How to Get the Most Out of Library School
By Sasha Nyary, Dean's Editorial Fellow
Recent GSLIS grads weigh in on what subjects to study, what skills to learn, and the importance of participating in student organizations and internships. The takeaway: technology, the organization of information, and experience.
Alison K. Cody, '08LS, Training Specialist, PsycINFO, American
Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.
It's less about the classes themselves and more about the experience you make of it. The classes give you the theoretical background, but once I was in a library, what served me more was my actual experience. It would have been particularly valuable to learn all the jargon. Am I supposed to know what an EZproxy is? What's involved in the day-to-day side of running a library? You've got to have the experience of getting asked the question at the reference desk where you don't understand what they're asking, what they're talking about.
If you find professors whose classes you enjoy, take other classes with them — even if that class is not exactly what you want, even if you aren't sure that's what you want to do. I found the experience of being in a class with a really excellent teacher to be more valuable than taking a topic I was interested in where I didn't know the professor. When you go back to a professor several times, it helps to make a connection that can be really valuable moving forward.
There's an expectation that people coming out of library school today are technology wizards. Whether or not you want to be able to fix the printer or troubleshoot MS-Word, you need to be able to — or be able to learn how. So you can take your printer apart and un-jam it for the 14th time today, or you know what to do when someone asks how to integrate something into the website. That seems to be a universal expectation. Working professionals expect that you are learning this, and whether or not you are, you've got to figure out how to learn it. You're going to have to deal with a different model of printer, or students walking up to your reference desk with their laptops asking why they can't connect to the wireless. You just have to jump in and figure out how to do this the best you can.
Cataloging. I loved my professor! As a result, I took an indexing class with her. Today, I don't use what I learned, directly. But if I had it to do over again, I would still take those classes.
Before I switched jobs, I was at a small academic library doing reference and instruction, and what I really needed was teaching methods and theories of learning. I was demonstrating skills — go here, click there, type this. I didn't feel as if I was really teaching them about the research process and how to think about it and approach it. My students didn't have an understanding of
what they were doing or what they were looking at. I had no idea how to reach them at whatever learning stage they were at, or what teaching method would be best for a particular part of a class. It would have helped to know something about learning methods, teaching styles, and stages of learning.
A lot of people think they want to be reference librarians, and they don't think about the fact that it requires some classroom teaching. I spent the last year job searching, and looking at all these positions across the country. They all required teaching. Maybe five percent were pure reference. If you want to be a
reference librarian, you've got to be ready to teach.
Beyond the classroom
Getting work experience is the most important thing. What gave me an edge was that I had had two jobs on campus; I had started the Emerging Technology workshops series, and I was very involved with the student ASIS&T group, for example, by planning programs. It was that involvement that helped
employers say, "She's obviously very invested in the profession, and we can see that the skills she's learned can be applied to the work we're hiring her to do here." I had not worked in a library before I got my first job out of GSLIS, but I think now it's harder to make that case. I have friends on search committees and they are getting so many applications, they're having to be very nitpicky in how they whittle them down. They go through applications and say, "This person doesn't actually have experience in a library, so take her out of the pile." So even if it's not the type of library you want to wind up in, work in a library. Get in the building to see what's going on, day to day.
Katharine Dunn, '10LS, Projects Librarian, MIT
Everyone should have some background in cataloging and metadata and how libraries and archives are organized. Always read the course evaluations. Knowing a bit about how websites are made and how databases work may be
enough, depending on what your job will be after graduation. You can always take a Continuing Ed course in a particular technology.
A full GSLIS course might be better spent learning more about larger-scale stuff (archives philosophies and practice, teaching and metadata standards, what it means to preserve a digital item, etc.). This was the case for me because I was entirely new to the library/archives world. Others with lots of experience may want very specific, hands-on technology classes they know they will use in their jobs.
Beyond the classroom
I joined every organization I could — at the student rate — to expose myself to what they do. I also joined a couple of GSLIS student orgs, and through them I got some great volunteer opportunities and day-on-the-job placements. Volunteering and interning are essential. I tried to do one or the other every semester I was in school. Few people take advantage of volunteer jobs — for two of mine, I was the only applicant.
These are important because they help you figure out what you want to do — and don't want to do. You can meet potential employers and hear about other jobs and opportunities. And of course they look good on your resume. I forced myself to give a talk and write a paper for a student conference, which was an
amazing experience. I applied for grants, scholarships, and prizes whenever I could, and I got a few.
The best thing I did is create my own opportunity. One professor brought in a librarian to talk about copyright, licensing, and open access. I found her talk so interesting that I dedicated most of the projects in my classes over the next year to these issues. I also thought, I want to work with her. I asked if I could
volunteer, which I ended up doing. Then, they created a parttime temp job for me, and then a full-time professional job, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing when I asked to volunteer. I'm learning a great deal in a cutting-edge library field. And I don't need high-level technical skills — I just need to be able to talk to the people who have them. Contact a person who interests you. Put yourself out there. Ask for work.
Cressida Hanson, '11LS, Reference assistant, Public Support Services, Kishwaukee College, Malta, IL
Collection development and any/all technology classes. Collection development (developing the collection and budget plan for a specific library) was the most fun, while simultaneously being extremely practical for public and academic librarians. Being able to say that you studied website or database design is a huge plus, even if you don't consider yourself an expert. Really do enroll in as many technology classes as possible.
Beyond the classroom
Being involved with a student organization was highly useful when I was interviewing. My involvement with the American Library Association Student Chapter (ALASC) certainly helped me secure an event-programming position at a community college library. Being ALASC president and fulfilling its duties
were definitely not something I expected to do while at school, but it was absolutely a wonderful addition to my education and a way to stand out from other applicants. I recommend following library-job listservs before officially
starting your job hunt. You will notice trends in job descriptions and locations of jobs that will be helpful when shaping your career. Is there a job you would love to do? See what libraries expect in their postings, and try to fill those holes with classes or internships. My favorite listserv is INALJ, or "I need a library
job." Jobs are organized by state, and they also feature Canadian and other international postings. INALJ is on Facebook and Twitter, and you can get a daily email with current postings. They also emphasize closing dates for each job, which is useful when applying to several jobs at a time.
Benjamin Kalish '10LS, Reference librarian, Forbes Library, Northampton, MA
Reference, cataloging, and technology — and continue in these subjects beyond the required core classes. I particularly wish I had learned more about troubleshooting, networking, and how to run a computer lab intelligently, since I need these skills on the job.
Definitely HTML. You don't need to be able to code a whole website, but you need to be able to write properly marked-up text. An understanding of how databases and search engines work. How to conduct a reference interview. Cataloging standards, present and, to the extent possible, future.
It's great to take classes on topics you don't know anything about. I'm currently taking a class on QR Codes, and I'd like to take a class on archives. Learning something new can be a great source of ideas.
Beyond the classroom
I'm not sure it matters what you do, as long as you are interacting with other students. If you aren't good at networking (and I'm not) it can be helpful to become good friends with a couple of folks who are. Work experience should be your top priority, but there is no doubt networking is important, too.
Mark D. McMahon '11LS, Professional interests include ASIS&T, NEASIS&T,
Massachusetts Library Association
Web development and information architecture. Presenting information on the
Internet is a fundamental skill for an informational professional. Even if coding
is done by others, every GSLIS student should be prepared to critique web pages and contribute to their content and design. Digital libraries is a class that everyone should consider. Students work in several interdependent teams on a tight schedule. They have the opportunity to develop crucial professional skills, including communication, teamwork, planning, and time management.
Beyond the classroom
Internships, whether for credit or not, are invaluable for generaltrack students who are not currently working in a library. Seek as much library experience as possible.
Participating in student organizations is a relatively safe way to develop networking skills, and these skills will be used throughout one's professional life. Also, there are many opportunities to take on leadership roles. Pick one student organization and invest a significant amount of energy into it — they all are worthy of attention. Often, there are ways to contribute that do not require a lot of time.
Michele Mizejewski '05LS
Web Initiatives Librarian, University of California San Francisco
Regardless of the type of library or information setting, a solid knowledge
and comfort level with technology is crucial. Keep that in mind when selecting courses and setting up internships or group projects. This is an area where one must never stop learning. Realize that technologies will continue to evolve and shift, and so must you.
User instruction is also important. Librarians often need to explain things or teach, whether formally or on the fly. The ability to clearly explain things and create brief but effective and professionally produced tutorials and handouts is valuable in most settings. Gaining a level of confidence speaking in front of a group or recording oneself is beneficial too. A course like this should take advantage of the GSLIS Media Lab and focus a lot less on education theory and a lot more on practical examples of what works and what doesn't in various settings and on hands-on projects.
Take an online course, if possible, because it is an excellent way to help you understand what kind of support and instruction distance students are likely to require.
The quick assessment skills I learned in my Reference course come into play for me all the time. During the semester, we had to examine a huge list of sources and make brief notes on the purpose and essence of each. We were told to begin with "a description of what it is, not what it calls itself." I use this
approach now whether I'm gathering a list of suggested mobile apps, identifying the most appropriate software tools for a task, or deciding what to include on a reading list. I also continue to draw upon what I learned in my digital libraries course. We worked in teams on various practical aspects of building a digital library, and many of those skills and that task-force approach
prepared me well for my current work.
I would also encourage anyone with an interest in a particular area of information management or librarianship to take advantage of any focused offerings in that area. Taking courses from outstanding instructors who are passionate about their subject can really make a difference in how much you get out of a course.
Beyond the classroom
The most important thing to do is get some kind of experience through an internship, volunteer opportunity, job, etc. It will help you figure out what you like and don't like in an information work setting and make you a better job candidate. I would also recommend attending local professional-association
events to learn from the speakers and network with other attendees.
Maxine Schmidt '05LS, Sciences & Engineering Librarian, UMass Amherst
Metadata skills will become even more important than they already are. It will be useful to understand descriptive systems such as resource description and analysis (RDA) and other specialized systems. These standards will probably be in flux for a while, so we should all pay attention.
Reference, now and always, will be fundamental to a librarian's training. The course will — and must — change as technology does, but I can't overstate the importance of a solid knowledge of general reference sources and the ability to effectively parse a reference question to determine what a user really wants or needs. In addition to a basic reference course, I recommend taking a course in the resources of a specific area — social sciences, music, humanities, or science and engineering — to understand the diversity of resources.
My reference classmates were the most collegial group I've ever worked with, and that experience prepared me as much as anything else. Librarianship is ultimately a collaborative enterprise, and working with colleagues is one of the things I love most about my job.
Website construction, and I remember thinking a few months later that, with Dreamweaver and other programs, I would probably never use HTML again. In fact, I use it several times a week, and my O'Reilly HTML Pocket Reference is right next to my computer.
I've taken more classes in management and personnel issues than anything else, but I also want to learn more about RDA and issues in e-science.
I'm going to audit elementary classes in engineering and perhaps intro to Chinese, since we have so many students from China and Taiwan in the Sciences & Engineering Library. It would be nice to be able to greet them and at least make a little small talk with them in their own language. My work is like
being in school, but with easier grading. My motto is, "We live in perpetual beta," so I'm always in a learning environment.
Beyond the classroom
Join a national organization that reflects your interests, especially while you're a student and eligible for the discounted memberships. ALA was the cheapest, and the Science & Technology Section of ACRL helped me focus my schedule at the annual and midwinter meetings. I have developed several friendships and useful connections there. I have joined the Geoscience Information Society (GSIS), and I'm going to join the Special Libraries Association (SLA). Maybe I'll look into the American Society of Engineering Education, which has a library track.
Participate on committees in the organizations you join. They are always happy to see new blood. Find a mentor there. Some groups have a formal mentoring program, but an informal mentoring relationship will be useful too. Network with any group that interests you.
Mark Tomko, '12LS, Software engineer, The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT
Take at least one class in the cataloging track beyond the required class. Everyone can benefit from spending some extra time thinking about how organization systems work and how the way we organize information affects users. Try to take a class that requires you to synthesize the things you learned in your core classes. I have gotten a lot out of my independent study; it let me explore in depth a few ideas that interested me. Find a faculty member who shares your interests and take some time to talk; it will help you focus your learning.
It's unthinkable that anyone should go into the job market without understanding the basics of how the web works. That doesn't just mean learning HTML; it means understanding where web pages are stored and how they're retrieved. Librarians don't need to be experts, but they have to be willing to embrace the web.
Subject analysis. Before I came to Simmons, I would never have imagined spending so much time thinking about it.
Lexi Walters Wright, '11LS Freelance content provider, library volunteer, new
You have to become comfortable with rapidly changing technology. It's not enough to just know a particular operating system or individual programming language or specific metadata standard — though, of course, knowing these does have merit. But info professionals need to become versed in building upon their existing tech skills quickly and regularly picking up new ones without trepidation. Systems are evolving faster than we know right now, and we need to be able to change along with them.
It's crucial for students to develop stellar communication skills across digital media. Whether or not you work directly with the public, engaging in actual conversation every day, you'll need to be able to express your ideas in a variety of formats: craft copious emails to various audiences, tweet about your library's upcoming events, disseminate staff happenings on your organization's intranet, etc. Now is the time to become comfortable engaging with classmates and colleagues on several platforms. In the new paradigm of librarianship, we have to be generous stewards of information — and that requires top-notch communication skills.
I came to library school from digital media, so I was pretty sure I would be taken with the tech side of things. But I had no idea how excited I would get about young adult lit: If you had told me three years ago that I would be following dozens of YA authors on Twitter and considering working primarily with teens, I'd have called it malarkey.
Metadata. I took XML, but plan to continue studying metadata, as the standards seem to be rapidly evolving.
Beyond the classroom
Get to know your peers through LISSA or other student organizations. You will be working with them on class projects, but these people may be your colleagues — even your supervisors — some day. And let's face it, information
professionals are a fun group.
Get an internship. Get three. If you think you have an interest in a particular type of library or service, get an internship or volunteer position in it. Why wait until you are out of school to realize that you actually love the pace of corporate librarianship or dislike the solitude of processing archives? If you take the time to explore your professional interests while in school, you can always refocus your coursework, based on your reactions to the practical application of them — and you'll have made lots of career connections along the way.
Adam Williams, '09LS, Instruction and reference librarian, Wheelock College,
The core classes are key: cataloging, reference, evaluation, technology. They
did a good job of covering the basics everyone should know.
People skills are essential, even if you are not working with the public. You will spend more time with your coworkers than you will with your family. Management skills are a close second, as you will manage someone, or several employees, at some point in your career.
Evaluation. The class led me to analyze libraries as a whole and particularly services. It forces you to think critically about what you will do in the library. My evaluation skills continue to benefit me. I know how to gather data on services at my library, assess those services, and make recommendations and decisions based on that information.
Specific types of jobs
Archivists and school librarian teachers need as much professional flexibility as possible. They should pursue their interests but relate it to other types and areas of the library. For instance, archivists could hone technology skills to make themselves attractive for digital repository jobs.
Beyond the classroom
Local organizations are easier to get your head around, for instance ACRL-New England or the Massachusetts Library Association. Find work or volunteer as soon as possible — employers tend to look at experience above all else. Building networks takes time, and everyone has varying degrees of networking ability. In essence, networking is getting to know people and staying in touch. Internships are equally as valuable as volunteering and working in a library. They offer real experience — without the pay.