When I was a freshly-declared English major, just beginning to flex my college reading and writing muscles, one of my professors told me something that has stuck with me ever since: “If you feel like you’re out on the tightrope and it’s swinging, that’s good. That’s where life is.”
As I recall, she meant that specifically in relation to making strong arguments and taking intellectual risks; if you feel like what you’re saying is risky, that’s good because it means you’re really making an argument. But I think we can jump easily from writing guidance to life advice (and my professor did so often). When you step out onto uncertain ground—take a risk, that is—you open to growth and new experiences. If it feels scary, good, you’re doing something important and it’s called living.
I’ve felt like I was “out on the tightrope” many times during library school and, as uncomfortable as it is, I’ve tried to embrace the feeling. Instead of letting fear cripple me, I try to use it as a motivator to find some extra courage within myself and continue on whatever nerve-wracking track I’m currently on.
Sharing the things that scare us, while adding some initial vulnerability, can be motivating and empowering. And so, some fellow hackers and I would like to share the scariest things we’ve done in library school and what we learned from the process.
I came to library school with instruction experience that revolved around one-on-one tutoring. The idea of leading a 50- or 75-minute class terrified me. However, I saw the user education side of libraries as really important and interesting, and I knew I’d need to explore the world of library instruction…eventually. When I began working as a student assistant in reference and instruction, my chance to teach came more quickly than I had anticipated. I observed multiple instruction sessions and worked with my supervisor to plan a lesson, but nothing could have stopped my heart from pounding and my mouth from drying when I stood in front of that first class. I did a lot of the things I feared I would do: I got flustered, forgot some of my major points, and spoke really quickly. However, when I went around the room to work with the students one-on-one, I found that they were actually applying the ideas and tools I had shown them. Quite a few of them had follow-up questions demonstrating that they had at least gotten something out of our session.
I’ve developed confidence with practice and time, but I know I have a lot of room to keep growing. I like that. For me, teaching has turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of library school.
At ALA Midwinter 2014 in Philadelphia, I attended a new-to-me Library Leadership and Management (LLAMA) section committee meeting, and when I introduced myself as a library student, another committee member said, “Ah, so you’re still in paper writing mode! Would you consider writing the last chapter for our book?” I thought about it for a few minutes, about how great it would be to publish something before graduation, and how I could learn a lot in the process. So, I said yes. NOW I’m nervous about it! I definitely feel like I’m out on the tightrope that Julia mentioned. Fortunately, my colleagues and professors have been supportive and encouraging!
I tried to take on things that scared me from the very beginning of library school, starting with accepting a job as an Instruction Assistant. I remember staring at the group of freshman that first time, thinking, I’m not that much older than you. It was a great opportunity to get comfortable speaking in front of a group. After that, I decided I would put myself out there professionally by presenting at conferences. I hoped this would make me grow up, get tougher. This year, my third and final in library school, has been scary in a different way. I did all of the things I wanted to do – I took leadership roles in my program, went to a lot of conferences and presented at some, and I’m even fairly active online – and I don’t regret any of it. But I never expected to deliberately do scary things for two years, then still feel lost rather than empowered. Often I feel overwhelmed by the library world, intimidated by the people who I really admire because I am so not even close to being on their level. I’ve talked about it with a close friend and we’ve decided that we finally know all the stuff we don’t know, and that’s why we feel so reticent. It’s probably normal to feel this way, especially with all the trepidation that comes with the job hunt. So the scariest thing I’m grappling with lately is not letting how scared I feel convince me that I have nothing to offer this field.
Hands down, the scariest thing I’ve done in library school was to apply for library school. I graduated from college in May 2011 with my shiny bachelor’s degree and was promptly unemployed for the next 8 months. During this time, I did a lot of soul searching, and I finally admitted to myself that going to library school might be a good idea, considering that I had no other foreseeable career prospects, and I’d really enjoyed working at the library during undergrad. I spent $50 that I didn’t really have to spare on my application fee, and I went for it. I had so many questions: What if I don’t get in? What if I get in but I can’t afford my tuition? What if I don’t really want to be a librarian? But after I applied and was accepted, good things started to come my way. I got a job and a scholarship, and I realized that librarianship is the embodiment of everything I want in a career.
As an undergrad, I struggled to bring myself to approach strangers at academic conferences and strike up a conversation on the basis of no known commonalities except our historical studies. But I knew my history, and I received amazing praise and support from fellow students and faculty mentors, to whom I shall remain forever grateful. Delivering a score of conference presentations or guest lectures gradually lifted this social anxiety off my shoulders. To my amazement, now I love public speaking! You might say that as an undergrad, I had so many “scary” experiences that they desensitized me to some of grad school’s challenges.
But it was…unnerving…when I finally signed up for a web development class this semester, only to open my textbook and realize that I had to learn one thousand pages of material in under four months! Although intimidated, I stayed in the class and labored like Heracles. Fortunately, I discovered that I enjoy web development’s union of aesthetic appeal to technical minutiae.
My takeaway? I don’t regret a single academic choice I have made. I regret only that which I have not done. I remind myself: Audaces fortuna iuvat.
The scariest thing I’ve done in library school was start my program without any library experience. I’m in an online MLIS program and I work full-time at a university in a student affairs position. I did a collection development internship last year and I just started a processing archives internship. Unfortunately, however, I’ve struggled to find a paraprofessional job. I knew the job market was tough, and even though most fields are suffering in this economy, I didn’t think it would be that difficult to find a library assistant job. I was wrong. I’m not going to sugar coat it – I’m terrified that I’m not going to find a professional position when I graduate next year and, each time I apply and either don’t hear back or I am rejected, part of me wonders if I’ve made the right choice. The good news, however, is that it’s forced me to come outside of my comfort zone and take advantage of other opportunities in the field. I try harder because I have to try harder if I’m going to be competitive on the job market. I started working on a project archiving MFA theses at my job last year which led me to connect with librarians and the institutional repository at my university. I presented a poster on the project at ARLIS/SE last fall and I started looking more into digital scholarship, institutional repositories, digital humanities, and open access as research interests. This led to discussions with fellow HLS writer Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet, who has mutual interests, and she and I are co-presenting a paper on digital scholarship and institutional repositories in the fine arts at the Data Driven: Digital Humanities in the Library conference this summer.
The truth is that I never would have pursued a project like this, and thus reaped the benefits of collaborating with colleagues and presenting and writing a professional paper, if I wasn’t so keen on finding outside-the-box ways to get library-related experience at my current job. Thus, the professional activities section of my resume is probably more impressive than it would have been if I’d already had a library job when I started my MLIS. If you are like me – in library school but working in an unrelated field – don’t let fear hold you back from using your full potential. It will pay off.
Whether we’re contributing to new projects, approaching job hunts, making new connections, or just feeling the general newness of our professional selves, facing fears can be quite powerful. We’d love to hear your stories, too. What are the scariest things you’ve done in library school?