Seven Things I Learned in Library School

This is my last post with HLS! In honor of that – and my impending graduation (wow/yikes) – I’d like to present a list of seven things that I learned in library school. Hopefully, these will serve as advice for incoming students, perspective for current students, or a bit of a nostalgic trip for graduating students (congratulations!).

1. Do the optional readings.

There is a lot of reading in graduate school, I know. So, why do additional work?

Because there’s often some real gems hidden in the optional readings. These works may not be included in the main readings because they are not specifically related to libraries, or because they are tangential to the week’s topic; but they can often cover topics that you might not have considered otherwise, or provide points of view that are not often covered in the rest of your readings. It’s especially important to look at works that challenge the status quo of librarianship, and which make you question what you’ve been taught so far. I would make it a general practice to actually browse through the optional readings before tackling the required ones, and considering which ones you’d like to prioritize.

If you’d like a place to start, I would recommend the following works that I found in my classes’ optional reading lists:

2. Spend time outside of your department.

This is true of graduate school in general. When you spend so much time with your cohort, you begin to all speak the same language and talk about the same things when you get together. It’s really important to get outside of your department and get a sense of how other departments operate and what their students are like. It helps to gain some perspective on library school in general – and maybe not take things so seriously, if you’re feeling really bogged down or burnt out – and serves as good practice for the future, where you may be required to liaise with people from many different fields as part of your job.

If you have the opportunity, take classes outside your department as well. Library science is very interdisciplinary, and having a strong grounding in theory that you may not have studied in undergrad can only strengthen your critical engagement with the field.

3. Get involved, but know the value of your time and labor.

I am somewhat torn on this one. On one hand, it is important that you join student and professional groups, and make your voice known, both on an advocacy level and because it is good for your resume. On the other hand, there is this huge expectation that graduate students give up their time and energy for very little money (or, in many cases, for free) to facilitate the well-being of their program. For students who are juggling courses, jobs, family care, and other responsibilities, this can be nearly impossible.

My general advice is to not do things for free when you can, and only to tackle the things that are really, truly important to you. Don’t get pulled into a role because you feel responsible or because nobody else will step up. Whatever other people might say, the master’s degree is ultimately a vocational degree, so you should treat school as a test run for your future career. Your time and energy are not boundless resources, and you should be fairly compensated for what you do. And no, the promise of a good letter of recommendation is not enough!

4. Think beyond the basics of racial diversity.

It’s no secret that the library field is incredibly white, and in response to that, “diversity” (or any of the accompanying acronyms) has become a very popular buzzword. But the concept of diversity can often start and end with numbers. How many non-white applicants did we admit into the program? How many non-white academics pop up in our readings? How many books by non-white authors are in our collection?

The language of diversity centers around the presence of non-white bodies, but not in the support of those bodies. Diversity initiatives do not address that most students enter library science programs without a grounding in critical race theory, and are not required to engage with the field throughout their time in graduate school. This leads to the importing of certain ideas around diversity and equity without an understanding of their context, and often forces students of color to perform unpaid emotional labor to educate their classmates.

It is incredibly important to consider what happens beyond simply getting non-white bodies into the room or into our picture books, and think about how that ties into systemic change. And if your solution is a one-time program or petition, you’re probably not thinking deeply enough about it.

5. These are your future coworkers.

When I entered my program, our orientation leaders pounded it into our heads that we would be engaging in a lot of groupwork. It was daunting and even a little irritating at the time, but in hindsight, I understand why this was the case. You do have to collaborate with other people quite a bit when you work in libraries, and the field is small enough that you will probably encounter people who were in your classes. It is important to figure out people’s working styles and how they mesh with your own, and how you can navigate differences and challenges early on.

It’s also good to identify who you work well with, and make a good impression on other students. This will serve you well throughout the rest of graduate school, particularly if you take many of the same classes, and may even help you out later if you maintain those positive connections.

6. Normalize talking about money.

In general, it feels really uncomfortable to talk about money. But it is incredibly important to talk about it, especially when it comes to having financial support as a student, and seeking target salaries as a professional. Americans’ general silence around money plays a big role in people being underpaid and undervalued. Ask your trusted peers: how much is the school paying to support them through their education? When you’re on the job hunt, ask people in the same specialization: how much are they being paid? Don’t settle for the first number that you’re given just out of obligation or because you feel you can’t ask for any more. 

7. Follow your interests and make it fun.

This seems like cliche advice, but graduate students seem to feel an obligation to conduct serious projects and engage in professional gravitas. I tried that for a while, but it mostly just made me dislike what I was doing, which led to me not trying my best. So try to pinpoint your interests and connect them to library science. It’s really not that difficult, because pretty much everything can be traced back to some kind of information behavior. Write about a video game whose storytelling mechanic intrigued you, or analyze how information spreads among a reality TV show’s contestants, or research how different groups of people engage with dating apps. These are all real projects that I have either engaged in or heard about during my time in library school. School can often feel like a grind, so I think you owe it to yourself to try to make the work at least a little entertaining. I can promise you, your reader/grader will thank you as well.

Photo by Joan Kwamboka on Unsplash

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