February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Role Call: Want to work with kids in a public library? Here’s the inside scoop.

Illustration by Giselle Potter

It was 2001 and I was a year out of college, my dream of becoming a photographer neatly scrapped due to the slightly sobering fact that my photography skills, not to put too fine a point on it, stunk. Library school seemed a given at that point in my life, and I was determined to follow what I had always thought was my lifelong ambition: becoming an archivist. I wanted to conserve books. Never mind that I’m as gentle with rare materials as a cat with a dead mouse; I was determined to see it through.

That resolve lasted until I took LIS 721 Library Materials for Children on a lark. Despite the fact that I was pretty sure I didn’t like kids (a suspicion that proved to be poorly founded), just a couple of classes with Professor Heidi Hammond were enough to turn me off the wayward path of conservation and onto my true calling—children’s librarianship. After graduating in 2003, I left the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, MN, and soon discovered that New York City was the place to get hired.

At the time, landing a children’s librarian job was tricky but surmountable. These days, of course, it’s significantly more difficult. Between budget cuts and systems that reinvent the very definition of what it means to be a librarian, the word of the day for us must be “flexibility.” Still, in the end, it’s entirely worth it. Children’s librarians are the very backbone of the public library system, creating the readers who’ll grow up

to support the system with their tax dollars. As for school librarians, they’re often the first and sometimes the only librarians whom children will ever encounter, providing services for comers of every background.

I’m going to go out on a wild limb here and assume that many SLJ readers have a pretty little ALA-accredited library degree tucked safely away in their closet. But for those of you who don’t or hope to have one soon, let me guide you through the profession’s trips and traps. Let’s look at what you’ll need to know, where you’d like to go, what you can expect in terms of pocket change, and what the future holds. Everyone else, come along for the ride.

Where would you like to work?

As a children’s librarian, your choices basically boil down to four possibilities: working in a public library, a private library, a public school library, or a private school library. Librarians in each work with children but serve them differently. A school librarian’s days are chock-full of classes, leaving little time for her own work (and what little time remains is often booked by teachers who think the media specialist has nothing better to do than help them). A public librarian must balance storytimes and other programs with class visits and the after-school rush, as kids with working parents race through the door to claim computers and table space.

The public vs. private school question is an ethical and a financial challenge. Recent Pratt library school graduate Allison Bruce put it best when she explained that for her it comes down to working “for an impoverished population and risking failure and burnout, or continuing to serve a population that I don’t feel particularly needs my skills.” To some degree, children from families of every income level need a librarian, but those with fewer advantages particularly benefit from having one in their lives. Then there’s the question of hiring. While public school libraries often require additional education degrees, private schools don’t have such restrictions and can pay more. Hiring practices in public libraries vary according to location. While big cities like New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles have put the brakes on hiring, right now, suburban library systems seem to be advertising for new librarians. As for private children’s libraries, they’re rare but wonderful beasts. Imagine working for a children’s library housed in a museum or a private children’s literary collection that’s owned by a university. It can happen, but you have to be open to the possibility.

What it all boils down to is the fact that you’ll have to look in a variety of places. New York Society Library children’s librarian Carrie Silberman found her position through the American Library Association’s (ALA) website. Though she’d studied to be a school librarian, her new job allows her to “create a modern children’s library within this historic institution.” The trick is staying flexible about where you end up. As another new graduate from Pratt, Danielle Kalan, says, “This job market requires it…. I’ve noticed a trend away from total specialization in library school, since students want to be more broadly employable.” So while you may prefer working with children, stay open to young adult librarianship, archival librarianship, or working with adults. The job you get today may just lead to the job you want tomorrow.

Mad skillz

Which is to say, there are classes that you’ll be glad you took. I’ll level with you. In grad school, I took a total of two classes directly related to children’s librarianship. These consisted of a class on literature (the one I credit with my vocation change) and another on programming. At the time, I had no idea that many of the other classes I happened to take would prove useful, including:

Reference and online services. Recent Pratt graduate Mahnaz Dar says, “The most important course I took was Information Services and Resources, which taught me how to reference sources and conduct reference interviews with patrons. It seems like the one skill that almost every librarian will use, and it was extremely valuable to me to really think about evaluating reference sources. Because I want to work as a school librarian, helping students conduct research is a big part of what I’ll be doing, and this course taught me to think critically about sources in a new way.” These classes sometimes offer help with managing a children’s reference desk, which may come in handy when you’re faced with a tow-headed five-year-old who wants to know where he can find “the orange book.” As Professor Hammond says of the skill that they don’t teach but that we all wish we had, “Mind reading would be helpful.” In lieu of that, try a reference course.

Management of libraries and information centers. Managing a library system may be the last thing on your mind when all you want is to just get hired. Yet you’d be amazed how easily a children’s librarian can slip into the role of manager. Why’s that? Jill Rothstein, manager of New York Public Library’s 67th Street Branch, says, “The same skills that make a good children’s librarian—dedication, energy, innovation—are important, along with understanding how to communicate with different personalities in staff and management, the ability to motivate others, and the ability to keep track of lots of balls in the air.” Remember, keep an eye on the future, even as you try to find a job in the present.

Cataloging. Don’t believe me? Then take it from newly minted school librarian Allison Bruce who says, “I wish I had taken a class devoted solely to cataloging…. I am finding that I’m teaching myself a lot of cataloging on the job and am sure that there are major elements I’m missing as I go.”

Serials management. Whether it’s dealing with the latest print issue of Ranger Rick or the digital edition of Kirkus, a course in serials will give you all the information you’ll need when deciding how to allocate your limited budget and what formats to consider.

Law. OK, I’m kidding here. I’ve found the law librarianship class completely useless. Sorry, law lovers.

While you’re considering potential courses, don’t shy away from those that test your prejudices. Whether it’s taking a class on young adult literature when you’re sure all teens are the devil’s spawn or a graphic-novel course when you couldn’t care two bits about the comic format, taking courses in areas you dislike or fear can only allay those worries and give you the preparation you’ll need. Consider, too, taking classes outside of your graduate program. As Steve Zampino, a teen librarian at Stamford, CT’s Ferguson Library, points out, “Being able to speak Spanish, or another foreign language used by a significant number of a library’s patrons, can be a big help on the job.” These days, multilingual librarians have a significant leg up on the competition.

Also pay attention to what’s new. Today’s innovation just might be tomorrow’s norm. Professor Hammond recommends keeping up with ebooks, ereaders, iPads, and apps, as well as social networking sites and cyber safety. New grad Danielle Kalan says the information technologies class, a core requirement when she attended Pratt, is extremely relevant to her work, especially the basic Web-design skills she learned. “These are the skills that are going to set recent graduates apart as desirable applicants, skills that those who were library students even 10 or 15 years ago won’t have,” she says. They’ll also give you the ammunition you need to justify your job. And when it comes to applying those skills later, find librarians in the field that you can look to for guidance. For example, if you want to be a public school librarian and you don’t currently worship at the altar of Buffy Hamilton, a. k. a. The Unquiet Librarian, now’s the time to start.

It’s all about personality, baby

My mother always said that they should give out degrees in social work alongside degrees in library science to folks going into public library work. Basically, if you’re going to deal with the public, you need to consider how your personality gels with the profession. Work in a public library and you’ll find out some valuable things about yourself. When asked what makes a good children’s librarian, Steve Zampino suggested that “diplomacy and empathy…can be very helpful when dealing with kids, teens, parents, and teachers in a variety of situations.” Don’t feel particularly diplomatic or empathetic? Have a short fuse? Figure out now what might cause you trouble later.

Surprisingly, the rewards outweigh any unpleasantness. Helping a tiny tot find a copy of Strega Nona will get you through an irate mom who demands that you burn your copy of In the Night Kitchen any day of the week. Above all, know thyself. If merely answering the phone gives you stage fright or you don’t much like people, any people, then perhaps front-desk work isn’t for you.

What’s the going rate these days?

Naturally, you’re going to want to know how much your average children’s librarian makes. I don’t think I’ll shock anyone by noting that few folks retire in their 40s, thanks to a lucrative life behind a reference desk. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the median salary for any librarian was $54,500 per year or $26.20 per hour. Here’s the good news and bad news about job prospects. The bad news is that while the “employment of librarians is expected to grow by 7 percent from 2010 to 2020,” that’s slower than the average for all occupations. The good news is that while there are limited positions available in the early part of the decade, the prospects will sharply improve as older librarians retire. That’s all well and good, but how does it look for children’s librarians? Well, according to SLJ’s 2010–2011 school library spending survey, librarians who work in the educational field also have a good and bad scenario. Tiny budgets, additional duties, and limited hours are some of the problems you might encounter. On the plus side, the survey showed that media specialists’ salaries went up by 10 percent, book collections have grown, and it appears that painful budget cuts are at last ebbing.

Finding a job

Happily, in spite of every economic downturn, library jobs still exist. Unfortunately, the number of applicants per position is sky high. That means you’ll need to explore unconventional places for employment. “I try to keep up with various listservs,” says Mahnaz Dar. “For example, there’s Pratt’s listserv, and I’m also on the Hudson Valley Library Association’s [an organization for librarians working in independent schools] listserv. However, most of the actual jobs I hear about are from people I know who have told me about opportunities at their libraries.” Joining a library as an intern, a page, a clerk, or a volunteer can give you first dibs when a job opens up. Plus, librarians will sometimes bend over backward for an employee they know over an unknown applicant.


The children’s librarian who works in a bubble is just asking for trouble. If you think you can ignore networking just because you work with preschoolers, think again. With public library cuts looming and school boards axing media specialists, the time to meet, collaborate, and learn is now. Public librarians need to reach out and meet up with local school librarians, public and private. Build relationships with these people, and you’ll get your hooks into students who might otherwise never have stepped foot in a public library without a gentle little push. Likewise, a school librarian who connects with a public library can discover that the relationship yields all kinds of unexpected rewards. For example, one Manhattan public school of my acquaintance cultivated a partnership with its local public library. When the school librarian fell ill and was out on leave for several months, the public library sent multiple children’s librarians to the school to read to the kids on a regular basis. Build a bridge, and you’ll have many reasons to cross it.

Another way to connect is by joining a professional organization consisting of like-minded folks. There are the usual suspects like ALA, the Public Library Association, and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), which all help you find your tribe. Consider thinking outside the box—join organizations that connect to your world but in ways you’d never imagine. For example, I’m a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as well as the United States Board on Books for Young People, both of which give me insights into the crop of new books for children in the States, as well as children’s books found worldwide

It can be done!

No matter how daunting the outlook seems, there’s hope. Maybe it’s ridiculous, but I believe that even if all other forms of librarianship were to crumble to the ground and wash away with the tides, children’s librarians would remain standing. New parents and children appear every day. They need your opinions, your thoughts, your recommendations, and your help in finding the best books, websites, apps, and materials out there. Some people say that where there’s a will there’s a way. I say that where there are children there will be librarians, by hook or by crook. Now go out there and help those kids, tiger!

Ask the graduates: How do you keep up with what’s new?

Allison Bruce: “I read the magazines published by ALA, AASL, ALSC, and YALSA thoroughly. Also School Library Journal in hard copy (I’m old-fashioned). I adore The Horn Book, more for personal than professional reasons… and follow a lot of the major players on Facebook and my newly activated Twitter account (I also read articles and news posts via Facebook and Twitter).”

Mahnaz Dar: “I read School Library Journal fairly regularly, both to look at what’s going on in the library world, as well as to look at new or interesting books. Listservs, like the Hudson Valley Library Association (HVLA) listserv, are really helpful, because often I’ll notice that librarians are emailing to ask about a certain topic, like ebooks or iPads. Conferences or meetings for librarians, like HVLA or the Department of Education, can also be really helpful for meeting other librarians and talking in an informal setting about new trends.”

Danielle Kalan: “I think other librarians are always a terrific resource—I learn so much from just talking to colleagues and fellow students about what they’re reading, what they’re noticing, and what’s new in their libraries.”

Author Information
Elizabeth Bird (fusenumber8@gmail.com) is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and blogs at “A Fuse #8 Production” on SLJ ’s website. Her last feature for the magazine, “Betsy Goes to Bologna” ( July 2011), offered a bird’s-eye view of the world’s largest kids’ book fair.
Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird (fusenumber8@gmail.com) is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and blogs at “A Fuse #8 Production” on SLJ ’s website. Her last feature for the magazine, “Betsy Goes to Bologna” ( July 2011), offered a bird’s-eye view of the world’s largest kids’ book fair.