Years ago as an undergrad on vacation, I strolled into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s reading room. I may not have looked professional with my dyed bright red hair and over-sized flannel shirt, but when the man at the reference desk asked if he could help me, I said the magic words. “I’m a visiting student, and I want to be a librarian.” His face lit up and he offered me a tour.
As we chatted about the museum
exhibits and my interest in librarianship, he walked me through the stacks and then asked if I’d like to see the basement archival storage. Would I ever! The room was chilly; the rolling stacks extended nearly to the ceiling and seemed to go on forever. It was my first time behind the scenes in an archive. The experience surpassed my expectations, and although I don’t remember the details, I remember the feeling: awe.
The experience at the Lincoln library and museum stands out in my memory because it’s where I first learned a very important lesson: in general, people love helping students and want them to succeed. Also in general, librarians love helping people. They are sharers. Being a library student puts you in the perfect position to make connections and learn outside of class.
When I look back on this past spring term, the library visits are what I’ll remember best. Although most of my experience is in archives, I took an introductory course in public libraries where we visited several area libraries. Besides confirming my hypothesis that librarians are especially friendly and helpful to students, the experience brought me to institutions I might not have found time to visit. It also gave me real life examples of various sizes of libraries in communities with different needs and populations. If I’m interested in how a community with a large population under age five can emphasize children’s programming, I don’t know everything, but I do have a place to start and the names of people I can ask.
Balancing class, work, and life is no easy feat. It’s tempting, especially if you have an introverted personality, to stay in the library where you work, do most of your research on databases, or communicate through e-mail. However, I highly recommend pushing yourself to visit the libraries and archives in your area. You really never know what opportunities will rise to meet you. And when you do go forth, consider trying out the following:
- Start general: don’t limit the type of library. Do you know for sure that you’ll be working in an academic library? Or, will you definitely be working in the children’s department? Not so fast! Your education is a time to explore, and you deserve to explore what librarianship has to offer. Talk to adult services librarians, visit a local archival repository, or take a look a small town public library. You may leave with great ideas, or even a new career path.
- Go outside your immediate area. Most of us probably go to school in university towns with a wealth of libraries. Here in Iowa City, I can visit libraries for medicine, law, art, or music; a special collections department; women’s archives; and one really cool public library. But, it doesn’t have everything. Not too far outside of town, one library serves a significant Mennonite population, while another nearby library’s community is majority Hispanic. Larger towns with multiple library branches are only an hour away. Exploring your larger area will yield perspectives you might not encounter at school.
- Be Prepared! While chance encounters like I had at the Lincoln library can be beneficial, you can’t count on that. As a student, you have additional resources to help you prepare. Ask your professors if they have connections with librarians or archivists in the surrounding area. Contact the library ahead of time to ensure the staff you want to talk to will be there and perhaps even let them know the types of questions you’ll have. Preparation will make your visit as fruitful as possible.
- Be sure to mention that you’re a student. Like I said, people love to help students. They want to be a part of your education. Maybe the librarians in your area even have memories of being students in your program. As Lauren mentioned in her December post on networking, you shouldn’t “underestimate your status as a student.” Being a student with a smile opens doors!
- Ask similar questions at each library. It’s basic library science. If you want a basis of comparison, test the same variables. While visiting libraries with my class this semester, I asked about local history collections. Some of my classmates asked about young adult programs or Spanish language materials. If you have a particular interest, this is a great way to get unique perspectives. At the very least, it gives you sure fire way to start a conversation.
- Follow up! Hear about a volunteer opportunity? See an advertisement for a program you’d love to see in action? This one kind of opportunity for you to get involved outside of school. Be sure to get some contact information from the people you talk to. You may have follow up questions, or even be able to return to volunteer or even job shadow.
Editor’s note: this post was originally published June 7, 2016.