Mar 02 2009
by Carol Howe
Whenever I tell people I’m a librarian, they say “Oh, that’s wonderful! You must really love books!” My own father thinks that my only job responsibility is suggesting crime novels and popular science fiction to avid readers. I do, in fact, like books, but that has nothing to do with my career choice.
I admit that I jumped into librarianship without knowing exactly what I was getting into. I knew that I enjoyed helping people, investigating the unknown, and organizing information. What I didn’t know were the nitty-gritty details of a librarian’s day-to-day work life. Sure, I picked up a lot of clues while working on my master’s degree, but there are many things I wish I’d learned.
Keeping up with professional development
Professional development and continuing education are crucial to a librarian’s career, due to the ever-changing nature of the field. This, however, was not stressed in library school. In my first interview for a librarian position, the interviewer asked me what lists I found especially helpful. At the time, I wasn’t following any! I muddled my way through the question by beating around the bush, but it taught me an important lesson. Now, I read professional literature on a daily basis. Whether you follow professional journals, lists, blogs, or electronic newsletters, reading professional literature is one of the easiest ways to keep up with your profession.
Library functions other than your own
Those who work in libraries know that the circulation desk is a vital part of the library’s operation. So, why is it brushed under the carpet in library school? When I started my first professional position, I hadn’t learned anything about how a circulation desk operates. I could see that it was bustling with activity and that the circulation desk manager seemed to know all the patrons. While not every patron will visit the reference desk (sorry reference librarians — I’m in the same boat!), they will invariably stop by the circulation desk at some point.
After getting comfortable with my reference position, I made it a goal to understand how the circulation desk works. The manager taught me the ropes, and I worked a few shifts there. This is a great way to understand another aspect of the library, and it also enables you to get to know your patrons (and perhaps provide a much-needed bathroom break for a coworker!). It’s helpful to learn about other areas of the library, too, like technical services and interlibrary loan.
As a reference librarian, instruction is a large part of my job. In my former career as a computer programmer, I nearly had a heart attack when I was told that I would have to teach a six-hour class twice a month. To ease my shaky nerves, I joined Toastmasters International, a public speaking organization with clubs around the country (and the world!). My experience with speaking, both at my job and at my local Toastmasters club, later helped me secure a library position. Teaching and public speaking were not requirements in my master’s program, so I feel lucky to have gotten this experience outside of school. However, I have heard other budding librarians say they are frustrated by the lack of teaching opportunities to prepare them for professional positions.
A great way to get experience speaking is to join a local Toastmasters club. Also, volunteer organizations sometimes need people to speak about what they know. Maybe you can teach a group of elderly citizens how to use the Internet, or teach one of your non-library skills, such as gardening. You may also want to consider an internship. Since I had no library experience whatsoever starting out, I made the difficult decision to leave my full-time job in pharmaceuticals and pursue a library internship. Although teaching was not a requirement of the internship, I volunteered to teach several library classes to familiarize myself with teaching in a library environment.
Despite these experiences, I still found my skills lacking in several areas. Specifically, I wish I’d learned something about instructional theory and design, educational technology, and assessment. I ultimately gained experience-and you can, too — on the job by sitting in on coworkers’ instruction sessions, through professional reading, and by talking to fellow library and education professionals.
Librarians today are expected to do more teaching than ever before, and it would be beneficial if library programs required, rather than merely suggested, education electives. I especially admire the University of North Carolina at Greensboro which has housed its Library & Information Studies Department within the School of Education.
Make Friends with Your IT Department
These days, librarians know that their jobs entail much more than recommending books. Among many other necessary skills, librarians need to keep abreast of new technology. But, we don’t work in a vacuum. Especially where technology is concerned, librarians often need to interact with their Information Technology (IT) departments. Although I learned many things about technology in library school, I didn’t realize until my first professional library position how important it is to be able to interact with IT staff. For example, when I wanted to track the usage of the library’s electronic tutorials, I had to work with the university’s Webmaster to create the necessary Java script. When the library wanted to upgrade its online catalog, the university’s network administrator had to be consulted.
To further educate myself, I enrolled in an online course called Basic Networking and Operating Systems for Librarians. For the class project, I worked on a mock technology proposal for which I had to consult with various members of our IT staff. I learned about the library’s local area network and servers and about the operating system and hard drive size of our library’s computers. Now I have the knowledge and jargon to communicate effectively with our IT department. It’s also helpful to participate in (or suggest, if necessary) joint library/IT meetings so technology decisions are made with all relevant information from both departments in mind.
Coming from a corporate environment, I wasn’t prepared for life in academia; many who embark on librarianship as a second career may be in the same position. One thing that surprised me was how much my job responsibilities as a librarian are self-motivated. Without the rigid deadlines I was used to in the pharmaceutical industry, I found it was easy to fall behind. What helped the most was setting deadlines for myself. I found that time management tools are a must, such as those available in Microsoft Outlook or open-source tools like Remember the Milk and Zoho Planner. I’ve also found that I have a lot more allowance to be creative regarding what projects I work on. When I read or hear about something that interests me, I try to be proactive about suggesting we try it, if it is potentially valuable to our patrons.
Of course, different libraries will have different cultures; this isn’t something they can teach in library school. One thing I wish they had taught, however, was how to ask the right questions in the interview process. I wish I had known that I was interviewing the library staff as much as they were interviewing me! Some questions that might help are: “What is a typical day like,” “What is the most challenging part of the job,” “Is the library supported financially and ideologically by its governing body,” “What is the relationship between the librarians and other departments,” or, simply “What is the environment like here?”
All things to all people?
Library school cannot be all things to all people. Students with interests in different areas of librarianship may need to do a lot of fact-finding on their own (and, as librarians, they can!). Furthermore, as in many other professions, in-depth learning comes with work experience and cannot be taught in a three-credit course.
That said, I think some important lessons were skipped over in library school, perhaps with the thought that they were so obvious we already knew them. (I know that I’ve been guilty of throwing around library jargon to my students, forgetting that they may need additional explanation).
Librarians today need a blend of the old and the new. The new generation of librarians needs survival skills for a technologically-advanced world, but they need foundational skills, too — like how to work the good old-fashioned circulation desk.
Carol Howe is a reference librarian and assistant professor at Immaculata University, where she has been for three and a half years. She graduated from Drexel University with a Master’s Degree in Information and Library Science in 2005.