08 December 2012

Two Years Later: Why Library School Isn't So Bad After All

Seeing as final exam time is upon us, and I find myself, for once (for all?) free from the usual deluge of papers and tests, I thought it an appropriate time to write about the topic of grad school. Fall in particular seems to be the traditional high season for moaning, reflecting, and issuing doomsday warnings about graduate school in general and library school in particular. Letters to a Young Librarian and Academic Librarian have recently published some of the many classic "Things I Didn't Learn in Library School" posts, and Hack Library School regularly features posts about library school life (most of which I wish were more brutally honest).

Outside of Libraryland, the off-the-wall Penelope Trunk (whose blog you should really read if you don't already-be warned of occasional foul language and adult content) has numerous posts addressing stupid attitudes towards graduate education (see also here, here, and here), with many pieces in other media outlets trumpeting the same tune. Usually theses posts, and those written by librarians, serve as opportunities to complain about the vast inadequacies and injustices of LIS/grad education, for which there is ample justification. But here I would like to take a slightly different tact, and highlight some of the reasons why I found Library School (and life afterward) to be a refreshingly different experience than graduate studies in other liberal arts or social science disciplines that I could have pursued otherwise.

1. Librarianship ≠ Academia

Because the main purpose of library school is to train information professionals, rather than forge the scholars of future generations, LIS students have tremendous freedom to pursue their actual professional interests (when not working to pay the bills). There is no looming expectation or obligation to publish or prove your pedigree to potential advisors/funding organizations, unless one actually wants to publish or pursue a primarily scholarly career. Many successful library students do participate in these activities, but constructively using one's time and talents is what counts, whether it is publishing, web programming, exhibit-building, or becoming the world's new emerging expert on RDA. I was very grateful for the relatively mild intensity of my actual coursework-it gave me enough freedom to acquire advantageous skills and work experience, as well as dabble in my own independent reading and professional exploration, all without sacrificing academic performance. Librarianship's detachment from the social strata of academia is something that many students could use to their significant advantage, but unfortunately, they don't.

2. MLIS Programs Were Made for Apprenticeship

Many complaints about the (ir)relevancy of modern graduate education feature some variation of an argument against significant 'book training' for 'non-book jobs'. While most MLS programs fail to make a combination of classroom/experiential learning compulsory (e.g., internships, project-based seminars), the nature of most LIS coursework is well-suited for a balanced combination of book/work training. The synthesis of classroom learning and job experience forms the essential 'apprenticeship' aspect of professional training in our field. Most successful students I knew (including myself) held multiple jobs during their program tenure, which is the only possible way to be employable in today's market. Your department will not babysit you on this issue, but again, there is great freedom in this. I gladly welcomed to opportunity to use my time as I saw fit to pursue activities that were truly useful, as opposed to fulfilling a litany of one-size-fits-all requirements. Success in librarianship requires entrepreneurialism.

3. Librarianship is Truly Inter-Disciplinary

Librarians on the whole still don't have quite the level of philosophical engagement with one another that I would like, but the vastly disparate backgrounds and interests of LIS students and librarians form the fabric of a vibrant profession that sets no boundaries for the generalist. It is difficult to become bored or disengaged with the profession (the same is, unfortunately, not true for classes). In library school, I had colleagues who had previously studied history, law, computer science, linguistics, english, art, music, classics, philosophy, geography, psychology, business, natural science, and education. Whatever the ALA wants to say about the profession being inadequately diverse, librarianship is the ultimate melting-pot. There are numerous avenues available to pursue interdisciplinary interests in research, community initiatives, programming, tool- and collection-building, writing, designing, and more. This diversity is powerful when harnessed, both to the student and the profession.

Stay tuned for Part II, wherein I'll reflect on the under-appreciate aspects of the profession.

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