Do the Classes You Take During Library School Matter?

I recently had the occasion to speak to a group of really awesome MLS grad students who, quite rightly, were very concerned about what they should do during library school so they can get a good job when they’re done. Inevitably, the question of the importance of coursework came up, and, equally inevitably, I said that I felt privileging your coursework over getting experience for the kinds of jobs you want was a big mistake I felt a lot of people make during library school.  More recently, a MLS blogger linked to and discussed  a post I wrote addressing this question. She notes that getting relevant experience is “great advice” and that “several information professionals offered me similar advice” when considering applying to grad school. She goes on to say, however, that

I’m pretty confident that the types of classes which you take will matter quite a bit, depending on your particular job interest. Taking a course in database management would be very helpful for a future prospect researcher. Likewise, taking an advanced course in cataloguing would make a future cataloguer more desirable to an employer. The key is to find ways to apply these skills to demonstrate that you understand how this knowledge works in theory and in practice.

Although it would be foolish to say  “there is not a single person in library school for whom it could matter what classes they take during library school,” what I can tell you, from my own experience, is that I still that this really overemphasizes the importance of the classes you will take during library school.

So let me start off by saying that I think what’s right about this is that the only way your classes will matter is if you can translate them into practice. About this I totally agree. If you’re concerned about getting a job, what will matter is how you interview. And your interview will be all about your experience.

bored-student

For example, I’m an information literacy instruction librarian. So, every single interviewer asked me something like, “Tell us about your experience assessing student learning outcomes.” Every one. In the phone interview stage. Now, after having a job for a while, it’s also a question I would want to ask anyone I was interviewing for an instruction position, too. What will I learn in a class that will help give me a really good answer to this? Certainly nothing from the instruction class I had in our information school. And not even the stuff I learned in the School of Education. What I talked about was the classroom research I’d done for my required master’s research, where I assessed student engagement and information literacy learning. Now, I think this was a really good example of how the library school curriculum helped me apply coursework in a way that also really helped me get a job: I was able to combine my instruction work from a library instruction job I had (the exact kind of job I wanted) and then use my coursework (the master’s research paper requirement) to assess the empirical validity of a particular approach to information literacy instruction.

Unfortunately (so far as I know), UNC’s School of Information Science is the only MLS program that requires students to do formal empirical research in order to graduate. But I think it’s a really great thing, because it at least gives students the opportunity to apply the stuff they learn into practice, in a way that’s potentially useful to the profession and to the student’s future career prospects. Along these lines, I also benefited immensely from a Research Methods class I was required to take there. I’ve written before about how this class got me thinking in a certain way that I think has been enormously beneficial, in terms of always looking for ways to assess things for improvement. When all was said and done, this requirement made me feel like the coursework I took in the information school – much of which I found profoundly stifling creatively and intellectually – was very much worth it.

So if you’re at a library school, and you have this opportunity, then I would say the classes you take during library school, like research methods and your master’s paper, really matter. I simply can’t say the same about a lot of what I took, even if they had to do with what I wanted to do.

The MLS blogger writes that

taking an advanced course in cataloguing would make a future cataloguer more desirable to an employer.

I actually suspect they are probably agnostic about this, and want to know what your actual cataloging experience is. This is as it should be.

Personally, I wouldn’t care about someone’s education coursework unless that translated into creative, practical strategies for teaching students information literacy skills. And I suppose what I want to say is that I don’t really think it was my coursework that helped me do this. I can only speak from my own experience, but I learned literally nothing about information literacy instruction in any library school class I took. Everything I learned,  I learned at one of the several instruction positions I had during library school, from librarian mentors, my own reading, and my own research. Some of these opportunities came about during “Field Experience” internships, which were, to be sure, part of my coursework. These are opportunities my program made available, and which I took full advantage of (credit-wise). So if this is what’s meant by coursework during library school, I think it’s very important. But I think the single, essential fact about this stuff remains that you should privilege, in both terms of your time and effort during library school, your work experience over your coursework. Employers will by and large want to know about your exact experience doing something almost exactly like the job you’re applying for.  This is what will end up mattering in the end.

I’m very curious as to what other information professionals think about this. My experience talking to people is that the sotto voce consensus is that their coursework was not intellectually stimulating, and did not have much practical application. Be great to hear what people have to say about this, one way another …

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2 Comments

Filed under Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

2 responses to “Do the Classes You Take During Library School Matter?

  1. Jeremy

    I agree that many classes in MLS programs are not worth as much as work experience when trying to land a job after graduation. However, when I was going through my degree several years back (I graduated close to the peak of the recession), I tried to take classes to complement things I knew I wouldn’t get in my part-time library position. These classes tended to have more hands-on projects and also leaned toward the technology side of things. For example, in one class I was able to learn collection development techniques that led to writing a draft policy. In another, the final assignment was to create/code your own database.

    The tech classes definitely helped get my first professional job at a vendor, working on the back end of databases. It was entry level, but it was also a job, near where I wanted to be, and in the LIS field (some of my classmates were less fortunate).

    When I wanted to transition back into academia, the collection development course also helped my case. It was one part of the job description that I felt least prepared for but, because I had taken the course and knew some of the basics, I was still able to feel confident.

    • Kevin Michael Klipfel

      Hi Jeremy. Thanks for your comment! You bring up interesting points; and it’s great to get the perspective of someone in different areas from my own.

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