibility in your career.
  • You want new challenges; you’re burned out or bored with your current situation.
  • You face the reality of a shrinking job market for traditional librarians, particularly in today’s tough economic times.
  • You work in an emotionally unhealthy environment.
  • You are looking for post-retirement opportunities.
  • You want to earn more money.
  • You are looking to add a side gig or two to your existing full-time work.
  • Because you can.

Your biggest concern may be whether you can make a living doing something else – just realize that many of us do. You might start inching your way towards alternatives by researching other fields (putting those librarian skills to work) or by taking on side gigs to explore your options and find a good fit. Revisit what it is you want out of your career; identify your long-term goals. The day you set a goal that includes a non-traditional career is the day you begin moving towards that vision; taking steps towards alternatives requires that you truly envision yourself doing something else.

What are the alternatives?

The facile answer to "what else can you do with a library degree (or library background)?" is "just about anything you want". But let’s dig a little deeper. People I talked to for my book on non-traditional careers, What’s the Alternative?, pursued a wide range of alternatives and demonstrate that library-related skills are useful just about anywhere. Their non-traditional paths included the following:

  • Analyst
  • Competitive intelligence specialist
  • Consultant
  • Editor
  • Grant writer
  • Indexer
  • Non-profit manager
  • Novelist
  • Paralegal
  • Prospect researcher
  • Publisher
  • Researcher
  • Teacher
  • Trainer
  • Translator
  • Vendor
  • Web designer
  • Writer.

While some of these options seem more obviously related to librarianship than others, never limit your career by what others have done – find inspiration from their transitions, then make the choice that’s right for you. This may include one or more of the above options, or might lead you down an entirely different path.

Think again about your goals, and think about what type of environment you see yourself working in. Do you envision working with technology? With books? With people? By yourself? You will begin to build a picture of where you want to be, which can help you identify viable alternatives.

Many librarians pursuing non-traditional careers begin by adding side work onto their current full-time library-related position. You can certainly be a librarian and a writer, an information professional and a consultant. Further, if you do opt to move away from the field, particularly if you choose to strike out on your own, you might still find yourself on multiple career paths.

Since librarianship appeals to the Renaissance person, those who are interested in (and good at!) many things, you need not limit yourself to one set path. You might find that you work well as a trainer and a consultant, as a writer and an editor – and multiple types of work also provide multiple streams of income, making you less reliant on any one source.

Identify your transferable skills. What have you learned as a librarian that will translate into other environments? What are you good at? These can include both library-specific skills (organization of information) and more general skills (project management, communication, training). Think here about what you have done and what skills you have picked up, not about what your official job titles have been. You will need to able to translate your skills into non-librarian language, using the terms and priorities of the field(s) you are targeting. Again, as you begin writing things down, you’ll see patterns begin to emerge.

What does an openness to alternatives achieve?

While librarianship draws from multiple fields, we’re not always good about acknowledging our debts – and even worse at recognizing the need to expand into non-traditional spheres. When we cede information-related work to other fields, we devalue what librarians do and lose the opportunity to involve ourselves in innovation. Librarians in non-traditional careers influence everything from others’ perception of the field to the information related-tools, techniques, and trajectories stemming from other professions.

As a field as a whole, we are trending towards alternatives – library work is not what it was when many of us started. Think, for instance, about the job ads you see for repository librarians, emerging technologies librarians, immersive learning librarians, virtual branch managers, all of which combine technology with librarianship and blend traditional skills with those from outside our field. The boundaries are becoming more fluid, and we need be comfortable with this, even if it goes against our impulse to control and categorize.

If we fail to see those who push the boundaries as part of the field, we cede knowledge work to people outside the field and give them no reason to connect with us. We need to recognize information work in all its forms and recognize librarians as librarians, no matter what career path they end up pursuing.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (