Interview with Jessica Olin from Letters to a Young Librarian

I recently had the chance to talk with Jessica Olin, an awesome librarian/blogger. You may have heard of her blog Letters to a Young Librarian (and if you haven’t, get on it!). Read on to hear her advice on library school, finding a job, and staying connected to the big issues!

You can also check out my interview on LTAYL here.

What inspired you to start LTAYL?

The tl;dr version? I got mad and when I get mad, I want to do something about it. The longer version is that I was supervising a library science graduate student in his culminating experience – a thing that was half research and half internship. He told me about learning a piece of software that had been out of date a decade prior when I’d been forced to learn it. Shortly after that, I learned about how some of the programs in our field in this country were perpetually out of date. In the meanwhile, I’d been reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and The Happiness Project by Rubin. All of this combined, and I thought, “I’m going to start a blog.”

What changes can LIS programs make to better prepare students for the professional world?

I’m 13 years out from my own degree at this point, and so I don’t want to come across like I’m wagging my finger at anyone when I’m not up to date on current programs. I can tell you, though, that remembering library science is inherently interdisciplinary will always yield good things. I know there are programs doing this, but I wish I saw more places teaching marketing and educational psychology and behavioral economics alongside cataloging and reference.

Are there any specific courses you think all LIS students should take?

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me, but I always recommend LIS students take full blown, grown up cataloging if possible. I’m public services through and through. Cataloging was my hardest class by far. I’m still and forever glad I took that class because the knowledge helps me explain to patrons how our catalog works. It makes it easier for me to use the catalog myself. I even took an advanced cataloging class, Subject Analysis. Metadata are hugely important, so knowing how to use them goes hand-in-glove with knowing how to create them.

How can LIS students get involved in the dialogue about issues in librarianship?

Speak up. Respond to threads on listservs. Chime in on conversations on Twitter. If you can’t afford to go to national conferences, try to go to local ones. You are going to be slapped down sometimes, and it can be hard not to take that personally, but you’ve got to get back up. At the same time, you’ve got to be willing to listen as well. It’s like joining any conversation.

We all know that the job market can be tough for librarians. How can we get ahead as students?

First, don’t sell yourselves short. You have an important perspective that will enrich any library. Fresh eyes are invaluable. Second, volunteer strategically – but not unless you can afford it financially. I just put out a call for volunteers to help me with my state library association’s bulletin, and that’s something we can do remotely and it will mean a limited time commitment. Third, remember that any work experience can relate to libraries. I got my first job in libraries (admittedly in a better market) by drawing a correlation between waiting tables at a high end restaurant and assisting patrons at an academic library. I make hiring decisions, and customer service experience is just as important to me as library experience.

What is a trend in librarianship that interests you and why?

That so many people are putting aside the false narrative of library neutrality… well, this is something that brings me joy repeatedly. Libraries have never been unbiased, no matter what people try to tell you. Censorship and book banning don’t just happen when people remove books from a collection; it also happens when you refuse to add materials to your library. We are creating displays and programs in support of political movements. A lot of us. Being unabashedly biased in favor of sending my school’s students out the door knowing they’ll be well-informed voters and intelligent consumers of mass media has always been hugely important to me. I’m so heartened to see even big schools working towards this end.

What advice do you have for new librarians and LIS students?

Be gentle with yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. There’s no avoiding it. Make mistakes. But own them and learn from them. One of my favorite quotes, which I repeat to myself often, is “Resilience instead of strength.” Even Time Lords make mistakes. It’s what we do with mistakes that makes the difference.

What is the last book you read?

The last book I finished was Nobody’s Cat by Miska Miles. I have a soft spot for early twentieth century children’s books about cats, and I found this lovely book in my own library. As for what I’m reading now, I’m currently in the middle of five different books. I’m reading Wham!: Teaching with Graphic Novels Across the Curriculum by William Brozo in preparation for a panel I’m on at a local comic con; and The Library Marketing Toolkit by Ned Potter in preparation for writing a marketing plan for the Delaware Library Association. The books I’m reading for fun are The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik; Rose Point by M.C.A. Hogarth (a super fun space opera type book); and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.


LTAYLJessica Olin is currently the Director of the Robert H. Parker Library as Wesley College in Dover, DE. Her professional interests include building communities at liberal arts college libraries, and mentoring – specifically helping others bridge the gap between library science graduate programs and professional practice. In addition to doing all the librarian things, she’s learning to play the guitar (somewhat poorly) and also loves to cross stitch (really well). She blogs regularly at Letters to a Young Librarian and tweets somewhat obsessively at @olinj.


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