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.