Hands of Lead and Like to Help People?

May 31 2009 Published by under librarians

Then I have the job for you. If you are a scientist, but you want to get out of the lab, want to have a little more variety in your life, like helping people and finding information, but still want to use your science degree and be part of the scientific enterprise, then you might want to consider becoming a librarian.
You know a little about what a librarian does and if not you can see my recent post. Don't worry, though, all of those functions are not typically done by the same person. You don't have to be in public service, actually, you could deal with metadata or building discovery tools. You could even be in some sort of informatics.
So how do you know if you want to become a librarian? Why not set up an informational interview with your favorite librarian? Or just cold call or e-mail the librarian who is assigned to your subject area. Or hey, leave a comment here or with John.
Once you've decided, then you need to pick a school- real librarians have masters degrees. You'll want an ALA-accredited school, and they are listed here. Some offer online only degrees or mixtures between online and in person. Almost all teach classes in the evenings and maybe only one day a week, so you can take classes while you continue to work (most professionals returning to get MLS degrees do continue to work).
What's school like? Certainly it depends on what flavor of librarian you want to be. Most programs could possibly get done in a year, but it's more typical to take 2 or 3. You'll have some core courses that everyone gets, for me these were reference (aka access), organization, intro to information science (information seeking processes, information behavior, what is information), technology (way easy, don't sweat this). Then I took courses on finding information in science, business, and government as well as advanced searching and information retrieval on the internet. I also had the amazing opportunity to take a course on legal issues in managing information from Lee Strickland, a former CIA lawyer, right after 9/11. You could browse the catalog at a couple of schools to get an idea.
I was very nervous returning to school after 6 years - I hadn't written a long paper since I finished up the liberal artsy classes I took early on in college. I rocked the math portion of the GRE (of course), but my school didn't even look at that number! It turns out that I really, really loved the coursework. It was difficult to get back writing again, but it was worth it. And hey, if you blog, then you might be ok with writing papers!
There might be scholarships specifically for scientists to become librarians, I know it's been discussed, but I don't know if they're around yet.
There are hiring freezes at a lot of state universities right now, but there are a ton of openings, particularly in science, so by the time you get done, should be perfect. You could also work for the government or for a company or hospital. Library jobs in universities are pretty stable, but a lot of corporations are closing their libraries. The government, well, you know, up and down.

19 responses so far

  • Helenmary says:

    Hi Christina,
    I'm new to your blog, but I just saw this in my ScienceBlogs aggregate newsfeed. It's convenient timing, since I have recently decided that I'm not necessarily going to go on to a PhD program after I receive my undergrad degree in a science field next year. I've been working behind the scenes in libraries for the last two years and it's something I've been thinking about pursuing further. But can I ask the following questions?
    a) For you or for your colleagues in general, is this more of a job or a career?
    b) In your program, were there many students entering directly after college? It's not something that a lot of my peers consider, and I know I would like to work while going to school, but I'd be surprised if it's all or mostly returning professionals and would wonder at the reasons behind that.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Hi and Welcome!
    Here are some answers for me a) it's a career. To be honest, you don't become a librarian for the money! Most of my colleagues are passionate about being librarians. I'm sure there are some indifferent librarians out there, but I guess they don't go to the conferences I go to. b) In my program there were very few students entering in directly out of college. I think the average age of MLS students at my school was like 35! You would still be welcomed, though. People have all sorts of reasons for going back for an MLS so I doubt anyone who is in the program questions anyone else about it (well, except everyone is curious, so they might ask, but not in a bad way).

  • Hi, Helenmary.
    a) For me, it's a career. You will find some librarians for whom it is a job; a lot of them are soon to retire. As Christina says, the conference crowd (especially outside the huge cattle-car conferences) tends to be engaged, bright, and generally awesome.
    b) Librarianship is quite often a second career, but "quite often" doesn't mean "always." I was 30 when I started, and I was right about in the middle of the age cohort. The vitally important thing for a just-out-of-college entrant is experience working in a library, which you have. Fairly or not, experience is nearly the KEY determiner for new graduates looking for jobs.
    (Science ability is another big one, so cherish your degree... and consider obtaining a subject master's; it will help you a LOT if your target is academic librarianship. A third determiner is technical capability: learn everything you can about computers!)
    If I were your advisor, I'd point you at Illinois or North Carolina for their developing informatics/data-curation programs.
    Hope this helps!

  • Laura says:

    Hi Helenmary -
    (a) For me, it's a career.
    (b) Like Dorothea and Christina have mentioned, many people go into librarianship as a second career. For me, it's a first career. I didn't go to graduate school straight out of college, but pretty close - I took one year off. There were several students in my program that were my age, and who entered the program straight out of college. That said, the average age of students in my program was still about 30 or 35, I think.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Hi Helenmary,
    1) A career, definitely. I'm very lucky, at my institution there are lots of very passionate and engaged librarians, most who carry that passion and engagement right up until retirement.
    2) Librarianship is a second career for me. I was a software developer for 12 years before going back to school at 36. However, I was at the older end of the spectrum at my school (McGill) and there were quite a few within a year or two of graduation.
    Experience is the key to getting a job, so finding a way to get experience at your target type of library is vital to finding a good job after graduation. Figure out what you want to do and find a way to get your foot in the door asap. In my experience on numerous search committees, nobody really cares that much where you went to school or what your marks were or what courses you took. It's experience, subject knowledge, presentation skills, tech skills and fit for the job being posted.
    Librarians with science degrees are relatively rare so that works in your favour.

  • I was one of those scientists that wanted to get out of the lab, but not out of academia or science in general. If you have a science graduate degree AND a LIS degree, you will find you are amongst a fairly small group of people, and will be highly desirable to academic libraries.
    I'm not sure the job market is as rosy as others paint, but because of the science background, you will certainly have an edge. What John says about experience (super important) and being able to deliver (presentations, teaching, course prep, etc.) is critical.
    Granted, I quite new at this (just over a month in), but so far, it's as I imagined. I hang out with really bright librarians and forward-thinking faculty. My work is mostly self-directed, so I get to think up neat ideas and then try to implement them. I think it was the right career shift for me.

  • chezjake says:

    Yes, a career. (I'm a retired medical librarian.)
    A couple of other points.
    1. If you want to get into bio-medical/pharmaceutical/hospital librarianship, you not only need to choose an ALA accredited program, but also one that offers health sciences library certification from the Medical Library Association.
    2. Besides not necessarily wanting to do "hands on" work in science, I think that you'll find that most good science librarians are people who are curious generalists within their field. They are interested in the full breadth of their field and want to keep up on most everything in the field, within reason. This can allow them to be extremely helpful to bench or clinical scientists by alerting them to potentially valuable information that is outside their normal, limited purview.

  • Frank Norman says:

    a) For me it's a career. As Dorothea said, you will find people for whom it's just a job but they are fading away.
    b) I went to Library school directly after finishing my science degree, quite a few years ago, so I see myself as more librarian than scientist. I think there are real advantages in being a scientist-turned-librarian though. I don't get really deep down and dirty with the data in the way that the scientist-librarians do.
    BTW, for any British readers, the equivalent list of accredited library courses is on the CILIP website:

  • Joe Kraus says:

    For me it is a career, too. I did grad school in two years, but I could have done it in one year. I wanted to work part time in a variety of libraries while I was taking the classes. The MLS degree was relatively easy, but the work after the degree is more difficult. Scientific information (particularly in chemistry) and the changes taking place in publishing are very complicated. Overall, I have not regretted making the career change from optical manufacturing to librarianship.

  • Helenmary says:

    I didn't expect so many thoughtful responses so quickly. Thank you to all who answered my questions! (I don't want to crowd Christina's comment section unnecessarily, but any other advice/"wish I'd known..." would be welcomed if that's all right. I suppose the next step is to speak to my university's research librarians...)

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Yes - thank you everyone who has chimed in! Please feel free to comment here - don't worry about crowding.

  • I have to respectfully disagree with those who say having a science graduate degree and an MLIS will make it easier to find a job as an academic science librarian. I have both degrees, but when I applied for a science librarian opening at Binghamton University in 2005, I didn't even get an interview. And I even had prior experience as a science librarian!
    But in 2005, I had been out of the library profession for 15 years. I believed then and I still believe now that it was my lack of recent library experience that caused them to choose someone else. I had all of the other qualifications!
    So IMHO, having two graduate degrees - or even an undergrad science degree and an MLIS - may not help unless you also have recent library experience. And by "recent," I mean in the past three years. Academic libraries especially want to see evidence that you have "the right stuff" to be promoted.
    So if any scientists decide to switch from the bench to the stacks, try as hard as possible to get some library experience. Even if you have to volunteer at the local public library. Then you can decide if you really want to do it. And do it before you even apply to library school.
    But I also have to say that you will make less money as a science librarian than you did as a scientist. Maybe much less money. So you'd better talk it over with your spouse first!
    When I was a clinical medical librarian (CML) at a large hospital, a medical student came to me one day and asked about getting a library degree and becoming a CML. Because I was only making $18,000, I decided to be honest and tell her that she would make much more money as a doctor. I literally tried to talk her out of getting a library degree! No, we don't do it for the money, but if you have two graduate degrees, you should be making more than $18,000!
    I am now an independent information professional hoping to specialize in biomed, biotech, healthcare and pharmaceutical information. I started my business mostly because it was so hard to get a library job after being out of the industry for so long. Information research is still a hard sell because many scientific resources are online now. I have literally had scientists tell me, "I have all the resources I need online." That could affect academic science librarians, too!

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Hi Ruth- thanks for commenting. It's really important to talk about different experiences. I had recent public library experience while I was getting my MLS so that probably helped - trial by fire! It's not easy to volunteer in a meaningful way at a public library, btw, I tried and they wouldn't take me when I was just starting grad school. It might be easier to get an internship or do an independent study in a library. As for pay, I do ok, but I'm in a research lab, not in a university. I think librarian I starts ~43k at the local public university, but that's higher than a post doc!

  • Rachel says:

    a) For me it's a career. It may even be a bit of a sickness. 🙂
    b) There were very few students directly out of undergrad in my program, but I did Pitt's distance program, which I think is more likely to attract second career types who already have jobs, etc. in other locations to consider. I worked in a science library as an undergrad, but needed some time after graduation to think about what I really wanted to do before selecting a grad program (my undergrad major was something that also would have needed a grad degree). I took a job in a medical library and later began my degree while still working t/here. I think a little bit of experience, if you can get it as a student worker or paraprofessional or volunteer, is really valuable for helping you determine whether grad school/librarianship is a good choice for you, and I highly recommend it either prior to or while pursuing your MLIS.

  • bill says:

    you will make less money as a science librarian than you did as a scientist
    Postdocs almost never pay NRSA scale, which tops out around $50K with ~10 yrs' experience. It's much more common to be paid $36-40K, tops, no matter how much experience you have.
    If librarian pay starts in the low 40s, then it starts about where postdoc pay leaves off.
    I don't know what faculty make -- I think it's $60-80K for assistant prof, $80-100 for associate and whatever you can squeeze out of your department for full professor. But the vast majority of postdocs need not worry about that anyway since they'll never get there.

  • m.adams says:

    I retired as a librarian after 40 years---and I have never been sorry for my choice of a career. (it was never just a job) I also always received a decent, if not munificent, salary, along with job security.
    As a librarian, I got to work with wondeful people, intelligent, curious, and helpful; had great flexibility in what I chose to do during the day and when; and had the opportunity over the past 20 years to see a profession re-invent itself. (and someone out of the profession for 15 years would find him or herself badly dated)
    The job market's not so great right now, but it will improve over the next few years. The huge group of librarians who entered the profession around the time I did are all at retirement age.

  • ian gibson says:

    1. Definitely a career. The great thing about the library world is the diversity of academic backgrounds people bring to the table. It really makes the library a creative place.
    2. Depending on where you go to library school you may find many people right out of undergrad (or a first master's). I did my MISt (MLS) @ the University of Toronto and the majority of my cohort was right out of a first or second degree, but it really varies from year to year. The year after me was even more heavily populated with people right out of a degree. The year before me had many more people who were either looking at a second career or had been out of the school game for a while.
    If you are going to become a librarian, any science degree will help you. In years past the MSc was essential but now, at least at MPOW, we are mostly happy if the candidate has a B.Sc. (and sometimes even that can't be had in an acceptable package). The key thing for us is job experience and I know others have said this but it really can't be stated enough. If the program you choose has a co-op/practicum/work study program make sure you participate. Regardless you NEED relevant work experience, and the course work during the MLIS/MLS isn't very onerous so you could work at least part time during the school year. As one of my profs said "No employer can tell the difference between the new librarian who graduated with Bs and the new librarian who graduated with As, but the librarian with experience will be the one with the job."
    Two other pieces of advice:
    1. Be willing to move. Sometimes the best opportunities are in places you would normally not consider living in.
    2. Academia isn't the be all and end all of science librarianship there are lots of other opportunities out there.

  • Paul Patton says:

    I've seen lots of claims that people with science backgrounds are much in demand within the academic librarian profession. One such claim is in Science Careers, here:
    However, I haven't actually seen any articles that cite actual statistical data about this. I do know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the librarian profession is projected to grow more slowly than average, due to technological change.
    Many posters mention that on the job experience is crucial to getting hired as a science librarian. The schools I've been looking at, University of Michigan Ann Arbor and University of Illinois offer work assistantships as part of their program, but they are limited in number. Any suggestions about how a scientist career changer can get library experience?

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I don't have any data on the number of science librarian positions open, but I know of quite a few institutions that are short and have a hiring freeze. I expect a lot of openings when things turn. Also the field is really graying so there will continue to be openings.
    As for experience, I worked in a public library but there are internships, field studies, and consulting/temp opportunities, too.