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Every state in the country has libraries that provide at least some form of career assistance to patrons, according to a 2019 Rutgers University report. kali9/Getty Images

How public libraries help people find jobs

Janet Nguyen Apr 27, 2023
Every state in the country has libraries that provide at least some form of career assistance to patrons, according to a 2019 Rutgers University report. kali9/Getty Images

After graduating from college in 2017, Timothy Bulger needed a quiet space for a few hours so he could concentrate on his job hunt. He would head to the Polito Branch Library in Fresno, California, hunker down, and look for job listings online while his wife took care of his 1-year-old daughter at home. 

One day, a librarian who recognized him from his previous visits asked if she could help with anything. 

He didn’t think so, but then offhandedly joked: “Unless you know anything about job hunting.” 

“Oh, actually I do,” the librarian said. 

That’s when she showed Bulger job search sites and how to use key terms to find roles related to applied behavioral analysis, a therapy used to manage symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and other conditions. A few job applications and callbacks later, he landed a job in the field he was interested in. 

At the time, he went to the library every now and then to pick up books for his daughter or grab a movie. He didn’t know librarians offered job guidance.

“Their jobs encompass a lot more than I realized,” Bulger said. 

The role he was hired for not only helped his family build their savings, but helped him parent his daughter, who was diagnosed with autism. 

The cost: Free

Public libraries across the country do more than lend books. They’re a community lifeline, providing dozens of social services to the public, including disaster assistance, telehealth access, tutoring and job guidance.

Every state in the country has libraries that provide at least some form of career assistance to patrons, according to the 2019 Rutgers University report, “Public Libraries: A Community’s Connection for Career Services.”

Researchers at the school’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development surveyed state libraries and interviewed local library staff to find out the types of career services they provide and the demand for them, among other questions. The report found that 88% of survey respondents from state libraries say there is a medium to high demand for career services.

“One of the main strengths that libraries have is they are trusted community partners. Residents know them,” said Stephanie Walsh, one of the co-authors of the report and a research project manager at the Heldrich Center. 

Career services at libraries across the country vary, but they range from help with job applications, job searches and resume development to workforce-development services, such as educational courses, literacy programs and small business development. 

Many also host job fairs, and some libraries have established dedicated career centers by partnering with business and workforce development agencies.

Best of all, it’s free. 

In Virginia, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library offers job services like live online career coaches, workforce reentry services focusing on veterans, and access to LinkedIn Learning and UniversalClass, which are educational services that would otherwise require fees.  

“This saves people hundreds of dollars yearly and makes continuing education accessible to people who cannot afford it,” said Martha Hutzel, director of CRRL.

People tell Hutzel how these services have improved their careers. About a year ago, someone in her Rotary Club said his son was able to get a promotion and raise to match, thanks to certification he earned in an online course through the public library. 

Public libraries have also been a vital resource during times of economic crisis. During the  pandemic, when the unemployment rate skyrocketed, libraries offered outdoor Wi-Fi and job guidance via phone and internet. One public library system in Pennsylvania even launched a mobile job lab, setting up at community centers to help people navigate the job market. 

The 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, legislation aimed at helping Americans secure jobs, recognized the role public libraries play in workforce development and gave them “access to federal funding for job training and search programs.”

Censorship threats and underfunding 

Despite the wide array of resources they offer their communities, many libraries are struggling with chronic underfunding or defunding threats related to book-banning efforts. Librarians themselves are dealing with violent threats, while lawmakers in states such as Montana, Arkansas, and Indiana have been pushing for legislation that would criminalize librarians who distribute what legislators are calling obscene material.  

In Western Michigan, residents of Jamestown Township voted twice last year against renewing a property tax that provided a majority of funding for Patmos Library, the only public library in the area, because they objected to its books with LGBTQ+ themes. 

Over in Llano County, Texas, commissioners discussed in April whether to shut down their public library system after a federal court ordered them to restore banned books featuring LGBTQ+ and race-related subjects. Officials, however, ultimately decided not to close the libraries. 

In late March, Missouri’s House of Representatives voted to eliminate the state’s public library funding, although the state Senate later said it would reinstate that funding in the budget. House lawmakers made the decision after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association to overturn a 2022 state law that banned sexually explicit content in school libraries.

Otter Bowman, president of the MLA, said people have different reasons for going to the library, and some politicians might not realize the role it plays in workforce development.  

“We’re such a community hub in so many ways. And I think that taking away the ability that we have to serve our communities is really frightening,” said Bowman, who’s also a library associate at the Daniel Boone Regional Library system. 

Some libraries in other states that aren’t facing censorship threats are still feeling budget constraints, like the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Virginia. 

Hutzel said her library system has been underfunded for the past four years for several reasons, including inflation and the need to fund other public services in the area. Hutzel added that her staff needs cost-of-living adjustments to keep up with inflation.

“My biggest concern is keeping staff who [have been] willing to stay for the low salaries that we’re paying in many of our positions,” Hutzel said. “We have great leadership here, we have great managers, we have great department heads and other staff who are just so dedicated to the library. They love the library, but they also have bills to pay.”

Hutzel said if the library branches’ hours were reduced, they wouldn’t be able to offer all of the services that they do. 

“There’s only so much one can do with the budget you have,” she said. 

Some New York City public libraries faced the possibility of closing on weekends in the most recent round of planned budget cuts from Mayor Eric Adams. Adams announced Wednesday that he would no longer make those cuts, but libraries say they’re still facing budget cuts that were previously announced. 

“The most valuable card in your wallet”

Six years and another child later, Timothy Bulger has gone back to his public library for job help as he’s advanced in his career. He also regularly goes there with his family for events like story time, lunches or STEM programming. 

The library helped his family reach greater financial stability.

“I have no idea how we would have been able to survive on the kind of money that I was making before,” Bulger said. 

Hutzel said libraries can help you develop lifelong skills, even if you don’t apply them right away.

“Anyone who improves their life through education and learning and training and certification is just better off to begin with. They might not immediately get a new job, but maybe six months down the road, they get a big promotion at work,” Hutzel said.

And to do all that, Hutzel recommends getting a library card.

“We like to say it’s the most valuable card in your wallet.”

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