April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

NYPL Panelists Explore Alternatives to Traditional Librarianship

Librarians on Alternative Librarianship panel

Librarians from “Alternative Children’s Library” Panel
l. to r. Allie Bruce, Jennifer K. Hanley-Leonard, Ayanna Coleman, Leah High

With the economy still not fully recovered, what lies ahead for aspiring children’s librarians? Though prospects may seem grim, thinking outside the box may be a solution for those interested in the profession, according to New York Public Library youth materials specialist and School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird. Bird recently moderated a panel “The Alternative Children’s Library,” in which several children’s librarians discussed their own nontraditional paths to the profession.

The panelists spoke about the challenges that they’ve encountered in their roles and the ways in which their careers differ from those of more typical librarians. Allie Bruce, librarian at the Bankstreet School for Children, an independent K–8 school affiliated with the Bank Street College for Education, is in the unique position of working with very young patrons as well as those with advanced degrees. In addition to providing teachers with materials for lesson plans and helping students look for books, Bruce also often guides students at the college looking for professional reading related to their classes.

“In some ways, I do see myself as an academic librarian,” Bruce tells SLJ, “because I assist grownups with research questions and need to have a thorough grounding in the history of children’s literature, in addition to teaching kids every day.”

Jennifer K. Hanley-Leonard, of The New York Society Library, a private, members-only library located on the Upper East Side, often finds herself in similar situations. While she primarily works with children and their parents, some of her patrons are writers who come to the library in order to get a feel for emerging trends in the industry, to look at current illustration styles, and to research potential publishing houses to pitch.

The career of Ayanna Coleman, Events Associate & Librarian at the Children’s Book Council, differs perhaps the most from the other panelists. She has yet to see a juvenile patron in her library, she notes. Because the CBC is a nonprofit association whose primary goal is to let publishers work together on common issues, the bulk of its visitors are adults in the publishing field rather than children seeking pleasure reading. Coleman describes her role as more a curator than as a children’s librarian: in addition to event planning, she is charged with maintaining a collection of books published over the past year by CBC members, as well as an ongoing collection of award winners. She often meets with editors and designers who browse materials to stay abreast of what other houses are publishing, and fields questions about weeding and maintaining the collection from visitors enrolled in children’s literature classes.

The panelists emphasize a need to be creative when entering the field. Leah High, children’s librarian at the Nolen and Watson Libraries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says her flexibility positively impacted her career trajectory. While she was unable to find a job after receiving a fine arts degree, working in a public library after college inspired her to attend library school. Her experiences as a high school librarian and later as an after-school program coordinator, combined with her art background, eventually made her an ideal fit for her current position.

Similarly, Coleman’s original intent was to work in children’s publishing. However, finding it difficult to break into the field, she chose to obtain an MLS in order to “learn about one of publishers’ biggest clients.” Although attending library school without the goal of working as a school or public librarian was unusual, Coleman saw it as an opportunity to give herself an edge in a competitive industry. She tells SLJ, “I was all the way in the Midwest and had a very shadowy idea of how I was going to make myself stand out—hoping the library degree would do it.”

Despite the varying paths the panelists have taken, above all, they are united by their genuine love for the subject. Although Coleman’s degree has resulted in a career that is far closer to the publishing industry than to traditional librarianship, ultimately she believes that she is fulfilling the same objective as her peers. “The reason, first and foremost, that I wanted to go into publishing was to find amazing stories that kids would connect to and make sure those stories got published,” Coleman tells SLJ. “As long as I get to put thought-provoking books in the hands of youth, one way or another, I think I would be happy.”

Bruce concurs. She advises those just starting out in the field to, “figure out what your little brand of librarianship is going to be” and emphasizes the importance of following your passions and interests. “Don’t lose your sense of fun about whatever you’re passionate about.”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.