The leaves are falling, the weather is cooling (at least for those of us in temperate climates), and November is whipping by. I can hardly believe how quickly this semester has gone, but I am very excited to head home for the fast-approaching holidays. Like me, you may be looking forward to gatherings of family and friends in the coming weeks—and quite possibly anticipating a lot of curiosity about library school and librarianship.
The many questions and quizzical looks I receive when explaining my career aspirations and current studies surprised me at first. Until I started to apply for library school and to attempt to explain my plans to friends and family, I didn’t realize how misunderstood and underutilized librarians often are. I have received questions like: Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian? Why do we need librarians now that we can get so much online? And the crowd favorite: Are you going to take classes about shh-ing people? I have found, as I am sure every librarian and wannabe librarian does, that those without a lot of experience in “library land” often have a fairly foggy idea of what librarians do and therefore have trouble imagining the training and study involved in master’s programs.
We need to get better at explaining ourselves. Topher offers great advice on fielding some common questions and misconceptions here. I’d like to build on his ideas with a particular focus on the term library science. Of all the questions I’ve received from friends, family, and acquaintances, I’ve noticed the most confusion surrounding the ‘science’ aspect: So you’re studying library science…what is that exactly? How can librarianship be a science? Why isn’t your program described as library arts or library studies?
Those questions have stuck with me through my first semester of library school. At first I wondered if the phrase library science needs a change, but I have since concluded that it emphasizes important features of our programs. Here are the strategies I have found useful for explaining library science:
Frame library science as a social science. So much of what we learn and do in the classroom and at work draws on a range of disciplines concerned with human behavior and society. For example, practices for interacting with patrons and selecting resources draw on education, psychology, communication, and sociology. Like many of the social sciences, library science is concerned with both intellectual advancement and professional practice; library school gives us tools to think critically and develop the skills we learn on the job—much like master’s programs in education. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary nature of library and information science programs may lead to employment outside of traditional library settings, such as with book vendors or digital initiatives.
Emphasize training and hard skills. Technical training, both in school and on-the-job, allows librarians to complete a variety of complex tasks such as cataloguing, systems management, and web design. Librarians may be database designers, budget managers, resource selectors, and so much more. Many of these complex, technical roles go on behind the scenes in libraries. People who only interact with circulation staff may not even consider the existence of the librarians working to select, buy, categorize, and label a book they want to borrow.
Give examples. Nothing replaces a confused look with a smile of recognition like a clear, concrete example. I’ve found it easier to put library science into clear terms when I give examples from the classes I’m taking, projects I’m working on, or a specific job I’d like to have and what it would take to get there.
Talk about what you love. Although the features of librarianship that most excite and motivate you may not relate directly to the science question, your love for what you do will probably make the most lasting impression. Describing library science is only part of larger conversations involving the ‘who, what, why, and how’ of librarianship—and I would venture to say that any of these conversations are worth having.
How do you explain library science? Have any questions about what you do and why you do it stumped you? Do you have any favorite strategies for explaining your career path?