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TL v65n3: What to Do with a Library Degree
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What to Do with a Library Degree: Finding Your Place at the Table


Michael Lindsay, Adam Kemper, and Amy Dye-Reeves

This article is based on a presentation at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Memphis, TN) in April 2015.


Building a career in libraries can be approached from a number of directions. For some, that might mean working on a certification in public library management, or working your way up through a staff library position. For others, choosing a Master’s program and obtaining a library degree from an ALA accredited program, whether it is called a Master’s in Information Science, or an MS in Library Science, is their chosen path.  In this panel discussion, presented at the Tennessee Library Association’s 2015 conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday, April 23, 2015, four Information Sciences Masters’ graduates from the University of Tennessee’s School of Information Sciences program discussed their chosen route to finding their place at the table.

Panelists began by relating their stories of how they came to work in libraries, and attempted to describe a typical day in their library, such as the different roles they play in their organizations. A question and answer session followed the presentations.


Finding a Place at the Table as an Academic Medical Librarian (Michael Lindsay)

Choosing a career in medical libraries, or libraries in general, was not something I would have ever imagined that I would do in high school or even when I was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. My undergraduate degree was in business administration, majoring in Management, and I assumed that I would find work in the business world. After graduating, following a number of temporary assignments, I eventually found work in the insurance industry. I worked in sales and underwriting for about six years, becoming a licensed agent. However, my interests in working with technology, helping people, and in research were not satisfied by the kind of work that I was doing. While I worked in insurance sales, I met someone who was performing a great deal of in-depth data analysis for the company, and her work sounded fascinating. I remember how surprised I was when I heard that she was working on an Information Sciences degree at the University of Tennessee; that caused me to consider for the first time the different career paths that were available with a library degree. I decided to go back to the University of Tennessee and pursue a degree in Information Science. Initially, in terms of library work, I was interested in special libraries and corporate libraries; I became a student member of the Special Library Association and watched their job postings closely. However, I found as someone without library experience, and specific library experience in industry, that I had difficulty meeting the qualifications for many of the positions I was interested in.  One of the most important things that I learned in the process of changing careers has been the value of making plans and setting goals. Even when those plans had to be changed, the process of planning helped me to grow and progress. In revising my goals, I began to look at academic positions and began to expand my scope geographically, looking at positions in other states. I found a position as an electronic resources librarian in an academic medical library in Mobile, Alabama, where I worked for five years, prior to returning to Tennessee to work at Preston Medical Library in Knoxville. Electronic resources seemed a natural fit for me, given my interest in technology and my customer service background. Even my experience in working with insurance contracts was valuable, in that I learned how to read contracts and understand how they are written and how important it was for the library to know what we were agreeing to when we signed a contract.  

I can draw a number of lessons from these experiences. My work in sales and insurance has helped me in approaching how to promote programs and to provide library instruction. Learning how to build rapport with strangers is an important skill for anyone working with the public. As a librarian, I promote and sell our services to employees of the hospital as well as to the public. I believe that being comfortable with this has helped me to be a better librarian. My experiences working with insurance contracts have also helped in learning how to negotiate licenses for electronic resources. Private sector experience has helped me to understand vendors and what motivates them. This has allowed me to have better relationships with vendors and to be a better negotiator. Having goals and making plans is essential; however it is really important to be flexible and know when to change your plan. No experience you have is wasted; every type of work I have done in the past has helped me to be a better librarian. Whether it involves customer service, working with children, teaching, or any of a variety of other work, you have unique experiences that can set you apart as a job candidate and as a librarian.  

Personally, I think one of the greatest things about being a librarian is that no two days are exactly alike. On some days, I will have a desk shift for part of the day; this involves being available to help patients and the public, as well as our medical residents, medical faculty, and nurses. During these shifts, those working at the desk are the face of the library, monitoring all communications with the outside world. The questions we answer can vary from the very complex and technical to very simple questions about what is a condition and how it is treated. When not on the desk, there are always tasks that need to be done, such as following up on contracts, reviewing serials invoices, resolving issues with electronic access, and preparing for classes and instruction sessions. It truly is unpredictable; the library can go from quiet to very fast-paced in an instant. I occasionally field a number of technical questions. These can range from helping our residents and nurses in using our AV equipment, keeping up with IT help desk tickets, and even helping patients and their families in using library computers. It is also very important for librarians to be involved in the local library community. This will mean conference calls, meetings, and off site conferences. Networking with and learning from other librarians is not only a way to give back to the profession and the community; it has also been for me a way to learn new things I can use in my work every day. Reading and research are also important, particularly in academic libraries. Academic librarians are expected to publish, and this requires me to conduct research projects, search the library literature, and write based on my findings. This does occasionally require working at home, but good planning keeps it from being something I have to do all the time.

Finding a Place at the Table as an Academic Acquisitions Librarian (Adam Kemper)

My career as an academic librarian emerged from a number of interests. I always knew I wanted to make a career being involved with people and sharing my knowledge and experience to help those around me. An undergraduate degree in Sociology was intended as a step toward a career in social work, but this took a backseat to library science as I learned more about the field and considered my options. As a librarian I am able to serve our patrons and community both at the information desk and behind-the-scenes, which is a side of librarianship I had not considered in my youth as an avid reader and library user. Although I spent many hours browsing the stacks of my local library as a teen, I had not considered the librarian whose job it was to select and procure the books, albums, and movies I enjoyed so much. My various roles include public reference and instruction time, but I am usually found behind the staff only door in my office. Although I am not always seen by library patrons, my work is experienced by them every day as they browse our collections and use the tools and content I have created or made available.

My Master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Tennessee, School of Information Sciences was an essential part of my career, and prepared me for much of the work I do today. Also essential in my career path is the time spent working as a student at the medical library in Knoxville, where I was allowed increased responsibility throughout my student tenure. It was in working with these librarians on real projects that I was exposed to the sincere work ethic and competence of library professionals. I encourage every Library Science student to seek out as much student experience as possible, in as many various roles as you are able. Like many other professional positions, librarians at my university can expect new roles as flourishing technologies and changing social norms affect our daily interactions. Librarians are often called to work outside their primary job, and more varied student and professional experience shows potential employers that a candidate is amenable to change and can fit, or exceed, the demands set upon a modern librarian.

Wearing a Multitude of Hats: Becoming a School Media Specialist (Amy Dye-Reeves)

A career as a school media specialist was not always my first choice in life. In retrospect, I never imagined myself choosing a career as a media specialist in a school setting. It quickly became a passion of mine to work with the young minds of this country. In the next several paragraphs, I will be discussing my pathway to becoming a school media specialist and how this career might be the perfect choice for your future.

In 2007, I graduated from East Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Arts in History. I knew that I wanted to become a history professor. Therefore, I settled on this pathway to pursuing my dreams. Two years later, I graduated with a Master of Arts in History from East Tennessee State University. During my last year as a history master’s student, I applied to a number of Ph.D. programs and was accepted to a few different programs. However, I could not find enough financial assistance to attend the out of state school that I planned on attending. To make ends meet, I began work as teaching assistant in a school system in East Tennessee. I quickly found out how much I loved working with students. Growing up, I spent many hours over the years reading fiction and non-fiction books. After spending time with my students, I would take them to the library for their related arts period. I found out how much I loved seeing their reactions when each student found the perfect book for himself or herself. It was at that very moment that I decided that I wanted to become a library media specialist.

After deciding upon this career, I wondered: how do I make this dream a reality? I started by researching information on school media specialists. I found a multitude of programs that offered school media specialist licensures as a career pathway. After narrowing down my choices, I ultimately choice the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for their incredible Information Science Program. The program offered a variety of interesting classes and knowledgeable faculty. I knew from my first interaction with the staff at the University of Tennessee that I wanted to attend this program. After completing a wonderful program and experience at the University of Tennessee, I found a job teaching pre-K to eighth grade in Jefferson County Schools in Tennessee.

Two years ago, I began my career as a Library Media Specialist. Beforehand, I took part in a practicum program with Knox County Schools. This was an incredible experience. I learned so much about becoming a school media specialist. However, I quickly learned that I had to take charge of my new library and own my ideas. The first thing that I learned as a school media specialist is the flexibility of wearing a multitude of hats. On a daily basis, I balance the roles of teacher, instructional partner, program administrator, and information specialist within the school.

I teach around eight classes a day during the instructional school day. I teach a variety of levels and skill sets. My day starts with teaching research lessons to the middle school students and ends with teaching the younger students informational lessons on the Dewey Decimal system. One of my passions is teaching the essential research skills needed for students to become successful in the future. I do this through a variety of creative ways such as scavenger hunts, creating mystery lessons and games on the smart board. Coming up with creative and new ideas keeps the students and myself interested in the topics of author development, research, and developmental literacy skills. One of the best parts of my job is introducing students to new and exciting lands that can be explored using their imaginations. This ties in with my role as a teacher and information specialist leader within our school. Not only do I work with students but teachers as well. I love helping teachers find resources that best fit their instructional goals.

As an instructional partner, collaborating with teachers and developing borrowing policies are a few of the necessary items that must be accomplished in becoming a successful library media specialist. Communication is key when developing a collection with administration, teachers, and students in mind. As a library media specialist, I am constantly thinking about new materials that need to be acquired that fit the needs of everyone involved in the school. For example, our eighth grade students work on a Holocaust unit every year. I help the students research their topics in connection with the resources offered through our collection and through the Tennessee Electronic Library. Having a successful partnership is key to having a successful career as a library media specialist.

Lastly, as a program administrator I have to effectively find ways to keep students interested in reading. I often hear from students that they do not like reading and find it a chore to do this on a daily basis. One of the most important parts of my job is knowing the trends of topics within my student population. Seeing the reaction of the students once they find a new book is priceless. Every year, I start by thinking of new ways to get students interested in reading. This can be accomplished through a variety of programming ideas. My goal for next year is to work on creating a new and improved instructional website for teachers and students. I look forward to displaying new ideas and websites that help everyone with their instructional and learning goals.

In conclusion, becoming a library media specialist is a wonderful and exciting career. Do you love working with children, teaching information literacy skills, promoting new and existing authors, and creating new, exciting worlds for teachers and students? Then this is the career for you! You have the power to help students improve the literacy skills that will carry them throughout adulthood. You can make a difference in brightening a multitude of students’ horizons. The sky is truly the limit when creating and working with students and teachers. That one person you work with might truly become the next president, lawyer, or CEO of a large corporation. You can make a difference in that child’s life in the long run. Take pride in knowing how special and rewarding this career can be for you. I truly look forward to the next ten years and what experiences will be available for those in this exciting career.

In Closing

To sum up, one of the great strengths of a degree in information sciences is the versatility of the credential. Some graduates will develop online content for websites, while others will work as public librarians. Some will perform data analysis and database searching, while others will negotiate electronic resources contracts and develop print collections. Some will instill in children a life-long love of the written word, while others will aid physicians in researching treatments for their patients. All of these paths, however, combine the formal training that an information sciences program offers with your unique skills and experiences to help you find your place at the table.


Michael Lindsay, Serials/Electronic Resources Librarian at Preston Medical Library, University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, can be reached at

Adam Kemper, Acquisitions Librarian at Paul Meek Library, University of Tennessee at Martin, can be reached at

Amy Dye-Reeves, Library Media Specialist at Jefferson County Schools, can be reached at


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