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Last Modified: April 2, 2024
A photograph of a hand reaching out to take a book off a library shelf. Below the photograph is the message “Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach” in white text on a grey background.
So You Want to Be a Librarian…

by Jessie Bach

I recently received a pretty cool e-mail from my elementary school librarian, who happened to stumble upon one of my posts here on Read Alberta. She did not seem surprised to find that I had gone on to become a librarian myself, and wrote, “What I recall of you, Jessie, was your desire to read everything you possibly could.”

Photograph of Jess as a baby holding a book open on her lap and "reading"
Baby Jessie “reading” a book, c.1986/1987. Photo courtesy of Lori Bach

As a kid, I spent a lot of my time in the school or public library, and I really did try to read whatever I could get my hands on. Once, I attempted to catalogue my personal book collection on recipe cards and set up a handwritten sign-out log to keep track of titles loaned to my friends or siblings. I even edged the cover of every one of my paperbacks with clear packing tape to protect them from wear, and God help you if you dog-eared one of my pages. No one who knew me back then is shocked when they hear what I now do for a living.

Despite my incredibly bookish history, though, I didn’t actually set out to become a librarian. I wanted to be a veterinarian!

To that end, in 2004, I began my Agriculture degree, majoring in animal science. It very quickly became apparent that I wasn’t that good at science, nor did I really like it. What I loved, were my elective courses in English and history. By my second year in university, I completely changed gears, and in 2009, I graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in history.

From there, I knew I wanted to continue my education. The next step for many history grads was to pursue a degree in Education, but the classroom? Not for me. Nor was I interested in business school, political studies, or continuing my history studies for a career in academia. It was through this process of elimination that I ultimately settled on library school. I applied to a handful of programs, and chose to attend Dalhousie University, in Halifax, to earn my master’s degree in library and information studies (MLIS).

I’ve been fortunate to have had a variety of unique positions since I graduated from library school in 2011. As a student, I worked at the Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia where I got to work with records relating to the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion, and some of the earliest Canadian land grant documents. From there, I moved on to the Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections, spent some time working in corporate records management at a Calgary-based oil and gas company, and eventually landed a gig at Marigold Library System. I’ve been with Marigold now for over ten years, and I’ve held several positions during my time there.

Marigold is a library system. The simplest way to explain what that is, is to say library systems are municipal membership collaboratives that provide economical public library services and support for libraries in Alberta (if you’d like to know more about what library systems are and what they do, check out my past post all about them!). My first position at Marigold was as a Library Services Consultant, where I supported rural Alberta libraries by providing information, training, collections services, and more. After that, I became the Bibliographic Services Manager, where I led the team of folks who purchase, catalogue, and prepare books and other library materials for circulation at libraries. My current position is Communications and Engagement Manager. I prepare documents, create online content for Marigold and the public libraries we serve, liaise with library staff and Board members, and many “other duties as assigned.” I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to explore my talents and develop new skills during my time with Marigold.

If reading about my career thus far has you feeling inspired to pursue library work, here’s some of what you need to know to get started down a similar path.

We tend to use the term “librarian” to describe anyone who works at a library. However, to become a professional capital-L Librarian, you will need to pursue an MLIS. There are eight schools in Canada that offer the MLIS program: University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, Western University, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, McGill University, University of Montreal, and Dalhousie University. The MLIS is generally a two-year, course-based master’s degree program, though some schools may offer accelerated programs or a thesis option as well.

Prospective librarians come to the profession from a wide variety of backgrounds. For example, in my library school cohort, there were a number of us with arts degrees in subjects like history and English; some classmates came from a science background with degrees in biology or environmental science; others had backgrounds in business. There were even a couple of former teachers looking for a career change. There was a wide age range in my class as well—many of us had come right from our undergrad programs, while others were coming back to school mid-career.

As evidenced by my own job history, the career options for librarians are just as diverse as their educational backgrounds. We instantly associate the word “library” with the public library, where people go to borrow books, movies, and other materials, use the public computers, and attend story time with their kids. Many librarians become employed in public libraries, and there’s wide variety of roles available, such as children’s or teens librarians, programming librarians, branch or library directors, and more. There are also, however, a wider variety of library types out there too. For example, there are corporate libraries, medical libraries, government libraries, academic libraries, law libraries, other “special” libraries dedicated to a specific subject—such as the Alberta Sports History Library located in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. The list goes on.

Many librarians also find work in library-adjacent environments. This could be IT—today’s libraries are high tech environments, and librarians with an IT background are integral to keeping everything running smoothly. There are opportunities in the corporate library world with book vendors, library software companies, and other library service providers. Librarians also make great researchers, knowledge managers, writers, educational designers, and so much more.

It’s been my experience that so much about librarianship is learned on the job. For example, prior to starting the positions, I had no formal training in bibliographic services or communications. Library school graduates are generally qualified for management positions, but (at least in my experience) the MLIS program does not offer in-depth courses on human resources, budgeting, strategic planning, and other skills required of managers. Add to that the wide variety of fields employing librarians, and the unique needs of each individual community—well, let’s just say that library school will only be the beginning of your education!

When I tell people I’m a librarian, I’ll often hear some version of “Oh, that must be so nice to have a job where you can just read all day!” Let me tell you, there are days where I WISH that were the case! Libraries, and librarian work, are more about people than books. And while I often daydream about those childhood days where I “read everything I possibly could,” I get a lot of fulfillment knowing that in my chosen career I’m helping other Southern Alberta kids do just that.


About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.

Feature image credit: Element5 Digital through Pexels.