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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 5

Building your career in tough economic times

The global economic downturn is on everyone's minds – and unsurprisingly, our thoughts most often turn to the direct impact on ourselves, our careers, and our families. As library budgets shrink, we turn "doing more with less" into an art form; as we fear the impact of downsizing or find our job hunt stretching over months, we find ourselves having to rethink a seemingly secure career path.

The stress of all this uncertainty can paradoxically make us less able to weather tough economic times. We tend to freeze in our tracks, wanting to keep our heads down and just make it on through untouched. The key to not only surviving, but thriving, however, is to become more proactive in our libraries and in our careers.

It may help to think about this tendency to freeze as a form of the classic five stages of grief:

  1. denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression, and finally
  5. acceptance.

When we get stuck in any of these earlier stages ("How dare they not tell me how tough it would be to get a job!"; "We don't have the money for anything, so why bother?"), we end up in a vicious cycle that prevents us from accepting the situation – and from thinking about the steps we need to take to move on.

Locus of control

Similarly, psychologists also talk about the concept of a "locus of control", and we can benefit by thinking about our own. The idea here is that each of us has either an internal locus of control, where we believe that our path is created and influenced by our personal decisions and efforts, or an external locus of control, where we believe that our path is basically subject to the whims of fate.

While bad things do inevitably happen to good people, the question is: How do we respond to these events, and how do we move forward? The more we trend towards an internal locus of control, the more psychologically healthy we are, and the more able we are to take the steps to move ourselves out of that bad place. Think about the way you frame your own story; if you see yourself as a victim of fate, you're less able to move beyond.

Moving on

Once we accept that we have the power to move forward – even in tough economic times – the first step is to set goals. Realizing that the current economic downturn, like all downturns, can't last forever, where do you want to be when things look up?

If you've been downsized or think you may be downsized, take the opportunity to rethink your priorities. What have you always dreamed of doing? What have you never had time to do? What skills and experience have you gained that will allow you to move towards those dreams?

If you're working in an institution that has suffered budget and personnel cuts, take the opportunity to rethink its priorities. This ties in with the idea of Library 2.0, which requires that we look at our existing programmes and services with fresh eyes. What do we spend time doing that isn't necessary any longer? What still meets our clients' needs – and what do we continue to do, simply because we have always done it?

Economic uncertainty can give us the impetus to look at our careers and our libraries with fresh eyes, seeing where to transform our old ways of doing business.

Taking stock

Economic uncertainty should also push us to take stock of our skills and shore up those that need sharpening. This helps you remain employable and helps you see which direction to take your career next. And, while employers are cutting back on professional development funds, realize that free and low-cost career development opportunities abound.

Start by thinking about the skills you already have, both those you have acquired in libraries/library school and those you have picked up from pre-library or outside activities. Think broadly here: Have you run PTA meetings, organized committees, set up a website for a local organization, worked the cash register at McDonald's? (I honed my own customer service skills at a trucking company – experience dealing with Teamsters was a selling point in my first interviews for public library positions!)

Then, take a look at the job ads. Do this even if you're not currently "looking" – you need to be aware of the types of positions that are most often available, and the types of skills employers are seeking. This allows you to keep yourself up to date and prepared against the day you need to go back on the market.

Where do you see gaps between commonly-requested skills/experience and your own background? This is where you need to focus your personal professional development efforts.

Look for free and low-cost opportunities to gain the skills you need. These include everything from the free, online webinars run by SirsiDynix Institute to computer courses at your local community college. Don't stop learning when you're done with library school; in an ever-changing profession (and world!) we all need to keep our skills and knowledgebase current. Read widely in the field to see what topics are hot and where the profession is headed; read blogs as well as the print literature to gain the broadest possible perspective.


Think also about your personal network. If you're on the job market, tell everyone you know that you're looking. If you're striking out on your own, think about who can connect you with potential business opportunities. If you're geographically isolated or a solo librarian, make a conscious effort to connect online – and to keep your online presence professional. Make this an ongoing process, and realize that networking is a two-way street. Be open to collaborating and offering assistance when others in your network reach out to you, and you'll build the good karma (and reputation) that lets some of that come back around when you need it.


All of this reading and discussion and activity helps you think more broadly about your alternatives. The average worker now changes jobs five times over the course of his or her career; librarianship is no longer the stable field it was once perceived to be. The broader your perspective, the more options open to you. Are you willing to change subfields? Specialties? Careers?

Think about how your skills transfer to other possible career paths; think about your long-term goals. Yes, the current economic situation is scary. Yes, you may have gotten a raw deal. Accepting both of those factors, how now to move on? What's your plan? How do you move forward with the knowledge that the current downturn won't last forever?

Do what you need to do in the short term, but remain focused on those long-term goals. Let the current climate be the precipitating event that moves you onto the path towards your own career objectives.

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