To Specialize, or Not To Specialize: How Do You Answer That Question?

When I started applying for library school last fall, one question nagged me: do I need to specialize in something while I’m getting my library degree? As I considered specializations while writing my personal statement, my thoughts went a little something like this:

Hmm…I’ve been working in an archive for a couple of years now. I love it and that’s where most of my experience is, so there, that’s what I’ll say I’ll specialize in. But, wait…I’m forgetting about what made me consider becoming a librarian in the first place. I first considered librarianship while working in a public library and discovering how much I liked public service. Public service, public libraries, archives, special collections…those are all their own specializations…well, that’s going to make me sound terribly indecisive. Oh god, I am terribly indecisive! This is horrible! If I can’t even decide on a specialization to write about now, how will I ever pick one later? Do I even need a specialization anyway?!

"Alternatives" by Daniel Oines on Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0.

“Alternatives” by Daniel Oines on Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0.

It has been just under a year since I was working on my library school applications, and since then I’ve had time to draw some conclusions about specializations. The short answer to the question of necessity is yes, at some point we all need to make choices about where we want to work and what type of work we want to do there. This is especially true of library and information professions. Our field is incredibly diverse, and practically speaking, we cannot do it all.

But, there’s more to it than that. Enter, the long answer.

This is what I wish I had been able to tell myself last fall – when I was busy perfecting (ha!) my personal statement and agonizing over specializations:

  1. Specializations can be naturally occurring phenomena

When it comes to addressing the specialization question early in your library school career, the answer often feels like an attempt to artificially impose a category on yourself. Remember that specializations and interests will crop up on their own. The types of jobs, internships, and projects you do will guide you, perhaps even more so than the courses you take. Also, simply saying that you’re specializing in something doesn’t mean you have to follow a certain path in its entirety. In fact, some of us won’t even be able to do a “full” specialization in library school due to limitations in course offerings, delivery mode, etc. And you know what? That is OK. There are a multitude of ways to exercise and develop skills in any given area. Your library school coursework is just one piece of it.

  1. What aren’t you going to do?

It is sometimes helpful to think about what you’re not going to do. When you’re staring down that long list of specializations, and it feels like you can’t even begin summarize your interests, crossing a few things off the list can be beneficial (even if it’s just for the time being). You might find that your interests aren’t that excessive or disorganized after all.

  1. Think beyond the list

LIS programs could do much better in presenting specializations to prospective students. Long, vague lists of specializations can overshadow even the most well-intentioned disclaimer about the master’s being a generalist degree. The natural inclination is to feel like you need to pick something off the list. Remember – you can combine areas of study to meet your needs! Unfortunately, not all schools will show you what that looks like exactly. Look through the course offerings and brainstorm clusters of related courses that you’re interested in taking. Talk to professionals, too. If you know someone with a job you’re interested in, ask them for course recommendations. And beware of programs trying to push you into committing to a specialization. Just a few days after being accepted into my first school, someone from the program emailed asking me to declare a specialization I mentioned in my application. Asking a prospective student about committing to a specialization without having taken any classes, talked to an advisor, or even accepted admission is, in my view, ridiculous.

  1. Look to the pros

Not a single professional that I know and look up to got to where they are solely as a result of doing a certain specialization in library school. Not a one. In fact, many of the professionals I know have held a variety of positions throughout their careers, and this makes them extremely valuable to their organizations. No specialization could’ve prepared them for the multitude of things they’ve done with their careers.

Finally, it’s one thing to ask yourself if you need or want to specialize in a certain area. Asking yourself whether or not you can afford to specialize is far different. I’m not just talking about “afford” in the monetary sense of the word. What I’m getting at are the potential outcomes or consequences of committing to a specialization. Are there jobs specific to my specialization where I currently live? Am I able to move in order to get a job? How long am I willing and/or financially able to look for a job in my specific area of expertise? How will choosing to specialize affect my partner’s career goals? Answering these questions isn’t easy – they require you to examine your values and aspirations, and be realistic with yourself. You won’t need to drum up answers for these in your library school applications or personal statement, but it’s never too early to start thinking about them.

For more information on specializations, check out this post on choosing a specialization and our other posts on specific specializations.

8 replies

  1. Thanks for this. As a third semester library science student I am struggling with this question. Turns out, I’ll have to take two extra semesters and three to four classes to complete the degree because I couldn’t take a class on time and there is limited work for archivists where I live. I am also discovering that my values and interests are morphing and becoming more clear and they are not leading to archives.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a recent graduate of an MLS program, I couldn’t agree more with the author. And, believe it or not, “specializations can be naturally occurring phenomena” is spot on. It happened to me – I took what I thought was a generalized course load for my MLS & took basically what interested me. I started out in public libraries/thought that was where I would end up, but then I took a position in an academic library this summer and my perspective changed.

    The nice thing: it turned out that a lot of the courses I had taken are considered valuable at academic libraries… so I had chosen my career path without realizing it. It happens!

    Liked by 1 person

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