Peering Down the Rabbit Hole: Prefacing the MLIS with Work Experience

I still have two weeks until I even start classes for my MLIS degree. I’m starting to feel like Alice peering down the rabbit hole, waiting to fall. Unlike Alice, however, I feel prepared with some useful tools and know-how for my journey. I certainly won’t unquestioningly consume any strange packages that say “EAT ME” after a year at a public library.


“I wonder if I shall fall right THROUGH the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!” Photo in the public domain, courtesy of Pixabay.

After waiting a year to finally start library school, having two more weeks left is feeling unbearable – especially since I’m supposed to be dispensing wisdom, intelligent thoughts, and a fresh perspective here on HLS. The truth is that I don’t know anything about what library school is like, leaving me feeling like a bit of a library school “know nothing.”

I do, however, have a year’s worth of knowledge about the actual day-to-day functions of a public library, and that is far from insignificant. I was privileged enough to be able to spend three months applying to positions in my local library system. I interviewed eight (eight!) times before I got hired part time. Getting a paraprofessional job is not easy and taking this kind of time is not an option for everyone, but it is an invaluable experience. Anything that gets you working in an actual library can afford you the same benefits. Here are some of the best things that happened to me in the year I took between undergrad and the MLIS.

1. “You should probably just burn it down,” and other reference advice I wish I could give

Reference work is an interesting beast. There are innumerable guidelines and limits on what you can and can’t tell patrons. I still don’t feel totally familiar with all the hundreds of databases that my library subscribes to, and at least once a week I get a question that I have no idea what to do with. I can’t tell you what sort of spider is invading your house and biting you, but I can point you to our medical database’s entry on spider bites. Legal reference is my biggest weakness, and I still panic a little bit every time someone needs an automobile manual with diagrams. Reference is a pool. I’m still working my way to the deep end, but at least I can doggy paddle. Without my hours on the reference desk, I would still be dipping my toes in the water.

2. “I can get you anything… unless you want a VHS from the Library of Congress.”

I was lucky enough to get hired in Interlibrary Loan, an amazing complex machine of a system that exponentially increases access to information and materials. Granted, sometimes those materials are all 8 seasons of Full House, but what other open access system do you know that will still connect patrons with VHS tapes and books on cassette, with special collections items from other states, with as many conspiracy theory books as they could ever want? I had no idea about the scope of ILL a year ago. Processing at least 150 transactions a day changed that pretty quickly.

3. “I have no idea what you’re talking about but this is great,” or, my first professional conference

My employer also sent me to my first ever professional conference, a local ILL gathering held at a beautiful resort where it felt like what I stared at on my computer screen every day had come to life. Everyone there spoke my language. “You’re from DAD? I’m from CQU! We should probably have our codes on our nametags…” Though I didn’t fully realize at the time, I was blessed to hear a keynote from the founder of EveryLibrary, John Chrastka – it was as compelling and informative as you’re imagining. I felt out of my depth during some of the more technical panels, but it was a happy reminder that there’s always more to learn. Plus, I think having this smaller conference as a testing ground will help me have more confidence at any future conferences I attend.

4. “You just spit a cough drop at me. I love my job.”

A lot of weird stuff happens to you if you work at a public library, and from what I understand, library school does not prepare you for this. I’ve had a patron yell at me because her Christmas letter (written in all caps, no less), wasn’t printing correctly. One patron was ranting at me and a cough drop fell out of his mouth, on to my desk, and on to the carpet behind me. A patron that seemed nice sweetly berated me for the entire half hour I spent helping her – I didn’t even really notice she was being rude until she left. When I was first applying for library school, my aspirations were in academia, special libraries, or archives. Far from scaring me away from public libraries, these experiences, as well as all of the really good experiences I’ve had, have made me question my path. There is never a dull day in the public library, and I have met a lot of interesting people. Getting exposure to different aspects of libraries has expanded my idea of what my career can be.

A year ago, I knew very little about what working in a library actually meant, and, thankfully, my time at the public library has affirmed my interest, expanded my knowledge, and transformed my ambitions. Have you had a job or internship that’s had a similar affect on you? What experiences from the time before you started your degree informed your trip down the rabbit hole?

5 replies

  1. I can’t say enough about the power of internships. There is simply no better way to learn about a job than to spend time with people who are doing it. I spent two short weeks on assignment behind the desk at a public library. It was transformative. Some of my beliefs about the profession were confirmed, to be sure. But I learned so much about what to do and what not to do, what the job is and what the job isn’t that there is no way to articulate the value of the experience for me. I can only imagine how much more I would have taken away from a work experience like the one you describe, Jennifer. Great insights. Great advice.


  2. If your program allows, take a variety of courses in subjects you know little to nothing about. You will come out a more enlightened, well-rounded professional, and if you’re lucky, perhaps even find your true passion. Now is the time to experiment and find your path – even after all my years of library experience in various library settings, I didn’t know for sure what direction I wanted to take in my LIS program, so I let my curiosity be my guide. Now I only regret the courses I can’t take because I’m so close to the finish line, but that’s the awesome part of this profession – the learning doesn’t stop when you graduate. 🙂


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