Friday, March 11, 2011

What I've learned in Library School

I’ve recently been contacted by several people considering library school, who are interested in the academic/ government/ management slant that I’m working towards. I was asked a variety of questions about if the choice of school mattered, and this is something that has stuck with me as I’ve answered questions like “is it hard” “is it worth it” “what if I don’t want to be a librarian” and the way more complicated “well what do you DO in Library school.” When people ask me these questions my initial instinct is to brush them off, and tell them to find someone who wants to be a ‘real’ librarian, because they can better answer these questions. The fact of the matter is that while I would love to be a librarian (preferably in an academic, or legal library) what drew me to my school is I saw the opportunities to make this degree flexible to fit my interests for my future. I could take courses in Data mining, management courses, critical thinking and deep reference. Don’t know what deep reference is? It’s basically finding information that no one else can find. The ultimate treasure hunt. I also personally have a passion for the idea of managing libraries – I know how valuable they are, and want to be a part of taking them to the new places I believe the field is going.

The question of if the choice of school mattered is a tough one for me. I do not think it matters in some senses, and in some I do. I know people from all ranks of library schools who wound up at U of T, Guelph, Acadia, and a plethora of other schools – what matters is your skills and your devotion to the field. Being a librarian is about having a desire to have a life of constant learning, in not just one field you find interesting but in a variety of fields. One thing that does nag at me, is that to some extent the school does matter – I do not mean reputation wise, but in the sense that each school offers different focus’. One of the reasons I chose University of Toronto’s iSchool was because of their focus on information as a whole, and not just within the library sphere. There are collaborative programs on Information Systems, Critical Thinking, Making and Management. I work at a law library, and have loved every minute of it. I also work for a organization that works in partnership with every library in Ontario – two very different jobs, both related to library school and using skills I have learned at the iSchool.

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 (yes. I can use big words. It's ok. I promise not to)
  • Knowledge of academic subjects/ scholarly communication

The above skills were learned roughly 50/50 at library school. Some came more naturally, and some (like public speaking) were ones that I had to practice. I feel that all of these skills are very transferable out of the field of Information, and I learned them/ knew them because I enjoy them. The idea of intellectual curiosity has been a trait of myself for my whole life, I enjoy reading and assimilating information. I feel this is not something I developed while training to be a librarian, but something that led me to the field at large. Similar intellectual traits such as critical thinking or problem solving ability were honed during years of college and graduate school, but follow the same intrinsic part of me that I believe led me to information as a fiel. 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 – I would argue that my undergraduate university had a much stronger development of my knowledge of academic subjects, and passion for learning and teaching.

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. I had to do hours and hours and hours of reference research for finding government, data and legal sources. 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 library management to know that it wasn’t a short-term goal. I learned that while I loved doing reference, I hated giving the information to someone else to deal with. I learned I actually liked government, data and legal research. I learned I liked academic librarianship but that I would need another Masters before it would be an option. I learned that I could write about reference as a method of competitive intelligence. I learned that ethics are more complex then I ever imagined. I learned all about public librarianship and thought I would leave that for people who LOVED it. 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 weren’t. I entered library school without much of an idea about the wide variety of things librarians actually do. I knew from talking with various professors and administration that the degree could be flexible, but I did not know just how valuable and flexible the program would be to me. 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 what it really teaches you is that 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.

Personally I have loved being at the iSchool. The path is not for everyone, but there are so many more options and paths then most people will ever realize.

This is also related to the oft heard complaint that library school is boring (which I rank right along with all librarians are girls, wear glasses and shush people). 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. 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. The trick is not to let your schooling get in the way of your education.

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