Things I Did and Did Not Learn in Library School

Within the past week, I’ve had both a personal visit and an email from people considering library school and most likely interested in the sort of work I do. Among other things, both asked whether the choice of school mattered, and my tentative answer was that for the most part it didn’t, because librarians are practical and generally more interested in skills, abilities, and results than academic pedigrees. I have colleagues from all ranks of library schools who somehow wound up at Princeton. It also seems to me that library school is a very short beginning to what is a lifetime of continuing education for successful librarians. One of the joys of the profession, for me, is the constant learning. Since I spent a year and a half in library school, and now am in the midst of my second semester teaching in one, the questions got me thinking about just what I did and did not learn while there. [Very quick update, after writing this, I read through the comments at this post at Agnostic, Maybe, which I hadn't clicked out of Google Reader to do before today. Teaching LIS now, and reading stuff like this, makes me realize how easy it is to forget about library school once you've graduated.]

The skills/attributes/traits/knowledge that I consider most valuable for my work would include:

  • Communication skills, in writing and in person
  • Presentation skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Problem solving ability
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Autodidacticism
  • Knowledge of academic subjects/ scholarly communication

None of these did I acquire in library school, but some of which I certainly could have acquired because library school offered the motive and opportunity to learn. Most of these are so-called soft skills that are very transferable. The intellectual curiosity has been a personality trait at least since early high school, and there are a whole series of fields I’ve achieved some small mastery of just because I like to learn, and I read and assimilate information quickly. Instead of being a trait I developed as a librarian, I suspect it’s a trait that led me to becoming a librarian. Academic librarianship is a field where being an enthusiastic dilettante is a positive thing. Similar intellectual traits such as critical thinking or problem solving ability were honed during years of college and graduate school. The knowledge I have about academic subjects and everything else has increased since library school, but the foundation and development were independent of library school itself.

Aside from my own intellectual passions, my most formative practical experience has been teaching writing. Hundreds of hours in the classroom developed whatever presentation skills I have. Working with students on their own writing requires critical thinking about writing, which improved my own writing significantly as well as my interpersonal skills. It’s hard to imagine how painfully shy I was when I started teaching. I don’t do much project planning as such, but I’ve planned many syllabuses, and people who have never created a syllabus might not realize how much thought and planning goes into a good one. The pressure of facing the same students every week for a semester compelled me to work hard to get better.

Considering I’m a reference librarian, it might seem that I learned reference skills in library school. Well, yes and no. The general reference course I took was dated even as I was taking it, but I didn’t know that because I hadn’t done reference yet. (I was working at a circulation desk at a public library at the time.) We spent a lot of time with DIALOG blue books learning to create queries, and the rest of the time answering factual questions with traditional print sources. I never saw DIALOG again, and in my twelve and a half years of reference work, I’ve encountered very few factual, ready reference type of questions. I don’t recall if we covered the reference interview, which in my opinion is the most important thing about reference. The most useful thing was visiting campus libraries and talking to the librarians there. It was during the meeting with the English literature librarian that I got the first inkling of what I might to do in libraries.

My reference class was a mixed bag, but library school gave me the opportunity to work at the information desk in the Main Library at Illinois, where I was trained by a master reference librarian while fielding a wide range of questions at a busy desk. That’s where I learned to be a reference librarian, and it’s the contrast between my own reference class and my experience in the library that led to my later argument that phronesis, or practical wisdom, is the chief virtue of reference work. Good training is a good foundation, but only practice makes a good reference librarian. The coordinator for the graduate assistants was not only a great reference librarian, but a great trainer. What she did for training was what my own reference teacher should have been doing, which leads me to the conclusion that done well, reference courses can be a very useful preparation to begin reference work, and that I just had a weak reference class. It also led me to think carefully about my own teaching now that I teach a course I once took. When I took it, it was taught mostly as a humanities ready reference course, but I’m teaching it as more of a humanities librarianship course.

But what did I learn in library school? As I noted above, there were things I learned before library school, but that I could have learned there. I had to write various papers, give presentations, plan projects, etc., just like everyone else. The fact that I learned a lot about writing or presenting before library school doesn’t mean that others didn’t benefit. I also learned enough about cataloging to know I didn’t want to be a cataloger. I learned enough about technical services to know I didn’t want to work in other areas there. I learned enough about government documents to know I didn’t want to handle many of them. I learned enough about library management to know that it wasn’t a short term goal. I learned enough about social science reference and research to know I didn’t want to do them. And I learned enough about library buildings to realize how badly designed most of them are.

These might sound like bad lessons, but really they were negative lessons, which isn’t the same. I entered library school without much of an idea about the wide variety of things librarians actually do. I just knew I wanted to work at an academic library doing something, possibly rare books, and I explored a lot of areas to figure out what. That’s a benefit to library school that might go unnoticed amidst complaints that library schools don’t train people with the right skills to become librarians. Nobody who hasn’t worked in a library is going to leave library school able to do traditional library work well from day one. Library school is about exploring and eliminating possibilities, not advanced training in one particular area. It gives you a short introduction to a lot of different areas, but only practice in those areas makes one good. In the meantime, I learned a lot about how libraries work, even in areas I didn’t want to work in.

This is also related to the oft heard complaint that library school is boring. Parts of library school are boring, but different people find different parts boring, so it’s hard to generalize. I found cataloging boring, and liked working with students at the reference desk. Some of my friends thought working with students tedious, but loved cataloging. This was similar to my English graduate school experience, though. I found reading Charles Dickens incredibly boring. My wife loved it, which is why the seminar we were both taking when we met evoked such different responses from us. Much of the work at the master’s level and even above in any field will be boring, because you’re still exploring to see what you like. I briefly flirted with a PhD program in LIS this year, but the thought of too many required courses in areas I wasn’t interested deterred me. Most likely, library school students are going to take some courses they end up disliking, and others they end up liking, which makes it just like any other type of schooling. The trick is not to let your schooling get in the way of your education.

The germ of my information technology education started in library school, and was the most radical change I had during that time. I went in uninterested and came out enthusiastic. I’ve had computers since 1985, but mostly used the word processor. I was never an early adopter of technology, because I was too busy reading and the technology was clunky. It was around the time I started library school that online content started to become much more robust and there were more reasons for me to go online. Google started the year I started library school, which made things easier. It was in school that I began my active learning of new information technologies, which has become ever more important. For that matter, had I gotten one of the other jobs I interviewed for in the summer of 2001, I would have ended up a digital services librarian instead of a humanities selector.

The practical training isn’t the only thing important in library school. Library school is not just about training for a job, but entering a profession, which is why so much time is spent on theoretical discussions and readings that some people want to dismiss as impractical. It’s this part of school that I didn’t think much about then, but which led over time to my current interest in the history and philosophy of libraries. I remember fellow students, especially those working in libraries, complaining about the theory, but I’ve come to believe that it’s only with a philosophical theory about why libraries exist and the purposes they serve that you can make a case for what libraries should be doing as the world around us changes.

For others, the experience might have been different, which is why I also suggest to any prospective librarians that they talk to many others. My advice, based on my relatively limited experience and the experiences I’ve learned of from reading and talking to numerous librarians, is that the choice of school doesn’t matter much, that there are a lot of transferable skills that can be useful as a librarian, that academic knowledge acquired elsewhere is always helpful, and that library school is more about exploring options and understanding librarianship as a whole than advanced training for a particular job. Both during and after library school, creating or exploiting opportunities to learn and develop is the most important thing.

24 thoughts on “Things I Did and Did Not Learn in Library School

  1. Needs more cynicism. After all, we didn’t pay all that money just to narrow our options. We did it to get our “union card,” an MLS/MLIS from an ALA-accredited program, stamped. But overall I agree with this post. Learning what we might like, and not like, to do in libraries and other information services is an important and often unconsidered benefit.
    Jake
    http://beerbrarian.blogspot.com/

  2. I must be mellowing in my old age, because I’ve never been accused of not being cynical enough. I think I was more cynical after I graduated, when I remembered the boredom and forgot about what I had learned that I might not make use of immediately or at all. I might have been even more cynical had I paid much for library school, but I had a graduate assistantship that covered tuition plus paid me (not very much) to work at the information desk. It was an ideal way to attend school.
    Knowing what I know now, I don’t see how library school can be much more than a brief introduction to a complex situation, as well as the “union card.” Librarianship is far more diverse a profession than I ever realized before going to library school, and understanding that diversity, how different libraries work, how libraries work as a system, and how different jobs within libraries work separately but collaboratively to make things happen is important knowledge. It’s one of the distinctions between the professional and the non-professional who is very good at one job but doesn’t consider the whole. Thus, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as narrowing options so much as exploring options.
    I’ was realistic at the time, though. My thoughts at the time were “easy to get in, easy to get through, easy to get a job.” In my case that was true.

  3. I’ve talked to a number of my colleagues and found that I may be the only one who did learn and practice all of these skills in library school.
    * Communication skills, in writing and in person
    * Presentation skills
    * Critical thinking skills
    * Problem solving ability
    * Intellectual curiosity
    * Autodidacticism
    * Knowledge of academic subjects/ scholarly communication
    The first three were definitely “drilled” into us at my LIS school. If the majority of LIS schools are not covering these, which, to me, are basic skills any academic program/graduate professional school should cover, then what are they teaching? Communication and presentation skills are fundamental in simply acquiring employment much less sustaining it through your career. If you cannot problem solve, moving up the career ladder will not happen. Furthermore, curiosity and autodidacticism helps contribute to the atmosphere you work in as well as the scholarly work in the field.

  4. Harrison, library schools do teach some of those. I guess my point was that by library school, those weren’t lessons I needed to learn. I’d already spent eight years of college and graduate school studying hard, and several years teaching, while simultaneously working in a library. Library school gave me opportunities to do communicate and present and solve problems, but they were already skills I had.

  5. I enjoyed library school – though it was very easy.
    I will say that it has been my experience (as someone who used to hire once upon a time and now as someone that works intensively with back-end systems) that the school does matter very much for cataloguing skills. Although cataloguing does require a lot of on-the-job training there does need to be a foundation taught during the MLS. A few schools excel at this, many are absolutely terrible.

  6. I didn’t realize the school mattered so much for cataloging. It’s probably true for all sorts of technical skills that I didn’t even think about. There are bound to be differing opportunities to learn at different schools, too. Illinois offers a bewildering variety of classes, so much so that the one degree could never properly sample them. Lots of people stay or come back for the C.A.S. (Certificate of Advanced Study, or Come And Stay degree). Smaller schools probably don’t have that variety. Other than Illinois and Rutgers, I’ve never looked at the courses offered in library schools, so maybe that was a bad assumption.

  7. Wayne, I like your list a lot. I would add project management and strategic planning skills. It would have been very useful to know more about these before I took my first professional librarian position.
    I want to especially applaud intellectual curiosity and autodidacticism. When I run into librarians who lack these (which I only have once or twice), I’m totally puzzled.

  8. I agree completely that it is often the case of differing opportunities to learn at different schools. I took 5 cataloguing / indexing courses when I got my degree (lo these many decades ago) and I wasn’t in the cataloguer stream! Many schools now only offer 2 – some only offer 1.

  9. Those are both good skills to have, Martha, and what I know I definitely had to pick up along the way. I’ve since thought about some practical knowledge that I didn’t think about in library school, like how to be an effective liaison to academic departments. Also, I didn’t take a collection development/management class, but that’s a big part of what I do now. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing best learned in a class.

  10. I think some people may confuse *learning* written/verbal communication skills and presentation skills with simply having to write a lot of papers and to give several presentations in library school. It seems to me that while library school students may be given plenty of opportunities to speak, write, and present, they are rarely taught how to do these things well and/or effectively. Student papers and e-mail communication are rife with typos, and the general state of PowerPoint (don’t even get me started on Prezi) presentations speak for themselves.
    PS: Just came across your blog–fantastic and informative writing! Hurray for cynicism! ;)
    Janet Hatcher

  11. I’m also wondering why library school was so difficult for me. I did have a masters in English Literature and two bachelors, but library school almost killed me at UT-Austin. I did thoroughly enjoy my experience, but it was very hard. Most of my colleagues have stated that it was a breeze. The three tasks I actually excelled in at library school were presentations, reference communication, and library and book history classes.
    I’m wondering if I missed something which have made it easier?

  12. I learned quite a bit, but I can’t say library school was difficult. It was busy, between three classes and two part-time jobs, but by the time I started library school I’d developed a ruthless efficiency about how I use my time that served me well.

  13. I think the choice of school does matter (if you’re interested in the quality of the experience itself, and not just getting the piece of paper) but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to attend a “brand name” or top-ranked school, although that could help. I attended a university in Canada which happens to be the #1 ranked Canadian university (overall, not for LIS) and one of the top-ranked universities world-wide… it’s not ranked by US News & World Report, but it was considered by the higher-ups at Harvard (where I was working when I applied to library school) to be one of the best library schools in the world.
    Did it live up to the “world-class” reputation? Yes and no. I think I got an exceptionally good LIS education – it was a full two years – 16 courses – long, and though it was non-thesis I wrote at least a couple hundred pages over my time there. Some of the classes were excellent, and some that weren’t provided assignments which were flexible enough for me to make them rigorous, and turn term papers into true research. A couple of the classes were terrible. Nothing was very intellectually-challenging unless I made it so. Overall, it was considerably easier than my undergraduate program at a top US liberal arts college. But, from what I hear from other librarians, the experience was still on the higher end of quality as far as LIS programs go.
    What I DID get was to meet and live with “real” graduate students who were in masters and PhD programs in actual academic subjects. Because of the selective nature of the university, and its status as a world-class research university, these other students were incredibly bright and interesting. Most of my friends were not library school students. I think if you have the luxury to move for your LIS degree, it pays to attend a top university just so you can immerse yourself in that kind of academic environment and meet a lot of bright people. Those other non-LIS students MADE my experience. I really don’t think that if I had stayed working at Harvard and let them pay for me to attend Simmons part-time, like everyone else there does, I would have gotten such a great, rich experience.

  14. Oh – there’s one other difference between my experience and that of most other librarians I know. My program did not have a part-time option. A few people went down to part-time after starting the full-time program, but that wasn’t a formally-recognized option. I’m not knocking part-time programs – they’re all many people can do. Nevertheless, a program which consists almost entirely of full-time students has more of a community feel, and I think more of a “serious” feel. Each class had only about 75 students, so there were only about 150 MLIS students total, and just about everyone knew everyone else and we all felt like we were working towards the same goal, on the same time-table. And… despite the fact that almost everyone was full-time, we still had a good diversity of students, age- and background-wise. It wasn’t all people in their 20s.

  15. It certainly seems to me that there’s a big difference between in-person full-time and other models. I also attended full-time for a year and a half, and there was a feeling of community that would have been absent otherwise. I and all my friends were full-time students, usually also working assistantships on campus. We were in some of the same classes, hung out together, etc. There was usually a happy hour on Fridays that a lot of people went to. In that respect, it was similar to the MA program I’d been in. I learned quite a bit just by talking to other students frequently about library issues in casual settings.

  16. Great blog. I think one character trait that helps with being a librarian is adaptability. I work as a Special Collections manuscript curator. It seems that I get used to one processing program and another one replaces it requiring new skills. Technology forces us to adapt in many areas of our jobs. Library school doesn’t really teach us that, but if you are not willing to adapt librarianship may not be for you.

  17. I agree completely, Kristi. I can’t believe I left adaptability off the list. I’d couple it with the autodidacticism, too, since it sure helps to be able to go out and learn stuff on your own that you need to use, instead of waiting for someone to come train you.

  18. Ahhh, brings me back. I’d forgotten about the happy hours. My university had an old mansion which had been turned into the headquarters of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society. (Post-grad = grad in Canada.) The multi-storey building consisted of 3 bars, a restaurant, several lounges, and meeting space… it had a club feel. People (from all programs) would sit around either socializing, or working on their laptops with a beer in front of them. This was where everyone would end up, and not just on Fridays! This really added to my sense that I was in “grad school” and not just some kind of vocational training. I felt a part of the graduate student community, not just a part of my program.

  19. Wayne,
    I’m halfway through my MLS with an undergraduate in Journalism. I hope to be working in an academic library in public services, and I like the idea of incorporating my writing/journalism experience into the library. what I’m concerned about is – how do I get technology experience? My courses do a lot of talking about the effects of technology on librarianship, but there’s no real application or a way to learn the ropes via school. Any suggestions for me so that I’m not clueless as I enter the university library?

  20. As a first semester MLS student, I can relate to this blog, and appreciate you writing it. I’ve learned a lot in these past 2 1/2 months – how to search databases, APA formatting, ILI terms, writing lesson plans (understanding how to write objectives), critical thinking skills (ie. it’s okay not to agree with an opinion in a peer reviewed paper), etc. After being out of school for 20+ years, going back seemed to offer a sink or swim environment. Lately, I’ve been setting up appointments with as many librarians as possible in county, city, school and academic libraries. I’ve been wondering why I’m getting so ahead of myself… after all, I just started school, right? After reading your article, I feel confirmed. I am on the correct path to determine the right library environment for my future. Yes, school is providing a learning experience that encompasses a bit of knowledge in each facet of librarianship, however, I am rearing to sink my teeth into some real world experience!

  21. I can remember coming out of library school and having a complete panic moment–they didn’t teach me how to shelve a book. Of course, I took the standard cataloging class, but there wasn’t any assignment that talked about nothing before something, and believe me in a small library you had better know how to shelve a book. I completed my MLS in a virtual world which may be why I didn’t learn it in library school!

  22. I’m starting library school (PT) in the fall, so I enjoyed your post a lot! I’ll continue my FT job at Duke Libraries, but look forward to expanding my skills.

  23. Excellent post, Wayne. Thanks for sparking discussion on this topic. I have a largely negative impression from my time in library school because it was disappointing. I have a lot of friends who are in (non MLIS-) grad school and their programs are challenging and rigorous. I thought the MLIS program would be the same, but it wasn’t. When I tell people about the degree, I say I have a “Masters,” by which I mean it’s not the same as a subject masters. That said, I did have a few great classes and I met a lot of great folks I never would have otherwise. I think critical thinking and adaptability are the most important skills to a library professional.

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