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. 😉

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!

The MLIS vs. the MLS

You know what’s cool? Starting to feel like you are part of a career/profession. I am nearing the end of my degree program, and I am starting to reach out to the profession and have been really excited and impressed by the responses I have gotten from established librarians/bloggers. Especially through my “What I Learned in Library School…” series, I am excited to enter the field with such interesting and qualified peers as I have had the pleasure of featuring.

Seeing the profession a little closer has also raised some questions about the value of my degree. Uh oh. The “What the hell am I going to do after I graduate” question. Well, not exactly. In my Foundations of Information Professions course the other day, taught by the amazing Dr. Christie Koontz, a point was raised that caught me off guard. She noted to us that we are on track to receive a Masters of Library and Information Studies, NOT a Masters in Library Science. Hmmm… no big deal, right? I don’t know. I have been going back through all the people I respect and read regularly and have been noticing that there is a pretty even spread between the MLS and the MLIS.

Image from US News and World Report

After some further research I learned that the discrepancy that I have so recently noticed is not at all a new trait in the profession. Almost since the advent of library schools has the issue of theory vs. practice been at stake. Is this the core issue between the MLS and the MLIS? Does the Information part make that much of a difference, or is it the “science” vs. “studies” part? Is Library School supposed to be specialized professional training in the work of Librarianship, or are there larger considerations that must be accounted for in the preparation of the new “Information Professional“? Does it really have to be that complicated?

Here’s what I think: it doesn’t really matter either way. The value of the degree comes from the effort put into it by the student. I plan to get out of my MLIS what I came into it for, a thorough understanding of the current information climate so that I can be prepared to address whatever may come my way as a professional. I may work in a library, I may not. What is important to me, and perhaps to many of my peers, is the fact that we believe in the mission of cultural institutions to preserve and share Knowledge and that access to Information of all types is crucial to the continuation of an engaged society. (OMG. Did I just write a personal mission statement?!)

One thing I am sure of is that things won’t be the same. I really believe that the future of the field will consist of a variety of cultural institutions (and corporations) plucking their employees from a extremely qualified, interested and hard working pool of Information Professionals with broad interests and broader skill sets. Professionals already working in the field, what do you think? Does the degree matter that much? Are the variety of skills necessary for your institutions being addressed in library school? When hiring a fresh-faced library student what are the top 2 things you must see on their resume? ALA membership and an accredited degree? What about great references and good ideas?

This post was inspired in part by Kim Leeder’s article on the “real work” of librarianship and Bobbi Newman’s amazing list of links for a potential/job seeking library school student.

[Guest Post] “What I Learned in Library School” or Tricks of the Trade: Insights of a Career Resource Librarian

As I am slowly getting adjusted to my brand new life in NYC, I figured this would be a great time to hear from another library schooler about their experience in the MLS. This post is particularly pertinent to me right now since I am working as a Web Applications Intern at the Brooklyn Public Library, and making a drastic shift to prepare myself for a future in the information professions. For those on the edge of graduation, or like myself, in the midst of a job search, this post is for you.

Meet Cheryl Kohen. Cheryl became Career Resource Librarian at Simmons College in December, 2007. Prior to joining the Simmons Library staff, she graduated from both the Simmons College undergraduate program as a double major in English and Philosophy, as well as receiving her Master’s degree from the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  Aside from her duties in the CRL, as a course instructor through the GSLIS Continuing Education Office, Cheryl also teaches a month long online course entitled, “The Career-Savvy Information Professional,”  and reviews career resources for the publication “Choice Review.”  Lastly, since 2008, Cheryl runs a “Career Center” at the Massachusetts Library Association Annual Conference in May, where she helps current librarians search for job and professional development opportunities. Cheryl’s contact info is at the bottom of the post.

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As the Career Resource Librarian at Simmons College, where I received my MS in Library and Information Science, and now teach career workshops to future recipients of this degree, I’ve learned many savvy career tips when job seeking and navigating the LIS websites.  Allow me to share.

Getting Out There

Though this statistic tends to change, about 70% of new jobs come from effective networking.  Even while you are still in library school and especially for those who have graduated and are actively job hunting, use your networks!  Does your alma mater have an online alumni directory that is accessible for you to search?  Friends and family who work for the organization?  What about community members?  Have you joined online groups like LinkedIn or ALAConnect? Are you a member of professional organizations?  Do you attend meetings, conferences?  Do you know where to look when locating upcoming events (browse Marian Dworaczek webpage of Library Related Conferences?  Do you volunteer?

Once you’ve started to build your network, keep in touch.  Remember, networking should be a reciprocal relationship.  You don’t want to always approach people in your network by asking them for something: a recommendation, a job, a reference.  Instead, contact someone in your network by sending them an article that you’ve found particularly relevant to the work they do.  Another innovative way to get someone’s attention is to gift them an iTunes song.  For public librarians, I recommend Lunch Money’s “I Love My Library.”

How Many Different Ways Can We Say ‘Information Professional?’

Using a library job aggregator site like Libgig.com in tandem with the social networking site LinkedIn is a great way to explore unique job titles and learn more about various library positions.  As you scroll through the many jobs on Libgig, there are many traditional job titles such as Librarian, Reference, Director, etc.  However, begin to look through some of the alternative titles that interest you, Programmer, Taxonomist, Knowledge Manager, or Information Architect.  Look at the live listings that describe the job functions and requirements for these positions.  What are employers asking for?  What do they require?  What do they prefer?  To learn even more about, say, becoming a Knowledge Manager, use your network of professionals.  Do your professors know professionals with this job title?  If yes, can they introduce you?  Do Knowledge Managers have their own professional association, or a branch/chapter from another association?  Do they meet in your area?

Also, a new feature that Libgig introduced on their 2.0 site is connecting these job listings (company name and contact name) with your LinkedIn network.  As you read through the full job listing, notice the little blue “in” square next to the name of the organization up top.  By clicking on this icon, the user can seamlessly see if the contact person for a job listing is connected to any of their LinkedIn connections.

You Put ‘What’ On Your Resume?

Updating a resume (or crafting a new resume) is always a daunting task.  I describe resume writing as the worst poem you’ll ever draft.  Stylized language is difficult, especially in the information industry where employers are looking for specific keywords and library lingo as proof of credibility.  The question becomes, how do I best convey my experiences and expertise, and what do other librarians put on their resume to do the same?  A trick I discovered when clicking through LISjobs.com is that job seekers can not only post their own resume to this highly useful site, but they may also view other resumes posted.  I’m not advocating these as perfect examples, but viewing other resumes might give you good ideas of what you want to do (or not do!) for your own.

To Quote Mary Jane from Spiderman, “Go Get ‘Em, Tiger!”

Staying behind the computer screen is a start, but go out and meet new professionals!  As information professionals, we’re surrounded by people who love to provide information, and by working in a service-based profession, usually people are happy to help.  So again, use the people around you and reach out to new professionals.  Let people know you are job hunting.  Ask questions.  Be a life-long learner, a good listener, and self-starter.  Blog, tweet, text, post, and then walk away from your seat and go out into the world.  You never know who you might meet next.

Still at your desk?  Feel free to browse through the Simmons College Library Career Guides. Get click-happy through our LIS Career Guide and find more job sites geared toward professionals just like you.

Cheryl Kohen | Career Resource Librarian, Simmons College
Email: cheryl.kohen@simmons.edu
Twitter: @cherylkohen