Here it comes again, the clichéd question: “Why bother with library school? We have the internet now.” I’ve been working in libraries for the better part of a decade so, I’m full of answers. I tell these concerned citizens that libraries are community centers for learning. They teach information literacy, fight for the freedom of information and bridge that digital divide. But after starting graduate school last fall, I started to falter in my answer. Because in addition to LIS courses, I started to do something that didn’t fit with libraries as I knew them, something decidedly retrograde. I started binding books.
At the University of Iowa’s School for LIS and the Center for the Book, I’m earning a joint MLIS and Certificate in Book Studies. The program is affectionately called “BLIS” (pronounced bliss). My BLIS cohort and I study the book as a physical artifact, and this includes producing book structures. We complete our LIS studies along with classes like papermaking, letterpress, and bookbinding over a period of three years. The program attracts LIS students interested in special collections librarianship and conservation.
I’m a big fan of learning by doing, and the program related to my interest in special collections and archives. Also, it just sounded quirky and fun. After gaining acceptance to the program, I jumped right in to Bookbinding 1 my first semester. Despite my enthusiasm, I was beset with anxiety. Would a three year program be worth it? How would bookbinding fit in with my career? Had I made the right decision? Throughout the first semester of sewing pamphlets, folding accordion books, and binding folios together for credit, my questions became more urgent. If I left the program now, I thought, could I finish in two years instead of three?
My outlook changed near the end of the semester. Yes, with the passage of time, I felt more comfortable in the bindery and gained some pride in my work as it continued to improve. And it’s true that the time I spent binding books cleared my mind of outside stress (other classes). But, BLIS also changed the way I approach my classes and my work. I have new respect for the book. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved them, but I never knew how much went into them. Every step of the detailed binding process has a structural purpose right down to making sure grain of the paper always runs parallel to the spine. (It maintains the spine’s structural integrity and makes the pages easier to turn.) In my mind, the book transformed from the opposite of technology into an inseparable part of technological progress, one that has evolved over hundreds of years.
And do I use it? Well, not literally (yet). Although I do not bind books at work, the skills I’ve picked up while learning a craft do come up. I’ve never been incredibly artsy, but now I’m more confident with tools like bone folders, cutting mats, needles and thread. I even fold paper more precisely. And, I’m not ruling out bookbinding in the future, because who knows what the future will hold. Aspiring archivists occupy a space somewhere between librarians, historians, and museum curators. No two days or two jobs are the same. Many archivists (and librarians!) work alone or in very small teams, so a broad skillset is an asset.
So, what’s the take away here? Library school is a pre-professional program. Do take relevant classes. Do get work experience. But, don’t reject an opportunity just because it doesn’t fit in with your future career as you picture it now. If you have time, take a class in another specialization, learn that new skill, volunteer in a library or archives outside of your current focus. If anyone asks you why, tell them that the library world is big, broad, and full of variety! And plan on this: you’ll use aspects of what you learn in ways you can’t yet imagine.