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
- 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.