Public Libraries Step Into Job-Search Niche
by Michael Baumann
The most pressing question for working Americans during the current financial crisis has not been “What is the federal deficit?” or “How much has the Dow dropped this week?” It’s been something much more basic: “Will my job still be there tomorrow, and if it’s not, can I find a new one?”
As unemployment approaches 10%, an increasing number of Americans have found themselves back on the job market during the past several months, many for the first time in decades. What they have encountered is a hiring landscape that is more competitive and more complicated than ever before, with classified ads giving way to online postings and paper resumes giving way to computer forms.
For those with limited or nonexistent computer skills, going through this process when their livelihood depends on it can be nerve-racking, to say the least. But increasingly, job hunters have been turning to public libraries in their search process, according to a February 2009 report from the American Library Association (ALA), “Job-Seeking in U.S. Public Libraries.” According to the report, 62.2% of public libraries consider aiding job seekers as “critical to the library’s mission,” up from 44% the previous year.
A Long-Standing Tradition
According to library consultant Mary Wasmuth, public libraries have served as a sort of informal career center for years. Wasmuth spent 15 years at the Framingham Public Library in Massachusetts before retiring last year, and she says she took a job in the industry after being laid off herself.
“I was laid off from my first job before I was a librarian in the ’70s,” Wasmuth says. “I used the library a lot for job searching.” She says that libraries have always been a valuable resource for job hunters, but that role has only come to the forefront lately.
“Recently, as online job hunting has become pretty much essential, in my last couple of years, we started seeing so many people who had worked their whole lives but didn’t know how to use the computer and really needed a lot of help,” Wasmuth says. She now works on five job-search programs in Boston-area public libraries, and she tries to provide help for people who might feel discouraged by the depressed job market or might not even know where to start looking for work.
Something for Everyone
Libraries such as the ones Wasmuth works with have begun to provide organized help to job seekers in the form of computer education classes or specific seminars on how to find a job. Public libraries in Forsyth County, N.C., have initiated a project called Survive and Thrive, which includes programs designed to fill specific and unmet needs that job seekers might have.
“In December of 2008, as local unemployment hovered around 10%, our library began an internal discussion about what role we could play in providing help to those who had lost their jobs and were looking for new work,” says Don Dwiggins, the public information officer for Forsyth County Public Libraries. “We knew we had many resources that would be of benefit to the unemployed but what we didn’t know was how best to present this information to the community.”
After more research, Forsyth County initiated Survive and Thrive programs such as “Networking Your Way to the Job” and “Practice Interviews and Resume Critique With Local HR Professionals.” Forsyth County has conducted 15 Survive and Thrive programs since April, with each one attracting between 35 and 40 people on average, Dwiggins says.
“Response to our programs has been extremely positive,” he says. “We ask attendees to complete an evaluation after every program and we have received high marks in all areas we survey. So many times someone will come up to us after a program and express how grateful they are that a program such as ours exists in the community and how much they are benefiting from it.”
Librarians have also learned that not all job seekers are the same. As a result, librarians have designed specific programs to cater to recent college grads or to people who are still learning how to speak English.
“We did one for older workers; that’s a huge area of need,” according to Wasmuth. “A lot of older workers don’t have the computer skills they need, and if they’ve worked in one place for a long time they feel like Rip Van Winkle.”
What Do Job Hunters Require?
When faced with the question about what job hunters require, Dwiggins and Wasmuth answered in emotional rather than practical terms.
Dwiggins says, “They just want to find someone who cares about their situation,” while Wasmuth says they “hope that someone will be able to help them.” Beyond that, librarians are expected to teach job seekers the skills they need to get back to work, not find jobs for people. These skills can include anything from computer literacy to resume writing to interview skills. Dwiggins says the Forsyth County libraries are also trying to teach skills that job seekers might not have even thought that they needed, such as networking.
Computer literacy is still a big sticking point among job seekers. Wasmuth met one man who had been in the hotel business his entire life, working his way up from bellhop to the hotel’s head of special functions without learning how to use a computer. Now, with many business functions being run on the computer, particularly at hotels, he needs to start from scratch to find a job.
“When he went to apply for jobs, people told him to email [them] a resume and he didn’t know what that meant,” Wasmuth says.
Staying in the Game
While librarians and information professionals can work magic helping patrons and clients in their job searches, Dialog is now extending the same courtesy to librarians and info pros who have recently lost their own jobs during these tough economic times.
When librarians lose their jobs because of budget cuts, it usually means losing access to Dialog too, according to Suzanne BeDell, Dialog general manager. “We want to be sure we’re there for them when they need us most—when they need excellent resources to look for a new position, or if they’re aiming to start their own information business,” she reported in a statement.
Dialog is lending a helping hand to librarians and info pros so that they can access essential resources for their own job searches, as well as retain and develop their search skills while they are looking for full-time jobs.
So Dialog is waiving its standard startup and service fees while offering free DIALINDEX service and a 10% discount on Dialog usage to librarians and information professionals who have recently been laid off. Free access and discounts can be used up to 1 year.
BeDell says Dialog structured the new program along the same lines as its partnership with the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP). According to the rules of the partnership, AIIP members can use the same Dialog access and discount features available in the new program for unemployed librarians for as long as they are members.
The program is open to librarians and info pros who have been unemployed since October 2008. For more information, visit www.dialog.com/careers/program_uip.
Tools of the Trade
When job seekers come to libraries for help, librarians are armed with a vast array of tools, from newspaper ads to job-hunting websites to reference books on interview skills. But as a growing library job-seeking market emerges, so have specialized computer programs to help in the search.
One of these is Career Transitions, a “career center in a box,” according to David Forman, business product publisher for Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. Career Transitions is an online job-searching tool aimed not only at helping people find jobs but helping them to find out where to look for jobs.
“[Job search] sites are really good if you know what you want to do next and you’re just searching for a job,” Forman says. “But for the user who doesn’t know what they want to do next and needs help getting there … that’s the user coming to the library, that’s the only application custom-tailored to them.”
For a person who has been a nurse all of his or her life, deciding which industry to look in might not be hard, but for a 23-year-old with an English degree and no idea what he or she wants to do, it’s a different story altogether. Career Transitions’ questionnaires can point him or her in the right direction with offers of more than 400 online classes on interviewing and other essential job-hunting skills. Gale corporate communications director Linda Busse says the program is intended to keep librarians from having to be bogged down with one person for too long.
“The thing that I heard the most is that we can start someone out or send them right to this resource, pass them along, and move on to the next patron,” Busse says.
The Costs of Helping Job Seekers
The increased emphasis on helping job seekers has led to a paradigm shift for reference librarians. What used to be a secondary duty is becoming more and more of a raison d’être.
“While promoting the love of reading and literature is on-going; nothing is more of a priority at this time than our efforts to help put those searching for jobs in Forsyth County back to work,” Dwiggins says.
So how are librarians taking it? “I can say that the Framingham library where I worked, it’s a mix,” Wasmuth says. “I think the reference staff feels that it’s extremely rewarding and exciting, but at the same time, it’s extremely time-consuming.”
But for Wasmuth, libraries are the best places to go for someone who is looking for a job. The combination of free computer access (according to the 2007–2008 “Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study,” nearly 73% of libraries are the only places in the community where someone can go for free internet access) and the wealth of print resources make it all the more important for the libraries to continue to offer this service.
The costs in terms of time and money are not negligible, but they are not prohibitive either. Wasmuth says that getting six programs up and running in Brookline has cost more than $700, and the next time those programs run, the costs won’t be as high.
According to Dwiggins, Survive and Thrive takes up about 8–10 hours a week divided among six librarians on the Forsyth County staff, but because the program was approved on the condition that no funds would be allocated for its support, the library has managed to run Survive and Thrive without spending any money at all.
“We basically made appeals to those in the community we targeted as speakers, and they agreed to conduct programs for free,” Dwiggins says.
What the Future Holds
In the Sept. 4 issue of Newsweek, columnist Robert J. Samuelson posed a question about jobs that most of us probably don’t want to consider: What if they don’t come back? But assuming they do, will librarians be fulfilling this role forever?
“I’m sure [demand] will wane because there will be fewer job seekers, but it’s always been here,” Wasmuth says. “I think many libraries are now publicizing those services, and so many people have taken advantage of them that it’s something that the public is more aware of.”
Dwiggins says the publicity generated by job seekers means that “libraries are once again on the radar screens of Americans.” But as far as the foreseeable future is concerned, public librarians will have to continue to work hard to help get America back to work.