Dani and I have written quite a bit – and have had some truly excellent guest posts – about what library school students might do to maximize their job experience in library school to prepare for the academic job market. Since it’s about time to choose where to go to library school, I thought it might be interesting to think about things that you might want to look for in a library school itself if you’re fortunate enough to have options. My decision came down to two different schools, and ultimately more or less came down to the fact that one would be much closer to my girlfriend, who still had a year of her program to finish at the time. But the fact is, I really had no idea what to look for in a library school. So, here are a few thoughts on what you might look for in a library school if you’re making that decision. Obviously (as always), this is just one person’s take on the matter, and I only know my own experience and career path, so you should talk to as many academic instruction librarians as possible. That being said, here’s some thoughts on things you might look out for if you have an interest in becoming an instruction librarian after library school.
Let’s start with the actual coursework part itself.
I received my M.S.L.S. from the School of Information Science at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2013. I’ve written before that I the best advice I received during library school was to “forget about” library school. But that’s obviously hyperbolic; what I wrote about in the post is that the most important part of library school, when it comes to the job market, will end up being your actually work experience. Nevertheless, there were certainly a lot of things about the actual library school curriculum itself that were super valuable to me as a professional.
One of the most valuable things was that I had to take a course (in the library school) in (social science) research methods. Let’s be honest: I was super-certain I was going to fail this class, because I’m an idiot and never really paid much attention (there were like … a lot of numbers involved). Nevertheless, Bob Losee, the instructor of the class, was an enormous influence on me (which I’m certain he would not know, because I gave him no reason whatsoever to remember me. We’ve literally never spoken; I just sat there the whole semester without saying anything and did abysmal on the tests). He really impressed on me the idea that what library professionals do is always look for improvements in their libraries and collect data and research to support their findings one way or another. I feel like I really learned what it was to be a critically thinking, reflective library practitioner just by sort of sitting there and through a process of osmosis learning from him.
Also, as it turns out, I did actually learn stuff. I learned a lot about how to actually do social science research that has benefited me in my own library and research. I think a lot differently now than when I came into library school with a philosophy background,and a lot of it has to do with that class. I don’t have much patience for philosophizing or ideas or practices not grounded in testable, empirical reality.
Furthermore, I was required to write a literature review and a proposal, completed mid-way through my second year, outlining a suggestion for improving some aspect of library practice. It included a lit-review, a hypothesis, and so forth. Part of that lit review ended up appearing pretty much verbatim this month in College & Research libraries as the first part of an article I had accepted there.Even having to do a possible proposal in that class got me thinking in a serious way about something it turns out I’ve been working on for years now.
So, in conclusion, my experience was that it was enormously valuable to choose a library school that made a class in Research Methods a required course. It’s something you might want to think about when choosing a library school. It will help you not only be a better researcher but also a better librarian as well.
Required Master’s Paper
Related to research methods, probably the single most important thing I had to do within the library school was write a master’s paper. I don’t think everyone else (or even anyone else) necessarily thought this, but I thought it was an enormously valuable experience. I sort of had this general idea of what I wanted to do, but my adviser really helped me see how it could come to fruition in practice, within the context of actual practical research. She showed me how I could take what I wanted to do and actually assess students’ learning in different classes in a methodologically sound way; hooked me up with a book on SPSS; and I was able to take some of the basic stuff I picked up in research methods and apply that to my paper. (Cf. many despair-fueled late nights bent over my laptop in Chapel Hill). The ideas were all mine, but she really helped me bring them to fruition. That’s a great adviser.
This, again, ended up benefiting me a lot in terms of publications, or whatever, but ultimately really gave me a foundation to think critically about my practice more generally. I just really don’t think my experience would have been nearly what it was had I not been required to do a research study. I don’t know how many library schools actually require this but, in my opinion, it’s a huge plus in UNC’s favor.
Coursework in Education
I may now have single-handedly destroyed this privilege for everyone else – one semester I was registered for like The American Novel, Educational Psychology, and Tennis – but it used to be the case that UNC’s ILS program let you take a lot of classes outside the library school, once your core requirements were done, if they were relevant to your interests. One of the single best things I did there was take some coursework in education in UNC’s School of Education. An enormous problem in our profession is that library schools often don’t offer students the background in pedagogy that they need to succeed as instruction librarians, and I was able to make up for that in a lot of ways by having the opportunity to supplement my SILS coursework with classes in the School of Ed. People in the School of Ed were super nice to me, and I learned an enormous amount from them.
Thus, when thinking about library school, if your goal is to be a reference and instruction librarian, I would seriously investigate (a) the quality of any instruction courses offered within the library school (research indicates that these are really of varying quality) and (b) whether you’ll be permitted to take an education course or two in the university’s school of ed. I think several people did this after Dani and I did so when we were at UNC, and it seems to me like a really great development.
This was another enormously valuable part of the program at UNC. I was able to do (I think) the maximum two field experiences, where you got course credit for job experience that fell beyond your normal duties at your job. I was able to work with the extraordinary Kim Duckett at NC State Libraries. We were able to figure out stuff I might need to be able to do for the kinds of jobs I wanted, and I was able to work on meaningful, i.e., professional librarian projects for course credit.
So, when thinking about a library school, I’d recommend checking out if you’re able to do any internships/field experiences for course credit. Importantly, you should check out how many libraries there are in the area. UNC students are lucky because there’s a ton of amazing universities and libraries in NC’s Research Triangle (e.g., UNC, Duke, NC State), many of them with excellent librarians willing to mentor library school students.
Job Experience & Mentorship
Obviously, the other really important thing is job experience and mentorship. I really didn’t know the right questions to ask about this, either.
In retrospect, I think I’d have wanted to know two things.
(1) What are the opportunities for students to get real instruction experience on campus?
(2) What’s the mentorship between professional instruction librarians and potential instruction librarians like?
In the case of (1), I think it’s very important to investigate the chances y0u could get some kind of position – whether it’s an assistantship or hourly pay – where you’ll be doing actual professional librarian work. By this I mean stuff like:
Will I have the chance to collaborate with faculty to put together an instruction session?
Will I have the chance to teach information literacy sessions on my own?
Will I have the chance to actually work a reference desk?
Will I have the chance to do collection development?
I was lucky enough to be able to do all of these things, some of them at three different libraries. But I was able to do all of them at UNC’s Undergraduate library, where I loved working. And it allowed me to say, completely honestly, that I have a fairly good deal of professional library experience. I’d collaborated with lots of faculty to teach my own information literacy sessions; worked the desk answering real reference questions, often by myself; and was able to have collection development responsibility, which I received a lot of mentorship from several UNC librarians about (even moreso than instruction). These were pretty clearly advantages on the job market, I think. I could talk not just about what I could do, but what I had done.
I’d recommend investigating very seriously whether you’ll have robust opportunities like this at the library schools you are considering. I do remember sometimes getting vague responses about stuff like this at some of the schools I’d been accepted to, and I was somehow prescient enough to sort of cross them off my list. So look around. Talk to current students. Talk to former students. Try to get in touch with librarians at that university who do what you want to do. If you make a reasonable request on their time to discuss such matters with them, and they are tough to get in touch with, or aren’t that helpful, or whatever, well, that probably tells you something interesting about what it might be like to be mentored by that person. When I was a student I found many people to be helpful and almost all librarians (although not all library school faculty) to be inanely generous with their time. It doesn’t always mean that you have to, or even should, listen to what they say in the long run, but it’s this kind of stuff that will really help you learn.
(2) I had two very important instruction mentors during library school, Jonathan McMichael at UNC, and Kim Duckett at NCSU. As I’ve said again and again, these folks were seriously invaluable to me. Now, it’s not as though they were like “This is what you should do” or even gave me specific ideas (although they, of course, sometimes did), but I think that more than anything they were willing to devote an enormous amount of time to talking with students about instruction in serious ways, to discuss potential teaching methods, how to approach working with faculty, and so forth – all the things you’ll actually need to know in your first instruction job. So I don’t know what the fool-proof tests are to figure out if the library school you’re considering has such people, but if I were doing it over again, I’d definitely do what I could to get a sense of what the mentorship from librarians in the area is actually like.
Relatedly, it would be useful to know what the culture of the library you might work in is like. The worst thing I can say about the culture of UNC’s Undergraduate Library is that the librarians had created such a learning-based, accepting, and creative environment that it probably destroyed me for life because it’s hard for anything else to measure up to that. Not all places are going to be like that, but it’s certainly the kind of environment you want as a graduate student.
Those are just a few thoughts I had when thinking about what I might look for in a library school. Other librarians welcome to chime in in the comments!