I get a lot of readers curious about Kazakhstan, and about working as a librarian abroad. In this post, I’ll share how I got abroad, moved up, and then transitioned back to my home country, the United States. This is one story, so be sure to check out the articles linked below, as well.
Step 1. Need a job. Badly.
When I graduated with honors after college, I applied for writing jobs and ended up… as a photo processing clerk. I now know which chemicals can burn your lungs, just how angry people get about scratched photos, and how to fix the pics with Photoshop.
Lesson learned. When graduating with a master’s in anthropology, I was focused on finding a real job. I contacted professors’ former colleagues to find a job in a war zone, applied to any research, writing, library, or social science job worldwide, continually refined my portfolio, and took on unpaid internships, which I normally don’t recommend.
Because I had studied abroad and met folks at conferences and special training programs, I had a pool of friends and colleagues to draw from.
True story: I got my first librarian job abroad through a Facebook friend. At the SEA anthropology conference, I’d met an international student from Kazakhstan who was also presenting a poster on Kazakhstan. We stayed in touch, and when her library was hiring, she recommended me as someone with library and regional experience. After a few transcontinental Skype interviews, I got the job.
3. Start at the bottom
…but it wasn’t the best paid job in the world. I moved from making $10,000 a year as a grad student to… making $10,000 a year as a professional librarian.
We all start somewhere, right? And in the long run, getting in-country opened other doors for work experience and getting my MLIS.
On this point especially, I see privilege talking. I come from the middle class, had no family to support, had multiple degrees and travel experience, and very low student debt. White privilege, American privilege, and class privilege all made investing in my education and career easier, even if the payoff was delayed by years. If I hadn’t had that buffer and my lovely family and friends, it would have been much harder.
4. Take opportunities
My second library job abroad was at an international school, and I got that through… being on TV.
I was working the reference desk at the university one night, when a man came in and said his wife’s boss had seen me on TV and wanted to talk. (Yes, speaking the local language in a growing capital city got me numerous TV interviews).
When we met up, the Boss asked if I would volunteer for free.
I said no, I already had a job.
Then he asked if I wanted a job. Sure! I shadowed an amazing librarian who was on his way out, and got hired in his stead. Even though the pay still wasn’t high, I was grateful to get a second professional librarian job before I’d even gotten my MLS. I know that’s an anomaly. I suspect it’s a mixture of luck, connections, regional experience, and the willingness to take risks and see where it would lead.
5. Work hard
Then… I worked hard: long evenings at the university reference desk, ordering books, writing papers, and leading instruction sessions. I worked even harder at the school, running two libraries (with wonderful assistants), teaching lessons, and attending an MLS program online at the same time. It was exhausting, but also rewarding. You can read about a day in my life as a new international school librarian here.
6. Move on
Finally, there came a time to move on. That was hard, because I loved my workplace, my colleagues and students, and the frozen palace which is the city of Astana. Yet even with job offers from another school, after three years I was burning out on the stress and isolation of life alone in a developing city. I couldn’t move up further in my career without returning home, and I needed to reconnect for some R&R.
This is all normal, too. Ersatz Expat recommended The Emotionally Resilient Expat, a good book that taught me to take care of myself through all the stresses of change and growth across cultures. These three years abroad as a librarian were good ones, and I’d gladly go out again.
And even though I was afraid to go home (would there be a job for me?), I found great work with my new MLS and international experience, first as a data librarian and then as an anthropology librarian.
7. Share What You’ve Learned
This is my experience, and it’s rather unique! I’m sharing it in the hopes that it shows just how unusual the path abroad can be.
But there are many other stories. Lara Phillips and Kate Holvoet are collecting some for a book about international librarians. And here are a few related posts on the subject:
- Rebecca Slaven on How I got my overseas job
- Rebecca Slaven on How to work in a library in a developing country
- Celia Emmelhainz on 5 Things to know when taking a librarian job abroad
- Celia Emmelhainz on Teaching ELL students in international school libraries
- Raymond Pun on Working abroad as a librarian
- Heidi Dowding on LIS Abroad: Tips from a Global Librarian
If you have posts or experiences to add, you’re welcome to leave them in the comments!