On Being An Older Library School Student [Starter Kit]


Photo Credit: PostGrad.com

During my first few weeks of library school I noticed that my cohort was a mix of people in their early twenties fresh out of their undergraduate degrees, and older people who were coming to librarianship as a second career. I count myself among the second group; I am thirty years old and worked for several years as a teacher before enrolling in library school. (I guess some people might take issue with me describing myself as “old,” since thirty is not exactly ancient. But librarianship is my second career and that changes things considerably.) After years of being always the one in charge, always the one responsible for lesson plans and grading and classroom management, I was looking forward to being a student again.

Yet during my first year I discovered that attending library school as an older student comes with its own unique benefits and challenges. Your knowledge and skills will shape your view of the librarianship profession, but you may relate to the world quite differently than do your younger classmates. When I compare myself as a library school student to the sort of student I was during my first graduate degree, I see how my perspective and priorities have changed. I thought I would share some of my reflections with you!

First off, the benefits…

You Know Yourself As A Professional

Regardless of what field you worked in before, the greatest benefit of coming to library school with previous professional experience is that you already know how you operate in a professional context. You will likely already be aware of your strengths and weaknesses as an employee, how you respond in certain situations, the way you interact with colleagues, and under which conditions you are most productive. For example, years of teaching have put me in enough sticky situations to know that I can handle any curveball my workplace throws at me. When I take my first librarian position I may make mistakes at first, but I already have confidence in my own adaptability. I trust myself to improve with time and I know I will do a good job.

You’ve Got the Skills

More specifically, you will bring the skills you gained in your former career to librarianship. Although library instruction and readers’ advisory can be a bit daunting for many library students, they don’t faze me because teaching is so tied to both of those things. As another example, I know library students who have worked as computer engineers and can code databases brilliantly, or multilingual people who can link metadata in different languages. No matter what you’ve done, you will have a lot to bring to librarianship and your contribution will be unique!

You’re Ahead of the Game…in Some Ways

Depending on what you did before, you may encounter topics in librarianship in which you are already experienced. You might have already managed large groups of people, which would give you more to talk about in your management course. Or you might be proficient in html5 or Ruby or other useful programs that enable you to put a little extra sparkle in your assignments. Plus, you probably know how to sell yourself. It’s likely that you already have a clear idea of how you want to contribute to the profession, which enables you to be more articulate about your goals at job fairs or when speaking to your advisor.

Another important benefit: chances are you will have less difficulty finding student work. My previous teaching experience helped me to land a part time library job during the school year as well as a full time summer position in an independent library. I have learned a great deal from them. Your professional background will give you an edge when applying for such positions.

Despite all these benefits, being a more mature student has its challenges as well.

The Financial Hit

Paying tuition fees is never easy no matter how old you are, but I do find that it’s harder to be a student when you’re older. In developed countries, the late teens to mid-twenties are earmarked for university. But by thirty, time spent in school is time spent out of the workforce. Though I can’t say I enjoyed the relative student poverty of my undergraduate years, it was less difficult when all of my friends and I could sit in someone’s basement apartment eating mac and cheese out of a blue box. But now, the majority of my friends are working professionals and homeowners. It gets disheartening to pound the pavement for an apartment that’s in your budget, to turn down dinner invitations with friends because you can’t afford to go, or to watch the money you manage to scrape together going toward tuition instead of your retirement fund. Or for that matter, food. I just keep reminding myself that I won’t give up until I’m a working professional too.

You’re Ahead of the Game…But You Have to Start From Scratch

It is likely that you were somewhat established in your former field before starting library school. But now that you’re changing careers, you’ve lost that established position and are back at Square One. You may have to do core courses in library school on topics that are basically just review. You may become frustrated when you’ve given assignments that seem like useless busywork. You may have to take positions for which you are overqualified as you struggle to get a foothold in your new field. Starting over is tough.

Different Priorities

The first time I did a graduate degree, I was twenty three and had precisely one pressing demand on my time: graduate school. While that did gobble most of my time, it did not have to compete with the demands of a job, a partner, or children. But many older students are trying to do their degrees while working, holding relationships together, and looking after kids. Such a situation forces you to abandon perfectionism. By this I do not mean to imply in any way that you do not take your work seriously or that you do not strive to do well. But you have to be able to say, “This is good enough,” turn it in, and get on with life. While this is a challenge, personally I believe that balance makes us more efficient, productive, and happy librarians-to-be in the long run.

I hope you will weigh in with your thoughts as well, regardless of your age!

Categories: Honesty, Starter Kits

Tagged as:

22 replies

  1. Boy, can I relate to this post! I started library school last year as a 47-year-old. I’m going to school part-time while juggling my FT job, long-term relationship, etc. I’m so glad I’m doing this, but it DOES feel different from earlier degrees! I’m lucky that my employer reimburses me for tuition (not fees or books, though), but I do have to pay everything up front, make a C or better, and submit my grade(s) at the end of the semester to get the money. I always have to pay for the following semester before I get the reimbursement, so it’s a juggling act, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

    While I enjoy my current job (in an academic library) and HOPE to incorporate my degree into my job when I finish library school, I do look at other job openings for MLS-degreed professionals, and many of the pay ranges advertised are below what I’m making in my current job (some by 10k or more). I’m getting my MLS for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is the hope of increased pay down the road–enough to make it worth the time and effort. And as Laura mentioned, I’m aware of my retirement account too!

    Since I already work in a library, I had early visions of blowing through all my classes, but I quickly learned that I don’t know everything, and that I’m often okay with “good enough.” My final grades have all been fine. My work experience often puts some of the classroom stuff into perspective, and I’ve already incorporated some of what I’ve learned in class into my work.

    One of my favorite parts of library school has been getting to know my classmates. Some are just out of undergrad, but plenty of us are career-changers. (Like Laura, I also used to teach school.) The variety is nice, and makes for some interesting class discussions.


  2. Yes, same here – I am 43 and just graduated with my MLIS. It took me a couple of semesters to dial in on the idea that my past work history is really a benefit; now I’m actively promoting my previous experience in project management as an asset, rather than “oh that’s just something I used to do.” I also had to come to terms with “good enough” on grades despite being a perfectionist by temperament simply because, hello, only so many hours in a day!

    Thanks for this insightful essay.


  3. I can definitely relate to this as a former teacher and being in my thirties. It feels weird being one of the oldest in the program, but there are benefits, like the ones you mentioned.


  4. I’m very glad to see this topic explored, and so well! As a sometimes adjunct instructor in various library schools, I have a different prospective to offer, but one that ties in nicely to the insights noted already.

    For the most part, I have taught cataloging or metadata courses, to mixed groups of folks at the usual age for graduate school, and returning students who’ve been working in various fields. With some exceptions, I see distinct differences in the way each group approaches challenges (I tend to be a somewhat challenging teacher, and often ask students to do some tasks without prior instruction). Older students are generally very game to try anything–“just try it out and make notes about where you run aground” is something they’re willing to try, even if they haven’t been exposed before. The younger students too often resist this approach. They like the lecture-task-teacher feedback loop that they’re most familiar with and they seem insecure about their ability to do anything different. Because this group tends to be far more focused on grades than the older group (for obvious reasons, I think–they don’t know yet how little knowledge and mastery relates to grades), their resistance sometimes goes as far as formal complaints to the school!

    The evaluations after the course finishes tend to be along the same lines–the older students are happy with the course and what they learned, the younger ones resentful and disparaging.

    This really flies in the face of most people’s assumptions of the differences in younger and older students–they expect the younger ones to be more flexible, more willing to try new things, but my experience has been quite different. Anybody else experienced this, as a student or teacher?


    • I know exactly what you’re talking about! One of the things I find really challenging about library school is this idea that we have to be explicitly taught everything before we can do it. I’ve spent most of my career “learning by doing” so I actually find this attitude kind of patronizing, as if I don’t have the intelligence to figure things out for myself.

      I also find my younger classmates to be more grade-oriented and less willing to take risks. Studies have also shown that people retain more when they learn in the way that you have mentioned. My grades, although they are fine, have absolutely no bearing on how well I feel myself able to perform in a given area. Most of the assignments do not assess at all what they ostensibly assess. For example, my ability to memorize dates of obscure reference sources is in no way an indication of how well I’ll handle a reference interview.


    • “…most people’s assumptions of the differences in younger and older students–they expect the younger ones to be more flexible, more willing to try new things, but my experience has been quite different.”

      Thanks so much for saying this, Diane! I’m a current LIS student in the same boat as Laura (30-year-old career changer), and I’d be interested to see how this “assumption” fits outside of the classroom (i.e. the workplace). It is an anxiety that I have as an older student: that despite making the skill connections between my old career and new (I have 4+ years of cultivating reference interview skills despite not working in a library) and emphasizing flexibility, adaptability, and eagerness to learn new skills and tools, potential employers may make assumptions (albeit unknowingly) when faced with both myself and a younger applicant. This anxiety gnaws at my confidence in interviews (despite the fact that I know I’m a rock star in the classroom!)

      And thanks, Laura, for the post. I really needed to read this!


  5. This is pretty interesting to me, as I’m a typical grad-aged student (23) and I find that I’m actually most impressed/intimidated by my older classmates who have job experience. I just feel so YOUNG and inexperienced compared to them, having never worked a job that didn’t have “student” in the title! But I try to remember that I have something to contribute, too. And I do feel grateful that I don’t have any other demands on my time besides school and a student job.


    • You sound just like me. I finished up my MLIS just before my 23rd birthday. I was the typical overachiever/perfectionist student, but it was definitely daunting. Ten years later, I can finally relate to all my former classmates who all seemed older, more experienced, etc.

      The good news is that you’re still in “school mode.” While many of my more “life-experienced” classmates complained about all the rote memorization required for cataloging class exams, etc, it was easy for me to take it in stride because I still had all my great study habits from undergrad classes & exams. And, remember, you probably have technology skills that many of your older classmates may need help with, depending on their previous profession.


    • Go you, Kim Gianfrancesco for…
      1. …figuring out what you are doing with your life in your 20s.
      2. …feeling young and inexperienced–because you’ll never be able to get this feeling back.
      3. …being a student. By any chance, did you ever read S. Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind?
      4. …having your mind, talents, abilities, perspective, skills and “that something you contribute.” This is far more important than your numerical age. There is also something to be said for emotional intelligence–no matter what your age. Realizing how others may feel is an indicator.
      5. …having the time and space to really go at this degree!
      6. …not having “job experience.” Think of it as having a clean slate–no bad experiences at work. No experience of ever being laid off or fired or wanting to quit. You’ve seen “The Office,” right? You’re not missing out on much. Plus, I would hire the right person who has zero “real world” experience–they just have to have the right skills, ability, personality, communication styles which make it easy for a team of professionals to interact especially if the new hire had an awesome body of work doing EAD or is a whiz at digitizing things efficiently. As long as you’re coachable and can work well with others, I don’t think anyone should worry. Convince others that you can be that missing puzzle piece, and I swear: you will have a job when/while you are doing this.
      7. …being impressed by people.
      8. …writing succinctly.
      9. …being grateful.
      10. …realizing your uniqueness–this is what you’ll have to sell down the line when you are looking for jobs no matter how far down the career path you’ve been.
      PS: Kick @ss in school.


  6. For myself, I am in a somewhat more rare position of being an older student but never really having left the university, as I completed a Ph. D. in philosophy and then decided to enter library school a year after. I definitely have a different approach to my education and the level of academic and intellectual challenge I would like of it, and I have often felt like my library school program has fallen short of this ideal. Other students who have gone through grad programs (in various fields) before coming to my LIS program all tend to think the same way. However, it’s funny how often my complaints dovetail with those of the younger students for exactly the same reason, as I’ve noticed that, at least in the case of my program, there is an inordinate amount of academic overachievers.


    • Thanks for posting this.

      I joined the SAA and signed up for SNAP (it’s the roundtable for new or career changing archivists–and, of course I can’t remember off the top of my head!)

      Anyhow, I received a lot of emails from fellow SNAPers and the language in some of them were, “young archvists.” Finally, I had it and said I wasn’t a spring chicken and although I am young to people in their 50s and beyond I said, “I see too much language ‘young archvists.'” I suggested we adopt vampire terminology for those rising up in the ranks of archival positions–perhaps “neophyte” …

      Library students in the age group of under 35 have it rough. But library students over the age group of 40 have it rough too. I guess those of you who are in the 36 to 39 categories are in a sort of “sweet spot” where you are not viewed as an incompetent whipper snapper or viewed as “elderly” (which is a word we shouldn’t say in academic papers: instead use “older adults.”)

      Off topic: I cringed when I read a fellow student refering to older adults in her paper as “elderly.” I kindly told her the word is not academic enough–I did not want to say she was ageist.

      Nevertheless our profession suffers from a benevolent prejudice in terms of ageism–both ways. At least I could find an article where it was examined in academic libraries: http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v10n02/chu_m01.html. This one addresses the fact that younger librarians get a lot of flack.

      I am so not that person who talks mess about people be they younger than me, older than me, different from me. Although I may complain about someone’s behavior (and they happen to be of a certain age–are younger) I come off as some antiquated narrow-minded “older person.”

      Grant it, I made the mistake of talking about it in the first place. All I said was, in context was: “Wow, she yells. That’s not nice.” And the other person I was confiding in said, “She’s young.” (But that wasn’t the point–it was her behavior). I know now that I have to have a pow-wow about clearing the air on the intern who disproportionately threw tantrums because now two people have brought it up again. So, I can’t ignore this.

      For sanity, I really appreciate reading Hack Library School blog posts. This one is really refreshing. The Librarian in Black has written about her reflections too on this topic: http://librarianinblack.net/librarianinblack/2011/09/reflections.html. There was an outpouring of great comments on this that are highly enjoyable–just so you know.


      • Wait. Age is all about perspective too. I realize that someone who is 29 may feel older than people who are 22.
        I guess there are not “sweet spots” where you aren’t discriminated either way afterall: however the person feels about their age in comparison to others is more important that the numerical age. I have to account for emotional maturity too.
        Okay, peace out–finally.


  7. I could really relate to this article as well – I’m turning 30 this year and just started my MLIS. I’ve gained a wide variety of experience in teaching, management and tech since I left school and I think will all be a help in class and afterwards. Though I really hope that living the student life again won’t involve mac & cheese nightly!


  8. This has been very informative for me. I am in my mid 30s and currently taking the last few classes required for an AAS in med lab technology as well as a BA in history. I have been contemplating getting a MLIS, and the post as well as the comments have made me have a greater desire to follow this path. I believe that I my non-library experiences can actually be an asset. Does anyone have any opinions on online MLS programs?


    • @Jeff, there are pros and cons to online MLS/MLIS programs. (I bet there’s even a Hack Library School post about this issue!) If you decide to go the online route, make sure you choose a program that’s ALA-accredited, and get some library experience, either paid or volunteer.

      Congrats on closing in on your current degrees!


  9. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that it’s best to write more on this matter, it may not be a taboo subject but usually individuals are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers


  10. I have enjoyed reading all of your comments. I am 52 years old and worked 30 years in the public library as a paraprofessional. I am now contemplating getting my MLIS degree.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s