“When Will I Ever Use This?” A Survival Guide for Required Courses

by Charles Schulz

by Charles Schulz from Peanuts Wiki | CC BY-SA

There are few certainties in life, but one thing you can count on for sure is that if you attend library school, you’re going to have to take at least a few required courses. For the most part, these courses are meant to introduce you to major aspects of librarianship, broaden your conception of what it means to be a librarian, give you a foundation for your later studies and eventual career, and potentially steer your interests toward a certain professional trajectory. At best, they’re inspiring, eye-opening, and imbued with purpose. At worst, they’re just another annoying box to tick off on your way to becoming a full-fledged librarian.

If I’m being honest, many of the required courses I took in my first year of library school felt like the latter. I probably grumbled to myself “why am I learning this?” more times in that year than I had in the 17 previous years of schooling combined. But as a recent graduate, I’ve come to realize that those classes had a lot more value than I gave them credit for at the time. In the process of writing my master’s paper, to name one example, I found myself referring back to theories from my Human Information Interactions class countless times—and wishing I’d accompanied readings about them with better notes. For better or for worse, hindsight has that annoying way of bringing clarity to a situation, and in my case it left me yearning for a do-over, a way to go back to that first semester of my LIS program with even the slightest smidgeon of perspective that I have now. Sadly, time machines still haven’t happened, so it’s too late for me. But in the hopes of sparing you from the same “duh” moments that I went through, here are some strategies for making the most of required LIS courses that I would share with my younger self if I could.

Find an aspect of the subject that resonates with you.

Even in a course that seems to have nothing to offer you, there’s going to be some interesting aspect, movement, or concern within that topic that you can cling to. Maybe you’re taking a class on Organization of Information despite not being interested in cataloging, coding, or any other form of information organization. Dublin Core or thesauri may not be your thing, but as a librarian you undoubtedly have a plethora of other interests and the uncanny ability to uncover more. So find yourself an angle! Is there a leader in the field whose perspective speaks to you? Are there any controversies that you’d like to be able to comment on intelligently? How does what you’re learning in this class play into your thoughts on [insert your issue of choice here]? Now take whatever angle you’ve chosen and apply as often as you can it to what you’re learning in class. Sure, you may find LC subject headings dull as dirt, but think of what Sanford Berman has to say about them and they take on a whole new life.

No matter how pointless a class may seem, you have the ability to make it have meaning to you. A bit of extracurricular poking around on the subject will give you ammo to help make the boring stuff less so.

Think of what the subject means to your professional interests.

You’ll probably end up taking a class or two that at first glance has nothing to do with what you want to do as a librarian. In my program, every library science student has to take Information Resources and Services, essentially a course on library reference, regardless of whether or not they’re even planning on being in a public-facing position. For those in my cohort who are more behind-the-scenes types, this requirement very well may have been one of those annoying hoops to jump through, and I don’t think I would have blamed any of them for not taking the class seriously. It’s hard to care about the reference interview when you know you’re never going to perform one. However, I remember even now being impressed by the passion and participation of the students I took that particular class with. Classmates who I knew were more into cataloging or e-resources management often brought some of the most relevant and interesting ideas to our class discussions–even those on issues that at first glance had little to do with their subjects of choice. I think a lot of the success of that class had to do with the fact that each student was able to understand the subject matter’s consequences on their projected careers. The future catalogers were able to see how changes in the way information is dealt with by the public could impact the way that information is classified and organized, which made those issues and the class as a whole seem much more personally relevant. My classmates were able to see the big picture and the part they play in it rather than getting stuck focusing only on the subject at hand and how incongruent it was with what they wanted to do professionally.

When you make the effort to envision librarianship as a whole, rather than a bunch of small pieces distinguished by job title, it’s a lot easier to figure out how your interests, knowledge, and actions connect to everything else. Think about what the subject means for what you want to do. The connection may not be immediately apparent, but I promise you it’s there. Once you find it, everything you’re studying becomes much more important—and more fun to learn about.

Make the most of your assignments.

Now, I know that it’s hard to take an assignment seriously when it doesn’t align with your personal or professional interests. Projects can feel painfully close to busywork if they don’t have a clear purpose or if the act of completing them doesn’t seem to hold any inherent benefit for you. So it’s up to you to inject purpose into your assignment. By the time you get to grad school you’re expected to be able to mold your coursework to your interests, and many of your assignments will give you freedom to decide the direction you take them in. That freedom means that you can blow them off, choose the easiest possible path of completing a given assignment, and eke out the passing grade you need to progress forward. But that easy path is also the one most likely to feel like pointless busywork, and I’d urge you to stay far, far away from it. Instead, take another look at that angle you established from the first tip I gave you. How can you work that into your assignment? If you’re required to come up with a core collection of books for your Resource Selection and Evaluation class but you’re more interested in critical librarianship, how can you meet in the middle and marry your passion with the task at hand? As Becky said in a previous post, you can bring the issues you find important into a class even if your professor doesn’t. Completing assignments with your passions in mind is one of the most constructive ways to do so. Using assignments as a way to exercise your strongest thoughts and opinions within a given subject will not only make your coursework more meaningful, it will better prepare to do the same out in the real world. So take your assignments seriously and think of each one as a way to grow as a librarian rather than a pointless task to swat out of the way and be done with.

Let’s be real here–library school isn’t always the most automatically stimulating environment, but a change in perspective can make a huge difference. Approach your classes and coursework mindfully and constantly use them as opportunities to grow, and you’ll get so much more out of your experience than if you had just done the bare minimum. Your learning is in your own hands…even in the courses you have no choice but to take.

Let us know in the comments below what helps you make required courses more bearable. Have you tried any of these strategies? What other recommendations do you have?

3 replies

  1. Thanks for this insightful post. I often hear librarians, especially “new” librarians, complain about the things “they didn’t teach me in library school!” They may cite things like personnel management, certain technologies, budgets/advocacy–and certainly, other specifics. But the thing is, I personally think a lot of those things can be learned on the job, or from a specific targeted CE course or workshop. Library school isn’t a trade school like beauty school or an auto repair program where you learn specific tasks. What we DO learn in library school is a lot of theory, things that underpin our profession. Those, I believe, you can’t really learn on the job, but are infinitely as important as specific tasks. Having said that, I do think we need a mix of both in library school, to some extent, and that students need to search out opportunities that meet their own specific needs. I really like your descriptions of how you may find out later how important some courses were, and also how to take it upon yourself to make an assignment meaningful.
    Thanks for this post!

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  2. Thank you for your comment! I have to admit that I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the things I didn’t get taught myself, but since graduating I’ve tried to view my experience more positively and reflect on what I DID learn from my program and ways I might have done a better job at being a learner. Most of my soul-searching has ended with the simple thought that school is what you make of it…especially once you’ve gone on to grad school and there’s absolutely no one checking up on you to make sure you’re putting yourself in a position where you can most effectively learn.

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  3. I appreciate this perspective so much, as someone who just finished all her first-year-requirements! Some were relevant, some not so much, but I tried to approach them with an open mind.

    That said, some classes really are just….. useless. There’s a required “intro” course in my program that 100% of the people I’ve spoken to about it (a lot) have said that they can’t believe they had to pay money to take it. At that point there’s no way to find meaning in a course that bad.

    I know we should take it to the administation – and we have — but it’s discouraging to only regularly hear “we hear your comments and are evaluating next steps”.

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