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Transitioning from a Career as a Public Librarian to One as a Library Media Specialist

written by: virtualibrarian•edited by: Noreen Gunnell•updated: 5/21/2012

This article gives career change advice on the why and how of switching from a public library to a school library career, as well as touching on some of the “culture shock” likely to be experienced by the career switcher.

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    Why Switch from a Public to a School Library?

    There are many reasons why public librarians often consider switching to careers in school librarianship. One obvious benefit is the hours - public librarians usually have to work night and weekend hours, while school librarians work a standard 5-day workweek and are usually free to leave work in midafternoon. School librarians also enjoy a week (or more) off at Christmas, another week (or two) in the spring, and of course those wonderful two months of summer vacation - although this isn't a given - a few private schools do consider librarian to be an 11 or even 12-month position. Another reason for the career change is the pay - in most areas school librarians earn comparable salaries to public librarians, but they may earn raises more quickly, and of course having summers free allows for opportunities to earn extra income.

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    Educational Background

    Chances are, if you are working as a librarian in a public library, you have a master's degree in library science (MLS) or perhaps a master's in library and information science (MLIS). This program is different from the library media specialization offered as part of an education degree program, and you may encounter a certain amount of confusion as you transition into a career in K-12 education as you may not be familiar with certain of the prevailing educational philosophies or terminology in use. You also won't have had the student teaching experience that is an integral part of any education program, so you'll be needing to pick up a great deal of what you need to know on the job instead of in a classroom or practicum experience.

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    Gaining Experience at an Independent School

    If you have a master's degree in library science and a few years' experience working in a public library, particularly as a children's or young adult librarian, you may be able to parlay that experience into a job as a librarian at a private school - parochial or independent. Even some charter schools may have less stringent hiring requirements for certification than do public K-12 schools. While private schools tend to pay significantly less than do public schools, their smaller class sizes may make the transition into school work easier for the librarian with no classroom experience.

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    Obtaining State Certification to Work at a Public School

    With one or more years' experience working at a private school, along with your master's degree, you may have the necessary qualifications to obtain state certification as a school library media specialist. You'll need to check online with the department of education for the state(s) in which you wish to work - once it looks like you may be able to satisfy the requirements, go ahead and submit your application packet. Do not apply until you are pretty sure that you have met the education and experience requirements, though, as you often have to pay a non-refundable application fee ranging from $30-$100 or even higher. When you are ready to apply, you will need to provide copies of your college transcripts, and it is not unusual for the state certifying agency to contact you about these to verify whether certain courses you took were, in fact, equivalent to the ones that would be required had you gone through a library media specialist education degree program in that state. Once you receive your certification, you may apply for any library media specialist openings in the state in which you are certified - and you may also be able to obtain certification from other states through reciprocity.

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    "Culture Shock"

    Once you've landed a job as a school librarian, whether at a private or a public school, there is a certain amount of "culture shock" you are likely to experience. In your career as a public librarian, it really was all about you - you were working in a library, surrounded by other librarians and library paraprofessionals, and everyone who walked in that door was in need of some sort of library services (with the possible exception of those just in need of a bathroom). Once you are in a school setting, though, chances are you're working solo- or, at most, with just one or two other library colleagues. For the most part, your coworkers will be teachers, and if you are lucky, you will come to be regarded (by colleagues and students) as a kind of a teacher, too. If you are unlucky...well, prepare to feel rather lonely. A school, unlike a public library, is a very small and insular community - you will be seeing the same faces (adults and children) every day, so the sooner you can establish a basis on which to relate to them, the better.

    Another shock to the system comes if you find yourself in a position where you will be expected to serve as a "teacher librarian" - instead of just taking things as they come, answering patron requests on an as-needed basis as you do in the public library, you may now be expected to teach regular weekly classes to anywhere from 15 to 25 classes (maybe more) consisting of from 15 to 30 students each (and sometimes quite a few more). Lesson planning can be quite a challenge, especially if you are new to it, and your best bet is to ask for help from the experienced teachers as well as to get some idea from your principal or division head as to just what types of lessons or activities they would like you to present at each grade level.

    Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome can be that of student discipline. In the public library, children come singly or in small groups, and are supposed to be accompanied by parents if under the age of 12 (although this is not always the case). With young adult patrons, if they become rowdy you always have the option to eject them from the library, and may even have a security guard to help you enforce this. In a school however, you are expected to cope with managing large groups of children on your own , on a daily basis, and any failure to keep them under control may reflect badly on you. Again, your best recourse in dealing with the discipline problem is to enlist the aid of classroom teachers, both in giving you "heads-up" warnings about the more difficult pupils and in sharing the strategies they may have developed in the classroom.