Like some others this summer, I also completed a practicum experience for course credit in my program at Catholic University in Washington, DC. Having a vested interest in all things web and digital projects related, I decided to work for the Food Safety Research Information Office (FSRIO) of the National Agricultural Library, analyzing their website on the eve of their migration to Drupal. I analyzed their information architecture, created website mockups, and worked with staff to find creative solutions to — frankly — unanticipated challenges.
In regular semester coursework, you are following a syllabus, and know exactly what to expect from start to finish, with very little — if any! — deviation. If there’s anything I can say about the benefits of a practicum experience, it’s that it makes you throw all that orderliness out the window and shows you what you are really made of.
Expect the unexpected. I do hope you will indulge me in this cliche, but it’s true! When I signed on for this practicum, it was with the full knowledge that as a federal library, and there would be some extra barriers to entry. I started the site badge application and background check process three months in advance of my start date, but still had to get fingerprinted twice before I could get the badge, because my first set of prints didn’t make it into the system. As a result I started my practicum two weeks later than I had intended. And then when I arrived, I didn’t have computer access for the first week, and so had to work on a computer in the public area instead of with the rest of the FSRIO staff.
Even with full knowledge of the extensive process to gain access to federal library resources, I still found myself needing to improvise and be flexible in order to both meet the needs of the FSRIO staff, who were undergoing a huge website migration project, and my own needs to gain practical experience (120 hours of it!). And that leads me to my next point…
Learn to be independent. Luckily, as a self-proclaimed introvert, this is one of my strengths. I was very lucky to have completed an information architecture course in the spring, so I had a good idea of where I would need to start. I admit, it was very satisfying to be able to apply the theories and exercises used in my coursework to a real life situation. In addition, being limited to only public computer access, with no additional software or tools besides the world wide web, I had to adapt my tasks to use the resources I had at hand (which happened to be Google Docs/Sheets).
While I could look at these issues at setbacks, it really forced me to rely on my own knowledge and ingenuity to continue to create value for myself and for my colleagues at FSRIO. In many ways, I learned to function as a government contractor, which is a very common position in the institutions in the DC and Northern Virginia areas.
Ask questions. Talk to everyone. This part was a little harder for me, since I very much like to stay in my little cubby, banging on my keyboard and clicking my mouse furiously. But I realized that I was nearing the end of my practicum and had not spoken to anyone performing library services at the NAL, since I was working exclusively with the FSRIO staff. Thankfully, my practicum and FSRIO site advisor were incredibly supportive, and facilitated introductions to reference, cataloging/metadata, digital libraries, database/systems services and upper management staff so that I might learn more about how this unique federal library functions.
While the conversations with these staff members didn’t necessarily fall within my assigned tasks, they were invaluable to giving me the big picture view of NAL operations. As an office within the NAL, I was able to see how FSRIO fit into long-term institutional goals as well as get a better idea of the overall organizational structure – a must, especially for anyone working on a federal level.
While I encountered several setbacks in my practicum, I would still highly recommend the experience to anyone considering it. It’s very easy to read and discuss articles in a controlled classroom environment and profess to understand all you would ever need to know to work in any library, archive or museum. But I have to confess, there is really nothing like flying by the seat of your pants in the real world. Read the articles; understand the material. But don’t be afraid to get out there and get your hands dirty.
Craving more HLS posts on practicums? For instance, why you should do one in the first place? Or what it’s like to work in an archival setting? You know we’ve got you covered!