Giving Credence to Experience in Library Science Education

A year ago I was finishing up my first year as a full-time English professor at a community college in a semi-rural town. After 7 years of teaching as an adjunct across multiple institutions and local non-profits in Colorado, I was pleased to take something more permanent. 

But before I tell you about that, I have to give you some background. I grew up in foster homes and aged out of the system. Many people are unclear about what it’s like growing up in foster homes, but one thing I think everyone should know is that the lack of a permanent home gives you a certain lens with which you view the world. In my case, working as an adjunct mimicked my growing up experience. I was constantly working hard to maintain my positions, trying to prove I was somehow good enough to stay, all the while feeling completely terrified of being let go. In the world of foster care, you show up to temporary home after school and your stuff is packed and a social worker is there, ready to take you to the next place. In the case of adjunct work, I was assigned courses and then they were withdrawn because of restructuring orders from higher up. Although I was eventually offered additional classes, the experience was jarring and painful. 

This foster care state of thinking, which is one of surviving rather than thriving, is shared by many working as adjuncts. What complicates this more is if you are, like me, passionate about students and education, another struggle is that you aren’t, and really can’t be, 100%. In my case, it was completely normal to teach eight classes across three different institutions. I often wondered how my teaching would differ if I had a more stable position. I finally got that, but there were similar issues, including the fact that I was commuting 3 hours each way.

For those leaving academic instruction positions, academic library work is sometimes referred to as “soft” academia. The idea is that you still get to be part of the institution, may even get paid for scholarly output, might even be granted tenure, but you are no longer fighting to obtain or maintain prestigious professorship positions. In my case, I gave up the idea of becoming a professor. I should teach high school, people said! But I thought libraries might be a better option. When I told my former boss that I was returning to school for libraries she said—good, there’s no such thing as an adjunct in libraries (of course this isn’t entirely true). 

The reason I’m writing this is that no doubt many of you have noticed some variety in your cohorts. You have many MLIS students who have left existing professions, who have other graduate degrees, or previous professional positions within libraries and that might seem strange; especially if you don’t have other degrees and librarianship is it for you. Good for you! But as I challenge myself to consider my own privilege I recognize just how much people like me are contributing to the changing face of librarianship, specifically academic librarianship, and how it’s important that we take stock of those around us and consider how we might help one another grow our professional experience. We’re librarians-in-training after all, and I was told early on that we’re all about creating support systems.

Now, acknowledging the connection between previous work experience and librarianship isn’t new. Much has been written about how the benefits when applying to jobs here on HLS (https://hacklibraryschool.com/2012/02/28/the-skills-you-dont-learn-in-school/ & https://hacklibraryschool.com/2018/10/16/non-library-experience-and-library-job-applications/), but I wonder about how those experiences can be applied within our MLIS classrooms and programs. How much attention is given to the fact that many MLIS students are navigating the education process with skills and not a deficiency in them? Of course, this question goes beyond just those with previous career experience but life experience as well. 

For me, librarianship became a career option because academic libraries were enough like the home I imagined for myself, but one that might be stable enough to switch from survive to thrive. Of course, I’m interested in why others have come to this profession. Having asked some of those around me I’ve learnt that many have been working in careers that are unsustainable, offering very little pay for many hours. Others chose libraries because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. What’s your story? And do you feel your previous experiences and knowledge are offered credence in your library education?

Foster Care

Those in foster care:

Thanks to my Auraria Library colleagues for answering questions that helped in the writing of this post: Kodi Saylor, Renee Bedard, Grace Therell, and Rachel Stott.

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