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.
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.
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!