A Farewell to FIMS: Navigating Academic Librarianship

Helen Power is a recent graduate from the MLIS program at Western University. She is currently an Information Services Librarian—Nursing Liaison at University of Windsor’s Leddy Library.

Having spent almost three months as a liaison librarian at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library, I am finally settling into my new position. I have had some time to reflect on the transition from library school into librarianship, which in my case had some overlap. I began my position in early August when I still had classes and several assignments to complete. This was highly stressful, but if you manage your time effectively, it’s not impossible. Completing final papers and projects while apartment hunting, moving, and starting a new job is exhausting. I recommend not procrastinating, (like I did), and submitting the assignments in advance.

The potentially traumatic shift from student life to a full-time academic position was ameliorated by my co-op experience. I did an 8-month co-op at the University of Guelph Library, which not only helped me to build my CV, but also allowed me to learn about the intricacies of the academic library environment, from its organizational structure to the types of projects which are typically undertaken by librarians.

Since the University of Guelph has a unique team-centered structure, the University of Windsor’s liaison model was new to me. I discovered that while the MLIS program focuses on theory, there are many practical aspects to working in an academic library which are not properly addressed, (unless 9005 – Managing and Working in Libraries has evolved since I took the course in 2015). Understanding the different departments of a library, including their roles and how you work with them, is critical to transitioning into a new position. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet with all the Leddy Library department heads to learn about their specific jobs and functions, and this made the transition run smoother. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—it’s less embarrassing than making incorrect assumptions that might be detrimental in the long run.

University administration itself is quite complex, and understanding the nuances of funding, authority, and preferred communication methods is key to developing an effective liaison relationship with your department. I was lucky enough to be able to have a series of meetings with former nursing liaison librarians, who explained my role and provided me with invaluable information, so I did not have to navigate this orientation alone. When starting out in a new position, you should definitely set up similar meetings, if they’re not already a part of your training. You can learn about the position and its various aspects, and, if you’re a liaison librarian, gain valuable insight into the department you’ll be working with.

While a running mantra in the MLIS program is that the courses you take ultimately don’t matter, I have found that this isn’t the case. During my co-op and in my current position, I have often found myself being asked about which courses I took during the program. Many librarians use this as an icebreaker when meeting newly graduated librarians. Whenever I mention having taken Readers’ Advisory, this garners blank stares, because it’s not particularly relevant to my current position. Think about what courses you have taken that are interesting and/or relevant in advance, so you don’t have the same deer-in-the-headlights look that I had when first asked that question.

I have also found that certain courses have been instrumental in helping me with the transition into academic work. I took Information Literacy, which has been invaluable in my lesson planning for classes with both undergraduate and graduate nursing students. I also found Information Retrieval worthwhile, both for enhancing my reference desk work and for facilitating individual consultations that I hold with students. Another great course—which is offered (almost) every semester—is Collection Management. This course was the most useful of all, as it provided practical tips for developing and maintaining a collection, which has eased my introduction to collections duties at Leddy Library. While I do agree that not all courses could (or should) be directly related to your dream job, it’s important to take into consideration which skills you need to develop prior to graduation.

There are also some opportunities for professional development outside of the MLIS program that I used to boost my resume. These also increased my self-confidence going into this new position. Coursera.org offers several MLIS related courses, which can help to bolster your knowledge in certain areas. I completed a Research Data Management course. This was an area in which I previously had little knowledge. If you’re interested in a health-sciences academic librarian position, the Systematic Reviews Coursera course walks you through the steps, which can be quite convoluted and are not fully addressed in Western’s Consumer Health Information course.

A solid understanding of the discipline to which you are liaising is critical. My educational background is in the sciences, but not specifically nursing. After accepting this job, I did a considerable amount of reading on nursing philosophy, evidence-based research, and the landscape of nursing practice in Canada. This has improved my understanding of the approach that nursing students and faculty take to learning. It doesn’t hurt that I appear knowledgeable during consultations, because this increases my worth or usefulness in the eyes of the faculty and students, who might be reluctant to seek help from a librarian. While I am lucky in the sense that the nursing faculty at University of Windsor highly values the library and its resources, the culture of every discipline and university can vary greatly, and some faculties might need more convincing than others.

Even though I have graduated from the MLIS program, it feels as if I’m still learning just as much–but on the job. It’s important to keep on top of new trends and to remain up to date on consistently evolving topics such as research metrics, open access issues, and new technologies. Awareness and knowledge of current trends can open up opportunities for new projects and collaborations which you wouldn’t otherwise be involved in.

The transition from library student to academic librarian was stressful, but not overly traumatic. Preparing in advance by reading on my subject area, developing my skill set both through the LIS program and external courses and workshops, and completing an eight-month co-op all contributed to preparing me to embark on this exciting journey into academic librarianship.

Additional Tips:

If possible, secure a co-op at an academic library. I have spoken with several librarians involved in hiring, and they all agree that the presence of a co-op on a CV is what sets those recent graduates above the rest. If this isn’t possible, any co-op experience, whether it’s at a special library or a public library is invaluable. Many librarians working in Ontario understand the value of a co-op in Western’s MLIS program, and they view it as almost on par with actual work experience when considering applications.

Apply early. The application process is quite extensive and lengthy for academic libraries. I applied for my position in early April, and the interview process was much quicker than that for other academic libraries. When looking at job advertisements, it’s critical to consider the anticipated start date and whether the search committee can be flexible on that date. Applying for positions before your final semester has even begun can ensure that you get interviews and even an offer before you’ve completed your studies.

Spend time on your application. It’s better to send out one highly-tailored and polished CV and cover letter to a position that you have the qualifications for than to send generic applications to three positions. When applying for the Leddy Library position, I spent a considerable amount of time going over the job advertisement, and I addressed the key aspects in-depth in my cover letter. Reading the strategic plan for the library and/or the faculty for which you will be liaising is also highly beneficial, and will allow you to demonstrate that you went above and beyond in your application.


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