What I wish they’d told me in library school

Sorry, I’m back. I’ve had some health issues going on so I apologise for the lack of writing.

Anyway..

I remember when I first finished school and went to university finding everything so confusing and hard to figure out. One of the hardest parts was not even knowing where or who to ask if you wanted more information, and I didn’t realise until later just how much I didn’t know. Even when I went back to uni a second time I still had no idea of what services were available or where I could go for help. I wish I’d known then how much I know now.

While I thought perhaps it was just a university thing, I’ve also worked in a lot of organisations where it’s been difficult to prise information from people, and for someone who is big on open access to information, sharing, and teaching people how to find what they’re looking for, I find this ridiculously frustrating.

So when it comes to libraries I thought I’d share some of the things I wish I’d been taught in library school. I won’t necessarily have all the answers, but these are some of the issues I’ve come across. I’ve spoken to other librarians and library technicians to get some idea of what they wish they’d been told and I’ll share that here too. Part of the problem was that I studied Information Management. We hardly touched on libraries, so there really wasn’t any exposure to what working in a library would mean.

I think the biggest thing I wish someone had explained was the different roles available in libraries, and what can be a huge divide between library assistants, library technicians, and librarians. I knew that I wanted to work in a library, ergo I would be a librarian. I didn’t realise there could be such separation between the roles. I knew that you generally couldn’t be a librarian without qualifications, and a lot of library assistants seemed to be students studying librarianship. In my mind I think I considered library technicians to be people who covered books, and I couldn’t really see why they needed to do a TAFE course to do that. It wasn’t until later that I discovered technicians do a lot more than cover books and do a lot more of the practical side of things. My interests definitely lie in being a librarian, rather than an LT, but if it had gone the other way I’m not sure I even realised I needed to do a different course. In smaller libraries you’ll need to do almost everything, but in a large organisation there can be a definite divide between what librarians and LTs are expected (or allowed) to do.

I also wish I’d known about the variety of libraries. I’ve spoken to friends who did the CSU library course and they said they wished they’d known some of their options outside of libraries. I knew that I could finish uni and work in a library, information management, document or records management, information architecture, research, etc. Other people had no idea that some of these things were possible with library qualifications. I had no idea there were such different kinds of libraries.

My course didn’t require any work experience or placements. This was good in some respects because of the workload and also I think a lot of people were already working full-time. I’ve worked in plenty of organisations with work experience students and I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer, but I think I would have found useful, perhaps, some tours of different industries. After experiencing first-hand the divide between libraries and records/document management, I don’t even necessarily think that these tours need to be exclusive to uni students. I think anyone working in the profession could do with exposure to what is happening and what is available in other organisations.

I particularly wasn’t prepared for leaving uni bursting with ideas, new skills, and motivation to find a scarcity of positions and people and organisations so resistant to change. I found it extremely frustrating that I could see so much room for improvement, fun projects or events to run, ways to make work more efficient, new technologies to experiment with, and run up against either a lack of interest, money, or willingness to try new things. It’s hard to feel like everything you’ve just been taught is for nothing, and to fight a continual battle for change.

The job hunt. If only I’d known how competitive it would be. It’s not any better now, and perhaps it’s even worse. People keep talking about how there are going to be so many librarians retiring, but that happens every year. Most of the librarians I know are overqualified for their roles but can’t find quite what they’re looking for. And the applications are exhausting. So many selection criteria, so little time. Here again you get the librarian/LT divide. It’s difficult to get the experience you need when you can’t get a job in the first place. All I can suggest for this is to get involved in anything you can. Get involved with ALIA committees, volunteer for events and conferences, take any extra training and development that you can. Anything that you can give you an edge.

The importance of a personal learning network, and friends in the industry. I can’t really complain now about a lack of information. I have so much library information coming at me through my friends on social networks and offline. I have received so much help and support from my network, who are all so generous with their ideas and time. Get on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, elists… attend events, conferences, and just participate. Who better to know what you’re going through and to give you advice than someone who has been through the same thing.

How quickly things change. You learn so much at uni/TAFE, and while the theories will mostly stay the same, the technical side of things change rapidly. The digital library, databases, websites I built at uni could now be done so differently (and probably look a lot better as well). But if you’re not in a role where you use the skills you’ve been taught, it’s up to make sure that you’re keeping your skills relevant.

I also wish someone had told me how little time I’d end up spending with books. “Oh you’re a librarian, you must read a lot of books, what can you recommend?” Ah yes, the public perception of your role.

“You need to go to UNI to work as a LIBRARIAN?!”

“You must spend the whole day reading.”

“Doesn’t everyone just use Google?”

“You don’t look like a librarian.”

“Oh I hated all my librarians, what a terrible career, they’re all just grumpy old hags.”

But the reward of people who appreciate libraries and librarians far outweighs any of that.

So what do you wish you’d known in library school?

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3 thoughts on “What I wish they’d told me in library school

  1. I’m one of those annoying people who came through the backdoor into libraries and so it was only after several years of experience that I went back to do library school to ‘tick’ the box.

    I continually find myself wishing that library school would pick what it wants to be because currently it feels like it is trying to be all things to all people and failing everyone. The courses I have taken have been hopelessly out of date to the point that I feel that in such a fast changing industry a 7 year accreditation period is too long and have walked such an awkward line between practical skills and theory that I have often been left feeling that if I have learned anything at all it is through sheer dumb luck.

    So I have a different question. Why do we need library school at all?

    • I think that’s a very good question. I definitely think there needs to be a standard for librarianship and I suppose this is an easy way to say who meets the standard. I have a lot of transferrable skills that could go to other industries, and I know there are plenty of people out there who could just as easily move into libraries.

      Especially as libraries continue to move in new directions I don’t necessarily believe all of the courses are keeping up, or not in Australia. Depending on the length of your course there could be huge parts that are quickly irrelevant. I think it might be better to have shorter courses that librarians could do to cover specific elements of their training [possibly TAFE is looking at this, but may have just been a rumour?].

      Something to think about for sure.

  2. I studied IM at RMIT 7 years ago. It was a weird experience because I’d been working as a library officer for a couple of years before I enrolled, and even though 90% of the students in my course wanted to work in libraries, it seemed as if all our lecturers were desperate for us to NOT work in libraries. I don’t feel as though I leaned much, except in two classes – one where we leaned about database structures and XML, and one where we took on the role of library manager moving to a brand new site.

    Seeing what students are learning now at Monash and Charles Sturt, it sounds like the courses may have improved a little – a lot of programming, XML, Java etc. If I was designing a course specifically for librarians I’d concentrate on three areas: librarian ethics, history of librarianship and database structure/programming/markup languages.

    As a History graduate what I found weird about later going to “library school” was the complete absence of theory – what librarianship is about, ideas like freedom of access, confidentiality, etc. There was also no context for why things are done in particular ways – just a seemingly random assortment of ‘skills’ which were largely irrelevant to my future job as a librarian (although finally this year with a new position the XML came in handy, now that I’ve forgotten most of it).

    Recently I’ve been wondering if there would be demand for a sort of ‘elite’ Library Academy, where really experienced and/or skilled librarians and associated people could teach short courses or give lecture series, or maybe just run a mentoring program. There still seems to be a lot of excitement about librarianship as a career from both young “up and comers” and those nearing retirement – it would be nice to see it harnessed usefully somehow.

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