In the golden age of the library, these book depositories served as true community hubs for cities and towns all over the country. As ebooks have taken off, there has been uncertainty about the future of the library — what role does it play in society if books are so cheap and can be accessed so easily through one’s home computer? Is there still a place for the librarian — the person who recommends books, fulfills research requests, organizes the annals of the entirety of human knowledge? Not to mention the question that is perhaps most salient to the readers of this particular website: is there a place for that far rarer breed — the male librarian? To answer these questions we talked with Nate Pedersen, Community Librarian with Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
I grew up in southern Minnesota and currently live in Bend, Oregon where I work as a public librarian with Deschutes Public Library. I’m 32 years old and have been working at this job for two years, and as a librarian for four years. Previously, I worked as an antiquarian bookseller in North Carolina and Scotland.
My job title — Community Librarian — says a lot about what I do and speaks to the philosophy of our library district as well. I spend about 25% of my time out of the library, conducting outreach visits with various community groups, and connecting people with library services in non-library settings. When I’m here in the library, I spend two hours each day working at the adult reference desk (answering a huge variety of questions, everything from “How do I respond to this ad on Craigslist?” to “Where can I pan for gold?” or “Can you prove that time stood still in the Book of Joshua?”). I also teach computer classes for patrons, conduct workshops on finding funding for area nonprofits, manage historical and genealogical research requests, select and deliver books to our local jail, contribute to a variety of teams and committees, lead a library book club, and manage a mobile eReader display unit.
I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Des Chutes Historical Society and Museum, giving occasional historic lectures in the community, and writing history articles for a variety of publications.
2. Why did you want to become a librarian? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
When I was a young kid, I spent many summer days hiking down the ravine behind our house to our little local library. I would read for a few hours and then hike back up through the woods. I loved that combination of the outdoors and books and I was hoping to find a balance between the two. I studied anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and seriously considered joining the ranks of unemployed Ph.D. students in search of a professorship. But my wife — always a better judge of things than me — suggested instead that I become a librarian. The payscale and job benefits can be roughly comparable, and the investment (both time and money) in education significantly less. So I enrolled in graduate school in librarianship and the rest is history.
That goal of combining the outdoors with a bookish life was realized here in Bend, which is an outdoor recreation mecca, so I can spend my workdays helping people at the library and my weekends out on the trails.
3. Many people think of being a librarian as a female profession. How do you respond to that gender stereotype and what would you say to a young man who worries about going into library science because of it?
Well, is the young man single? Does he want to meet a lot of women? All kidding aside, librarianship has traditionally been a female-driven profession and the gender ratio today is still far from equal. But our workforce as a whole has been changing, and men have been embracing traditionally “female professions” in greater numbers across the board, e.g. nursing, teaching, librarianship, etc.
I think young men should follow their heart and bring their A-game to whatever profession calls to them. Gender stereotyping is bullsh*t anyway; the way to fight that is to just be good at what you do. At the end of the day, people respect people who are good at their jobs. People care a lot more about your competency and attitude than they do about whether you are employed in a “female” or “male” profession.
Just bring it. Be good at your job.
4. What are the requirements for becoming a librarian? Do you need a college degree and should it be in library science?
You need a master’s degree in library and information studies, preferably from an ALA-accredited university. (ALA stands for the American Library Association). Your undergraduate degree doesn’t really matter as long as you get into graduate school for librarianship. English is probably the most common major for future librarians, but the field encourages a diverse outlook, so you’d never be docked for studying something wildly different. Furthermore, at the bigger universities, there are dedicated librarians for broad subject areas; the Business and Economics Librarian, for example, or the Social Sciences Librarian. If you loved your undergraduate field, these sorts of positions are a great way to find employment in a related field.
5. How competitive is the librarian field as far as the ratio of job openings to job seekers?
The supply way exceeds the demand. It’s rough out there. The key is to build up as much experience as possible while you are earning your graduate degree. If you can work in a paraprofessional position with a local library (also competitive) while getting your degree, I think it’s worth only enrolling part-time so you can graduate with four years of experience under your belt. If you can’t find a paid gig with a local library, then intern or volunteer at the type of library you’d like to work with. You need to find reasons for people to hire you that set you apart from the many other applicants for any position.
Official stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (because this wouldn’t be a librarian’s post without bringing in some research data):
Employment of librarians is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations… Jobseekers may face strong competition for jobs, especially early in the decade, as many people with master’s degrees in library science compete for a limited number of available positions. Later in the decade, prospects should be better, as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings.
6. What kinds of experiences and qualities make a job candidate more desirable and more likely to be hired for an opening?
These days, tech skills are paramount for librarians. You really need to be a little bit of a computer whiz. Some days, half of the questions you’ll receive on the reference desk are along the lines of “How do I format my resume in Word,” or “How do I recover my lost Gmail password?” You’ve also got to be up to speed with tablets and eReaders.
And you’ve got to know how to find good information, quickly and efficiently. You’ll spend a lot of time at graduate school learning that one. Pros and cons of different databases, where to look for certain types of information, etc. “Looking for the phone number of a long-lost cousin in Reno? No problem, we’ll track it down in a few minutes.”
Another plus is being well-read across many genres. Lots of people have a favorite genre — mysteries, for example, or fantasy books — but you need to read a ton as a public librarian and be able to offer good recommendations in genres way outside of your personal reading preferences. Get to know the various genre awards, figure out what people like about different genres, and learn about the big names in each field.
You need to be — at the very least — competent at public speaking. I teach a lot of classes and lead a lot of workshops as a librarian, and so do my colleagues. That whole idea of librarianship-as-a-job-for-introverts has been totally reversed. You need to be able to get up in front of people, hold their attention, and make sure they walk away with a clear understanding of whatever it is you’re talking about.
This one seems obvious, but damn — you need to like working with people. You need to like helping people. Every now and then you meet someone who somehow stumbled into librarianship who hates working with the public and it’s like, “C’mon, now, seriously?”
7. What is the best part of your job?
The fact that every single day I go home from work having made someone’s life just a little bit better. That can be as simple as finding a good book to read or as complex as helping someone finally land a job after hovering at the edge of homelessness.
8. What is the worst part of your job?
Some of our patrons are at the bottom of every possible measurable spectrum, and they’re out of options and out of hope.
9. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
You need to have some evening and weekend flexibility as you sometimes need to staff events or attend community meetings outside of regular working hours. But in general, it would be a sweet work/family/life balance if I just worked my regular full-time job as a librarian. I typically don’t take my work home with me and I love spending the rest of my day with my family. But I also freelance as a journalist, so I often have work of a different sort to do at night as well. In general, though, librarianship is a satisfying career that doesn’t require you to give away your personal life for the sake of advancement.
10. Many people feel that libraries are a dying institution in our digital age, and would thus say that a young man shouldn’t go into library science, as it is a field without a future. How would you respond to these doomsayers?
Libraries are changing, no doubt, but they are still central pillars of a community. It’s like the one tax-funded institution that people are actually happy with. People don’t want libraries to go away. And libraries are doing a pretty good job of adjusting to a new media environment.
According to the most recent Pew study, 94% of Americans think public libraries improve a community. I mean, seriously, 94%; what other institution even comes close to that?
The Atlantic actually attempted to answer that very question and found that libraries beat the approval ratings of Congress (easy), President Obama (a bit harder), baseball (seriously?), and apple pie(!).
Of course, a generalized sense of approval doesn’t always translate into adequate funding; hence the economic plight of many public libraries around the country. But libraries are viewed as integral parts of a community and they’re not going away anytime soon…just changing.
On that note, the first ever “book-less library” opened up in San Antonio last year.
11. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?
I love my job and I feel lucky to have it. I think it’s awesome to be able to help build my community every day.
An anecdote: The novelist Peter Rock was visiting Bend and he signed a copy of his book, The Shelter Cycle, for me. When he found out I was a librarian, he wrote on the title page, “For Nate, whose work is crucial. Thanks.” That’s pretty damn cool.
Finally, it’s an exciting time to be a librarian — you get to be part of a conversation about the future of a much beloved American institution. No one really knows what libraries will look like in 20 years’ time. I’m glad to help answer that question.