Thursday, July 20, 2017

When Opportunity Knocks, or A Young Librarian’s Guide to Community College Librarianship, by Monique K. Clark

If you decide to make the leap, you might discover that a community college library is  the place for you. They combine the best of academic and public libraries, yet offer a unique environment that reflect value we hold dear as librarians. You never know what each day might bring and which one of your awesome talents might be called into action to help a patron, solve a problem, or come up with ideas to improve your library, your college, and ultimately, your community.

If you’re just starting your career as a librarian or you’re thinking of making a change, community college libraries might be the place for you. Community colleges address social issues that librarians support such as diversity, inclusion, and open access. They provide access to education for people of all backgrounds by offering classes that people need to meet their lifelong learning needs. As a result, community colleges tend to be very diverse in terms of the social, economic, racial, educational, and national background of the students and staff. However, this also means that community college libraries face unique challenges in meeting patron needs and supporting the institution's mission-- for example, ideas and strategies that work well at a four year college library or a public library won’t always be successful at a community college library. Librarians who thrive in a two-year setting must learn or strengthen skills that will help them serve our patrons and contribute to the college’s mission--attributes which can be useful in other contexts. Community college libraries are an excellent place for new librarians to develop skills such as teaching, collaboration, and management.

Although I’m no longer at one, it was a great way for me to start my career - even though it was mostly by accident. I didn’t initially plan to work at a community college, but like most people nearing the end of library school, I needed a job to pay the bills and I was lucky enough to land a full-time library specialist position at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) one month before graduation. Six months later, the library director encouraged me to apply for a library technology specialist position that had become vacant due to a promotion. I worked as a technology specialist for nearly three years and then I applied for and received a job offer for a campus library manager position at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. The knowledge and skills that I gained at both places are integral to my work at a public university and I learned to keep an open mind when new opportunities become available.

The community college environment offers many opportunities to learn new skills and collaborate with people within and outside of the library. Community colleges libraries are insanely busy in the fall, slightly less so in the spring, and even slower in the summer. During the academic year, all hands are on deck which means that you may have shifts at both the reference and circulation desk (depending on your library’s policies) or you may be asked to do a variety of tasks such as shelf reading, selecting materials to purchase, teaching a one-shot class, fixing uncooperative printers, or serving on a committee within the library or elsewhere. Flexibility, a willingness to pitch in where needed, and a great deal of patience are essential to the overall function of a library; it’s also a great way to learn about other library roles and to gain skills in those areas. Committee work can offer another perspective on the library and its relationship to the parent institution. For instance, hiring committees aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as a result of volunteering for so many committees, I learned a lot about applying for jobs, interviewing, hiring, and institutional values.   

In community college libraries, the summer is an ideal time to work on new or existing projects, do committee work, try new ideas, or engage in professional development activities such as attending conferences or taking classes. At NOVA, we piloted a single service point for reference and circulation interactions, something that couldn’t have happened during the academic year due to heavy foot traffic in the library. At CPCC, I co-chaired a strategic planning subcommittee which allowed me to work with my colleagues in the library and other departments to meet student needs, promote the library as place of learning and collaboration, and contribute to institutional success. If career progression is your goal, taking on projects and actively participating in committee work can be a good way to showcase your talents and demonstrate your value to the library.

Working at a community college can sometimes lead you to unexpected places. I told myself that there were certain things I would never do, but ended up doing them anyway thanks to working at a community college. I remember a comment I made to the library director at NOVA about how I would never want to be a manager. A year or so after having that conversation, I ended up applying to (and being selected for) a position at another community college that involved managing a small regional campus library and two part-time employees. Being open to taking on new responsibilities can be the push you need to challenge yourself and to flourish as a librarian.

Monique Clark is currently a reference and instruction librarian at the University of Baltimore. Prior to that, she spent five years working at two large community colleges on the East Coast. She can be found on Twitter at @wizardinglib.

Editor's note: this post presents one person's experience with working in community colleges. For other people, community colleges are their end goal. Personally, I recently moved from a small, liberal arts college to a community college. The point of this post is to encourage librarians new to the field to be open to all opportunities.


  1. While I appreciate the plug for community college librarianship, I find it sort of offensive that you present it as a jumping off place for better things. Community college librarians are often seen as "lesser than" by those at universities and larger colleges and don't need this kind of press. The work we do IS valuable all on its own and many of us in community college chose to be here precisely because of "They combine the best of academic and public libraries, yet offer a unique environment that reflect value we hold dear as librarians." We choose to remain at community colleges and continue the work because we are needed. There are over 1100 community college in the country and 5.7 million students attend a two-year college. We are more than just places to gain experience. We are wonderful places were you connect with a wide variety of students from all sorts of backgrounds with a vast range of educational goals and needs.

    1. I can understand how you might see it in that perspective. However, I was trying to get across the point that new librarians should be open to opportunities they might not have considered. I may work at a university right now, but I still love and appreciate the work that community colleges do.

    2. This didn't read as offensive to me, but reflected the reality that a lot of people coming out of library school have no idea what an awesome job community college librarianship is. I feel like Monique was sharing her story (where she started in community colleges and then went on to work at a university), but she also said that people thinking about a change in setting should consider community college libraries. I worked at a small university where I got to do a little bit of everything and it was a great jumping off place for the rest of my career, which is now in community college libraries. Does that mean that the first place I worked was "less than?" Not at all. She's right that places like community college libraries (though not all) and smaller academic libraries are great places to start out because you get to do so many different things and figure out where you want to focus in your career. I wish I'd known all that when I was coming out of library school.

      I will add though that many community college librarians are on 9 or 10 month contracts and so don't have the summer for projects. That, for me, has been the most difficult thing to adjust to as I was used to summer being project time at previous institutions. Now we have to work it into our academic year work, which is difficult. Still, I can't complain about having summers off. :-)

    3. @Meredith. You brought up a good point about 9/10 month contracts. I was lucky in that my positions so far have been either full-time or full-time with a 12 month contract, but that's not the case for everyone (as hanging out in different online spaces have taught me).

    4. Hi Monique! Much like you, I took a job as a multimedia specialist at a cc (Go NOVA!) right out of grad school, having no idea what to expect. My original career goal wasn't even in academic librarianship, so I thought the job would be temporary. Maybe its NOVA, maybe its just cc's, but I ended up loving my job and staying there for 2 1/2 years! Working at a cc allowed me to explore many facets of the field, connect with students and the community, and take creative risks! The job helped me find my niche and paved the way for a position I have now as a subject librarian at a 4-year university. I am perpetually in awe of the outstanding work community college librarians and staff do. Working at NOVA helped me see the impact I could make through working with college students, and I am so glad I had that job!