The Importance of an Interdisciplinary Library School Education

When I started my MLIS program at Simmons University last fall, I regularly heard my classmates introduce themselves with exactly what type of librarian they wanted to be. There were aspiring children’s and youth services librarians, academic librarians, archivists, special collections librarians, systems librarians, and more. I felt partly envious of how they seemed to know the exact steps they’d take in their career, but I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t pigeon-hole myself into a narrow set of expectations for my future career without exploring all of my options.

Over the past two semesters, I’ve become more confident in claiming an interdisciplinary approach to my library school education. Wikipedia describes interdisciplinary studies as “about creating something by thinking across boundaries,” which is how I envision my education and career goals. Instead of selecting one type of library position to focus on, I want to learn about all kinds of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions—and to make connections between their different services and functions.

Many consider the LIS field to be inherently interdisciplinary, because unlike other professions, most of us do not major in library and information sciences in undergrad, but rather bring a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds in the sciences, humanities, art, and social sciences together. But an interdisciplinary library education can also entail merging the practices and skills of all kinds of librarians and information professionals, such as a combined understanding of how archivists and museum professionals manage their collections or bringing skills from working in a public library over to an academic library environment.

I’m not the only one to consider the pros and cons of being a “generalist” over a “specialist.” For instance, HLS writer Alyssa Key already overviewed the many benefits of generalizing in library school. However, I want to suggest that we don’t necessarily need to choose between generalizing and specializing when imagining our professional selves. After all, we all have a unique set of specific experiences and skills, as well as broad, overlapping, and adaptable ones that we can use to pivot our careers and academic interests.

I would also encourage more LIS students to not feel like they have to specialize. Not only because graduate school should be an opportunity to learn about the wide variety of functions in our profession, but also because we should want to be versatile professionals. Future employers may want us to be able to clearly articulate our career goals, but I also hope that they want us to be innovative and adaptable in our positions too.

Of course, this is not to say that you shouldn’t pursue certain concentrations and tracks that interest you, but rather that we should all be open to not having to define ourselves purely by our future ideal job titles. After all, opening our career expectations can certainly help us when trying to find jobs in what we all know is a less-than-ideal job market. Plus, many traditional library roles are being merged, which may be the unfortunate result of budget cuts and the deprofessionalization of library work, but it’s a reality that we should prepare for. Perhaps more importantly, not being married to certain titles and specialties can allow us to look at the profession in new and exciting ways.

I, for one, have declared a concentration in Cultural Heritage Informatics at Simmons, which for me presents the perfect balance of having a place in the LIS field without restricting myself to certain classes that may only prepare me for a specific career (say, an archivist or cataloger or academic librarian—all of which I’m interested in). I’m able to take a variety of classes relating to archives, preservation, metadata, and digital collections management while making connections between how institutions like libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies function.

In the past year, I’ve learned that my reluctance to declare a particular future dream position is about more than just keeping my options open. It’s also about intentionally curating an education that prepares me to work in a variety of settings with transferable skills. After all, no matter what type of librarianship (or work outside of libraries and archives altogether!) we may fall into, we all possess a set of unique experiences, education, and skills that we can utilize to shape distinctive roles within the profession.

Paige Szmodis is an online, second-year MLIS student at Simmons University in the Cultural Heritage Informatics concentration. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Featured image by Laura Redburn on Flickr.

2 replies

  1. I’m still learning more about the library field, and I still don’t know which concentration or specialty to add myself in. I want to learn about everything! Mostly academic libraries, but still. It’s hard for me to see which section fits most of my interests. Glad to see I’m not the only one with a generalized perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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