Lessons Learned Halfway Through Library School

18/01/2013 § 10 Comments

As of right now, I am officially halfway finished with my Master of Library Science and Master of Information Science. I am finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Professional librarianship! Benefits! A means to pay back my student loans! It is gratifying to recognize that the work I have been putting in for the past year and a half is building to something. Today I wanted to share some tips with you in the hopes that they will help guide you through your own library school experience.

Know the imperatives

I believe that gaining work experience, as much as you are capable of, is the single most important aspect of library school. I believe that controlling and managing your online presence is a necessity; this includes having a LinkedIn account and a website/eportfolio at the very least. I believe that attending and presenting at conference(s) while in library school is non-negotiable.

I consider these three aspects to be the foundational experiences that every library school student should undertake, but this isn’t necessarily the rhetoric I hear from LIS programs. If anything, it’s a muffled, halfhearted message like: “Try to work while you are in library school.” (Barring extenuating circumstances, there is no try. There is only work.) Or: “It would look really good on your resume if you present at a conference.” Etc. Don’t let this fool you. These experiences are vital.

You’ll note that I didn’t mention coursework. I consider this a supplement to your work, a place to learn and grow but certainly not something worth fixating on to the detriment of building your resume.

Seek out the extras

Library school, like life, is made up of all sorts of little choices. Will you stay late or go home early? Will you do the minimum or seek out extras? Let’s be real–extras are everything. They are the deciding factor that moves you beyond your peers and gets you the job. So find a passion project; jump on opportunities like volunteering, online groups, or involvement in professional organizations. You will be amazed at what happens when you start to dip your toes in, and you’ll probably end up feeling more connected to the profession through these extras than you did before.

Get organized

I realized when I came to library school and my life began filling up–with meetings, jobs, classes, and deadlines galore–that I needed to find a system to deal with a hectic and ever-changing schedule. I feel like I’ve finally perfected a system that works for me. I have three systems that work in tandem to support each other: email, my Google calendar, and Wunderlist.

It seems crazy to me that at one point not so long ago I lived with a messy inbox filled with dozens of drafts and random emails. I can’t even imagine this now! Now, I do my best to respond promptly and archive things that have no use in my inbox. I put actionable tasks into Wunderlist rather than using my inbox for this purpose. Anything that has a date associated with it goes on my Google calendar as well as Wunderlist. I am constantly adding to, subtracting from, and referencing these systems.

Whatever you do, find a system that works for you. You don’t want to be known as that person who never responds to emails or the one who forget meetings. You don’t want to be the person that people like but don’t want to work with because they consider you flaky. Be reliable and dependable so that when mistakes and scheduling mishaps inevitably occur, it doesn’t define you in the eyes of others.

Communicate better

These days, many of my daily communications occur via email with people I have never met. While most are fine and many are delightful, there’s always that occasional weird, careless message that I receive. Maybe the message is brusque, or condescending, or, more likely, just lacking in any warmth. Maybe it’s so garbled and misspelled that it’s hard to understand (oh, the perils of emailing from smartphones!). Maybe there are no thank yous, no pleasantries. All of this has an impact.

Whether a message is enthusiastic and gracious or awkward and rushed, it will affect the impression the recipient has of you. I know this seems basic, but sometimes I wonder if people think about the impression they are making before they hit the send button. The tone of emails you send will be different depending on who they’re going to and your relationship with that person, but in my opinion, if you err on the side of pleasantness and clarity you won’t go wrong.

Hone your self-discipline

Since I arrived at library school, the attitude that has driven me is the thought that I am my only competition. I love this idea and I encourage you to adopt it. When you eliminate the energy you waste worrying or comparing yourself to a peer that seems better in some way, you suddenly find yourself in a space where it is just you working steadily toward your goals. Anxieties are no longer in control; instead, it’s your own self-discipline that makes or breaks you. It’s freeing. Settling on this mindset made me infinitely more productive.

If I had lost myself to comparisons when I came to library school I would never have grown as a professional. Others had lots that I didn’t: library experience, plenty of years on me (I was younger than probably everyone, newly 21 when I started), other Master’s degrees and PhDs, tech skills I couldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole. And yet, I have built a set of experiences that I am proud of. I firmly believe that no matter your background/worries/fears, you can craft a library school experience that takes you to exactly where you want to be.

What lessons have you learned during library school?

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§ 10 Responses to Lessons Learned Halfway Through Library School

  • Annie Pho says:

    This is all great advice Brianna. I think your advice to not compare yourself to others is really great. My first semester I felt overwhelmed and like I didn’t belong because I had classes with people who were already working as librarians but needed to take the classes. I felt like I didn’t know anything. Fortunately, I spoke to a professor who told me to relax and to just not worry about that. Once I did, I felt a lot better and was more motivated to just work on things that interested me.

  • Andrea says:

    This is great advice, though the first paragraph of the “Know the imperatives” section would have scared me when I was still a student. I’ve never even attended a library conference, let alone presented at one, and while I have an active LinkedIn profile, I’ve yet to see the real benefit of it.

    Your suggestions are definitely good ones, but I would argue that no one thing is absolutely necessary: if you hate public speaking as much as I do, presenting at a conference is not the best choice, for example. The trick is to find ways to get involved in the profession, get experience and make connections in a way that works for you. Everyone needs to find their own path.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrea! You make a great point. I agree that there are definitely many paths that students can take in library school and beyond. I’ll share some of my reasons that I consider conferences and LinkedIn to be imperatives.

      Conferences give students a taste of the professional world that can be really tricky to understand from the confines of a classroom–especially when so many of our professors are academics rather than professional librarians. I think presenting is also very important; poster presentations provide a wonderful opportunity for students to have this experience, even if public speaking is nervewracking for them. This is a really low-pressure way to start learning how conferences and presenting works. I know that I felt a lot more connected to the idea of myself as a professional after I presented a poster at a conference. That then led me to start growing more comfortable being on panels and that sort of thing. Beyond the personal growth, I consider presenting a really vital extra on a resume/CV. I always think, this could be what differentiates me from someone else and gets me a job. In this job market and with schools bursting at the seams with students, we need all the experiences we can get. As for LinkedIn, it’s an easy way for me to have a rolodex of professional contacts without having to add them on Facebook or keep track of them elsewhere. It also means that even before I had a website, when someone Googled me they would find a summary of my professional life. I don’t see any reason why not to have a LinkedIn profile since it won’t ever work against someone (unless sloppy/outdated).

      I don’t mean to be overly prescriptive. I don’t think that someone who doesn’t do these things absolutely won’t get a job… just that they really, really help. I would not feel comfortable going on the job market without them. But again, I know that this is just my experience and that there are many other creative ways to connect to the profession, as you noted :)

  • Alex Watkins says:

    I strongly agree with the author, it’s what you do while you’re in school beyond school is what gets you the job when you graduate.

    I think the list is a bit prescriptive, and besides working/interning, I don’t think there is any one thing that you must do. So Andrea, you’re not a good public speaker, try to get a paper published in a library journal. But I would work on getting better at public speaking, it’s a requirement for many library jobs, especially Academic ones, where a presentation is often part of the interview.

    Things to do while in library school so you get a job when you graduate (in my opinion):

    Intern, intern, intern. I know this is hard to fit in but work experience is vital, you have to be able to prove you’ve been in the environment before. On the plus side if you intern at many different places it will also help you know the kind of place you’d like to work. If you have another job and therefore don’t have time to intern on top of school, do practicum courses, so you gets credits out of your time as well. Try to get behind a reference desk, teaching a class, or whatever is you want to be doing as your job when you graduate.

    Present at conferences. You’ll network and get a line on your CV

    Get a paper published. You’ll prove you can handle tenure requirements if you’re going after faculty librarian positions.

    Do projects. These can often be part of a class, but go the extra mile and try to turn them into real, usable things.

    Put any and all of the aforementioned things in an online portfolio. It means you can present all your projects with images and full explanations rather than a line on your resume.

    Be social media savvy, twitter or blog or whatnot. A well-done online presence is one more thing going for you, and proof you can contribute to library outreach. If you blog it’s a writing sample for your potential employees.

    I want to stress though that no single item on this list is required. No one is not going to hire you because you don’t twitter (unless it’s an outreach or emerging technologies position). So don’t fret if some of these things aren’t your thing. Do as much as you can, hopefully they line up with the type of position you’d like. And remember to work or intern, because people definitely might not hire you because you don’t have work experience.

    • Andrea says:

      Thanks Alex. I’ve been employed full-time as a reference librarian since my graduation last April in a special library: while some public speaking is required as part of my position, it’s quite a small part. My summer job and practicum are what helped me get hired, as well as my pre-library school degrees. You and Brianna make excellent suggestions, I just wanted to make the point that not taking advantage of every opportunity during library school doesn’t necessarily make you unemployable as a librarian. That’s something I worried a lot about during school, when I was struggling with an anxiety disorder, so I just wanted to make the point for other readers who might feel the same way I did.

      • Alex Watkins says:

        I completely agree. Doing all these things is nigh impossible, and not necessary, so library students should worry overmuch they they are not superpeople.

        But at the same time Library School is the time of much opportunity, so take what you can when you can. It’s a time when many of these things are a bit more possible. We were writing papers all the time, so turning one into something publishable is a smaller step. We were presenting a lot, so proposing one to a conference is less work. We were doing projects in classes like digital libraries. I think using the work you do in library school as a head start makes things more manageable.

  • Overall, I think this is a really helpful post. The one addition I would make is to keep an open mind regarding job opportunities. Not everyone who goes to LIS school will work in a library or archive. I ended up working as an information architect for a major publishing house in NYC. I (generally speaking) followed the list you laid out, but had to keep an open mind regarding job opportunities because I was moving to a different city (Boston to NYC).

    • Excellent point, Alex. It’s interesting to consider how emotionally tied some of us may be to more traditional job titles like librarian or archivist. I remember talking to someone I met at a conference last year about how she always expected to be a librarian but actually ended up with the title “Reference Specialist” or something like that. I think especially with alt-ac careers we are going to see a lot more coordinator and project manager job titles coming up.

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