Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career

29 Nov

I have a theory: I think the 2nd job you ever get in libraries is the most important. We’ll come on to the why in a minute – first of all I wanted to see if others’ experiences backed up my hypothesis. I put a poll on to Twitter, asking this:

Which job was most significant in getting you to where you are in libraries now? Which most influenced you onto your current path?

I didn’t want to prejudice the outcome so I didn’t mention my theory. The results were interesting – they did seem to (just!) back me up:


36% said 2nd job, 34% said 1st job

Turns out spelling the word 'job' correctly 5 times is beyond me

Now, this is a very specific question. I’m not asking which factor is most significant to where people are now (a lot of people would say professional development outside of their 9-to-5 jobs, or their Masters perhaps) and I’m not asking which job is the most important in terms of people being in the information profession at all (presumably that’d be the first job for the vast majority of people) – it’s all about where you are, the path you’re on, the area of librarianship you’ve ended up in or the role you’re currently doing.

So I believe the 2nd job you ever get in libraries is arguably the most important because it dictates much SO of what happens to you afterwards. Obviously all jobs have an effect on what comes after them to some extent, but the 2nd job is something of a tipping point whose significance is, I’d imagine, not appreciated at the time most people are applying for it. Most people’s first library jobs fall into one of two categories – securing an entry-level position prior to doing the Masters (or becoming a graduate trainee), or securing an entry-level position because you’ve sort of stumbled into libraries accidently, and then finding it was a lot more interesting than you thought, so you stay in the sector. As has been discussed before, almost no first library jobs are beyond the entry-level – even people who have the Masters have to start at or near the bottom.

So – as a result of this, there’s not much proactive career choice about your first library job: you just need a job. Most people start as something like a ‘Library assistant’ – often a customer facing role, in the library itself, issuing books and helping with queries etc. You only really start to mould you career when you apply for that 2nd job – and my argument is that you need to make a really sound choice here, because it has a vital domino effect on your subsequent career. And actually, it’s tricky to divert off the path you choose for yourself at that 2nd job choice, because the 3rd job will (probably) be a higher up or better or related version of that 2nd job and (probably) pretty good, meaning you build a career off the back of it.

I’m obviously generalising here, and of course there will be exceptions – and throughout I’m imagining someone staying in more or less the same place, rather than having accrued several jobs at the same level on their CV simply because they’ve relocated a few times. But generally speaking, if you’re in that position that so many of us were in – you’re in your first library role, thinking it’s actually pretty good, wondering about making it into a career – you need to think carefully about the path you choose and, not least, how long that path is in reality.

I’ll take the academic library as an example, because that’s what I know best. Your first role was in Lending Services on the desk, so where do you go next? If you choose to stay in Customer Services then you’re looking at a Reference / Enquiries Desk role perhaps, otherwise there’s a big jump up to something like Customer Services Manager or Site Manager. If you go into the cataloguing side of things you could go for an Assistant Cataloguer post. You could try and move towards the subject librarian side of things by going for a Team Assistant post in an academic librarian subject team. Or there might be a ‘Digital Library Assistant’ type role, to do with digitisation or e-Resources. Whichever of these you choose, your 3rd job will probably also be in this area, is my point. And your 4th job too, perhaps. Of course people change all the time, but it’s quicker to develop a career in a roughly straight line. (I know this, because I didn’t – and have only in the last few months arrived at the job I actually wanted to do all along, and have much younger colleagues who took a more direct route…)

Part of the reason I’m writing this is because I know some people who’ve been working in libraries a good while, and are just sort of treading water – because that second job took them down a path, and now that path is blocked for whatever reason. There just aren’t any more senior jobs than they’re already doing, in the area they’ve come to specialise in. So I’d recommend getting hold of one of those organisational structure charts for your library (or the library you’d like to work in) and literally plotting your ideal route upwards, seeing what’s feasible, where the obstacles are, when you’d be waiting an age for people to retire or leave, etc. Some paths have very few destinations so are more competitive. Some might not even exist by the time you get to the good bit. Some paths might look like their beyond you in terms of expertise, but actually you could get there over time. Some paths have loads of destinations but aren’t well paid. Money certainly isn’t everything, but progression means a lot – you don’t want to get stuck in a rut.

It would be nice just to live in the moment, just to ‘be’ and not worry about all this stuff. But librarianship is a hugely competitive profession, with far more qualified librarians than there are jobs for qualified librarians. So it’s really never too early to be thinking about the career path you’re embarking upon – ideally, you need to start making informed choices almost from the very start.

If you’ve made it through all that – do you agree with my 2nd Job Hypothesis?

- thewikiman

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  • Ned Potter November 29, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career –

  • Ned Potter November 29, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    @ellyob Oh sorry, not sure what's happening there – try this:

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    Having said all that, I’ll whack a massive caveat on to it – over time, it is of course possible to correct any kind path to get to where you want to go. It just takes longer. But if you’re working in libraries for 40 years, then you’re bound to have the chance to move towards whatever goal you’re after, regardless of what your second job was…

  • Tom Smith November 29, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    The survey didn’t ask how many jobs you’d had in total. So given that people have had between at least one job and LOTS of jobs, more people will have had 2 jobs than have had 3, than have had 4, than have had 5. My 234th job was quite important.

    An answerer has to have had 3 jobs for the 2nd to have been important.

    I found the question too hard to answer :-) on so many levels…

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    Oi, Smith! Your office is in a library, that’s not the same thing as having a library job.. You don’t count! ;-)

  • Mieneke van der Salm November 29, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    It’s funny, I originally answered that it was my third job that got me where I am today, because I included my work experience months at the Royal Library as my first library job. Spinning of of that I became a cataloguer with the STCN and then, after being away from the field for a few years, I started work in Lending Services and giving the occasional information literacy class. Which got me into the job I hold today as an information specialist. But maybe I shouldn’t count the work experience as a job and then it would have been my 2nd job!

    On a more serious note, I do think you have a point. That first job is what gets you in the door and shows you this is where you want to be (having a Master’s at something doesn’t equal being happy working in the field sometimes), but often that second job will show you where your professional passion is (and/or isn’t) and how you can embrace that in the rest of your career. I also think it might be that by the time you get to that 2nd job, you’re a little bit older and wiser and more inclined to look to the future instead of the now. Does that make sense?

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    Mienke, yes it does! I agree completely.

  • Bonnie Powers November 29, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    Thanks for this insightful post, which is very pertinent for me being that I’m currently in my 2nd library job. This job HAS shown me very clearly what my professional passion is, and it’s not cataloging, which is my current job description. However, I’ve had the opportunity to show my strengths in other areas, and I’m hoping I can eventually get a new job (not necessarily a new employer, though) that better suits my skill set and my passion. I was afraid for a long time that I was stuck in a cataloger’s mold. Now I think otherwise. So…so far, I would have to agree with you! But who knows what job #3 may bring? And since I’m 50, I’d better find out soon!

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    Hey Bonnie, thanks for the comment – really interesting to hear it from that point of view! I think because you’re in your 2nd job and are aware of the situation, then your 3rd job becomes the key one…. Very useful to work in a role and find out it’s not for you long term (same thing happened to me in my last job) particularly if it’s a catalyst to make the next job a really great one.

  • Sarah Wolfenden November 29, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    I’d agree with that hypothesis but I’m only in my second job. My first job was in a college – I wanted to get out of the retail path I’d accidentally found myself in and would have taken anything. I wanted to work in higher education after that but having no experience in that sector I couldn’t get into it. My second job is still in a college but working with Higher Education students – so sort of on the right path. My current job has taught me a lot in terms of electronic resources and academic liaison and when we had some money I was able to go on courses to develop my skills in teaching and line management. However, I would say that over the last year it is my work outside of my job which has given me the most benefits in terms of development. Now that the universities are in crisis and more HEinFE is going to take place I’m a little unsure of my next few steps and realise they need to be careful ones.

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    Hi Sarah, yep I agree – my outside of work stuff was much more useful in getting me my current job than my previous work experience, I think.

    It’s good that you’re able to go on courses in anticpation of the next role, too! Nothing liike already being able to tick important boxes, rather than scrambling around when you actually start filling in an application form…

  • Carol Perryman November 29, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    Hmm, well – I’d guess I’m an exception. My first library job (in a community college library, as a student worker) absolutely convinced me of the value of library work, and led me to a 2-year degree followed by a first, full-time position in a medical library – followed by several stints in public libraries, working my way up – then back to a medical library, and now, to academia where I’m teaching LIS students. Altogether, my varied experiences have provided a wonderful overview of commonalities throughout LIS, but I never did set out with the idea of teaching in mind. Mine is a case of following interest and opportunity, seeing where it got me.

    With regard to my interest in LIS research-in-practice, however, you’re right. It was during my second (and first full-time) library job that I became interested in the idea of EBL, and library research-in-practice, and from there on, part of my mind regarded the profession differently – from an ‘us’ perspective in which I saw myself as possibly contributing to change of the profession itself. In my (extremely varied) career path prior to libraries, this had assuredly NOT been the case, as I was far more concerned with paying rent.

    Interesting post, thanks!

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 3:30 PM

    Hi Carol, that’s really interesting – I think that happens quite a lot. The world of libraries just isn’t fully understandable until you’re really in it; I certainly had no idea it would be so interesting. So it’s probably in most people’s second (or third) jobs that they get the sense of being part of a profession in which things are really happening, rather than just having a job..

  • Aaron Tay November 29, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    I have only had one library job so far.Though after 2 years I did move from technical services to my own position (information services dept), so technically this is my 2nd job? It makes sense I guess. I like to think I am better at my current position…. But from the perceptive of having only one job , I think the first few years you are still trying things out, I have been trying not to limit myself as a “X librarian” and learning & trying different areas (something my place allows) but the time is fast approaching where I have to start specializing and it might as you say be a critical point….

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    Aaron, yes, I think it’s sad if people have to limit themselves so soon. And we shouldn’t think of it that way, it’s good to try things out and see what fits.

    I think the secret might be, to not tie yourself down to one path, but nevertheless when you’re ON a specific path to take each job change seriously as if it is extremely significant to your career. Even if, actually, it might not be because you might go off and doing something else… I dunno, does that make any sense? :)

  • JobLIST Library Jobs November 29, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career (@theREALwikiman 11/29/11)

  • Ned Potter November 29, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career (Would you agree..?)

  • Tom Smith November 29, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    I don’t count? Sob!

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    That’s not to say I don’t appreciate you commenting, though, Tom… :)

  • Erika Delbecque November 29, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    I agree, but unfortunately the reality is that there aren’t many jobs out there at the moment, and I am pretty sure that almost all of us (I’m currently doing the MA at UCL) will apply for whatever entry-level professional posts (or even non-professional posts) there are. In the current economic situation, very few people (and full-time LIS students in particular!) can afford to wait until the perfect (or even just an interesting!) job comes along, and I think many will find themselves working in sectors they are not really interested in.

  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Erika, you make a very good point. It’s very hard to be choosy or idealistic in this economic environment. But insofar as one can, one needs to at least try…

  • Dave Puplett November 29, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    Hey Ned, interesting post.

    Would be fascinating to see what people said right at the end of their careers (or people who had reached a director-type level). I think the number given by your respondents here doesn’t matter so much – you could have asked how many boy/girlfriends people went through before they got married/settled and found a similar response. It’s more to do with what you learn from each job. Most jobs won’t be your last, but each leads to the next. Early career posts are bound to yield big chunks of learning, because early career professionals lack experience and wider professional awareness.

    What I like about this post is that it concurs with my own instinct that career paths only make real sense in retrospect.



  • thewikiman November 29, 2011 at 10:30 PM

    Dave, I disagree with you. Of course what you learn from each job is important, but I’m talking about how we’re at a real threshold when deciding what to go for in that 2nd job, without really noticing it. All subsequent jobs are thresholds too, but a: they tend to be lesser thresholds because they’re so influenced by job number 2 and b: we’re more clued up as to what’s going on by the time we get that far, anyway.

    To use a building analogy – our 1st job in libraries is coming in through the front door. We can see a lot more now we’re inside, and we understand it more and want to stay. The second job is like choosing what floor to go to, and subsequent jobs tend to be a choice of doors on that floor. Of course it’s possible to change floors, but it often takes a lot of work… And we often just stay on that floor for ages becuase it’s naturally the floor we know most about.

    I do agree with you in your point about bigger chunks of learninng from earlier posts, though.

    I think my career path is making sense as it goes along – certainly all the key parts have been deliberate (even if I was making bad choices, they were still choices….) but I don’t know what’ll happen next becuase having finally got to do the job I’ve always wanted, I have no further plans for progress! :)

  • Ngai Deckard November 29, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    I’m almost positive it’s going to be my next one. That will be no. 5 in the library sector. :-)

  • thewikiman November 30, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Heheh, good luck Ngai..

  • Ned Potter November 30, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    Final call for: (Why the 2nd job you ever get in libraries may be the most important of your career…) #lisnpn

  • Laura Williams November 30, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    As like others who have commented here I am only on my 2nd library job. I can see this job being an important landmark in my career as it has led me to discover that I love working in broadcast media and given opportunity to develop specialist knowledge useful for building a career in this sector. I feel more focused and clearer on what I want to do as an information professional as a result of this experience. Whether or not I’ll be able to find continued employment as an information professional in this sector is another matter though! I expect when my contract runs out here I will have to scramble around and take whatever I can find which is fine as my 3rd job might lead to equally important career defining experiences and discoveries.

  • Carol Perryman November 30, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    What also may be of interest here is an unspoken assumption that there is some state of career stasis to be achieved – as if we are still thinking in old terms (loyalty to company, one job for life) in a whole new world where change is our most common experience. Laura, I note your comment about developing new interests and wondering if you can possibly combine broadcast media with a position in information. I believe we are constantly evolving but there is really no ‘end’ (other than the obvious) to that change process. All we are influences what we pay attention to, and we only EVER understand meaning in retrospect. Thus, my bartending and waitress days, my telephone service job… all inform my understanding of peoples’ information and other behavior; these affect my approach to students, my sense of affiliation, and so much more. Because of this, I pay attention to certain things, am primed to build on those elements to which I have an affinity.

  • Lauren November 30, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    This is specifically of interest to me because I’m about to embark on my second library job. My first was taken as soon as I got out of my MLIS; it was a temporary position librarian (!!) in an academic library. I was more interested in public, but I figured this would be a great initial experience. And it was, it really was. But now the job is ending, so I’m choosing which direction I want to go next. Public or stay in academic. It’s good to know your 2nd job IS as important as others have told me it is.

  • Laura Williams November 30, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    Carol, I would love to continue my career within broadcast media as I find it a very interesting and exciting sector but I am aware job opportunities for librarians are limited. I’ve started to investigate the possibility of branching out from my current position as a librarian for a television company to other positions which are information related such as research roles or media management type work.

    Ned, I love the floors and doors analogy. Can visualise it extremely well and it makes sense. I could now easily stay in my current area of work if I wanted (and I do love the excitement factor of tv!) because I’ve built up specialist knowledge and skills to make getting related jobs slightly easier but I am still keen for a taste of what else is out there and to not be pigeon-holed into one path.

  • Katie December 3, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    It seems to me like it might be a good modal point in the job distribution for a significant choice of career, but one that could be easily shifted by lots of factors: non-typical starts in the profession, changes in sector, unexpected unemployment, etc.

    I have real trouble identifying my most significant job: I knew right from the start of choosing to work in libraries I was seriously trying librarianship out as a career, so would it be my first job, library assistant (really working out what academic libraries were about), my second job, graduate trainee (experiencing different departments of an academic library), or my third job, subject librarian (my first professional post and first chance to work out whether I actually like doing what I thought I wanted to do)? All are equally significant in different ways.

  • Niamh December 3, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    I’m another exception Ned – of my four library positions my current one is most important so far in terms of career, if it’s possible to identify one, probably followed by my first one. I think Dave’s observation is spot on though, you can’t know what your most formative position in terms of your career is until you’ve passed that point, but every position brings experiences that help shape future directions.

  • thewikiman December 3, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    Niamh, I think we’re just talking about different things. For me, if the question is: Which job was most significant in getting you to where you are in libraries now? Which most influenced you onto your current path? – then the answer can’t be ‘the current one’. The current one IS your current path – it IS where you are in libraries now, so it can’t also be the most important factor leading up to that.

  • Niamh December 3, 2011 at 11:11 AM

    I understood what you meant – and I’m saying that the one I’m in is most likely to be the one that will do that, of the positions I’ve held so far. It definitely wasn’t my second, but I can’t answer beyond that in terms of career path until I’m further down it, it’s just not possible until I’m there. If we’re specifically excluding current posts then the only possible answer is the one that got me into libraries in the first place, or the teaching jobs I held before ever going into libraries. The question’s pretty meaningless before you’re further into your career though.

  • Martin January 9, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Problem for me and others where I am (public libraries) is that the ‘professional’ posts are being (and have been) axed so the next step up has to be outside. I have found great difficulties moving on.

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