In his essay “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre says something I’ve always sort of liked:
in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust … In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life.
Aside from giving you good ammunition against coffee shop hipsters who never quite seem to be getting to work on that screenplay, I think there’s a real seed of wisdom in here for library school students: when it comes to applying for jobs, nobody’s going to care about what classes you took, or be wowed by your undying commitment to freedom of access to information; they’re going to care about the professional work you’ve actually done in academic libraries.
This was the single best piece of advice I got during library school: get as much experience as you possibly can doing the kind of work you eventually want to do. This is what will matter when it comes time to apply for jobs.
During library school I worked in three different academic libraries. During my first year, I was at one point working seven days a week. I was overworked and overtired and I got sick a lot. Yeah, it sucked, and it’s probably not really recommended, but it gave me the professional experience I needed, and allowed me to grow as a librarian so I could walk into a professional position with a lot of experience for someone just out of library school.
I felt super lucky to get these jobs in the first place. During my first semester of library school, I applied to many, many jobs, both paid and volunteer, and didn’t even get an interview. Not one. There are a lot of libraries in the Research Triangle. I was profoundly unhappy.
Finally, at the end of the semester, I got my first library interview, for a position shelving books for what I think was minimum wage at a branch of the Durham Public Library. The interview did not go well. After a series of standard, non-library related interview questions, I was asked what I knew about the Dewey Decimal System. “We’re talking about it in my cataloging class tomorrow,” I said. I remember this exactly. That is what I said. A cart of books was then wheeled in and I was given the task of shelving them in order. Several people watched as I fumbled and shelved them improperly several times. The interviewers were not friendly. They watched me struggle and looked at me like I was wasting their time. It was a very, very bad moment in my life. They never called me back.
My second interview went much better. I had applied many, many months before, but eventually they called me for an interview. They didn’t ask me anything about libraries, so the interviewer and I hit it off and I was sure I’d get the position. I was e-mailed and informed that the position was given to someone who lived a little bit closer. Like, in the same state. Even though I was willing to drive the three and a half hours every weekend from North Carolina to Virginia, where I lived before library school, to work part-time in a public library, they went with somebody local, who was not even in library school. So it goes.
After my first semester of library school I finally ran into some luck. The first thing I did was answer an ad placed by a university in Raleigh looking for library school students to work the reference desk. The shifts they were looking for were on Friday and Saturday nights. This was the worst possible time I could imagine. Obvious reasons aside, it meant that I would not be able to go back to Virginia on the weekends to see my girlfriend, who still had one more year in her program there. Seeing her was the only thing I really had going for me. But we talked about it; I applied anyway; and they hired me. Almost simultaneously I had an interview, and was then hired, to work in reference and instruction at the undergraduate library where I went to library school, in a position with a lot of professional responsibility. Again, I got lucky. A library school student graduating that fall, whom I complained to about my despair almost endlessly, worked there, and recommended me for the position. This then led to a position working at the reference desk at the main research library as well. That is how I ended up working seven days a week in three different academic libraries during library school.
I also took advantage of field experience opportunities that allowed me to get work experience, done for free and for course credit, on top of the jobs I was already doing. I did a lot of work in this capacity, with a wonderful field experience supervisor, that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do in my graduate assistant jobs (and that eventually ended up significantly expanding some of my for-pay responsibilities in awesome ways, anyway). She gave me lots of great advice. Here is some of it: one way I approached these field experiences was that I started, very early on, looking at real job ads for the kinds of positions I might want, in order to check out the skill-sets and qualifications listed for those positions. If there were things about those positions I wasn’t qualified for, I sought out opportunities to get qualified. For example, I saw that a lot of instructional librarian positions in academic libraries required knowledge of creating digital learning objects, such as instructional videos, using software like Camtasia or Captivate, which was most definitely a skill I did not have. I talked to one of my bosses and made a whole field experience out of doing that. I wrote scripts for videos; learned how to record the audio; learned how to use Camtasia; and made a bunch of videos that a library very well-respected for being innovative with technology ended up posting on their website. I was able to include these on my C.V., talk about it in cover letters, and so forth. I doubt it had much to do with landing my current job (although I was asked about it, and was able to give a long, and I thought thoughtful answer, w/r/t reaching out to users through technology during my phone interview); but my attitude was that I was going to take every step I could not just to think I was qualified for the positions I wanted, but to actually be qualified for them. The experience at the Durham Public Library had left its mark.* (*Since I started dabbling with this blog post I got two emails, in one day, in the span of a couple hours, from faculty members in different departments, who’d just heard about our new info lit program through a campus advertisement, asking if we had any videos to reach out to distance ed students. FWIW.)
Taking this approach will probably not leave you much time to do your schoolwork or make you very popular with your professors. And you know what? That’s fine. Because here’s something I was never asked in a job interview: Would you describe three readings you did in your reference class? But here’s something I was asked: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience working at the reference desk?
Question I once asked my reference teacher: How have these models of the reference interview influenced your practice as a reference librarian?
Answer: I don’t think they did. Bad sign.
Piece of advice I got during library school: “Nobody will care what classes you took in library school.” Good advice.
That doesn’t mean library school classes were useless. I might not have read a ton of the stuff I was assigned in reference – or in any class, really – but having taken that class was useful, in the past month, when I needed to have a basic understanding of the reference literature for an article I was working on. Maybe I didn’t have the literature memorized, but I knew where to look, and had a general idea of what was important. This is pretty much what school is: it gives you the gist of something so that if you wanted to go back and study an area seriously because it mattered to you you’d have some idea what the hell is going on.
In more ways than one, I was a complete library school failure. There were one or two unfortunate instances where I recall not actually knowing the name of the course I was in. My first meeting with my adviser was in regard to two out of four of my professors commenting on my complete lack of engagement in their courses and like sort of wondering if I was okay personally. I got an “A” on a library management paper where I argued for the delegation of all managerial authority to workers, which I then followed up with a 44 on the mid-term because it actually required you to know something about concepts related to business management not deriving from Chomsky on Anarchism. I got through a course in HTML only because some concerned members of the class couldn’t emotionally bear the contradiction between how easy the course material was in contradistinction to my complete inability to actually do it. Let’s not even talk about Research Methods.
But here’s the cool thing about library school: if want to, you can make your own way. Sure, I once got an e-mail from my adviser asking me,
Are you really signed up for no classes in the Information School, plus tennis, Kevin?!
Well, yeah, but I think she sort of got what I was trying to do, and she let me do it. This is as much as you can possibly ask for, and the definition of a good adviser. I recall more than one blank stare from faculty and students when I said things like “I want to apply research from existential psychotherapy to information literacy instruction and write my master’s paper on that” and expected them to think I was not insane. But that’s what I did; and that’s what I incorporated into my instruction work while in graduate school; and that’s what I talked about in my job talks; and I think it helped me be successful in the end. Plus I stayed up really late, once I realized I had to, and learned statistics and how to use SPSS, so I could analyze the responses from all the extra instruction classes I picked up to get data for my thesis. That was part of it, too.
On the day I graduated from library school (scroll down for photographic evidence of me and my adviser during happier times) my girlfriend gave me a card with the following quote on it:
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
I don’t even like Twain, but the guy had pretty decent advice for people in library school.