Picking a career is a crucial part of any young adult’s life. Research helps, but hearing firsthand experience from people who have been in the fields you’re interested in is much more beneficial.

Christina BurgessIf you love books and kids, you may have been thinking about becoming a school librarian. I recently got to chat with the librarian from my old high school, Christina Burgess, to hear about her experiences in the field.

What sort of educational background would a school librarian need?

“I got my undergraduate degree from Hope College, where I majored in Communications and double minored in English and French. After college, I went straight into a Master’s in Library Science program at Indiana University where I focused on technology and materials/services for youth.

Ever since I was a kid myself, I knew I wanted to work with kids, although I wasn’t sure exactly what my role would be. I was a little listless when my mother actually suggested I look at being a librarian. She’s a teacher, and the two professions really go hand in hand. As soon as she suggested it, something just clicked and the next thing I knew I was applying to graduate programs.

It was a bit of a leap from there to get into a school library. Many states require school librarians to have a teaching license, as well as a master’s, and I don’t have a license. Michigan is one of the great states that doesn’t require it. When I was in grad school, I was kind of discouraged from focusing on school libraries because I was told they’re a dying breed, so I focused mainly on becoming a teen or children’s librarian. The courses and skillsets are pretty much the same since classes focus more on the age you’re serving rather than the sector you work in (public, private, business, law libraries, etc.)”

What is the difference between a school librarian and a public librarian? Are there any different qualifications?

“There aren’t any different qualifications here in the state of Michigan. Many places require a teaching license to work at a school library, and it certainly is still a huge benefit. Having a TL may affect they way you’re treated within a school (union benefits, higher pay, etc) but my district has always treated me extremely fairly.

One major difference I’ve found is that a school librarian is sort of expected to be a one-stop-shop for all the things that go on in a library. I’m responsible for collection development, circulation, technology support, reader’s advisory and reference (actually helping kids), ordering materials, collection maintenance, processing new books, record keeping, and anything else that might come up. At a public library, you would have a different person assigned to each of those roles. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but there are also some really amazing things about being a SL that I wouldn’t get to experience at a public library. I get to know almost all of my students by name. I get to know what they’re reading, what their families are like, what their interests are…I get to know them on a personal level, which I absolutely love. You don’t get as much of that at a public library because you have a much bigger patron base.”

What would one have to do in order to become a librarian at a university?

“To become a university or academic librarian, you would need to focus on different coursework during graduate school. The focus there is much more on research and publication. Many academic librarians have their PhDs and are on tenure track at their university, which means they are expected to conduct research and publish in academic journals regularly. There’s sort of a stigma, which I don’t think is fair, of the Ivory Tower Academic who spends most of their time researching and no time with students. I have several friends who are academic librarians, and I certainly wouldn’t say they don’t care about students or aren’t interested in helping, but I do think they spend more time researching than you would see at a public or school library. The research that they do is hugely helpful at other libraries, so it’s definitely important, but I’m sure it takes away from some of the time they would otherwise get to spend with patrons.”

Is there a different criteria for private schools versus public schools?

“Not that I’m aware of. However, a lot of private schools do have a religious affiliation, so there might be some requirement there. And I do know some religious schools require their staff members to sign a statement of faith and act by a different code of conduct than is expected at a public school.”

What are some misconceptions people have about librarians?

“First of all, that we’re quiet. I see the value of quiet in a library but I also see my library as a community center. Students come in to play games, work on computers, read, escape the cafeteria, and for myriad other reasons that don’t require perfect silence. I myself am rarely quiet. I think most people are comfortable with a low, respectful level of noise, so I allow my kids to talk and laugh in the library. I even play music sometimes. I’m cool like that.

I think there’s also a stereotype that we’re old fashioned, which often isn’t true. I myself have purple hair and no one even blinks at it. There’s been a resurgence lately among librarians. There’s this whole class of really cool people coming out of library schools who are willing to challenge preconceptions and aren’t embarrassed to be themselves.

I think the last stereotype that drives me nuts is that we can just sit around and read all day. I’m busy! Some days I don’t even sit down in my chair until I’ve been at work for a full hour. I wish I could spend the day reading, but I hardly get a quiet moment in the library and when I do, I’m answering the dozen emails that have piled up while I was going around putting out fires. Every now and then I might snatch 20 minutes to read but even then, I’m not reading what I want, I’m usually reading something to see if it’s appropriate for my library or so I can recommend it to kids.”

What are some things about the job people may not like?

“You spend A LOT of your time with people. As an introvert, I wasn’t quite prepared for that and it can be quite exhausting to be surrounded by kids who need something all the time. There’s not a lot of quiet time. It’s ironic, actually, because a huge percentage of librarians are introverts and we ended up in a profession that is always interacting with strangers.”

Anything you’d like to add?

“I hear a lot about how libraries are dying and we don’t need libraries anymore and that does drive me a little crazy. The thing is, libraries are not just warehouses for books anymore. They are community centers where people can gather, where they can access technology and information. They call libraries “the great equalizer” (I think that’s from a quote by Andrew Carnegie but I’m not positive) because anyone can use them at any time, from a homeless person to Donald Trump. There is no requirement of education, money, background, or class. The only thing you need is curiosity and a desire to learn. I think that’s really beautiful. And as one of my grad school professors used to say, ‘Libraries were around before the book existed and they will be around long after it has gone extinct.’”

If you’ve been thinking about becoming a librarian but were a little wary – I hope this interview helped! I’ve spent a few years working the desk in a school library myself and definitely agree with Christina that it’s an amazing atmosphere and worth looking into as a career.

Happy picking!