Response: Thoughts on Online Library and Information Studies Degree Programs

I totally stole this from FSU - but since they get my tuition money, we'll call it even, deal?

About a month ago my colleague-in-internets, Britt Foster, wrote a intriguing piece outlining her thoughts on the state of online Library Science programs as compared to on-campus programs. After reading her article, which you can and should read here, I knew I must respond. You see, I have had the best of both worlds: This spring will be my final semester as a Master’s student in Florida State University’s School of Library and Information Studies and I spent half of my degree “on-campus” and half “online.” The program itself is entirely online, but since I was living in Tallahassee for the first half of my degree, I was able to meet other students, interface with professors occasionally, and be active as a graduate student on a college campus. So I have a unique perspective that I’d like to bring into discussion with Britt’s excellent piece. Here goes…

Britt digs right in with the proposal that, based on her experience and research, on-campus programs have the potential to produce a higher level student.

She states, “I think that being at an on-campus program can raise the quality of their work, just through being around a range of students… This way to be in the information professions– how to speak, how to phrase, what language to use in talking rather than typing– this conveys a lot about the professional exchange of ideas, and at what level that exchange is superior.”

Assuredly, peer interaction is invaluable, and on this point I would tend to agree with Britt. However, this doesn’t take into account those of us onliners who adapt very easily to any environment, and create our own peer networks (online and off) for conversation and sharing of ideas in virtual spaces outside of the classroom. For instance, in one of my first classes I met Natalie Binder. We had similar interests in the web 2.0 space, and had some good chat conversations during class. Natalie works at a small rural library about 30 miles outside of Tallahassee, and since I had never been to a rural library I hopped on my motorcycle and went and volunteered there for a day. Since then Natalie and I have kept up communication through Twitter and commenting on blogs back and forth, and I really value her opinions and ideas on professional librarianship.

Two other points Britt mentioned that are right on – the convenience and cost of an online program is a deciding factor for many. I have found that many of my peers in FSU’s program are working librarians who are finally able to complete the degree because of the online option. All of our classes are in the evenings, and its great to be able to eat dinner (plus wine!) while learning about intellectual freedom. We also have the option for guest speakers piped in via the web that really enhance the literature and coursework. While convenience and cost might convince many to go online, I ended up there because a professor from my previous MA in American Studies suggested it to me as an option before committing to a PhD program. And I am so glad he did, because through my studies I have found a profession that I really enjoy and can see myself working diligently in.

I think that what Britt might have been getting at, and a thought I have had more than once, is that perhaps on-campus programs are more apt to produce Scholar/Librarians, who are more immersed in the physical and mental work of theoretical discourse simply because a classroom setting allows for that, whereas a chatroom (no matter how sophisticated) does not. It is telling that FSU’s PhD track in LIS is an on-campus option only. It would be interesting to compare the ratio of researching/publishing between online and on-campus LIS students. I don’t mean to devalue the caliber of education that is the online program – it has certainly worked for me – but I also came to it from a very small MA program where I learned and shared in scholarship with peers in a face to face environment.  So what am I trying to say? Is the online MLIS watering down the value of the degree? Will a UCLA grad have a better chance at a job than a FSU grad?

One last example: in my current work, which grew out of an internship at Brooklyn Public Library, I have the pleasure to work closely with two capable, interesting and smart MLIS grads. One did an MLIS degree as a hybrid online/on-campus at San Jose State, the other on-campus at Pratt SILS here in New York, and myself, online through Florida State. We all work very well together, have similar interests and really great, difficult, theoretical conversations about the place of cultural heritage, digitization standards, metadata, inter-institutional projects, real-life librarianship and more. I am working at Brooklyn Public, one colleague at Brooklyn Museum and the other at Brooklyn Historical Society. In this case it seems to me that how and where we did our degrees matters very little, and that what does matter is that we are enthusiastic about the work.

I think we could say that overall the cream always rises to the top. And right now, I would think that being visible, engaging and asking hard questions in an online format is a great way to prove ones value to the field. Cheers to you, Britt. 😉

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Weekender Tip – Google Custom Search for LIS folks

I built something that could be useful for readers/writers in the Library world. Thanks entirely to the web hacking genius of Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb where I have been interning, and the generous list Andy Woodworth shared with me, I wrangled ~50 “top Library blogs” and shoved them all into a Google Custom Search.

How does that matter to me, you ask? Well, using this snazzy little tool you can plug in a term and search these top library blogs to see if it shows up.

How might this be useful? For example, I am researching a blog post for this here blog that will be on the topic of censorship. So, I click over to my Top Lib. Blogs CSE and plub in “censorship”, and BAM! I get a pageful of results that I can link to, read, argue with, etc.

Check out the LIS Blog Custom Search HERE.

What blogs am I missing that you read daily, that should be on the list? Here’s what I already have, please add/edit/suggest away (Google Doc). We can all utilize this to write more efficiently and share resources more effectively.

Re: #hacklibschool — The Short Version

It starts...

I actually have no time to write at the present (behind on schoolwork as any good student should be) but this is so cool I had to share. Will expound later on —

A few weeks ago I proposed we “Hack Library School.” The project is doing well.

Delicious. Wiki. Gdoc. Tweets.

My role in this? I’m building a hyper analytical RSS masher tool website so that librarians, and especially students can click one or two buttons and get a feel for what is going on right now in the field, without chasing links and Google Searching out the wazoo.

Tools I’m using – in more detail later:

Google Custom Search – Sooooooooooo cool and useful. Try a search for “ebooks.”

RSS grabbing, plugged into Netvibes, output OPML file, run through PostRank which then ranks blogs based on engagement. Soooper useful to see most popular topics, writers, ideas, etc.

Then, I’m gonna buy hacklibschool.org, plug all this amazing content up there and let the machine run itself!

Other ideas in the works too… taking suggestions also!

Everything I know about the internet I learned from Marshall Kirkpatrick.

Here. Here. Here. <— read, do, enjoy the internets much more.

The Job

This is the post I have been waiting to write for some time now. Although I was officially hired about a week ago, I was nervous and unsure about it up until today, when I actually went and worked a whole day. (This is what I did today.) It seems pretty legit at this point.

I am proud to announce that I have been hired as the Project CHART (Cultural Heritage Access Research and Technology) Coordinator at the Brooklyn Public Library effective immediately. Allow me to explain:

Project CHART is a multi-institutional, IMLS-funded grant program focusing on digitizing historic photographs. The grant is sponsored through Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science, and in addition to the Brooklyn Library, the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Historical Society are partners. Our “kickoff” meeting was yesterday, and I am throughly dumb-founded at the planning and foresight that has already gone into this project, and at what is left to do! Fortunately the CHART team is comprised of intelligent, skilled professionals (and me), and I am really looking forward to the next three years. (Did I mention that it is a three year grant? Very nice!)

Top 5 things that are awesome about Project CHART and the fact that they hired me:

  1. I get to work in “the field.” I was starting to think for a while that I would never find a job that would allow me to utilize my education. This has now been proven wrong and I have hope once again.
  2. The ultimate goal of the grant is to “prepare LIS students to become digital managers for cultural heritage institutions.” WHAT? That is the exact reason I went into the MLIS! I was looking for a way to pair my interests and background in American culture studies with digital preservation. So now I am involved in a project that is working toward defining that as a curriculum. No way? Way.
  3. The Institutions – I, Micah L. Vandegrift, will be in a professional position doing important and interesting things with like-minded people who work at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Public Library. These are like gigantic, established, capital “I” institutions of culture, history and art in freaking NEW YORK CITY. I’m still amazed just walking past the buildings, much less actually doing work inside them.
  4. The People – I was mostly simply amazed at the Kickoff meeting. Just listening to the President of the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Director of Library and Archives at Brooklyn Museum, the Dean of Pratt’s School of ILS, and the Director of Brooklyn Public Library do a item-line budget was overwhelming. Not to mention the archivists/digitization experts who will be supervising team members at the sites. THEN my counterparts (Project Coordinators) at BrookMuse and BHS. Whole lotta awesome in one room.
  5. This seems like the opportunity that perfectly melds my skills with my professional goals. I am alright at web development and production, pretty good at project management, amazing at social/digital media (duh), interested in archives and special collections, captured by ideas like crowdsourcing and curation and fascinated by historic objects. I kept trying to define what sort of job I would want after graduation, and any combination of those elements would make me happy. Serving as a coordinator for Project CHART basically sums all that up.

So my “job” will actually be supervising two interns at BPL as we digitize, metadatatize, and archivize around 6000 photos. Also, the library will be housing the webspace where the shared collections from the three institutions will live, and I hear there’s a Drupal build in the works. No better time to get my hands in some of that too. I will also be planning and executing a variety of symposia, conference papers/presentations, marketing/promo stuffs in collaboration with the other institutions. Find a keynote speaker? Done. Book a trip to a national conference to present a poster on the project? Of course. Strategize, design and maintain a social media presence for the project? Lemmie at it!

In case you hadn’t noticed I’m excited. I am actually still interning at the library 9 hours a week for credit, and will finish my degree in May, but I feel like this is a pretty good step in the right direction. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it over the coming months. Oh, and it is only 20 hours a week, so I’m still accepting offers for the other 20 hours of my work week. 😉

Project CHART final narrative is here if you’re interested. [PDF]

[Guest Post] What I Learned in Library School: Changing my viewpoint and outlook

This edition of the “What I Learned…” series is the final post of the lot. I have really enjoyed featuring my fellow Lib.School students and hearing their thoughts and experiences, and I hope you have too. I am starting to look toward the end of my tenure as a student (May 2011!) and to that end I am planning to begin writing about and interacting with content from the perspective of a professional. That said, I am delighted to feature a fellow blogger who is making a similar transition; Julia Skinner is an MLIS student at the University of Iowa and is currently applying to PhD programs in the same field. She blogs here and can be found tweeting here.

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When I was a kid, I loved the school library, but Library and Information Science (LIS) as a profession was never even on my radar. I had talked myself into believing that my college degree should be practical (followed by my acquisition of the most impractical degree ever: a B.A. in Psychology). It wasn’t until a friend told me about someone he knew in the University of Iowa’s program that I ever considered this path. Once I decided to go, I had a lot of my assumptions challenged and ended up with a completely different set of interests and a completely different outlook than I had even a year ago. Now, I am absolutely in love with my career, my future prospects, my colleagues, and my research! I have found that doing library history research and open access publishing (along with a hodgepodge of other things) is really my niche, and I love that I can be in a field where my ‘niche’ consists of 5-10 disparate interests!
When I entered LIS school, I was not an early adopter by any sense of the word, and I saw LIS as a way to move past the dead-end service jobs I was so tired of. You can understand my sense of bitterness, then, when I learned that librarians are constantly adapting to new technologies in order to better serve their patrons! For some reason, this translated to me as 1. that I needed to become expert in a variety of digital technologies I had never used and 2. that I would be stuck in customer service the rest of my life. I got over both of these rather quickly, especially after I got farther into my coursework and got to interact with ‘real librarians.’ Even though neither of the statements above are entirely untrue, the problem that I had was that my approach was from a place of someone who felt negative toward change and scared that branching out so far away from anything I had done would inevitably equal failure.

Of course that isn’t true! Even if I’m not technologically proficient in a lot of areas (I can’t, for example, write Javascript to save my life, although I’d be willing to learn), my new outlook is one where I am comfortable taking what I would have before considered ‘risks’ with technology: I am willing to try something new or to take a stab at learning a program I don’t know, and if I don’t like it there’s no law saying I have to use it! The great thing about a lot of the stuff that’s being talked about by my LIS friends right now is that it’s very accessible: for example, Prezi is an awesome presentation-creating platform, but it only took me about 5 minutes to learn!

I also have to laugh at myself when I had envisioned librarianship as an extension of the mundane service industry jobs I had held for years. Of course in some sense it is, because you will always have people asking questions that you just want to roll your eyes at, or you’ll have a patron that will make you mad, or whatever.

The big difference between what we do and what I did in a cafeteria (or coffeehouse, or call center, or my current job as a bus driver) is that librarianship is a field where you are providing something that (at least to me) is much more fundamental and exciting than fish that’s been scraped off a steam table tray. We are giving people information, and that means that we are empowering people to educate themselves and to figure out steps for directions they want to take. We are also giving people information for leisure (romance novels!) and for sharing with others (kids’ books!) Because we are entrusted with the task of sharing information, it becomes a process of sharing ourselves and our libraries too, and we want to give our patrons/students/story time kids/whoever a great experience and deliver what they’re looking for in a way that responds to their needs.
One professor from my first semester, Padmini Srinivasan, used the best phrase I’ve heard for describing our role when she talked about librarians as “information brokers.” As more time goes on, we are moving farther away from being confined to a desk and a finite catalog of holdings within a physical space, but we will always serve as the liaison between the patron and a vast body of knowledge.

Thanks to very patient faculty and supportive fellow students, I was able to work through places I got ‘stuck,’ especially in the first semester “Foundations” courses when everything that was being thrown our way was new and potentially mind-boggling. After a while though, I found my niche (and I think almost everyone does), which happens to be in academic research rather than in librarianship, per se. What’s so funny to me about this is that, again, I didn’t realize how broad and amazing our field is in regards to research too! The great thing is that, whether you’re studying library history, censorship, social media, programming, pedagogy, use studies, or anything else, you can find a group of researchers who are working along the same lines and with whom you can connect. Just as in librarianship itself, library & information science researchers are more welcoming and supportive than most other fields. I’ve worked with some wonderful people in an array of fields and had some great professors rooting for me over the years, but I feel like in LIS you find researchers who are more passionate and connected; they are not only interested in talking about what they do (often with hand gestures! I’m partial to sparkle hands/fingers myself), but also in listening to what YOU are doing!

LIS is a great place for lifelong learning and connecting with others, and it has really changed my outlook in a lot of ways. One of the first things that strikes you when you enter this field is how passionate and engaged everyone is! I’ve met very few folks in LIS who just got the degree to get a job to pay the bills. Every field has people that are just there because they weren’t sure what else they wanted to do, but that’s pretty rare here. People in LIS love people, and they love sharing what they know. I loved sharing knowledge before coming here, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I would approach that in my professional life. When I started school I first connected with my colleagues’ passion for materials (especially in the rare books and manuscripts world), but now I connect with the passion for helping patrons that is such an important part of our work.

I also love that LIS is kind of a ‘cross over’ field. You get a practical Master’s degree that will get you a job, but while you’re learning about that field you are inevitably crossing over into the realm of an ‘academic’ degree. By virtue of dealing with information, you enter into scholarly, theoretical discussions and have to encounter and try to work through sticky gray areas every time you deal with book challenges, materials selection, or even something like inviting an author to speak. Even though I am taking the research route, this means that I can still interact with people who are on the front lines in the libraries without feeling like we’re out of touch. Best of all, it keeps us researchers honest, because our findings have to relate to what librarians are doing (or in my case, what they did in the past), and we can’t become so far removed from the field that we become irrelevant.

For students who are just starting out, if you are like me you are probably confused and unsure of yourself, but stick with it! This is the most rewarding profession I can imagine, and people are connected in person and online to such an extent that you can always find other LIS folk (students or professionals) who you can turn to. I love that librarians are passionate and always at the forefront of new trends, innovating and adapting very rapidly. In all the different paths I’ve taken, I have always wanted to be someone who embraced change in such a way, but never felt like I was inspired to really do that until I got settled into LIS. It’s a wild ride, but it’s well worth it, and even on the hard days you will love the work you do and the people you meet along the way!