What do I need to learn in library school before I graduate?
October 20, 2010 9:57 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to learn in library school before I graduate, if I'm not sure what I want to do when I'm done?

I work in an academic medical library, and I'm also in library school as a part-time distance student; I have another year and a half to go before I graduate. Which skills should I acquire, which organizations should I join, and what should I learn to make myself an attractive job candidate?

The problem is, I'm not sure what I want to do once I have my MLIS. I graduated from a great university in 2003 with a BA in English, and I've been working in my current job for five years. I do enjoy the organizational culture of my workplace, but am not very interested in medicine. I could see myself working as an academic, corporate, or law librarian, but I don't want to work in a public or school library. I love reading, researching, editing, writing, and graphic design, and I like helping people track down missing references or simplify frustrating searches. I'm also attracted to careers outside libraryland where I can use those skills, such as academic editing, technical writing, or competitive intelligence. Before I started working in technical services, I used to work for my library's research director, and I liked designing surveys, creating webpages, and editing research proposals and papers.

In my current position, I work around ten hours a week on the reference desk, and I think that I have a good handle on how to conduct a reference interview and interact with patrons. The rest of the time, I work in the technical services department. I'm working on a project where I get to do original cataloging (fun!), and work on the back end of our digital library, cleaning up the catalog and adding new resources. I like the cataloging project, but I do not enjoy the rest of my technical services work. It's repetitive and I'm not a fan of repetition. I'm at my most productive when I can work in relative quiet on things that have deadlines. I don't want to make a misstep in deciding what I should do with my career. What would I be good at?

As for my remaining time in library school, I know that I'm going to take a course on research methods and a course on Drupal. The classes I've enjoyed the most have been on information architecture, competitive intelligence, graphic design, special libraries, and reference.

I want for potential employers to think, "Well, she's been working in tech services in a medical library, but she'd be a great person to have as our [X]," whatever X may be. So, should I do a practicum in a different library? Volunteer on an open source project? Learn Perl or LAMP? Make a portfolio website? Join the student chapters of the SLA/ASIST/etc? I have a limited amount of free time due to work and school, but I'd like to make myself as appealing and all-around awesome as I can (even if I don't know exactly what I want to do when I'm done).
posted by zoetrope to Education (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this will help you figure out what skills you need to brush up on, but between the way you're taking classes and your interest in a wide variety of things I think you'd do well to look into distance ed administration. I have an acquaintance who got her MLIS in a similar situation and had a tough time finding a job, but she's been in her current position doing distance ed administration and loves it. I think it appeals to her need for putting information in order and making it easily accessible for people to understand. (Which would appeal to me, too!)

She works for our state university system, which means that there are a lot of opportunities to develop new classes and new methods of outreach. I'm not in business or anything, but I can only see this field expanding. So maybe you should talk to some people who do things like that and see if it interests you, and what you might need to do.

Joining the SLA isn't a bad idea at all, especially since it can connect you with other students in your situation who are trying to discern some stuff for themselves.

You might also see if you know anyone in IT who started in library school. Seems like there's a lot more crossover now than ever before, even though they're really different environments.
posted by Madamina at 10:10 AM on October 20, 2010

If you have the opportunity for a field placement or practicum, take it. They're great ways to get experience with different types of library work and/or in different types of libraries--plus, you can use them to expand your network of connections in the field.

Many professional organizations offer online seminars and virtual participation in committees in addition to the usual networking opportunities. The online classes (I'm sorry, I can't bring myself to use the word "webinar") are usually discounted for students, and may only take a few hours of your time. Here's a list of upcoming classes and webcasts from ACRL, just as an example.
posted by 2or3things at 10:42 AM on October 20, 2010

I am an It tech in a library. You need to make sure you know a lot about computers. In public libraries one of your main jobs if your an adult ref librarian would be helping the patrons do things on pc's like resumes and where to look for things on the Net.

The librarians seem to be doing less actual library stuff as time goes on and my job as an IT guy keeps getting more stuff to do.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:50 AM on October 20, 2010

The recommendation to join SLA is good, and I would also suggest ACRL if you have the budget for it. (Student membership fees are significantly discounted.) Go to local ACRL and SLA events whenever possible to see what others are doing - the importance of networking with librarians cannot be emphasized enough, but the student chapter events may not offer the professional opportunities you might want.

If you're not sure what you want to do, definitely get an internship in a library different from the one you're currently working in. That breadth of experience - and seeing what life is like elsewhere - may help you form a clear idea of what you want to do and what skills you need.

And get all the tech skills you can.

If you don't already read In the Library with the Lead Pipe, I might recommend that you start with this post, #HackLibSchool.
posted by metarkest at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2010

You will likely never be unemployed (for long) if you have above average technical skills. This may include command of a programming language if you so choose, but even without that, being an expert in all areas of current computing technology is only to be recommended. One specific thing I would mention would be ability to install and administer Web apps such as Wordpress, Drupal, et al., including the ability to administer an AMP stack via command line and GUI tools. The skills one develops in setting up such software apply well to other areas, and give one solid footing in a modern academic library, regardless of type or size.

You mentioned courses such as information architecture, competitive intelligence, and graphic design. I have seen too many recent MLS grads who have such courses that are taught on a metalevel (lots of reading and theoretical ramblings) yet lack the technical skills to get involved in the trenches. Libraries--even large academic libraries--never have enough IT staff to do that trench work, and they never will. So, as a librarian who can do that, one is fairly golden in the profession. Doesn't hurt that it is interesting and evolving work that has applications beyond libraries as well, while stellar reference interview skills are less transferable and not even that highly desired in most libraries these days.
posted by dalea at 11:11 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This may be obvious, but it would be worthwhile to learn some job-search kind of skills--networking, resume-building, interviewing, that kind of thing.
posted by box at 11:54 AM on October 20, 2010

I'm a pretty big champion of SLA, but on the chapter or division level. Something that I have seen with our student members (I'm on the board of our local chapter) is that the really motivated students have parlayed their time within the chapter directly into jobs. So what they have done is to network the hell out of their SLA connections, volunteering with the chapter or division of their choice on special projects. (For example, we're working on a document conversion to wiki format. Any student that came in and helped me with that, and did it well, would be highly recommended by our leadership board for a position right out of school.) So don't just join SLA, actively work with your affliation and build a network.

FWIW, if you join SLA at the student rate, you're a full blown member of SLA. That is different than the affiliation with your library school's SLA Student Group. (We have found people who are members of the student group, but not SLA as a whole.) So make the distinction - it's great to be a member of the student group, but I say take the bull by the horns and go directly to the chapter/division of your choice and volunteer. We are all volunteers on the boards and I sincerely doubt any of us would turn willing help down. (Other recent projects our board has had done by students - finding aid for our archives, archive inventory, membership directory updates, website conversions/migrations, even just writing an article for a newsletter gets your name out there.)
posted by librarianamy at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2010

Also, two classes I recommend that I don't see you mention are some sort of management course (corporate libraries often don't report up to another librarian, so you've got to manage not only your library but your own career) and some sort of instruction course (you will be teaching resources even as a part of your reference career.) Given that you've already mentioned cataloguing, those three are probably my trifecta of "being prepared to be a solo corporate librarian."
posted by librarianamy at 12:06 PM on October 20, 2010

To add to everyone else's advice, being a current student gives you a lot of open doors. Use your class assignments to visit types of libraries you are interested in. And research your options - corporate and law tend to pay well but what do you know about them? Do you have qualifications they are looking for? Many librarians were once in your shoes and now is a much better time to network than after you graduate.
posted by cestmoi15 at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2010

Thank you all for your time. I've just finished up my first year in the program, and finally have enough breathing room to look around for other things to work on besides classwork. It's difficult to narrow down my interests--I'm interested in so many things that librarians do! It's good to get some perspective on skills I'll need regardless of where I end up. I think that management and user instruction will be useful no matter where I go, and I'll work on getting all the tech skills I can. I think my local SLA chapter (and maybe ACRL, depending on finances) will be getting a new member soon, too. Thanks to everyone who replied!
posted by zoetrope at 1:21 PM on October 21, 2010

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