When I first started talking to librarians about going to library school, I was told over and over that “everyone hates library school; it’s just something you have to do.” Judging by Kara’s posts on asking for help and boosting your enthusiasm when overwhelmed, Alison’s brush with dropping out, and Becky’s bunches of lemons, to name just a few, I’m hardly alone in finding this to be (mostly) true. I chose an accelerated one-year program mainly in the interest of getting an actual career under way before passing from the “mid-twenties” into the dreaded “late-twenties” demographic, and it has been a race to pick up best practices and theory, metadata schemas and management tactics, to churn out assignments and rack up internship hours. MLIS curricula are, by and large, geared towards training us to do a job – one which is increasingly under threat of marginalization and shaped by the blood instinct to survive in a neoliberal environment of assessment and ROI. The concept of library advocacy is all too often conflated with marketing, and entire genres of blogs and student services programming have developed to teach us, as LIS students, to think of ourselves as commodities.
When I first learned about the wonderful new blog, ebrowsing.org, something clicked. For all our talk of discoverability and connection, there is very little room for exploration in library school. There is very, very little room for generative joy and love in library school. And I am beginning to suspect that this grad school culture of product over process negatively affects our practices later on as professionals. The stress we feel as we race to check assignments and entire fields of inquiry off our graduation to-do lists doesn’t just hurt us — it hurts every single patron we serve.
That’s not to say that librarians are a humorless bunch — far from it — or that the content we learn isn’t essential — it is. But I’ve come to believe that, because of our professional formation within a culture of cramming, our ability to cultivate the excitement of discovery in our communities is actually stunted and we develop habits that perpetuate, not challenge, this culture. In “Is Browsing Too Slow for Today’s Users?” Nina Clements points out that such a culture affects the way all of us receive information, and that our emphasis on meeting the need for quick answers fails to satisfy a craving for sustained, often physical engagement with materials. For those of us who came to librarianship through the humanities and who conceptualize librarianship in part as a humanities discipline, this is a tough pill to swallow. So what can we, as library students, do to resist a culture of info cramming and reinstate the joy of discovery? We may not be able to singlehandedly overcome a negative educational culture, but what can we do to keep the flame of serendipity alive?
More often than not, at least at the Master’s level, our assignments are oriented toward the concrete and come with a relatively short timeline. Come up with the answer to this question. Do something with this system or tool. Compare these policies. Write this grant. Do it in a few days or weeks. Do five other things at the same time. As difficult as it may seem, I am trying to focus less on the product and more on the process of these assignments. For example, I was asked to conduct an interview (not necessarily in person) with one archivist for an upcoming paper. I put out a call both on Twitter and on a list, and received many more responses than I needed for the assignment. Nevertheless, I sent my list of questions to almost every archivist who offered to help. Instead of quitting once the bare bones of my assignment requirements were met, I invested just a tiny bit more time to broaden my circle of inquiry. These additional respondents gave me new ideas and resources that enriched my work, even if they did not serve as the main subject of my assignment — when I am focused on process, the product is usually even better in the end.
Bolstered in large part by readings such as Critical Library Instruction and conversations like the #critlib Twitter chat, I have also tried to retool my reference internship and avoid defaulting into the “banking concept” of instruction that was modeled for me as a student. Although I typically assist students who come to the library at the last minute with extremely specific questions, I try to help them grow in their approach to research. After all, you don’t buy a jigsaw puzzle because you want to know what the picture looks like at the end. As Emily Drabinski articulated in a #critlib chat on April 1, it’s a tricky balance between giving students what they need to pass their classes and empowering them as critical thinkers and agents of change. There’s only so much I can do in a few hours per week consulting with stressed freshmen, but I try to model an approach that makes room for exploration, uncertainty, and even failure. I especially love the image Kate Joranson offers in her inaugural post for ebrowsing – that of the naturalist who moves by instinct and impulse, achieving an aim by following and reflecting upon clues along the way. Much to my reference instructor’s dismay, I frequently start students out with Wikipedia to develop keywords and understand their question as part of a network, linked to many other topics. I often tell them about the Digital Public Library of America or even the Serendip-o-matic app to help them think outside the library catalog search box.
My hope is that, by building in a little bit of novelty and discovery into my research and theirs, I can be part of a more reflective, humane education environment. I hope it helps me become a better librarian, and I especially hope it helps students become more engaged and caring thinkers. What do you think?