Off the Tracks: The Benefits of Being Unspecialized in your LIS Education

The ALA states that the LIS student’s choice to specialize (also called “tracks” or “concentrations”) depends on “an assessment of [the students’] past experiences, education, personal strengths and interests, geographic mobility, intended career path, and future plans.” While assessing these factors, especially within the current political climate, I found that my “future plans” are difficult to confidently predict. Because of this, I consider myself lucky to be in a program that does not require its students to specialize. Even with this freedom, many students choose their own specializations and some are shaped organically, which I think is really great. However, an unspecialized transcript is not time wasted, and there are many benefits to choosing an “un-specialization” in your LIS education.

First, a note on the pressure that students may face when choosing not to specialize, which I view as twofold. As Jessica says in their post about the library figure as a multipotentialite, it is often difficult for library students to leave a stone unturned, a path not taken, a specialization unexplored. I will also argue for a point alluded to in Carissa’s post here, about how being interested in many things is often regarded as being indecisive (generally as a negative trait) by potential employers. The conscious choice not to specialize haunts me most when writing personal statements for job applications, internships, scholarships, and bios (hi, a lot of this has changed in my section since we posted it and that’s totally fine). No one truly belongs to just one category. So why do employers assume disorganization when they see a resume without professional focus?

Well, I’m here to tell you that it is possible to be a multipotentialite with a focused resume, and no, you don’t have to “do it all.” The first step is actually acknowledging that you can’t do it all. It’s not possible for one person to be the best at anything, nor can one person study everything in their lifetime. And that’s ok. That being said, doing what you want to do is important to your happiness, which directly affects how you view your career. I envy those who may find this simple, because this step does not come easy to me. I am constantly reminding myself that it’s ok to say “no,” that signing up for every extracurricular option is not worth overworking myself.

Second, you must trust yourself and your interests. I might not be able to choose a specialization, but I’m certain of why I love libraries, why I chose to attend graduate school, and what I like to do. If a certain specialization had fit neatly between those three factors, I would’ve definitely pursued it. So far, that hasn’t happened to me, and that’s still ok. Gathering new experiences is the most useful work you can do, personally and professionally. I know LIS students who take dance classes, play D&D, draw, do theater, or are active in online communities. If a ballet class helps you find balance in your work life, dance your heart out. If being on Reddit or Tumblr pumps you up before a cataloguing class, by all means post and reblog. No matter how seemingly unrelated, your favorite activity does have a connection to your LIS education and that connection is YOU. If you choose an activity that is important to you, the impact will always be positive. Plus, thinking about how your favorite activities relate to librarianship may create some surprising and unique professional revelations! This also goes both ways; as you learn from others, others may learn from you. Because my friend, who had never taken a dance class in her life, took a beginner’s ballet class during her last semester of library school, a bunch of undergrad dance majors now know that you can get a master’s degree in library science! While stepping outside of her comfort zone to learn new skills, she advocated for libraries by simply being in a new social sphere.

Third, don’t discount the possibility of future education. Besides a PhD, there are many other options for a specialized degree or certificate, post-graduation. Many jobs even offer funding for their employees to continue their education, through webinars, conferences, or non-degree seeking courses. This post from a guest writer on HLS on being ready for graduate school rings true to me, when author Julia Feerrar says, “being new often means being open.” I am a new graduate student, and when I start my career, I will be a new professional. And beyond that, I am always going to be new to something. We are always going to be students of something. While a graduation date might seem finite, we don’t have to learn everything all at once.

Being unspecialized in my MLIS program creates more freedom for me, as a student and in my job search. It is teaching me adaptability, it is diversifying my skill sets, and because I am doing what I want to do, I also feel mentally balanced. When I write my personal statements, I focus on what skills I would bring to that particular job and where I learned them, no matter if it was at my public library job, my museum volunteer work, or even my dance class. To me, finding these connections between personal and professional interests are what the humanities and, more narrowly, what library and information science is all about. The world is one big interdisciplinary study. Everything connects to everything, and creating these connections organically, with or without help from a track, makes our education personalized and trains us to be adaptable interdisciplinary scholars no matter what our “future plans” may be.

FEATURED IMAGE “IMAGE FROM PAGE 7 OF ‘COLORADO, UNDER THE TURQUOISE SKY’ (1909)” BY INTERNET ARCHIVE BOOK IMAGES, FROM FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS.

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