So you’re going to library school…

24 Comments

I meet a lot of prospective and matriculating library school students, and though this may sound harsh, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether they’ll be successful in the post-schooling job market or not. A lot of it boils down to whether they’re in it for the right reasons. Don’t get me wrong: A lot of people go into librarianship without a super clear idea of what they want to do, myself included. I think the profession tends to be veiled in a bit of mystery to those outside of it, and you often won’t even know what your options truly are, or what you’re going to love, until after you’ve begun your first class. But there’s an overall motivation and passion that a good librarian has, for information, for learning, and yes, for technology. I do meet people who tell me they want to become a librarian because they love books, and my friends, I know you’ve heard it before, but that is the wrong answer.

Right now this profession needs people who are eager to experiment, and who are willing to make mistakes. We need people who can think flexibly. We need people who aren’t satisfied doing things the way they’ve always been done, who aren’t looking for a job where they can learn a skill and then perform it ad nauseam until retirement. Things are moving fast, and you have to be willing to move faster. You have to be willing to strive for perfection while going forward and implementing good enough.

All of this sounds, well, kind of preachy, I admit. But I think one of the biggest problems facing our profession right now is that we’re still doing things the same way we’ve always done them. Attempts to modernize are met with naysaying and fear, and making the absolutely crucial updates we have to make to our systems, our metadata, and our practices takes so long that by the time we agree on something new it’s already obsolete. If you want to become a librarian in order to sit at a reference desk and answer questions about databases and reference books, I think you need to think again. Not that you should change your mind about being a librarian, but that you should ask yourself whether you’ll still be interested if your reference desk disappears, if you’re answering all of your students’ questions online, if your reference collection doesn’t exist anymore. You want to catalog books? Ok. But do you still want to do it if all the books are online? If you’re not really making acquisition choices because you’ve shifted to a patron-driven model? If you’re really just processing large files of data and working with IP tables and authentication software? If your cataloging model becomes a process of searching the web for already existing data and linking it together in a new form of database?

I’m not saying all of these things will come to pass, but I am saying you have to be willing to try them if it makes sense for your patrons, your budget, and the wider global world of interconnected resources.

If you still want to be a librarian after thinking about the fact that it probably won’t look a darn thing like it does now in about 10 years, what should you do to prepare yourself for the job market? I think there are a few really important things that a lot of people neglect:

First, take technology classes. Even if you don’t want to be a techie librarian, you have to know how the underlying architecture of the web, electronic resources, and library metadata works. The database management class I took was probably the most important class I took in school. Please learn some basic HTML, and understand what APIs, the semantic web, and relational and graph databases are. If you can’t fit classes into your schedule, sign up for some workshops wherever you can find them, or just find a few books and teach yourself the basics. If you don’t like technology, and aren’t interested in the web, you are really in the wrong profession.

Second, get involved. If you’re lucky enough to be studying on a campus, there are almost certainly student groups you can get involved with. You don’t have to be the chair of every club, but volunteer to staff an event every now and then, or at the very least attend meetings and get to know your fellow students. Some day, they might be hiring you. And getting involved like this shows potential hiring managers that you won’t shy away from committee work, which is often kind of crucial on the job. If you’re in a distance program, try to volunteer at your local library. Be creative! That mental flexibility will come in handy on the job.

Lastly, try to work in a library while you’re still in school. If you can’t find a paid position, you can almost always volunteer. Often, the library on a campus where there is a library science program is pretty great about hiring those students, even for a few hours a week. Not only does it look good on a resume, but you’ll probably learn far more on the job than you will in the classroom. If you already have a full-time job and are attending school on the side, that volunteer work becomes even more important. If you’re about to say you don’t have time, all I have to say to that is that you’re a student. Did you think you wouldn’t be busy? :-)

From my experience on hiring committees and on the job hunt, myself, I think what matters most is that you show enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion for librarianship, and not just for the traditional, expected aspects of the profession. Spend the time to learn things on your own, outside of the classroom, about the way the field is developing and about some of the new things coming on the scene. Often, you won’t learn that stuff in school, but you’ll be helped enormously by knowing about it, both on the job search, and as you define your own way forward into the profession.

I hope I don’t sound mean and dictatorial. I could be wrong about these things, and if you think I am, tell me! If you think I’m not so wrong, do you have any other suggestions for newbie librarians? In my opinion, we’re all in this together. The more we help and support each other to make our profession continue to be awesome, the better off we all are.

24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Merrilee
    Sep 29, 2011 @ 16:07:39

    Very smart. Should be included with every admission packet to grad school, and applicants should have to fill out a click through “I read this and I understand the risks and I am still very psyched.”

  2. mace
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 02:18:37

    Ah very good, i agree to all of this. I sure hope, that when people like this are entering our profession, we (=our organizations, our library communities) will be ready to accept them.

    I’m forwarding this post to a few places.

  3. Laura Krier
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 10:39:01

    Thanks so much for your comments! I was worried that people would be offended. And Mace, I understand the concern about whether our organizations will be willing to hire these kinds of people, but in the only two years I’ve been out of library school, I’ve already seen some big changes. So that’s good, right?

  4. Debra
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 18:20:15

    Thanks for this realistic portrait. I’m also a recent graduate who took most of my courses online. Yes, I love books — and yes, I do admit it — but I also love working with data — analyzing it, uploading it, etc., teaching, the internet and keeping up with the profession. I also have a lot of energy, even though, or especially because, I’m nearly 50 and on my 2nd career.

    Library school is a big investment and people should know what they are getting into. If they still have the passion for it and can’t imagine doing anything else, well, they should be welcomed into the field. However, they need to know that it may be a bumpy ride in regards to employment and they may need to move to find a job.

    For the record, I am a school librarian.

  5. Jenny Scott
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 18:37:00

    Hi Laura,
    Only two years out of library school! What change you will see.
    Librarian / Archivist is my third career and will probably be my last although I am writing a history at the moment so maybe author will be my last.
    All that said, as. 58 year old I agree, this world and particularly the world of information management is changing at a huge rate – so exciting to be a small part of it.
    I maybe one of the older ones but it fell to me to establish our Library’s FB, Twitter and Flickr accounts. How well I remember the much younger librarian saying ‘Why?’
    Yes I wish I had much better IT skills but I am a ‘fiddler’ happy to fiddle things until they work for me.
    Best of luck with your exciting career in libraries wherever it may lead you – it can be exciting
    Jenny
    Content Services Librarian
    South Australia

  6. Joan E. Beaudoin
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 12:43:30

    Great points, Laura! As someone who teaches soon-to-be-degree-holding-MLSers I have a slightly different perspective on the issue and so would like to add a few suggestions of my own. First, remember that ours is a small profession and so the connections you can make while you are in school are tremendously important. Show people that you are committed to the profession and that you are motivated to work hard. A student who helps classmates, shows an interested in the content they are exposed to, and turns in work showing forethought and effort all make the process of providing a reference a positive one. I see students who float through their studies without becoming engaged in the profession and, or show little interest in their coursework. These are the students who then wonder why they are not hired directly after graduation. Volunteering, internships, working within a library, working on professional projects (publishing articles or bibliographies, creating a blog concerning a topic of choice, developing info literacy presentations, performing research, etc.) all build your credibility and show that you are serious about supporting users and the profession. Many students that I have had in my courses who have shown themselves to be engaged and committed students have taken positions before they have even finished their degrees. When those reference phone calls have taken place, I have sung their praises. And I was telling the truth. In a time when support for libraries is waning these are the kind of people libraries and the library profession needs.

  7. Micah Vandegrift
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 13:34:47

    Laura,

    Thanks for writing this. I think we need more folks willing to say what you have here, that the profession is CHANGED, and the old ways of doing things must adapt. I think the focus on technology cannot be overstated. I will say this though, as Mace alluded to, it will take forward-thinking administrators to hire librarians with new and widely different skill sets. Its comforting to know that folks like you are sitting on search committees.

    Take care,

    Micah Vandegrift

  8. Christine Edison
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 16:42:37

    Thanks for posting this. I graduated from library school last year and found working in a library very helpful, as was doing information interviews with librarians to understand what I was getting into. It’s great being in a job where learning and growing is not just encouraged but essential.

    We probably answer more questions about technology than about books at the reference desk. Besides your great suggestions, I recommend tinkering with new devices as much as possible and understanding how patrons might use them. This year our library had a “technology petting zoo” for Staff Institute Day, and everyone on staff who had worked with Kindles, iPads, iPods, Nooks and other gadgets gave presentations and then demonstrations to other staff. Besides our regular computer classes, we’ve also developed a class and brochure to help people download library books on their eReaders and have been updating our knowledge this week to handle questions about using Kindles with library books.

  9. laura k
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 16:48:18

    Thanks again to everyone who’s commented here. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too, in light of the recent kerfuffle at USD. It’s not just newly minted librarians who have to think about what they’re doing on the field, but those who’ve been at it a long time, too. Of course it’s sad that people lost their jobs, but if you’ve been paying attention to your profession at all, you should have realized that things are changing, and if you want to stay relevant, you have to change to. I think this is also, of course, pertinent to those in non-library fields, too. Our world is changing pretty fast, and no matter your profession, you have to work hard to stay on top of things. And it’s unfortunate, but it’s also kind of exciting.

  10. Tess
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 01:40:08

    I’d like to add:

    1. Create opportunities for yourself by coming up with a great idea (like a solution for libraries, be it an app or a research project).
    2. Publish something–even if you’re not going the thesis route. (Not a blog. Everyone can blog. Something in a real-live academic journal). It intimidates the heck out of fearful people and interests forward thinking people.
    3. Make friends with all your library school colleagues–don’t just get to know them.
    4. Create your own job–somewhere/anywhere–by getting to know people and by sharing your knowledge, expertise (like how you said) and remember that even though a position may not exist, you can always be that one person an organization will create that job for you. It’s how you sell yourself.
    5. Don’t be afraid of a little entrepreneurship (you may be that next start-up by accident even though you wanted to work “at a library.” Librarians shouldn’t just roam libraries, you know).
    6. Learn how to fundraise/make money/get grants. Public libraries, non-profits will eat you up like pancakes with maple syrup.
    7. If you are going the public library route: have some solid management skills under your belt. Public libraries are changing in the sense that departments may merge in small towns as local budgets grow weak. Think: Library + Rec and Parks.
    8. Write down the skills you have–in a work setting or not–and see just how transferable your skills are as an information professional. Alternatively, write down what skills you’d like to acquire–and the steps to take them.
    9. Write down your passions. What sorts of things are you attracted to in the world of LIS? Journal about your school experience. Reflect on the types of classes that were exciting: did you like reference/user services classes or did you like cataloging?
    10. Always, always, always, help out a colleague–just for the sake of doing it. You’ll do it naturally for a patron or client. Why does it have to be so dog-eat-dog-you-or-me sometimes? If you come across a job posting you think would fit for someone else (and not so much you) share it with them–don’t hoard information. It validates and helps others.

    Thanks for posting this. I feel as if I should re-post this comment in my blog and link to your post.

    –Tess

  11. Laura Krier
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 10:53:59

    I love the idea of technology petting zoos. In a similar “use the technology” vein, I used to say that all librarians should have an use smartphones, because not only are our patrons accessing information with mobile devices, but it’s like having a reference library in your pocket. You can have all the information. Of course, I got a lot of flack from people about that, usually along the lines of “if we were paid better, we’d have smartphones,” so I backed off a bit from that. (Although, you know, I have one. They’re not always THAT expensive). It’s true that library professionals can’t always afford to experiment with all the coolest new devices, so it’s nice when a library can provide that opportunity as staff development. :-)

  12. Stephanie Bents
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 13:10:13

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with you, because I don’t think people in library school are the main purveyors of the mindset that “I’m in this profession because I like books.” Library schools are forward-thinking, moving the profession and our purpose in society along. Those who haven’t been in school for a while have less access to new, fresh thinking and ideas. ALA isn’t helping solve this issue as they do nothing for those who need continuing education or want to make a career change within the profession.

  13. Annie
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 17:22:19

    These are all great tips. Some library school are forward thinking and others are going to take some time to change. If you happen to be a student at one of the institutions that’s slow to change, you can definitely do some independent study to supplement your learning.

    Tess has some really great additional points too. I was talking to a recent grad from my program about how to get published as a student. I’m lucky that at my program there are several professors who are willing to work with students on research projects and publish articles with them. For a student, that’s a great opportunity to publish because you can also work with someone who knows what they’re doing.

  14. Sonia Wade Lorenz
    Oct 07, 2011 @ 00:06:07

    I certainly hope your right.. I’m trying to do everything you are suggesting… I just started the job hunt (i will graduate in May of 2012). The job market is just a bit daunting right now.

  15. Joe
    Oct 07, 2011 @ 00:06:38

    You’re right. If you became a librarian because you just love books, or you love research, well, wrong answer.

    The right answer? If you’re a public librarian like many of us, it’s about building community. If you don’t like the sound of developing a collection, reaching out to community organizations, creating in-house programming, and steeping yourself in emerging technologies then you probably made a bad decision with those 2 years of your life.

    We have completely changed the face of our profession, and in doing so, we stay relevant and exciting the more we connect our communities together. Again, this is most important in the public library setting, and the mission of other types of libraries will vary.

    And always remember that the library, no matter the type, is much more than four walls and a ceiling. In the 21st century it’s global, but always think of your community’s needs and how reaching out satisfies the bigger picture.

  16. Cristina
    Oct 07, 2011 @ 18:32:20

    Thank you for this! I’m just starting my first term as an MLIS student and reading this post completely reaffirmed that I’m in this for the right reasons!

  17. tahoelibrarian
    Oct 09, 2011 @ 18:36:28

    Thanks for the tips, Laura. You are right on the money. If you’re not excited about the direction of libraries today you won’t enjoy working in libraries the next ten years. There are always used book stores…

  18. Jessica
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 09:22:34

    Spot on!

  19. Johanna
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 07:35:12

    Lol, I just hope while you’re good at working with people. All the above mentioned like technology, etc. That’s nothing compared to working with people. If you aren’t a people person then don’t bother.

  20. Laura Krier
    Jul 09, 2012 @ 12:04:33

    I think “people skills” are needed in any profession, not just librarianship. You have to work with a team, even if you’re behind the scenes working in tech services and never interact with patrons. And even if you don’t work directly with the public, you have to have the ability to learn and understand what they need from the tech you’re going to implement.

    But I think public services librarians tend to think they don’t need to understand tech, because there are other people for that. They just have to be good with people. And I think that’s just not true.

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