Big Tent Library School

Supporting the Big Tent. Joseph Warren, Photographer. Sourced from NYPL Digital Gallery.

In December, Library Journal posted an article by Andy Woodworth, of Agnostic, Maybe, on “big tent librarianship” in their “Back Talk” column.  Big tent librarianship is an idea guided by the belief that librarians, regardless of their chosen information specialization or information institution, like academic librarianship or public librarianship, are all connected by the same principles, and can enact positive change by uniting around these principles. The original article, titled “We Need Big Tent Librarianship,” is an inspiring and thought-provoking read, and to officially kick off Hack Library School, a collaboration committed to and an example of big tent librarianship, I’d like to draw on Mr. Woodworth’s ideas and relate them to library school.

When we enter library school, the divisions begin immediately.  Are you a future archivist?  A public librarian?  A public YA librarian?  While we might all begin in the same “Introduction to Information” class, confused and scared as a professor explains exactly how an antelope can be a document, our specialization quickly siphons us off into “Preservation,” “Metadata,” “Storytelling,” and “Archival Methods.” It can be hard to remember, behind our stacks of PDFs, that after “Intro to Info,” we came together and were excited, too, because what we heard resonated with something we believed– we just didn’t have the words for it yet.

And that’s what library school is.  It brings together people who have a belief in the power of information, and gives us the tools and the ideas to do something concrete with that belief.  How we choose to do it may look very different in the end, but that passion for information is a thread that unites us.

The “big tent” mentality must begin in library school.  We must begin by challenging ourselves to reach out to those in our department, and to students at other library schools.  The web has allowed for the conventional barriers of interaction to fall away, and given us the tools to somewhat define our own education.  Yes, we may all have to take this class or present that paper to graduate, but interacting with fellow library school students will inform and expand our motivations and knowledge,  give us new tools for advocacy, and a broader platform to advocate from, constructively criticize our own education, and offer successful solutions to other students looking for change in their own programs.

So how to do it?  Read library student blogs and comment.  Ask a fellow student about the paper they’re working on.  Follow conference hashtags on Twitter, especially those outside your own specialty.  Be aware of the achievements of your peers, not only at your own schools, but across the nation, and tell other people about it in person, on your blog.  It may be difficult.  We’re all so focused on being hireable, and in being as competent in our own fields as possible, these are big things to commit to.  Andy Woodworth points to James Rettig’s “library ecosystem,” in which all types of libraries depend on one another.  We can extend this ecosystem analogy to all the information institutions, and especially to our fellow library school students.

We are the future protectors and promoters of information access, preservation, and literacy, and so we must protect and promote one another.

Library school is the perfect place to begin to explore the possibilities that a shared passion brings.  Once we graduate and move on with our careers, most of us won’t be interacting with people in information professions other than our own unless we’re proactive about it.  Library school mixes us all together and exposes us to the challenges and strengths of other information professions and gives us the perfect opening to start a relationship with potential collaborators and future colleagues.

What could these partnerships look like?  What could they achieve?  In a society where information has become such a commodity, how could our collaborations ensure not only the existence of our professions and our institutions, but a flourishing?  Quoting Hack Library School’s own “About” page, “What will the information professions be next year if we define it for ourselves today?”

34 replies

  1. This is an awesome commentary and a great kick off for Hack Library School. My particular favorite ideas are “how an antelope can be a document” and also the entire underlying premise. Unlike almost any other profession, library and information science does share the “belief in the power of information.”

    Whether you are a multi-degreed academic librarian, a government archivist, a public school librarian, cruise ship librarian or an information architect, you believe in information and enabling efficient access to that information.

    I have been amazed and delighted at the connections I have made in an entirely online program (San Jose State University) and in the wide world of the web, just through blogging, Twitter and attending some conferences.

    Connect. Collaborate. Change!


  2. Great post! I agree with Melody — it’s a nice start to the week.

    The relationships we make now will carry into the future as we graduate, and it’s important that we view each other as resources instead of competition. I’ll try to brainstorm what sort of projects students can collaborate on now (besides HLS, of course). I’m looking forward to hearing all the ideas that come out of this!


  3. Such a wonderful post! And I definitely agree with everyone that it was such a perfect way to start off this Hack Library School force. As someone who came into LIS completely sure that I wanted to work in a public library and had left the corporate world for good and now find myself working in a corporate world and loving it, I have been trying so hard to make sure that I do not become too entangled in the “special library” arena that I end up with blinders on to the rest of the library world. I think there is so much we can learn from each other, no matter what the setting is we work in. And this can and should totally begin when we are in school. I think we all share a lot in common for why we are here. So let’s have that bring us together rather than separate us.

    A colleague of mine was asked once by another librarian in a snarky manner what it was like to “work for the man.” I was so frustrated by that comment. Because at the end of the day we are all here to help and serve our users, patrons, customers, etc and to assist in access to information.

    Looking forward to where this discussion will lead us….


  4. I agree–this is an amazing post! And Nicole, you raise an important point about where our focus should be, and on the importance of not getting too specialized and losing site of the field as a whole. I came into LIS unsure of what exactly I wanted to do, but knowing that I wanted to do rare books & manuscripts/special collections stuff. I wanted to do research, but wasn’t sure there would be opportunities to do so. How wrong I was! I now have totally changed my focus, and I love special collections, but now I approach them more often as a researcher than as I did when I worked in that environment. I also am way more comfortable with digital technologies and social media. A large part of that was being exposed to classes and ideas I probably would not have sought out on my own. We are so lucky to be in a field that is open to being shaped by up and coming librarians, and we have a great opportunity to begin reaching across different sub-sets of the profession to focus on how to make our services even better.


  5. I have to make a full disclosure: when I started in library school, I was not contributing to big tent librarianship. I felt my own specialization, public children’s services, was so neglected, that promoting it at the expense of other specializations was the only way to save it. Growing as a student and person, however, has led me to believe that promoting one aspect of information science is promoting the other.

    A museum informatics professor at my school is working on a project where elementary school students view art work, and assign it tags. He then analyzes those tags against the descriptors provided by the museum, and is arguing that these are similar and beyond those provided by the institution. What are the implications for this in creating a better catalog in the public library for kids? Folksonomies is where my mind went! As academic library colleagues worry about the lack of information literacy in college students, I can start planning IL projects for tweens to prepare them for the next stage in their information lives. These are the kind of collaborations that will guide my career, and, I think, save libraries and other information institutions from the naysayers who claim the Internet will render us obsolete.


  6. Yay this is so awesome! I’m really excited about this. I love that all of you guys come from different backgrounds and library school programs. I definitely have plenty of questions and would love to hear what others who are in school have to say. It’s great to have perspective on all these issues. I promise I’m working on my contribution to this as well!


  7. A few years ago – nay, a few months ago – I might have been the smartarse who made the snarky “The Man” comment, but just today as I was trying to explain the FRBR schema to someone I said, “It’s all about the user.” And at the end of the day, it is, whether that user is a toddler or a CEO.

    Even years before I had the nerve to even apply for LIS school, I knew I wanted to be an academic librarian, and a year and a half into my degree (part-time), I’m still sure, but I am also so much more interested in other career paths my fellow students are taking. This is a great way to kick off the blog.


  8. Yes! This is what HLS is all about! I’m really excited to start communicating and collaborating across programs with you fine people. ^_^

    What an awesome post to kick off the blog. I think it’s all too easy to feel rushed into picking a specialization and forced to stick only with that path your entire program. Big tent librarianship is a thought-provoking idea, and now that I’ve heard the term, I’m definitely going to bring it up in discussions.


  9. Great post! Library school is a great place to mix-it up. Though I’m an aspiring academic librarian recently I’ve been seeing opportunities to partner with all my other library fellows in the real world. Big tent librarianship is a great way to describe it and I like it not just because I “failed” to pick a recognized concentration. What started as a way to find free delicious food (our archives student group always has fun events!) has turned into a new understanding of librarianship.


  10. Great post! Library school is indeed a great place to mix it up. As an aspiring academic librarian I am seeing ways to collaborate and partner with my other library fellows. What started as a search for free delicious food (our archives group throws great events!) has turned into new thoughts on librarianship today, and I think “big tent” librarianship is an interesting way to think about it.


    • I’m the co-president of the ALA student chapter at my school, and we’re always using food as an enticement! Working on the Yes on Measure L campaign to increase fund allotments to LA libraries, the importance of inter-specialty support is made sharply obvious. I keep hearing students say things like, “I’m not going to be a public librarian,” which drives me bonkers. Support and advocate for one another! Share resources! We can make each other indispensable, and prevent things like public library fund reductions or archives from only being open a few days a week from ever even happening. I can’t say it enough. I believe it to the bottom of my boots.


      • “I’m not going to be a public librarian.”

        Really? I’d say, “That’s true, but if public libraries close, all of those librarians will be competing for positions in *your* library.”

        Gotta hit them in the wallet sometimes. 😀

        In all seriousness, the question I would actually ask them is “So you value certain libraries over others?” And then destroy their arguments from there. Because if they say ‘no’, then ask for the real excuse they don’t want to help. If they say ‘yes’, then ask them if they want to start bibliographic instruction at a lower basic starting point (if going into academics) or if they don’t want people to see the value of school library because they dont have a public one (if going into school).

        Ugh, that reply is SO shortsighted. It’s like saying that they don’t see the point in a children’s section because they want to work adult reference.


  11. Library school is the best place to know the big tent. I wanted to say you thank you for sharing this thoughts. great post. I would be appreciate this. nice approach.


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