Academic Currency and Leprechaun Gold

I don’t know how many times I have heard the peer-reviewed journal article referred to as the “currency” of academia but, just as with other forms of currency, it seems as though one needs more and more to afford even a basic standard of living (except for you public librarians—you just need the patience of saints and the “other duties as assigned” flexibility of the Pretender). Even if you aren’t aiming for a position that holds professorial rank or tenure, or even if you are aiming at special research libraries rather than libraries in academia per se, a few good publications go a long way to making your résumé / CV stand out in a crowded profession. And make no mistake, it’s still crowded. Even amidst record low US unemployment, library science programs are still generating more graduates than there are positions to absorb them, and the more your interests tend toward academic and research libraries the worse that problem becomes, in part because you also begin to compete against the overflow from doctoral programs in other fields turning out way more graduates than there are professional homes for. For as many times as we tell people that you need a master’s degree to be a librarian, it’s not strictly true, as Ph.D.s not infrequently take library jobs and bloggers at places like Inside Higher Ed are reassuring them that they can be considered without an MLIS.

Under these conditions, the best piece of advice I got when starting my MLIS was from a recent graduate who explained to me that you can receive your degree and still fail library school. If you are up on stage getting handed your diploma, he said, but you still haven’t gotten any work experience in a library, or haven’t served on a committee, or haven’t published any professional writing about librarianship, you have failed—not in the sense that you shouldn’t be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished, but in the sense that you won’t have acquired the experiences and credentials that are going to leverage that degree into an actual job.

Is that overstating the case? Maybe a little bit, but a bit of overwrought rhetorical flourish gives punch to what is, broadly speaking, an accurate assessment. Following the same metaphor in which published articles are currency, college credits are leprechaun gold. They look really shiny while we’re racking them up and they make us feel like we’re accomplishing something, but the moment we walk out the door of the institution they dissipate in wisps at the corners of our pockets. To say that you need an MLIS to be a librarian is, in the same breath, to observe that the MLIS is a minimum requirement. No one is hired for having it; it’s just a box on the HR form that has to be checked (except when it doesn’t, see above) along the way to hiring you because of something else. Yes, every librarian you’ve talked to has asked “What are you taking this semester?”, but it’s small talk; no one actually cares what the answer to that question is even now, let alone five years from now. Very few people will ever look again at the titles of the classes you took and absolutely no one will look at the assignments you completed to pass them. Think of your impending diploma as the event horizon of a black hole—no information about what you did before will pass through it. All your sweat, all your tears, all your brilliant ideas in class discussions and term papers will be entombed forever under the simple résumé line, “Master of Library and Information Science”.

Unless, of course, you find ways to launder your leprechaun gold into hard academic currency. Our very own Carrie Hanson wrote recently about how she learned to stop worrying and love research, which is fabulous. I would certainly second her suggestion to think hard about doing independent study or a thesis option if your program makes it available to you. What I want to add is simply that you are probably already doing a lot of research that you’re not leveraging and that there are plenty of opportunities to spin work you are going to do anyway in directions that wring more value out of it.

My program’s capstone course, as it happens, is “Research Methods in Library and Information Science”, but one of the notable things we’ve talked about is how flexible the category of “research” is in LIS because of the way the discipline bridges several theoretical fields and a suite of strongly practical, professional components. Did you evaluate a series of software alternatives for a project in your library? Did you keep statistics on patron usage of different services? Did you develop a proposal for streamlining workflows in part of your operations? Properly formatted and cited, any of these things could be publishable library research right alongside papers on the history of librarianship, applications of critical theory to the profession, or post-structuralist approaches to defining “knowledge”. I have also observed, anecdotally, that LIS papers tend to be shorter than papers in the humanities disciplines I came from. Journal articles are not infrequently 6-10 pages, instead of 15-30 (though I do see longer format work, too). Especially if you are coming from a discipline with more narrow definitions or larger-scale expectations of what constitutes original “research”, you may just need to start looking at some of your work through a new lens.

When I started my MLIS program a little over a year ago, I made it a goal to try to turn every major assignment into either a paper I could publish or a project I could put into a digital portfolio because… why not? Leveraging my own idiosyncratic interests and background, I was able to give most assignments an unusual spin that hadn’t been covered much (or at all) in the literature, and most professors were happy to see my initiative in asking about customizing assignments when I needed a little more flexibility to make them into something that would have value after the class was over. In my very first semester, my “Foundations of Library Science” class had a term paper assignment to write ten to fifteen pages on a “current issue in the field of librarianship”. I have a background in religious studies, so I wrote on XML-encoding of theological materials for digital libraries. That paper is now due out in the spring issue of Theological Librarianship. Making the assignment publishable didn’t actually require any extra work; it just required picking an off-beat topic that hadn’t been written on before.

Similarly, when I needed to write an assignment on the unique needs of students in academic libraries, I looked for a specialized population that had been underexamined, and ended up writing on ways that academic libraries in Louisiana can support students coming out of the state’s French revitalization program. That paper recently appeared in CODEX: The Journal of the Louisiana Chapter of the ACRL. When I needed to write a reflection on current issues in scholarly communication, I spun interest in open access toward my background in linguistics to write a piece on linguistic equity in scholarly publishing that appeared as an essay in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. The first of those papers required no additional work beyond the rubric for the assignment. The second I needed to flush out with some background study, but even there the extra time and trouble involved (which amounted to no more than a few hours of my winter break) was a small price to pay to take an assignment I’d already invested a lot of work into and make it something that will pay dividends on my CV for years to come, instead of being quietly forgotten under the minimum-requirement heading of “Master of Library and Information Science”.

Don’t sell yourself short as a researcher and above all don’t let the research you are already doing go to waste. If you need a little extra inspiration, have a look at Dolores’ List of CFPs and the Library Writer’s Blog. Put them on your Feedly or follow them on Twitter and then just ask yourself with each assignment you get for a class, “Is there a way I can align this with one of the calls I saw?” If there is, make your homework your submission and you, too, can graduate with a record of published research in LIS, whether or not your program includes a “research methods” course or offers independent study or thesis options. And don’t forget smaller opportunities either. Those little 500 or 1000 word responses you have to write for online discussions or quizzes probably won’t work as research articles, but they can be spun into good fits for professional magazines like Information Outlook, Computers in Libraries, or Online Searcher.

Another good piece of advice I was once given is, “Don’t tell yourself no. Let somebody else do that.” Editors are going to turn down some of your articles, just like hiring committees are going to pass you over for some jobs. It happens. The important thing is never to write your own rejection slip before they get a chance to, because sometimes they’re writing an acceptance letter. If you’ve put in the work to write something worth reading, you owe it to yourself to put in that little bit of extra work that will get it read long after the grades are recorded, and get you hired long after the committee has seen the words “Master of Library and Information Science” on the hundredth application. The credits may be leprechaun gold, but turning them into hard academic currency takes only a willingness to put yourself forward.

And a touch of the luck o’ the Irish doesn’t hurt, either.

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