Am I Ready for Library School? [Starter Kit]

05/09/2012 § 5 Comments

Thoughts On Being A Younger Library School Student

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Julia Feerrar

Just three months ago I walked across a stage in south-central Pennsylvania to receive my undergraduate degree. I thought of the hard work completed, the friendships forged, and I wished fervently that my next steps forward would be sure-footed. I mean that both literally and figuratively: I hoped to navigate the stairs without tripping and I hoped that I was ready for library school in the fall.

Student looking at Info Board

“Information!” by clemsonunivlibrary under CC license via Flickr.

Two weeks into my master’s program, I’m thinking back to that moment and reflecting on my preparation. Honestly, I’ve felt like quite a novice in the past few weeks. Although I interned in libraries and archives, and tutored extensively in college, I have nowhere near as much as experience as some of my older classmates. I’ve never taught in a classroom, I wouldn’t know where to begin in HTML or CSS, and my understanding of metadata is rather vague. Self-doubt has been creeping in. Am I ready to do this? Should I have taken a year (or more) to try and get more job experience? Is there a place for me in this profession? How do I figure out what that is? These and similar questions have been running through my head and I’d like to share the answers I’ve been developing.

Readiness” isn’t exactly relevant. At least not an “I feel totally prepared to enter the library profession and I know everything I need to know to do so confidently” kind of readiness. If I did, why go to school? After all, these programs must exist for a reason, right? I have to remind myself that my classmates and I applied to be here. Our past experiences and academic training were sufficient for admission. It’s time to stop worrying about what could have happened in the past and get ready to learn as much as possible.

Stop comparing and start sharing. Many of my self-doubts arose as I compared myself to the new people I met. Since reading Laura Sanders’ wonderful post, On Being An Older Library School Student, I’ve been realizing how great it is that everyone brings different knowledge and skills to their graduate programs. I look up to the students with years of professional experience and I value their insights in class, but I have to remember that those of us who just finished undergraduate degrees have an important point of view to share as well.

Recent graduates are probably still in the academic groove—comfortable with things like regular reading and writing assignments or with learning management systems like Blackboard and Sakai. Perhaps we’ve been library users more recently than those returning to school after time away and the issues surrounding, say, an academic library may be fresher in our minds. We may not have as much job (or life) experience, but we’re eager to learn.

Being new often means being open. Although some people enter library school with a clear direction and career goals, many don’t. I’ve spoken with multiple second-year master’s students who have changed specializations as they explored their interests in the past year. Staying loose and allowing some room to discover new possibilities for future careers is a great mindset when starting school.

Embrace being a beginner. That novice-ness I’ve been feeling has compelled me to ask questions, talk to other librarians, and to look for ways to get the experience I feel I lack. Interested in another student’s past job or current on-campus assistantship? Want to learn more about a certain professor’s research or a librarian’s job? Take them for coffee and ask them about it.

As one of my college professors once told me, feeling behind can be a really powerful motivator. In her words, “lean into the punch”: face any feelings of intimidation, get busy, and jump into new things. Get involved with professional student organizations, look for volunteer opportunities, and find a part-time job or internship as soon as possible (I’m still working on that one—Brianna Marshall has great Tips). Get to know people and learn from each other—these are your future colleagues.

Sure, I could have taken more time before beginning library school, but this is the path I chose. I’ve found it really useful to think of library school as a new adventure. I’m ready to learn, explore, and make new connections. I’m excited to be here.

Did you feel ready for Library School as recent grad or older student? What helped you to navigate the new adventure?

Make sure to check out articles in our Starter Kit Series to help you navigate the first weeks and months of your LIS.

Julia Feerrar is a first year master’s student at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. She recently completed her BA in English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. Julia hopes to draw on her English background while pursuing her interests in academic librarianship, research/scholarly communications, and digital humanities. She is enjoying many opportunities to explore new realms in library school, including Twitter (@JuliaFeerrar).

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§ 5 Responses to Am I Ready for Library School? [Starter Kit]

  • Thomas Weeks says:

    I, too, jumped in to library school the fall after my spring graduation and all is great so far! I feel like I can learn from classmates who have a lot of experience, and also bring different perspectives in to some of the discussions.

  • I agree that there’s no ideal preparation for library school (there never was and probably less so these days), and I believe everyone needs to start where they are and avoid a lot of second guessing once they’ve made a decision. On the other hand, I’d like to bring a different trajectory into the conversation–not to argue with Julia in any way, but perhaps to provide an alternate view to those still just thinking about going to library school.

    I started working full time in an academic library while still an undergrad, when financial decisions required that full time work plus part time school be the order of the day. At the time, I had a very different career goal, and those two years really shifted my goals substantially. I liked working in the library, enjoyed the people I worked with, and had incredible opportunities to learn about different aspects of library work. After two years finishing up my undergrad degree, two additional years working in two other academic libraries, I decided to go to library school. I chose to return to my undergrad institution (lots of stories about why and how, which I’ll not go into here), and spent three years working in the library and completing my MLIS evenings and summers. During those seven years I worked in circulation, acquisitions, cataloging (monographs and serials), and gained supervisory experience as well as computer experience (this was the early to mid-seventies, so I’m talking about a very different kind of computer experience than we talk about currently). It took me almost a year to get a job after I graduated, primarily because of the terrible job market in libraries then, as well as the fact that I had been a shop steward while working my last three years.

    Probably the best thing about that experience was the variety. I don’t think there was any other way I could have gained the understanding I built up then (and still use now) about how all the various functions work together and relate to one another. It would have been fairly impossible to get that experience as a professional because there’s a fair amount of pressure (internal and external, I think) to specialize one’s training early on, and that probably makes even more sense in today’s world, where there seems to be so much more to learn.

    But I also built up some really important skills during that time, in what we called ‘bibliographic searching’ (using the then-print tools) to determine what the library actually held, primarily for the purpose of making purchase decisions. This was very much what library research was about for everyone in those days, and I had a very good grounding in those skills–and some incredible librarians to learn from. I also learned cataloging, both how to use the print tools and the then-new online tool–OCLC. We still hear an awful lot of discussion about whether library schools should teach those specific skills, and I don’t think they can do that effectively, but they certainly can teach things like bibliographic theory, indexing, knowledge management, and all kinds of things that I learned independently, because neither my library school nor my job was prepared to teach any of that. I think that school and many others are better prepared now to introduce those topics, but it’s still unclear to me whether libraries have figured out that they’ll never be able to depend on library schools to teach the skills portion, and that they’ll continue to have to do that themselves, somehow. These days the market for trained professional catalogers is drying up (as it should, I think), and most cataloging of all sorts is done by support staff, and that’s unlikely to change except to become more prevalent.

    I remain eternally grateful for the grounding I received in that seven years, and I would have been a much different librarian without it. Do I generally suggest getting working experience between an undergrad degree and library school–yes, I do, if only because it helps clarify what KIND of library work a prospective librarian wants to do, and builds confidence for the student (as well as a potential source of personal support). Seven years is certainly not necessary, but a year or two might make a difference, particularly when a job could be combined with coursework.

    Good luck to all you current students and new librarians–it’s a great time to be a librarian!

  • Casey McCoy says:

    Really great post! I’m currently waiting to hear back from a couple schools to start a LIS program in the Spring, and I’m so nervous! This blog is a great resource and insight into the profession; it keeps me grounded by seeing so many other students with the same concerns and worries I’m having now. Thanks for the post!

  • Julia, I love this! I wholly agree with your “being new often means being open” statement.

    I’m a first year MLIS student at Florida State University. I’ve felt like such an odd ball in the mix so far. When I was visiting Tallahassee and shopping for apartments someone thought I was a freshmen! Sigh.

    I feel ready and not ready all at the same time. I’m struggling to articulate myself confidently, simply because I feel small at times. I’m 21, not 6 and yet… sometimes I feel like I am. Other times I feel more prepared than others. We all bring so many different things to the table, whether we are coming straight from undergrad or have years of work experience. I’m choosing to to concentrate on what I can do, learn everything I am interested in, and hope I find surprises along the way.

  • Amen, sister! I LOVE this post too–probably because I relate to it so much. I am accustomed to always being younger than my peers–I graduated from high school at 17, undergrad at 20, and I’ll leave IU with two Master’s degrees at 23. (It’s really weird to write all that out because I sound SOOO young, even to myself. But I’ve never felt that young.) Anyhow… age doesn’t really matter. Because library school is such a mixed bag other people don’t know how old you are AT ALL. Of course, they’ll probably be able to guess somewhat but it still doesn’t matter. I’ve known many variations of library student and in my opinion there is not a correlation between age and academic preparedness. Lots of students come to library school from a completely different discipline. And the truth is that there will always be peers who are ahead of you in your particular field. (I experience this all the time as I try to build my competencies as a technologist/librarian/archivist, but I have a thick skin and I take it day by day. But yes, you will feel like a fool often and that is totally fine.)

    It’s funny… I’ve had plenty of peers come to me and complain about students who come to library school straight from undergrad, not knowing that that was me! I understood where they were coming from, though: I do sometimes see students coming straight from undergrad who are slow or unwilling to battle for experience in the way that they need to. I’ve known some who just want a Master’s degree no matter the cost. I’ve known some who just don’t.do.anything. And yes, it’s mostly young students fresh from undergrad. So really, I think it’s an issue of attitude rather than academic preparedness BUT it’s certainly not everyone. I think this issue falls back to lax admissions standards and poor departmental advising when it is the case…and I should add that I see a lot of older students “hiding out” in library school who already have multiple Master’s/a PhD, only a vague interest in library/information work, and admit to just getting another degree to wait out the economy. Not hating on anyone, just pointing out that library school performance is highly dependent on the individual and not their age.

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