Why I Became a Librarian

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Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife

I’m often asked why I became a librarian. This post attempts, in so far as is possible, to provide an answer to that question. When I was thinking of going to library school, I got a lot of helpful advice from people who were in similar situations to my own; this post is offered in a similar spirit. As always, it’s just my take on things.

I’ve broken down my reasons into “practical reasons” which deal with more pragmatic issues, and “deeper reasons,” which focus on issues intrinsic to librarianship.

So here it is, 10 Reasons Why I Became a Librarian:

Practical Reasons:

1.  Admissions Prospects. It’s much easier to get into a great MLS program than a mediocre PhD. program. Getting into a great PhD. program is almost impossible. You need to get into a great PhD. program to get a halfway decent job. You can get a great job right out of an MLS program. End of story.

2.  Job prospects. The job market is way better in academic libraries than in other areas of academia. My friends in other fields are ten times smarter than me and have much worse prospects for securing tenure-track positions. People who complain about getting library jobs just don’t know how good they have it compared to other academics. By comparison the job prospects are awesome.

3. School Sucks. Another five or six years of school to get a PhD while making between $13-20k a year  is not a very attractive prospect. Two years in an MLS program, most of which will be field and work experience, is much better.

4. Grading Papers Really Sucks. When I was a philosophy instructor I never felt like I had enough time to give students proper feedback on their work. If you spent the amount of time giving quality comments it actually takes to give quality comments, you will never, ever, have time to do anything else. This is something that never stopped bothering me and which I never really found a good solution for. Also grading 40 papers for like 4 classes (or more if you’re an adjunct), respectively, just sort of … sucks.

5. Quality of Life Matters.  At some point it dawned on me that it might be nice to become a human being who did things other than think and stress about work. When I was thinking of going to library school, I talked to several people who used to be college instructors and were now academic librarians. They used to do nothing but think and stress about work. Now they loved their jobs, found them to be intellectually stimulating, relatively low pressure,and felt that they had time to to have a life separate from their work. They all said “Library school sucks but my job is great.” Yes.

Deeper Reasons:

1. Good information literacy librarians are good applied philosophers.

As Margaret Egan wrote in 1952, librarians are social epistemologists: they help people navigate, understand, and think critically about information. Much of my instruction with students revolves around helping them think critically about the kinds of information that is out there: what’s reliable and worth believing, and what’s not. What are the general considerations that make something worth believing? How do you know? I approach this both practically, and philosophically. Thus, librarians, much like philosophers, provide students with the epistemic tools necessary to understand the world around them. It’s maybe just a little more directly practical.

I will never forget an experience I had while teaching moral philosophy class about global ethical issues. We were discussing whether or not the U.S.’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq was morally justified according to just war theory. I offhandedly said something about some factual matter and cited the New York Times as evidence. A student said something along the lines of “Well how can we know if what the New York Times says is true?” I thought it was obvious, but how to answer that question in a way that will help students deal with such issues is not.  At the time I neither had the vocabulary needed to answer the question, nor, I thought, the time in the course to address such an issue. A good instruction librarian could have given my students the tools to begin to do that, probably in one session. Now I know.

Also, in my experience, working with lower-division students isn’t very different from information literacy instruction. You’re trying to get them to think critically; use sources well; etc. Very little of your time, especially when grading, is really devoted to discussing substantive issues in the field. If you’re a grad student and end up with a job in a non-R1 university, this is something you will eventually learn. There was way more “This is not a sentence” or “Here’s how you can come up with a paper topic” or “That is not a very good source” than “Wow, what an insightful exposition and informed critique of Hume’s theory of causation!”

I spent so much time focusing on those issues as an philosophy instructor that they occupied most of my time and thought anyway. As a librarian I get to focus on them much more directly. I find it to be a much more interesting way to spend my time. As with everything else in this world, to each their own.

2. I really like thinking about education, muchmuch more more than I liked thinking about philosophy at the graduate level. I really enjoy thinking about the best ways to help students learn and coming up with interesting learning activities based on sound pedagogy and learning psychology. I also really like writing about and doing research on that. This is my job.

3. Being an instruction librarian aligns much better with my pedagogical views than did being the primary, grade-giving instructor responsible for teaching within a particular content area. 

It never interested me very much to say to students “learn this particular content.” Even though, in most cases, I was pretty interested in what I was teaching, and thought it was valuable, I would much rather just have shown students how to take whatever they were interested in and figure out how to think about it and research it better. That is now a fairly significant part of what I do.

4. I really like helping students with their work and getting to be the cool uncle instead of the carrot dangler and grade giver (cf. point 4 above) is completely awesome. To quote my esteemed co-blogger, as a librarian,

You’re not involved in the carrot/stick process. Unless you’re teaching a for-credit library class, it’s pretty unusual for a librarian to have anything to do with grading. This means that the librarian can provide a safe place for students to talk about how they really feel about their research assignment, and hopefully to admit that they could use some help.

Exactly.

5.  Plus, I’m weird, and yeah, I love books. What the hell else was I gonna do?

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Filed under Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

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