September 2022 | Volume XL, Issue 3 »

Libraries Adapt, Reach Out, and Join Forces to Help Job Seekers Navigate the “New Normal”

September 1, 2022
John Amundsen, Wilmette Public Library

Illinois’ libraries have long supported job seekers in their communities, from one-on-one job counseling to in-person events featuring presentations on interviewing techniques and resume building to networking. When the pandemic upended life as it was known in 2020, such programming—like all other aspects of library service—had to pivot to meet the demands of a new uncertain era. Often in doing so, libraries found strength in numbers and explored opportunities to expand collaboration.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in Illinois skyrocketed to 17.4% by April 2020, seeing over 1.1 million Illinoisans forced out of work. Unprecedented pressure was placed on the state’s unemployment system as Washington initiated emergency measures including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the C.A.R.E.S. Act. Meanwhile, public libraries across the state, along with most other public venues, were closed to the public since the issuance of Executive Order 10, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on March 20, 2020. The need for career support was growing by the day.

Mike Buhmann, career librarian at Skokie Public Library, led the “Navigating Your Job Search” series until his retirement at the end of 2021. The series started before Covid as an outgrowth of Skokie’s career services, where volunteer counselors with backgrounds in human resources and academia would meet one-on-one with job seekers in the library. Buhmann would meet periodically with the counselors to evaluate progress of these individual sessions and decided to work together to develop a comprehensive program for people looking for jobs and career advice. This started as a half-day event with networking breaks featuring different aspects of job searching, encompassing resumes, cover letters, and interviewing skills. Skokie opened the series to libraries in surrounding communities to boost attendance, eventually expanding it to Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Niles-Maine Township, Lincolnwood, and Wilmette. “We decided to offer it to other libraries to boost attendance and get a bigger turnout, said Buhmann. "Who cares where (the job seekers) are coming from?”

When the first Covid-era lockdowns began, Skokie and its partner libraries discussed ways to go forward with the “Navigating Your Job Search” series and bring it online, deciding to break up what was a four-hour, in-person series held on one day into four one-hour virtual sessions on Zoom held over the course of four weeks. Special content was added to the program in order to adapt to the Covid-era job market, including virtual interviewing tips and finding stay-at-home jobs. The relaunch also added a renewed emphasis on life-work balance, and career path choices as opposed to concentrating solely on tips and tools. “So many people were laid off,” said Buhmann. “We were trying to give assistance and help them navigate unemployment however we could.”

The virtual re-launch of the “Navigating” series saw strong initial attendance, with up to 50 people per session, and the group decided to further expand the programming by broadcasting the presentations on Facebook Live and uploading recordings to YouTube. The virtual “Navigating” series would ultimately be repeated several times from 2020 through November 2021.

CareerCollab offers another cooperative approach allowing libraries to expand their career offerings via a website,, where they can promote each other’s events, resources, and program recordings to job seekers in Cook and Lake counties. CareerCollab originally was started by the Northbrook Public Library and the Vernon Area Public Library District as a way to reach a wider range of patrons when most programs went virtual in early 2020.  Rather than each library offering similar programs only to their patrons, we realized we could offer a broader range of programs and alternate hosting,” said Northbrook Public Library Business Librarian Bryan Brugger. “Working together to increase our offerings of virtual programs made too much sense not to happen. There is minimal extra effort on our part to host a program, and the patrons at all participating libraries get to benefit.”

When CareerCollab began, it focused on job search basics such as resume and cover letter writing, interview preparation, and using online resources such as LinkedIn, and has now expanded to in-person and on-demand  workshops on topics including managing one’s online presence, pay equity, and working with recruiters. Visitors to the site can also send a message to a career librarian. The site also has a comprehensive list of employment resources from the State of Illinois, Cook and Lake Counties, regional non-profits, and other public service organizations. While the individual libraries in CareerCollab provide their patrons with job seeking assistance and online resources offering live resume review, the group focuses on dividing the burden of generating job search programming. “Initially (CareerCollab) was focused among libraries serving similar demographics,” said Brugger. “But (it) has expanded to a broader range of libraries, allowing people to choose to attend the events most relevant to their specific situation.” CareerCollab has now expanded to include five libraries in Chicago’s north suburbs, adding Indian Trails, Glenview, and Skokie to Northbrook and Vernon Area.

In central Illinois, “Get That Job!” at the Champaign Public Library connects job seekers in the central Illinois city of 89,000 with the wide array of employers in the surrounding area, encompassing higher education, technology, finance, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and government. “Get That Job!” started before the pandemic, providing job seekers with one-on-one, customized consultation sessions, as well as in-person workshops, free professional headshots, and referrals to technology classes to sharpen computer skills. “Yes, we’ve definitely had to pivot,” observed Jordan Neal,  Career Librarian at Champaign Public Library. “But it allowed for great opportunities such as virtual programming and partnering with presenters outside of our local area. As Career Librarian, I started meeting with community members virtually in March 2020. We transitioned our in-person workshops to webinars in the summer of 2020.”

The pause in in-person activities and transition to virtual programming didn’t diminish participation earlier in the pandemic, Neal noted, even gaining new participants, though virtual participation has begun to diminish as in-person events are reintroduced. 

“We just started presenting in-person events recently, so we are still learning what that looks like as pandemic restrictions are lifted,” said Neal. “We are focusing on the return of our in-person programs. A lot of the magic happens during the Book-a-Librarian appointments where I can really focus on the needs of the individual.”

To build on the success of “Get That Job!,” the Champaign Public Library is partnering with a growing list of area organizations, including the Champaign County Regional Planning Committee, local career coaches, the City of Champaign, as well as the two major institutions of higher learning, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Parkland Community College. Neal has recently launched a series called “Ask an Employer,” where representatives from employers in the area share their insights and feedback with job seekers. “Maintaining some  connections was challenging as many agencies had to, understandably, dedicate their focus elsewhere,” said Neal. “I made connections prior to the pandemic—especially as I had networked and prepared for the Community Job Fair—and that has helped with program planning over time.”


As most pandemic-era restrictions come to an end, many libraries are beginning to transition back to in-library programming in general, and while career librarians are excited to connect with job seekers on-site, virtual joint programs and services have presented a new and effective way to connect them to ideas and presenters, often on their schedule and in concert with other libraries and organizations.

CareerCollab is expanding its offerings and is now listing in-person, live sessions open to the public, but will also continue hosting online programs. “Virtual programs for the patrons… is likely something that will continue,” observed Northbrook’s Bryan Brugger. “Many meetings will remain virtual for the sake of convenience.” While the future of the "Navigating” series has yet to be determined, many of the participating libraries are also working with initiatives such as CareerCollab.

Champaign is hoping to expand its career programming with other libraries, including the local community college that serves over 11,000 students. “We are constantly assessing, especially after we see the results of in-person events snd programs,” said Neal. “We will most likely continue to present some virtual programs. We have curated great playlists through our library’s YouTube channel and see the benefit of maintaining and adding to that content stream.”

Ultimately, the pandemic has forced many Illinois libraries to rethink and adapt their services, and not just on a temporary basis. Collaboration and virtual programming were brought to the fore during lockdown and provide a powerful example of the potential of both to extend libraries’ reach and provide vital career assistance to Illinoisans.

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