Navigating Library School Assignments and Invisible Labor

This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for months, but I honestly struggled with figuring out what exactly I wanted to say. It’s no secret that invisible labor runs rampant in the library world; and I feel that library school students often have no choice but to walk the line between learning from experienced professionals and asking for them to take on even more work.

If you’re a library school student, chances are you have had to reach out to libraries, librarians and archivists in order to complete assignments. I am in my second semester of library school, and I’ve had to interview multiple reference librarians, archivists, academic librarians and public librarians. Here is my struggle — These interactions have been very valuable to me, and I know that many librarians enjoy talking to MLIS students and are happy to do it. At the same time, I am very aware that I am adding on to the invisible labor expected of these already busy working professionals.

I wish that LIS instructors and schools were more self-aware about this fact, and that they actively worked to decrease the expectation of invisible labor in the profession. Professors could provide a list of people willing to be contacted for interviews with their syllabi, or could cease to require that you interview librarians working outside of your own institution. Schools as a whole could review syllabi to determine how many “interview-a-professional” assignments are happening (last semester, I interviewed 5 people for assignments in only two classes). Professors could also tailor assignments to respect the time of those working in the library field. I know that I am not the only library student with the experience of having to pretend to have a virtual reference question at various libraries (not my own university’s, as per the assignment) in order to evaluate the librarian’s responses. Personally, it felt disingenuous and like I was wasting people’s valuable time and effort. I hope that changes like these may come to pass in the future.

In the meantime, these types of assignments are common for library school students. So, how can we navigate them? First, I have found Twitter to be a great resources for finding people willing to volunteer to be interviewed. This thread, which cultural heritage professionals willing to be interviewed responded to, can be a great starting point. I would also suggest checking out the Archives, Library, and Information Mentor Base, which aims to “help connect new members of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) professions with experienced, helpful mentors” and lists contact information sorted by specialty.

Have you had assignments where you have interviewed professionals? How did you feel about reaching out to them? Do you think invisible labor is an issue LIS professors need to take into consideration? If you are an instructor, what is your view on this in your own practice? If you are a professional, how do you view being contacted for interviews?


Caroline Hron Weigle is a first-year student in Wayne State University’s online MLIS program. You can find her on twitter at @hronweigle. Connect with her on Linkedin here or check out her personal library school blog.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

3 replies

  1. As a professional who gets these requests, I truly don’t mind. If I have the time, I’m happy to do it. (That’s part of being a professional.) If I don’t have time, I’m honest and say that. It’s not on you or your professor to manage my boundaries for me. If I agree to do something I don’t really want to do, I’m the problem in that interaction, not you for asking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t agree that what you’re talking about (using librarians as resources) is “invisible labour”. Reference librarians – and most librarians of most types – went to “school” to help people. They generally want to assist people, and that includes students, no matter what subject they need help in.

    As long as library students are being respectful and up-front with their possible contacts, then I see absolutely nothing wrong with continuing such practices.

    Most of my interactions with library students have been “I need to interview a library director. It should take only xxx amount of time, can anyone help me?”

    Like Didi said, it’s not on your professor to manage my boundaries (or my time) for me.

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  3. I am a library director and was contacted by a student at the beginning of the semester. She is a local resident and patron (and has volunteered) and I’m happy to help her. The assignments are not as simple as one interview. There are periodic requests for information that I do not have readily available or do not have in a format suitable for sharing. I can easily send a copy of an audit from a previous year. Other things such as descriptions of staff roles or explanations about why we staff in a certain way are more difficult and time consuming. Is our budget large enough? What would I do with more money? These are questions that can be politically charged in some environments.

    There are a wealth of (often free) professional development workshops either live or recorded that would give library school students lots of opportunity to learn from working professionals and these would be a practical way for students to interact.

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