The Portfolio, or Ending with a Bang and Not a Whimper

Image courtesy of the Ohio University Libraries

Image courtesy of the Ohio University Libraries

Let’s just say that you’re in your final semester of library school. It’s an exciting time, the end is near, you’re anxious to start the big job hunt, or if you’re lucky enough to have a library job, maybe you’re looking forward to moving up the library ladder. Nothing stands in your way now, except for one thing. The culminating experience – the academic gatekeeper that vets your qualifications and once and for all declares you ready to enter the world of paid (hooray!) librarianship. No pressure.

In the SLIS program at San Jose State University, we have our choice of two possible routes through the culminating experience, which is what our department calls the final, cumulative project of our LIS career. Any SLIS student wishing to graduate may either write a Master’s thesis or complete a portfolio, which is a comprehensive overview of your work in the program. Though I was tempted by the in-depth nature of writing a thesis, I decided early on that it would make more sense for me to do a portfolio because it would explicitly tie my strongest accomplishments together while requiring me to review everything I had learned in my courses, thus helping prepare me for job interviews along the way. It sounded like a no-brainer in my first semester, and it was definitely the right choice for me, but its a lot to bite off – an amazingly-lot to bite off – and it’s best to lay the groundwork early and often.

So, for those of you in the middle of your culminating experience, whether it be a portfolio, a thesis or something else entirely, here is what I’ve learned (so far) about keeping your sanity through the process. And, for those of you have yet to tackle this wily beast, read on for a little advice about how to start preparing for it way, way, way in a advance.

1. Start Early

In a recent post, Alison resolved to start keeping a professional portfolio. This ties into one of the best pieces of advice I received during my first semester of library school. It came from a student assistant who was just finishing her final project. The advice was this: If you’re going to do a portfolio, START NOW. This might come a bit late to those of us already hip-deep in the culminating experience, but for the folks just starting their programs, it really is a lifesaver.

What does STARTing NOW look like? It’s a lot of little things. If you have a choice, decide what you want your final project to be by the end of your first year. Look at the requirements. Do you need to show evidence of professional competency? Review the competencies after every semester and jot down a couple of notes on how each of your courses fulfills them. Keep your course work organized in a way that makes sense to you so you can find it when the time comes. I even made little annotations on the big projects to reference later, and it’s proving to be unbelievably helpful now.

In all honesty, the end of semester organizing and note-taking got to be a pain at times, but stay strong, stay focused and stay organized – your future self will thank you when it’s time to support your understanding of library demographics and you could swear you wrote a discussion post on that two years ago, but you can’t find it to save your life.


Stock photo courtesy of Flickr

2. Get Organized

When you’re staring at a terrifically large project that must synthesize everything you’ve learned in the past 2-3 years, and it’s due in roughly 2-3 months, even the most organized future librarian might panic. The key is to stay organized. This is where all of that starting early comes in handy. If you’re lucky, your past self will have your coursework, lecture notes, discussion posts and readings filed away so you can sift through it all by category, skill or semester. If you’re not so lucky, all is not lost. Give the entire amorphous heap a quick look. Then look at your project requirements and start sifting according to what you’re most likely to need. Just beware that you will need to account for this in scheduling. Which brings me to….

3. Make a Schedule

Look at your final project’s requirements and start breaking the work down into discrete parcels. Be realistic and leave room for mishaps, illness and dismemberment, but for the next 2-3 months, let that schedule rule your life. For example, for the fourteen competencies supported by my program, I need to complete fourteen 2-3 page competency statements, plus evidence, summaries and miscellany in 3 months. That means I need to write roughly 2 competencies per week. Keep in mind that you’ll need more time early on while you find your rhythm and get organized. With five competencies under my belt, I’m able to work faster now, but I’m really glad I accounted for that learning curve early on.


Image courtesy of

4. Pace Yourself

Most final projects are marathons, not sprints. You might come out of the gate flying, but if you’re not careful, it’s easy to start lagging before you’re halfway through. Take it one step at a time and try to maintain as much balance  as you can. This might sound strange given that I just harped for a paragraph about sticking to a schedule, but schedules work two ways. Yes, they keep you from falling behind. But they can also keep you motivated, and even more importantly, they keep you from burning out. Trust me.

Here’s another example from my ongoing experience:

Early on, I finished my scheduled work early and decided to make a push. I pushed so hard that I lost sleep, got stressed out and became really unpleasant, all while producing work that I ended up rewriting later. If you finish your work early, that’s great. If you want to get a bit ahead, wonderful. But make sure you go outside and get some fresh air. Go to a movie. Do whatever it is that you do that reminds you that you’re human and not just a grad student desperately trying to finish your degree. Your work will be there when you get back, and you’ll do it better for the break.

So, that’s what I’ve learned so far from working on my portfolio. As my big deadline looms, we’ll see if I can follow my own advice, particularly as regards balance. Is anyone else out there working on a final project right now? How are you approaching it? And for all of you portfolio veterans out there, do you have any advice for those of us still in the trenches? Let us know in the comments!

3/19/2013 –

Post Script – The black and white image of the students studying at the Chubb Library was incorrectly cited in the original post. The current citation, crediting the Ohio University Libraries, is correct.

6 replies

  1. Hi,
    thanks for the article. I wrote my first drafts of my competency statements in about two weeks. I was on school vacation. I’m working as an English Assistant Teacher in Martinique. We just had Carnival vacation.

    Well, I still have six weeks until April 8th, when my professor requires all work to be submitted for approval.

    I got into that mood of “not-enough-sleep”, slight grumpiness and now I need to follow your advice about taking it easy, breathing and following a schedule.

    I’m going to tackle competency A this week and revise what I started. I am going to synthesize some references from the ALA website to bolster my statement.

    I’m glad that you mention that your statements are about two to three pages. I wrote mine as one-page statements and I prefer to keep them that way, but I know that longer is better.

    Thanks a lot,


    • Thanks for sharing you’re experiences – I feel like there are a lot of us tackling this and am really glad to hear about other people’s projects and processes. That “not-enough-sleep” thing is one of my big traps, so I definitely understand. It’s hard not to keep pushing, especially when the end is so near. I like you’re idea of incorporating references from the ALA into your statements. I’m going to look at where I can apply them to my portfolio statements as well. As for length, I seem to be incapable of not writing at length – I think 1 page of thorough, well-written concision is as good, if not better, than a less tightly written longer statement. At least, that how I’d feel if I were a professor who had a stack of portfolios to read. Good luck!


  2. Totally agree about starting early. I went to SJSU SLIS as well and did my e-Port during the fall semester. I really, really wish I had prepared the summer before – even just some vague structuring out of what evidence I would use for which competency.

    I kept myself on track by creating a giant spreadsheet and noted dates when competencies were submitted and either approved or re-submitted for round two.

    There’s a fantastic Facebook support group for people at SJSU SLIS doing the e-Portfolio. I highly recommend it.

    Good luck!


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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