Of Practicality and Practicums

Ever since the first day I entered library school, in a distant era I refer to as “2011,” I knew I would top off my MLS with a practicum. Even when I found a student job in a library; even after I’d completed a couple of volunteer gigs and an internship; even after making myself the kind of library student who probably doesn’t, strictly speaking, need a practicum, I still knew I’d do one. And I would advise you to do likewise.  Why? Because more practical experience is always better than less. Library school is great, but classes are no substitute for spending time in the trenches at a working library. However much experience I got, I knew I wanted more.

A practicum is, in a nutshell, an opportunity for a student to get some experience working in a library for academic credit. Not every library school encourages them — not every library school even offers them — but to my mind, every library student should do one. At a fundamental level, the practicum is a chance for you to put into practice everything that you’ve learned throughout your LIS education. If you’ve not managed to find much library work during your school career so far, it’s a vital opportunity to accrue some early experience, while also performing necessary work and making a first contribution to your community.  It’s a perfect win-win scenario: the library gets some much-needed trained help, and the student gets some fresh insight and knowledge, and probably a nice reference.

The possibilities are endless, and can be tailored to your professional interests and strengths. Here are a few examples from my own cohort:

My project is a combination of needs assessment and collection development. It involves working with a nursing liaison librarian and nursing faculty to come up with a list of complementary, alternative, and natural medicine resources for the library to potentially add. – Sarah H.

I arranged and described the collections of two deceased nuns and created EAD compliant finding aids for the Archives of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. – Kathleen F.

I am planning a family resource fair, and developing story time grab and go kits. – Kathy S.

[I’m doing] original cataloging of CDs & DVDs going into the Archive section of the Instructional Media Center. – Dhyana W.

I’m working on creating surveys and conducting usability testing for the library’s database subject page (in collaboration with the research librarian). The test will inform whether the web page needs to be redesigned. – Clara J.

Or read about Nicole’s practicum in “So What Do You Do? My Practicum Experience at a Small Academic Archive.”

At its best, a practicum can be even more than a chance to get your foot in the door: it can be an opportunity to pull all of your accumulated knowledge together, and then build upon it at a professional level. The best practicum is not advanced-level student work, but an accomplishment that demonstrates your readiness to join the ranks of the professionals.

We accept you, one of us...

We accept you, one of us…

So how do you go about finding a practicum? If your school has an established program, they may well be able to point you toward likely host sites through your academic advisor. But even if the practicum isn’t really a “thing” at your school, you can still go out and get one for yourself. You’d be surprised how far you can go just by asking nicely. Find institutions that are doing the kind of work you’re interested in, pinpoint a person there who is involved in that work, and send a friendly inquiry. You’re offering to give them free skilled labor in return for some of their time and attention; why wouldn’t they take you up on it? They may well have a neglected project hanging around, waiting for some enterprising person to come adopt it as their own. And whatever work you do, when your practicum is complete you’ll have something to be proud of on your resume.

Did you do a practicum in library school? Do you plan to? Are you in the middle of one now? Tell us about it in the comments!

6 replies

  1. I have the option to do one, my school supports it and in order to get certificates in certain areas, you have to do a practicum. I considered doing one but, but since I’ve worked my way up from a page to an associate librarian, worked in both public and academic libraries, and am currently working full time as a technical services associate, I decided that rather than extend my schooling an entire semester to accommodate a practicum that I would rather graduate and start looking for a position as a librarian with my already existing experience.

    I can certainly see the benefit of doing one, if someone has had little to no library experience, or if they are entering an area of librarianship that they feel they need the additional experience in. It may help them to figure out that they don’t like the academic atmosphere after all, or they can’t get past the homeless patrons that spend every day at the public library. It may open up new areas of interest to them, as well. It can never hurt, but for me, having worked as long as I have in libraries, I felt my time would be better served finishing up my degree sans practicum and moving on.


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