Google "what I didn't learn in library school" or "what library school didn't teach me" and you will find a number of abstracts and conference proposals. A quick scan of the first page of the results included an article from a teen services librarian, an academic librarian and a blog dedicated entirely to the topic. Since these articles are not a new occurrence, nor are they confined to one field of librarianship, I began to wonder what the problem was and why does it not seem to have been definitively addressed?
While trying to find the answers to these questions, I talked to a number of people about their thoughts and experiences. Below I have summarized some common themes that I and others have identified.
First some background. Many jobs are available to those who hold a master's degree in library and information science or library science or within the field of information studies in general. There are a number of individuals with this master's degree yet they do not have a job as a librarian. They work as a researcher at a bank or for a vendor selling databases. With a degree that opens doors to so many different career paths it can be challenging to create a curriculum that provides comprehensive and specialized training in all of these fields. For example, the daily tasks of a rare books librarian focusing on cataloguing medieval manuscripts and those of a children's librarian at a small town public library are going to be dramatically different.
So, how does a degree prepare individuals for a job, when all the jobs are so different? The majority of library and information programs include required courses that are intended to create a foundation for the library degree and general preparation for the profession. In my experience, these courses were heavy in theory and light on practical skills and knowledge, which can be frustrating for students who are often looking for a more practical education. Theory can be very important for understanding the history and future of librarianship. However, when many are coming into the program expecting a more practical education they are disappointed when the program offers only one or two practical courses. Required courses should focus on building more general information professional skills that are transferable regardless of setting.
Recent graduates have also cited an issue with consistency of teaching in the required courses. Different lecturers approach the material from their own perspectives, and in many cases the syllabus of the course changes to match the lecturer's interests. Students who take the same course, but in different years, enter the workplace with unequal training and some blind spots emerge that should have been covered in the required courses. Consistency, especially in required courses, would help achieve the foundational understanding of the profession that an American Library Association (ALA) accreditation is intended to give.
So what are you supposed to do if you feel your program isn't supporting you, yet you want to work in a library?
While talking to others who are new to our field they identified that most of what they learned came from student jobs, co-op placements, practicum positions and on the job training in their current workplaces.
The key to making self-study professional development beneficial is identifying what skills you feel you are lacking and then determining how to get them elsewhere. For example, my job title is research librarian, but since we are a very small library, we all share cataloguing duties. Before interviewing for this job I did a lot of research on cataloguing, and was able to get some hands-on experience at my student job since I knew that this was a skill that I needed. Letting your work or volunteer placement know you are interested in learning certain skills is an excellent start because they may easily be able to help you gain those skills.
It is also important to spend time learning about the library field. Many associations publish journals and newsletters that can help you stay up to date, for example the American Association of Law Libraries publishes the Law Library Journal that is available for free for non-members. Joining associations and attending events where you can talk to other information professionals is an interesting and enjoyable way to stay current. I would also recommend setting up informational interviews with people working in a job that you are interested in so that you can better understand their daily work routine and identify where your gaps exist.
There are a number of avenues to try to gain these skills. For example, if you know your reference skills are not up to par you can try to find a part-time student job or volunteer position where you are able to get hands-on experience conducting reference interviews. If you want to work in an academic library and think training might be key, you can gain practice through a volunteer position. The point here is that library-specific training courses are not the only way to help build your skillset.
Until library and information schools focus on teaching consistent, uniform and fundamental library skills that can be transferred between special, academic, public and beyond, it will be up to students to identify and work on gaining skills outside the confines of the classroom. From my experience, I can say that while there were a few extremely practical courses that I use daily in my job now, perhaps more important were the doors that library school opened for me through volunteer work, part-time jobs and practicum placements. A combination of both approaches is thus critical in building one's career in this field.
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