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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!

“The Bartending Librarian: How Past Odd Jobs Help You Now”

  1. Nina McHale Says:

    We totally overlap on “waitress” and “English TA.” I was a paid-under-the-table waitress in Wales for my landlord while I got my first MA, and I was AWFUL at it. Had fun, though; they were Greek, so one of our duties for large parties was throwing old plates into the fireplace, getting the diners dancing, and yelling “OPA!” The existential crisis into which I was thrown after realizing how much I hated teaching classes of English comp to asshole freshmen who didn’t want to be there was what got my into my MSLS. What I realized: I LOVED working with students one-on-one, and I would be a REALLY good reference librarian.

  2. Roy Tennant Says:

    It’s interesting that you’re blogging this now, as I recently started a series of posts about what I learned when I was a commercial river guide that I use now as a librarian: . So…yeah, I’m a big fan of acknowledging what your other experiences have contributed to make you the person you are today. As for the tequila shot competition — I think I’ll leave that to you!

  3. Sarah Says:

    Nice, Roy! I totally missed that article (bad Sarah), but yes – it’s very much the same idea. Much of what we bring to the table isn’t our “librarian-ness” but our other unique experiences that can add a lot to our organization’s capabilities.

  4. Abigail Says:

    Everything I need to know, I learned at Gymboree. 🙂 Well, maybe not everything but I learned LOT from being a Play and Music Teacher: lesson planning on the fly, engaging when you’re exhausted, handling a room full of people all doing their own thing, dealing with toddler meltdowns. Student meltdowns look remarkably similar, though it usually takes a little more chocolate to fix the problem.

    Now, if I could just convince the graduate students that parachute and bubble time and 15 minutes of storytime would make everyone’ s world better.

  5. Vanessa Says:

    What I learned from:

    Backcountry “grunt”/manual labor work in Yosemite: that the most amazing experiences in life have very little to do with buying/acquiring stuff- which was quite a lesson for a young stuff-obsessed teenage girl. I can’t believe I was getting paid to work in some of the most beautiful places in Yosemite. It seems like people would pay for that experience now.

    Lifeguard: that herding children engaged in fun recreational activities can be extremely difficult. Also, I wish library bathrooms were made of concrete walls and drains because it’s much easier to deal with unpleasant messes when you can just blast them with a hose from 4 feet away.

    Co-op store worker: sometimes decision-making by total consensus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially with irresponsible college students in charge of making the decisions.

    Archaeology lab assistant: small things that seem inconsequential (like pottery shards) can illustrate a much bigger picture.

    Undergrad Anthro TA: writing doesn’t come easily to a lot of people, even students at a “top” university.

    Bookstore Worker: Early experiences with reference, learned that it’s important not to try to guess nor judge people’s literary tastes based upon appearances.

    This was a fun exercise!

  6. Erna Winters Says:

    Oops, I humbly bow my head to so much experience elsewhere. When I was about 8-10 years old, and first visited our local library, all I wanted was to become a librarian. And I became a very young volunteer, helping the librarian every wednesday afternoon after school.

    Ever since then, I worked in about ten different jobs, but all in libraries. Starting at the bottom, as volunteer, to junior-assistant, assistant, head of a small library, medium library, director of small library and now director of 4 merged libraries. But learning all the way, from collegues, patrons, directors, board members, from life itself if you like 😉

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  8. Andy Havens Says:

    Really neat post. It’s fun to think about (and hear about) the effect of previous jobs on current ones. The best job I ever had was as director of a day camp’s arts-and-crafts program. That was my main summer job for 10 years, the last 3 of which I did art for just the youngest campers, age 4-7. What I learned: I will never, ever have a better job than spending someone else’s money on craft supplies and watching young kids go bananas with them. What I learned from working as a clerk, gopher and general lackey at an early mom-n-pop video rental shop is that people will lie to get out of a little trouble, even if it costs you your job. What I learned working close at a McDonald’s is that process is important, friendly people get more done, and smoking menthols in the freezer gets you kinda stoned. What I learned from teaching high school English is that you can love the core of a job… but if every/single/stinking/thing about the environment and conditions is toxic… love is not enough. What I learned from selling magazines over the phone is that the script is the script for a reason, and sales is (largely) a numbers game. Also, some people think “Yankee” magazine means something else.

  9. Erica Says:

    My social work degree with an adult protective services practicum made my middle-class self learn to relate to people who were struggling financially and emotionally. Great for dealing with those older patrons who are angry you moved the large-print books a few rows over the in the library. Some days I think I use my social work degree more than any of my other education.

    Working for a large corporation as a software programmer taught me more computer skills than I could ever share with a patron or fellow staff member. It comes in handy a lot while helping troubleshoot minor computer issues while at the desk. Being a corporate worker bee also helped me realize that I couldn’t work to help other people make money while my paycheck stayed stagnant. I needed to feel that I was working toward a greater good, even if that good was a smile on someone’s face. Teaching knitting classes taught me patience and how to explain things in very simple terms.

    I had your same experience with retail. I found out how competitive I’m not when it came to sales competitions. But treating a customer well sometimes turned things around quickly with a sale.

    Being a shelver the library is what solidified my wanting to work in the library. I loved that I learned the Dewey system better than I ever could have imagined and I also learned something new everyday. I still learn something new everyday and that’s why I love being a librarian.

  10. Another Sarah Says:

    I have always felt I got SOMETHING out of any job I’ve done. I learned soldering in one position, and although it hasn’t come up again, I keep hoping it will!

    I was a temp for a few years and since I hate phones and never learned to type at great speeds, I got the funky jobs – handing out towels and doing laundry at a corporate headquarters gym, working in a number of mail rooms… both gave me a behind-the-scenes look at some major corporations.

    Working a high-end retail bakery/coffee bar for a year (and now being married to a chef and occasionally helping him out) has taught me MUCH about customer service. And that while I’m fine behind a counter, I could never be a waitress.

    And regarding your title – I have been telling people for years that I think being a librarian (at least in a small academic setting) is a little like being a bartender. Students will tell me stuff they don’t tell their professors or parents. Too bad I can’t put out a tip jar!

  11. Anna Watkins Says:

    Jeez, this is probably the main thing I LOVE about being a librarian. No matter what the interest, no matter what the experience, it will come in very useful one day. So I have license to follow all interests, togo wherever, to read or cook or make or listen to or whatever, and BAM!, before you know it, somebody is asking a question or has a need that I can deal with from personal knowledge. I love this job.

  12. Barry Taranto Says:

    I think the last job is the best one. Just saying,,,,

  13. Andrea Johnson Says:

    This is a great exercise! Here’s what I learned as a:

    Grocery cashier: How to avoid letting rude and unpleasant people get to me, and also that you should always try to be a little nicer to people who help you. Although it doesn’t get to me anymore, I still remember the first woman my mother’s age who called little teenage me a bitch because she thought I was manhandling her bread. From her I also learned that things are rarely as big a deal as you think they are. Finally, I learned to make change. To this day I can tell you that $0.41 is the best amount of money because it consists of one quarter, one dime, one nickel, and one penny.

    Discount fashion store clerk: Customer service, first and foremost. I also learned the power of a visually appealing display (very handy in my public library job).

    Receptionist at a weight loss center: Professional phone skills.

    Day camp counselor: How to handle large groups of people in need of direction, how to properly wield a Big Voice, and many, many ways to make crafts out of practically nothing.

    Library director: I learned to experiment, to view the big picture, and how to be an advocate for my staff,

  14. Sarah Gilchrist Says:

    Thanks for this great post! I’ve decided that I have had at least 100 jobs in my lifetime; I’ve learned a lot from each one. My least favorite jobs even taught me something valuable.

  15. Algernon Says:

    What a wonderful post. A lovely thing about library folk, is the amazing diversity of experience that we all bring to the table. I’m an old lady who worked in the securities industry in the 1980s. Since my MLS in 1990, my employment history has seen me skip from corporate library, to a major newspaper library, to a public library, to a federal agency, to an executive search firm, to a defense contractor, and a final happy landing at the community college where I hope to spend my waning years.

    Nimble assimilation has been my career strategy, but all the moving around has been not always been great for my confidence (they call it ‘imposter syndrome’). I sometimes envy the librarians who have a real sense of belonging and affiliation with just one kind of library. But, that’s my patchwork career, for what it’s worth. It hasn’t ever been boring. Wish I had a nickel for every brilliant and amazing person I’ve had the pleasure to work with, through all these years.

  16. Sheri Says:

    Thanks so much for this, Sarah. Your final paragraph gave me a much needed boost as I apply for my dream job (youth librarian in my home town branch).

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  18. Library Guy Says:

    Working as a bouncer taught me more about dealing with irrational people than any class, seminar, or webinar. I got to interact with people at their best and their worst. Happy drunks and downright evil folk all mixed together. The library has better hours, better lighting, and no smoke. As a bonus, my ears no longer ring at the end of the night. The only downside of the library gig is that you are not allowed to occasionally smack your special patrons for their extraordinary acts of jackassery.

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