For 99.9% of us, working in a library was not our first job. I worked an extremely odd assortment of jobs between high school and finishing my MLIS, each and every one of which has continued to help me in some small way with the work I do today. Even jobs that are seemingly completely unrelated have yielded some practical skill, knowledge, or experience. Below are some of the jobs I worked over the years and what each of them taught me that I still use today.
- Calligraphist: My first job at age 13 was doing calligraphy for an art store on commission. What I learned: A good work ethic is critical to success. You create quality work, you get more work. You turn in your work on a timely basis, you get more work. You treat your employer with respect, he’ll talk you up and get you more work (child labor laws be damned).
- Hostess: I worked as a hostess at a Chicago-style pizza restaurant. What I learned: The lowest paid positions in an organization often have hidden caches of power. I got to decide which waiters and waitresses got which tables, and how many tables. I got to help the delivery staff I liked and be apathetic toward those who weren’t nice to me. No matter where you are in an organizational chart, you do have control over certain things, which you can use (or abuse if you become cranky and jaded).
- Waitress: I worked as a waitress a few times. I am not a good waitress. I lacked the upper body strength and the ability to schmooze with people who were nasty all in the name of getting a better tip. What I learned: Not everyone is good at everything. You think you’ll be good, but maybe you won’t be. And you know what? That’s ok! If you were good at every last thing you’d be some kind of prodigy mutant being and I’d be afraid of you. If you’re not good at something you probably won’t like it, so why keep doing it? Find something else as soon as you can!
- Bartender: I was a bartender a couple of times at very different types of bars, from the diviest frat bar dive to a splendid dinner club. What I learned: Besides how to make excellent drinks, I learned a lot about how to listen to people. People at bars often just want to be heard. They might not have another outlet for telling their story and hope that you’ll listen to their girlfriend woes, frustrations at work, and feelings about their best friend’s significant other. Bartending is one job where you learn to listen. It’s like a psychology practicum on steroids. Listening, and especially active listening, comes in handy a lot in libraries. We need to listen to each other and we need to listen to our patrons.
- Secretary: I have been a secretary (and I was called a secretary – not an administrative assistant) more times than I care to remember…for a car dealership, a small telecomm, Sears, a dot com start-up, etc. What I learned: More than any of the other jobs I worked, my secretary jobs reminded me why I was going to graduate school–so I would not have to do that job forever. Being a secretary works for some people, and I say good for them. For me it was perfect torture. I felt that I was set up as eye candy, was sexually harassed more than once, and expected to perform degrading tasks in addition to “normal” work. But being a secretary taught me some useful skills too. I learned how to multitask way before it became rote. I learned basic accounting. I learned business writing. I learned that a smile really does travel over the phone lines.
- Planned Parenthood Counselor: For a year in college I provided abortion counseling for women. What I learned: Two semesters as a psychology major do not prepare you for the reality of some situations. Theoretical coursework and group discussions cannot and will not prepare you for the reality of the workplace. Being told to “be ready for X” is not the same as actually being ready. Job shadowing, mentoring, internships, and practicum work are really the only way to get boots-on-the-ground experience so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
- English Composition Instructor: While getting my MA in literature and mythology I taught freshman composition for three semesters at WSU. What I learned: Teaching people who are learning because they “have to” is way less fun than teaching people who actually want to learn. But this job also taught me a ton about presentation skills, coursework and training organization, student engagement, useful feedback, and how to take criticism gracefully. I taught the first semester as a total hard-ass out of fear that I wouldn’t be respected (I was only a year older than most of the students) and was told to chill out for the next semester. I did, and it worked much better despite my own intuition that it wouldn’t.
- Flooring Salesperson: This was a job taken purely for the money to pay the bills. What I learned: I learned a lot about flooring! (quick, ask me anything) I also learned that not only do I not like sales, I am not good at it in the slightest. This reaffirmed for me that working in a job that didn’t have a profit-basis was very important, solidifying my desire to work in education. I have used my flooring knowledge a few times to offer advice on flooring choices for new library buildings, surprising the salespeople with the random vocabulary I can still pull out of my head 15 years later. This is actually a practical set of knowledge now that I’m a library manager. Go figure.
- Amateur Tequila Shot Contest Competitor: OK, this wasn’t actually a real job, per se, but I did earn money doing this. What I learned: If people underestimate you, exploit it and show them what you can do. A 115 pound woman can drink a 300 pound man under the table and take home $300 as a result. If people want to underestimate me now, I let them. If they choose to believe I’m naive or inexperienced or stupid, I let them. Then I do what I need to do and watch the jaws drop. It’s a very satisfying moment…the jaw-dropping-ha-ha moment.
Think about your own work history and what skills and talents you bring with you that are unique to you. It is those things that make you marketable, that you should play up during interviews, that you should remember make you so perfectly wonderful as a library staffer. We love you because you are you!