For the latest in my series of alumni career profiles, I talked with Katie O’Brian, who graduated from U of I in 2011 with a double major in English and Creative Writing and a minor in Spanish. Katie currently works as a children’s librarian at a public library in Colorado. Here’s what she had to say about life after graduation:
VO: What did you do after you graduated from U of I?
Katie: When I graduated, I was pretty sure I wanted to go into libraries. I had been volunteering at the Champaign Public Library and really liked it, so I decided to take some time off to try working in a library. You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian, so I wanted to be sure I really liked it before I committed to grad school. I took a year off from school and worked as a circulation clerk in a public library. It was a lot of fun.
VO: And after that you decided to go to grad school?
Katie: Yeah. I applied to the master’s program in Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at U of I the fall after I graduated from undergrad. So really only after 4 months of working in the library, but I had also been volunteering for maybe 6 months before that.
VO: Can you tell me a little about what you do now?
Katie: I’m a children’s librarian at a public library in Colorado. That means that I work the reference desk in the children’s department at my library. I do programs for children, including storytime and various other programs. Most recently, I organized a Star Wars Party for all ages (so basically 0-12), which was a lot of fun. We have a small staffing model, so I also do things that librarians wouldn’t necessarily do in a larger library system. For instance, I do a little bit of marketing in that I make posters for my department’s programs. I also am responsible for maintaining half the children’s collection (that’s books, CDs, movies, magazines, etc.).
VO: Wow! That sounds great. So does your day-to-day schedule tend to vary quite a bit?
Katie: Very much so. It’s never a dull moment. I’d actually say the only guarantee is chaos, especially working with young children. Chaos in the best sense.
VO: What is your favorite part of your job?
Katie: Programming. It can be a lot of work to plan a program, but the kids always have a lot of fun, parents are always happy, and it makes people really excited to be at the library. Whenever people ask if I’m worried that libraries are going to go away, I think about the fact that the Star Wars Party had 90 people in attendance. A Frozen Party we threw had 150 people. We regularly have numbers in the 70s at our Toddler Storytimes.
VO: When you started GSLIS, did you know that you wanted to work as a children’s librarian, or is that something you realized along the way?
Katie: A bit of both. I really like kids, and I like working with them, so I had an inkling from the start that I wanted to work as a children’s librarian. However, because I had been volunteering in both children’s and adult services, I knew that working in a children’s department requires more of a performance aspect, in that you’re acting like a goofball in front of crowds a lot of the time.
While I was working as a circulation clerk, my friend, who is a children’s librarian, recommended that I do a storytime internship at the Oak Park Public Library. They have seasonal internships for library science students who want to build their storytime experience. I did that internship the summer before starting GSLIS, and I fell in love. I knew pretty much from day one that not only was I cut out for the demands of the job, but I loved it.
VO: In my work related to career planning for English majors this semester, I’ve heard a number of people mention how critical a particular internship was for determining their career path. It seems like applied experience is really important to help make those kinds of decisions.
Katie: Absolutely. I worked as a graduate assistant in the children’s department at the Urbana Free Library while I was in grad school, too. What I learned in my classes was great, but it was also really important to have a place to apply what I learned.
VO: Do you also find that there are ways that your undergrad work in English and Creative has helped prepare you for your career? Are there skills from either major that you find yourself drawing on in your work?
Katie: I think I find myself using it most directly when I’m doing any kind of marketing work. In our library, because we have such a small staff, everyone does a bit of everything. So if we’re planning a program in the children’s department, my coworker (also an English major, by the way), might write up a description of the event, or I might do it. Then, I make all of our department’s posters to advertise the upcoming events. Sometimes, if we’re collaborating with an organization on an event, the organization will send us the event description they would like us to use. I often end up editing those descriptions either because they’re too long or they contain redundant information.
Grants are also big in libraries. I personally have not applied for a grant (other than in a classroom situation, to give us practice), but one day I will definitely end up applying for a grant, and my undergrad skills will be very necessary.
I think knowing how to write and how to think creatively (in using words, but also just generally) are really important skills that not everyone has. And I think part of the reason I am so able to think on my feet every single day in my job is because of the time I spent writing in college—for workshop, but also writing papers.
Also, book discussions with kids require direct use of skills I learned as an English/Creative Writing major. Similarly, we do a lot of outreach in local schools. We’ll take books to schools to “booktalk” them to elementary aged kids. So I have to come up with descriptions of the books that will make them really appeal to the kids, and I have to be able to “sell” the books in a fairly short amount of time, like a minute per book. That’s another area where my undergrad skills definitely come in handy.
VO: That’s quite a list!
Katie: I think in anything the key is doing what you can to build the skills you need. So if you know you want to work in a certain area, build the skills necessary in any way you can. When I applied to be a circulation clerk, I knew I didn’t want to do that forever, but I knew it would be experience working in a library, and that’s what I needed. And I will say, the manager who hired me for that job was most interested in the fact that I had worked at Subway. It was customer service experience, and library jobs are inherently service oriented. That was my first big lesson that every step counts.
VO: That’s a great tip! Can you offer any other advice to current UIUC English and Creative Writing majors?
Katie: If you’re an English and/or Creative Writing major, you’re presumably already doing what you love, or you’re working toward doing what you love. Keep doing that. I knew I wanted to be a librarian when I was in sixth grade, but I let people talk me out of it for a long time. They’d say that libraries were going extinct, or that I wouldn’t make enough money to live. Neither of those things are true. It took me a long time to ignore the naysaying and follow my gut, and I only wish I had learned to trust that instinct sooner. Do what you love. Trust yourself. That’s my advice.
Are you a U of I English or Creative Writing alumnus who loves your job? Would you like to share your story with current UIUC English and Creative Writing majors? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be featured in our alumni career profile series.