The most difficult questions I received during the summer after I completed my English MA and before entering my MLIS program were questions like, “Huh, so why are you getting a second master’s?” or “Shouldn’t you go for the PhD now?” The answer to both questions is the same: an MA in English is not enough for what I want to do, and a PhD in English would be too specific and limiting (also, there are no jobs for English PhDs these days, but that’s a different story). Underlying the above questions, though, is an assumption that getting an MLIS qualifies you to be *just* a librarian. In the real world, librarians all over the world are taking active roles in research projects, social activism, and generally making the world a better, smarter place. However, being presented with such diverse opportunities is a double-edged sword. It is exciting and promising of course, but it bears the possible consequence of squelching one’s specific interests.
In other disciplines, such as English Literature, there is a clear career path built in. You get your MA, then your PhD, then you teach English courses. In librarianship, there are many different paths that all require you to survey all the career paths, soul-search in terms of your interests, carefully chart out a coursework plan, and be conscious of how you allocate your attention and energy.
My MLIS program at the University of Denver (DU) is my second graduate program. My first was an English MA program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Some members of my cohort at DU followed a similar path–earning a subject-specific master’s before pursuing an MLIS. Even if they do not have previous graduate experience, many in my cohort have subject-specific expertise and passion that they’d love to pursue at a professional level. If you are like me, you had high hopes going into the MLIS program that you’d be able to continue pursuing your research interests seamlessly.
The trouble is, MLIS programs are broad, and designed to introduce students to the history, scope, and future of library and archive work. Sometimes, certain classes can feel like a waste of time. For these reasons, it can be challenging for those of us pursuing research in subject-specific domains. Library school introduces us to concepts, methods, and ideas that go beyond, or even conflict with our subject-specific training. Writing research papers about academic freedom, or about library technologies does not seem to build on my research in medieval literature. At least, it doesn’t seem to at first blush.
I came to library school with a specific focus in mind. I consider myself a medievalist, I read and write about medieval literature. I wanted to continue that by delving into digital humanities research methods and tools. Unfortunately, it is very easy to get distracted in library school. There are so many interesting things happening in the library world.
Maintaining focus has been difficult. I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about subjects outside of my wheelhouse. Just last week, for example, I spent a whole day learning about Python so I could use a script-line textual analysis program that I wanted to experiment with for an analysis of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This is something I probably would have never done in my English department, but I am grateful to have the time, opportunity and support to do things like this now. This is what’s both so frustrating, and so stimulating about library school. My classes have sent my brain in myriad different directions. It is a constant struggle to remind myself where my academic center is. By keeping that in the back of my mind, everything seems to relate back to medieval literature.
Keeping academically focused doesn’t need to be stressful, in fact, it is rewarding and exciting. Dr. Kim Dority recently gave an interview on the Beyond the Stacks podcast and discussed a principle that I think is very useful for the subject specialists among us, as well as any library student. Dr. Dority encourages students to “hijack the program.” In other words, use your assignments in such a way that they benefit you intellectually, professionally, and personally. It’s very easy to read through an assignment prompt, find the hoops you need to jump through to get an A, and just do that.
How, in the long run, is that helping you? For example, you have an open-ended research project; you can either pick a low-hanging fruit topic and get an easy A, or you can use that project as an excuse to reach out to experts. That accomplishes many things at once: you’re showing your professor a great deal of initiative and engagement with their assignments. Discussing your topic with an expert will invariably teach you a lot in a fairly short amount of time. Your project will be well-researched, and your personal investment in the project will be obvious. Finally, you are also networking with people in the field. You probably want to have professional relationships with those people anyway, why not connect with them now?
This advice is not just for those of us who plan to become subject specialist librarians. The concept is applicable to LIS students of all stripes. Having a focus can help you give shape and meaning to all of your assignments throughout your MLIS program. Picking a focus or specialization and hijacking your assignments for the purpose of exploring that focus will, at very least, ensure that you will be personally interested in the assignment. Writing about something that’s interesting to you will always translate to a better final product.
When selecting a scholarly focus, you don’t have to feel locked into it forever, but it should be something that has precedent in LIS so you can network with professionals working in the field. Your focus can also be fairly broad, it does not have to be as narrow as my example of medieval British literature and digital humanities. Your focus can simply be public librarianship, or youth services, it can be a specialized track that your LIS program offers, or it can be a subject or topic you are passionate about, like social justice, or history. Some kind of focus will ensure that your assignments are done with personal care and pride, and will help you to network with people in that field or specialization.
So, what focus/specialization do you have in library school? Do you find that you are more engaged when assignments align with your interests? Let me hear your thoughts down below!
By Vince Garin
Vince is an MLIS student at the University of Denver.