A Librarian Goes to Business School

Megan Hartline —  September 14, 2016 — 8 Comments
Megan wearing a suit.

Blazers mean business.

The best thing about library school, in my opinion, is that people attracted to library careers generally share a certain socialist bent. Librarians like to cooperate for the good of the community and give things away for free.

Now I’m going to business school.

I was deeply worried that any MBA program would be filled with what I thought of as Business People: people who would rather sell things than give them away, and people who are cutthroat rather than cooperative.

Still, I’d been thinking about going to B-school for a while. A second graduate degree can be a huge asset for academic library jobs, and I wanted something practical.

An MBA is certainly practical. It opens the doors to a much wider set of jobs than an MLIS – but I’m not going to business school because I want to leave libraries.

I’m starting business school because I was starting to feel a distinct lack of leadership skills that I would need to move my career to the next level, or even to be the best possible leader in my current role.

Even though I’m not job hunting, I’ve continued my habit of reading job ads to get a sense of what skills and abilities I’ll need to grow before I’m ready to move to a role with broader scope. I started to notice some themes in library leadership job postings – change management, program development, and budgeting and finance.

As we heard in Douglas Crane’s conversations with public library directors, library administration involves a surprising amount of finance management. That’s not a skill taught in library school (at least – not mine), and I’m really feeling the lack of financial literacy as I move into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

To be perfectly honest, budget spreadsheets terrify me. I have to steady my nerves before looking at hourly employee payroll projections, or before turning in a budget request for a new program.

This is something I need to get over. In a time of flat or shrinking budgets, librarians have to learn how to use money responsibly. That means (horrors) diving deep into financial management.

The skills that attracted me to business programs went far beyond financial management. A lot of the leadership sources we turn to for inspiration are from business schools, like our perennial favorite, the Harvard Business Review.

It seemed like B-school would give me a set of skills that would really help when leading a library – personnel management, strategic planning, and, yes, the dreaded financial administration.

The university I work for offers a tuition waiver as an employee benefit, so I can take MBA classes for the cost of textbooks. That cushy free tuition is key to this venture, since I’m still paying off student loans from library school (and I’m just kidding about buying those textbooks – I’m getting them through interlibrary loan, of course).

Even with that free tuition, I resisted for a while. Would business school just be immersing myself in an environment I hated? Would I be surrounding myself with a bunch of business jerks? Perhaps a degree in public administration would be more my speed, I thought.

As it happens, the university’s B-school is right across the street from my bus stop. I eyed the classes suspiciously while waiting at the bus stop. There were a lot of people wearing collared shirts and suits – a far cry from the librarian style I fondly think of as “creative casual.”

Despite the more formal wardrobe, they didn’t look like jerks. They looked like nice people laughing and learning and getting along together. I took a tentative look at the MBA programs and found to my surprise that the school offered a specialization in managing for sustainability.

That sounded fantastic. I realized that the skills I wanted were about helping libraries be more sustainable – economically sustainable, yes, but also socially sustainable and environmentally sustainable.

I signed up for an MBA orientation session, still harboring some doubts that this was the right place for me. Would the business school employees put the hard sell on me? They’re Business People, after all, I thought.

I am glad to report that I was dead wrong. Every single person I talked to at the orientation was welcoming, kind, and informative – just like the best kind of reference librarian. I talked to the director of the sustainability program for just a few minutes, and he mentioned a person on campus who could talk to me about sustainability in the context of higher education . . . and then he followed up the very next day with an email offering to introduce us.

I was convinced. So I’m taking a deep breath and starting an MBA program. I’m genuinely excited about what this new knowledge can do for my library. I mean, just look at some of these class titles in my program:

  • Accounting & Finance for Sustainability
  • Business and the Natural Environment
  • Sustainable Management Research
  • Global Climate Change
  • Information Systems Strategy

Oh gosh, Information Systems Strategy. I learned a lot about information theory in library school, but I certainly never devised a strategy.

I’m taking Leading Individuals and Teams right now. The course addresses burning questions I have at work in the library. How do you get people to cooperate on complex projects? How do you bring diverse personalities together in pursuit of a common goal?

As each of my classmates gave a short introduction in the first class session, I was relieved to hear that I wasn’t the only one new to capital B business school. Sure, there were a few business majors planning to specialize in finance or accounting – but there were also several nonprofit professionals, several veterans and civil servants, a few teachers, and even a musician. When I said that I was a librarian, I got a lot of grins and nods.

We’re now in the third week of the semester and things are going swimmingly. People are cooperative, not competitive. Our group project for the class is to do a significant project for a nonprofit organization. There are no Business People – just people who want to be better leaders.

So this librarian is going to business school. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted!

Megan Hartline


Megan Hartline (@awrybrarian on Twitter) is a librarian in Denver, Colorado. In addition to librarianship, Megan's background is in nonprofit leadership. She would love to visit your library to talk about management, workflows, or customer service.

8 responses to A Librarian Goes to Business School


    Congratulations on finding a good fit! Your reasoning reminded me of a course I took around 1983. Julie Todaro, now president of ALA, taught a management course at U of M which you would have appreciated. Your quest has put you in a good place for personal growth and career advancement. Enjoy and best of luck!


      Thanks Sally!

      Shortly after I started at the Social Work Library I went to an ALA Midwinter session from Julie Todaro. She explained the basics of how to be a library supervisor and it rocked my world. That one day workshop was truly one of the most eye-opening professional development experiences of my career – a whole semester course must have been so interesting!


    That’s so cool! Congrats, and I hope you enjoy your studies. I have a friend in library school right now who has a Masters in Public Administration. I think she will have a lot of neat opportunities when she is done with library school. She is currently a branch manager at a public library.


      Thanks Lindsay! And that combo does open up so many interesting options – it would be so helpful for librarians navigating city/government oversight!


    You’re welcome, Megan. So glad you got to benefit from Julie early in your career! Even though I didn’t use her management course in my career, I remember the assignments vividly. They were fun (like getting an unexpected windfall and justifying how to spend it!) Years later as a grant-writer for Young People’s Theatre, I benefited from her teaching me about budgets and other practical matters I would never have known otherwise.


    I’ll be interested in knowing what classes you found most useful!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. What I Read Last Week: « Cassidy B. Charles - September 26, 2016

    […] A Librarian Goes to Business School | Library Lost & Found […]

  2. Want a Better Library Job? Develop Your People Skills. « Library Lost & Found - January 9, 2017

    […] I started business school last semester, I wanted to learn skills I didn’t find in library school. Think financial […]

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