Reflections on My First Semester of Library School

This post is kind of long and rambly, because I wrote it as a way to work through my own thoughts after finishing my first semester of library school more than I intended it to be for anyone else’s benefit. I’ve been writing it off and on for the last month since handing in my final project, and though I tried to make it a more user-friendly post, it ended up being much longer and more personal than I initially intended. So it goes.

If your curious about library school I’d suggest checking out Hack Library School, and to see what the job market in libraries is like, check out Hiring Librarians. What follows is only my personal opinion based on my own experience.

reflections on my first semester of library school

Deciding to Attend Library School

I took my first job in a public library when I was looking for a part-time position that would be low stress and not irrelevant to my actual career goals. I was enrolled to get a Master’s in Social Welfare because I wanted a job where I helped people better their lives rather than improved the bottom line of corporate interests.

I’d fallen into working in finance after I’d decided that a career in academia wasn’t for me. I kept my banking job mostly because it paid well and had good benefits. I learned a lot in my position, particularly about customer service and organization of information, (two skills that have certainly translated well into my work in public libraries), but ultimately I found my job often came into conflict with my personal values. I was underappreciated and there was no room for advancement.

The time I spent volunteering at my local domestic violence shelter was much more fulfilling than my actual job. At the time, the most challenging and rewarding job I’d ever held was working in a group home for children in the state’s care while I was getting my undergraduate degree. I spent a lot of time looking into jobs in politics, but being a liberal living in a very conservative state did not make that easy and I never found one that was the right fit. Though I applied and interviewed for numerous social work jobs, I couldn’t land one in that field without a master’s degree, so I decided to go back for another round of grad school.

In my search for that convenient part-time position that would help cover the bills while I went back to school, I happened to see an opening at my public library for an assistant in the young adult department. I had worked with teens (of all backgrounds— I coached high school debate in addition to working with foster kids and juvenile offenders) and I knew a lot about young adult literature. I’d discovered YA through my husband, who taught high school English, and began blogging and interacting with the bookish corner of the internet as a hobby after I’d left my first graduate program. The pay wasn’t great but the hours worked with my schedule and I got to continue working in downtown Lawrence.

It ended up being the perfect fit for me. After a few months, I’d received a personal phone call from Nancy Pearl and loved my job in a library so much, I’d decided to forego a master’s in social welfare (even though I was already enrolled) in favor of a library science degree.

Choosing a School 

I chose a library school completely out of convenience. There is one library school in my state (though it’s still a drive). It offers a blended program with a mix of in-person classes once a month on the weekends with online coursework. Since I couldn’t relocate and didn’t want to do an online-only program, I didn’t really have any options. I still did some research and asked opinions of both people who had attended the school I ended up choosing and those who didn’t, but ultimately I picked my program based on what was least expensive and most convenient, rather than the reputation of my school’s program.

And really, I don’t regret the decision, even though my first semester was rather disappointing. I was extremely lucky to already have a job in a library I loved with supportive supervisors and administration. I now have a full-time, professional position, which I got before I even finished my first semester. Though I’m sure that my decision to pursue my MLS did help me get the promotion, it’s the commitment to the profession rather than the knowledge I’m actually gaining in class that made the difference, in my opinion.

Luckily, it’s widely acknowledged in the library world that for the most part, it really doesn’t matter where you get your degree.

My Actual Classes

Now, I LOVED college. For my undergrad, I spent lots of extra time and money taking difficult classes just for the sake of learning. I had enough credits to get two undergraduate degrees, and if I’d taken another 6 hours in history (a US History class and another required course) I’d have had a third undergraduate degree in History. Though my first experience in grad school was a bust because my advisor took a job at another university and I unexpectedly lost funding through changes in federal law, I still liked my classes. I thought I’d love library school, but…not so much. In fact, much of my experience makes me skeptical of studying in an institutional environment and more convinced that self-directed, independent study is much more conducive to learning (at least for me).

During my first semester of library school I took two introductory courses: Foundations of Libraries and Information Sciences and Information-Seeking Behavior & User-Centered Services.

The Foundations course was boring and superfluous. I didn’t learn anything that I couldn’t have learned on my own from reading a few articles. I can see how learning the role of libraries in a democratic society and the emphasis on ethics would be necessary and beneficial to many students, but since my undergraduate degree was in political science and I had a background in education and social work, the historical significance of libraries was intuitive to me. My experience working in finance instilled in me a respect for privacy, and intellectual freedom is very much in line with my personal values. Nothing we discussed (or read about) in class was new to me.

Our main group project was on ethics, and while it was interesting to examine and discuss cases, talking about them in the abstract is so far removed from the pressures one operates under in the real world that the application was limited. I understood the reasoning behind what was taught in class, even if I felt that my grade in the course was nothing more than a rubber stamp on a certificate to prove what I already knew.

My second course on information-seeking behavior was even more disappointing. The classroom instruction and readings felt so far removed from the day-to-day realities of assisting patrons at a reference desk it was almost laughable.

The instruction was almost exclusively tailored to an academic library environment; not much of it translated to work at a service desk in a public library, where inquiries are generally not of a scholarly nature. The skills necessary to assist someone with an information need like filling out an online job application and finding relevant resources for a college paper are vastly different, and the emphasis was on the latter.

I’m only speaking from my own experience, but my assignments felt like busywork. I’d had a graduate level library resources class in my specific area of study, I was already competent in the search strategies we learned,  and I didn’t need the overview of types of research materials available in an academic library.

My training in customer service from the part-time retail jobs I had in high school and college was much more informative for my actual job working a public service desk in a library than anything I learned in class. My own experience as a user of the library (both academic and public) was more informative than any exercises I did for a grade.

Much of the actual coursework of my first semester was so easy, a smart and industrious 9th grade student could do it. This isn’t conjecture; I actually showed a real “quiz” I took to a teen from my book club at the library, and she could easily find the answers to the questions using Google or common sense. (Disclaimer: she’s a really smart and industrious 9th grader).

The most frustrating part of this class was our main group assignment. My partner (I had the same partner for all of my class projects—I work with him at the public library and he also works full-time as a project manager at the university library) and I had wanted to spend our time working on a project that would actually be of use in the real world. We were tasked with developing a pathfinder and designing an hour-long instructioal session. He speaks a rare indigenous language—Quechua—and I studied Spanish (which he doesn’t speak, though many resources about Quechua are in Spanish). Had our project been approved, the Quechua department at the university (where he worked and I went to grad school)  would have actually used the resource guide we were prepared to develop for incoming students, but the professor discouraged us from working on that topic because he wouldn’t have been able to evaluate our work since he wasn’t familiar with the languages.

We ended up selecting a different topic that interested both of us: a pathfinder for teens who were coming out and/or identifying as LGBTQ and the parents or professionals who work with them. There’s a demonstrated need for a guide that would help individuals access that kind of information, but because of the nature of the assignment, we were forced to develop it for an academic rather than a practical audience, so in order to actually implement our instructional course design or resource guide in the public library where we work, we would have to make significant changes.

While I could go on about the specific complaints related the course instructor, it’s not necessary to prove my larger point, which is that at least for me, my coursework was largely unhelpful.

The Worth of an MLS

There are many articulate defenses of the MLS degree. I’ll point you to a post outlining many of the advantages of a professional degree written by a librarian who I greatly respect: Gretchen Kolderup, who was the coordinator for YALSA’s YA literature blog, The Hub, during my first year as a Hub writer. She does a great job of justifying the worth of an master’s in library science.

For those who are going into a graduate program straight out of an undergrad, or with little to no actual library experience, the theoretical knowledge that one gains in an MLS program would be valuable, particularly if one has aspirations of working in an academic setting or a managerial role in a public library.

For someone who was already working in a library and had the professional and educational background I had, the first semester of library school felt like a waste of time. I learned more by reading blog posts and attending conference sessions and interacting with actual professionals than anything I did for class.

What I found more frustrating than the unchallenging and largely irrelevant assignments was the grading system. The grades for most of my classmates were similar, despite a wide range in effort and abilities. My classmates are people from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are bright and motivated and exceptional, but the class work of some is appalling and cringe-inducing. The distribution of grades does not reflect this range. Both of my course instructors routinely let us know the low  and high-end of grades awarded for particular assignments, and I was routinely shocked that some students were not awarded lower grades based on their class presentations or work in the online forums.

After receiving my degree, I suspect it will be largely worthless because so many others will have also “earned” it, though their efforts and skills were no where in the same league as my own and a few of my other classmates. There’s nothing on paper as far as our education goes to distinguish those who are exceptional from those who are…not. This isn’t anything new in the library world, either, and doesn’t seem to be unique to my school.

This may sound like an elitist thing to say or make me come across as someone who has an inflated opinion of oneself. Really, I swear, I am not so self-involved or uncritical of my own work. I know I could always improve my writing. I should read more. I should think more critically. And while I have to hope an interview and a look beyond education would easily distinguish exemplary candidates for jobs from ill-prepared applicants, it most certainly isn’t the degree that makes the difference. And if the degree doesn’t make a difference, what is it worth?

I’m not the only one who questions its value. This post at Library Journal calls for a discussion about MLS education, and it certainly got one. Reading through the comments shows countless perspectives on the worth of a library science degree. I agree that librarians benefit from the professional status a degree confers. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the best or only way to get the skills necessary to do a great number of jobs in libraries. A lot of people who defend it seem more eager to defend their own worth relative to colleagues without degrees who could take their job and do it just as well, and possibly for less pay.

What I’m Not Learning in Library School

A recent American Libraries article outlines all the ways that library school prepares librarians for the work force, and the emphasis was on practicum and on-the-job training in libraries.

Based on my own experience with slightly less than a semester’s worth of participation in such a program, I also have to call in to question the practical skills that these educational opportunities provide. I can only speak to my own position in a local high school, but I only learned what not to do. While negative learning experiences can no doubt be just as informative as positive ones, I am not sure that the experience I gained is exactly what was intended.

I don’t want to go into details about the (mostly) terrible experience I had with such “on the job/real world” training through my graduate degree, but suffice to say it was not what I hoped it would be.

There are lots of things I’d like to learn that would actually help me in my job. For instance, not only do I buy the digital YA books for my library, I’m also responsible for our circulating e-readers in all categories. So the ever-changing world of lending ebooks is something I have to figure out and stay on top of in order to effectively do my job. There’s not a class I can take that would delve into these issues.

I’d love to learn Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign and more about coding and web development. I’d like to learn about creative marketing and early literacy education.  But instead, I’m taking Organization of Information and Research in Library & Information Sciences next semester. Sure, the organization of information theory might be interesting and useful in an abstract way. And perhaps my YALSA lit symposium paper proposal will be accepted and I’ll be able to work on it in my research design class (which are both big “maybes”).

And I can learn to code and become proficient in design programs on my own. Employers wouldn’t care about a piece of paper that says I’ve studied these topics more than my actual ability to do it. Which prompts me to call into question the value of this degree even more.

I don’t want to completely discount the value of a library science ( MLS) degree, but I would encourage those who are considering the option to really do their research and consider their options before deciding to pursue one. I’ve only had to buy some books so far—my tuition has been covered by my graduate assistantship position/the library I work for—and I wouldn’t be getting the degree if I hadn’t had funding. I’m of the opinion one shouldn’t ever pay for graduate school. As far as return on investment, the pay for most library jobs may not be worth the cost of tutition. That being said, there are lots of factors besides pay that influence a career choice.

I love the people I work with at the library, and I feel like I make a difference in people’s lives without the stress of a full-time social work position. My partner is a special education teacher, and my job is a lot less paperwork and I am not expected to work more than 40 hours a week (which he definitely does), but I still get to work with teenagers and help them achieve their goals. It’s a lot more fun than what he does.

Working in libraries is my calling. I can’t see myself doing anything else and being as happy or fulfilled. I’m fine with getting a degree to secure my place within the profession, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a critical consumer of that education. And after one semester of school, that education feels more like a rubber stamp than a true testament to my knowledge and ability.

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11 thoughts on “Reflections on My First Semester of Library School

  1. Thanks very much for writing up this detailed post – I found it very, very helpful. I currently work in a library, and will be attending the upcoming ALA midwinter conference in Philadelphia. Just about every day someone tells me I ought to get my MLIS degree. I can never bring myself to say anything more committal than “yeah, maybe so” because I’ve not only heard so many bad things about the degree programs themselves, but also because the work that the librarians surrounding me get to do isn’t very satisfying, at least not to me. Please keep in mind that I work in a large, private university library where the focus is so skewed toward academics, “information design,” and professionalism that the SERVICE aspect of librarianship is all but lost. It’s quite frustrating on a day-to-day basis, but has been a good way for me to learn that if I do stick to libraries (which, to be honest, I probably won’t) then I would ONLY want to work at a public one.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful. I debated for a long time on whether or not to actually post it.

      Have fun at Midwinter!

      My only experience actually working in an academic library was as a research assistant. I took a class from a librarian while going to grad school for the first time (for Latin American Area Studies) and she had a fantastic job, but it’s since been eliminated. I much prefer the public library atmosphere, even though I do enjoy more scholarly research, too.

      I think you make a good point about losing sight of service aspect of librarianship. I’m lucky that it is very important at the library where I work at, because that is a huge part of what led me to libraries from social work.

      I wish you luck whether or not you decide to pursue a degree in librarianship! Do your research and know what you want out of your program and what you’re likely to get it before you do. It was the right choice for me, but it certainly isn’t right for everyone.

  2. Hi Molly, just found your blog, and I have to agree with what you’ve written. For the most part, my MLS program was purely theoretical, and much of it outdated when compared to the reality of being on the job. I’m an academic librarian and experience has been my best instructor. Other than a couple of courses on cataloging and administration/collection development, the information I learned in my program was redundant or out of touch with the demands of working in a library environment in a community such as mine. I value the idea of the MLS, but I often feel the requirements for the degree need to be revised. Love being a librarian, but most of the knowledge I use was acquired through experience or other, non-MLS related work.

    1. Hi Gricel,

      I’m glad my venting has resonated with others. I do value the idea of a professional degree and love being a librarian, but my coursework has been uninspiring.

  3. Molly, I’ve been thinking about your post a lot since you wrote it (and I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my own post to which you link, too).

    To be honest, I didn’t think very highly of my MLS program. It was almost all practical, hands-on instruction, which was good to some extent for me since I was coming at librarianship from a totally different field (I did my BS in math) and hadn’t worked in a library, but it felt a lot more like an apprenticeship rather than a graduate degree — and lots of the hands-on skills we were learning didn’t feel like they’d still be relevant (especially in my reference class, where we never once talked about online/digital resources, just encyclopediae, concordances, indices, and so on, all in print). My best classes were my youth services classes, and that’s because they were taught by instructors who loved what they did and made the case to us for why it was important and showed us how to always be growing in our work.

    But the more time I spend out in the professional world, post-degree, interacting with both paraprofessionals and degreed librarians who range from talented and inspiring to so horrifying that they should never be allowed to set foot in a library again, the more I think there really is value in a professional library degree — but only if it’s done right, which I think most aren’t.

    What if in a reference class, instead of learning about different types of sources, we dug into peer-reviewed literature about people’s information-seeking habits and discussed how that affects the service we provide to them? (Have you read Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models?)

    What if in a cataloging/organization of information class, instead of learning to create MARC records (which is what I did!), we talked about *why* organizing information is important and how theories of information organization (again pulling from professional literature) have changed over time and what that means for our users? Rather than develop “practical” skills that aren’t actually practical anymore, we should be learning why we do what we do and internalizing principles that we can carry with us into our work.

    What if in a YA course, instead of reading and discussing books or designing mock programs, we learned about adolescent development, touched on some theories and practices from social work, studied how teen information-seeking behavior differs from adult information-seeking behavior, drew on education theory to better design homework help or to do one-on-one instruction with teens, and delved into the theories behind community organizing?

    I think there’s a lot of stupid self-protection happening with requiring an MLS for certain positions (like Sarah Fretz’s example of not being allowed to look up a book because that’s somehow “professionals-only” work), but I’ve also seen libraries where “equivalent work experience” is the only qualification and the people there who work with teens are just awful. (I mean, like I said, there are also degreed librarians who are nightmares; this definitely isn’t a professional vs paraprofessional debate — more a qualified vs not one, and how to know the difference.) Even for people who do have a lot of prior experience in libraries, I think the MLS can convey library values and history and philosophy in a way that you’d never get at work — and I think that connection to the *thinking* rather than the *doing* parts of our jobs is what makes a professional. People like you and both Sarahs bring that thinking work to the table already, so the MLS should help you channel that raw talent and background experience into becoming truly exceptional librarians. For people who don’t have that yet, the MLS should inspire it and should connect those people to a wider professional community that will keep them learning and growing throughout their careers.

    I guess the tl;dr version of what I’m trying to say is that many MLS programs seem not to be very relevant or useful, but I still think that programs like that could be done right, and if they were done right, they’d turn workers into professionals and professionals into forward-thinking world-changers steeped in library history and values. I’d like to make that a reality.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Gretchen. I agree that there is value in a professional degree–if done right. Mine isn’t. The system is flawed, and I hope people discussing the issue can move the library world toward a solution!

  4. I’m not a librarian nor do I work in a field related to libraries, but higher ed pays the bills around my house (my husband does professional program development at a college and I teach at that same college part time), and I have to say that in my experience, your critique of your graduate/professional program can, unfortunately, be applied to many, many fields.

    The disconnect between what people are being taught in grad school versus what they need to work in their chosen field is mind-boggling. For example, the program I teach in is a certificate program, so I get a huge number of students who’ve studied design in college and often grad school. Unfortunately, their educational experiences haven’t afforded them the opportunity to learn the skills employers demand: web design, digital communications, social media, et al. So, they’re back in the classroom *again* learning those skills. I actually love teaching practical skills (I like theory too, but it’s not as fun to teach) because my students can apply them the next day and see tangible results.

    It’s fascinating to me that with the trend in post-undergrad higher ed being that more and more graduates do not pursue careers in academia or theory that these programs don’t respond more to the practical career needs of their students. A lot of this is wrapped up in what sort of programs are eligible for federal aid and the like, which is a whole other conversation, but it’s an epidemic in higher ed and it’s frustrating all around.

    Thanks for such an honest, insightful, post, Molly.

    1. “The disconnect between what people are being taught in grad school versus what they need to work in their chosen field is mind-boggling.” THIS x1000. Mister BS doesn’t feel as disappointed in his master’s in special education as I am in my MLS, but he still feels like on the job he’s learned a lot more. And he got his master’s from the best special ed program in the nation. I think it’s true across disciplines.

      I want to take your web design class!

      The federal aid point is an excellent one — people can end up paying more for a useless degree just because they can get a loan for it.

  5. Molly, I love this. No offense to any school but I too have found my library classes disappointing. I have worked in libraries for almost the last decade and I have two undergraduate degrees and a masters (in research!) but I am apparently not qualified to be a librarian. I get it. So I need get my MLIS.

    I transferred so I had to re-take all the classes I already took. Also, the only one so far (and I’m almost done) that I felt was rewarding in my future career was YA literature. I thought I learned a lot from cataloging but the grading and stress of it was not worth what I learned.

    I have a background in all this…it is all easy for me. Some so desperately want to be librarians that they come out of a completely different field. It is much more difficult for those students to grasp the concept of reference interviews, cataloging a book, or selecting a great YA book for a teen.

    My biggest gripe is there are too basic of classes in the library schools, everywhere. I had to take reference, twice (because of my transfer). I spent more weeks selecting materials that are (almost) obsolete in libraries now. I would have loved a class on selected digitized materials, the future of technology in libraries, customer service in a new age, intellectual freedom, a class on budgeting would be great, programming would be great, etc. We need MORE classes like social media. Libraries are changing rapidly and the classes need to change with it!

    Additionally, I signed up for children’s literature last year. There were two options. The one I got into was reading a massive amount of books a week and writing a critical analysis on them. The other was programming, getting to know authors, readers’ advisory, etc. The first one I was stunned at. This is not what a children’s librarian does anymore. They have so many more roles. Why are they not more structured like the second one? Obviously, I was setting up for failure and dropped it. Plus, I know what I want to get out of a class and THAT was not it. I pay for this class. I want something for it.

    I feel stuck in the library field because although I am very educated, have library experience and am a darn hard worker, I can no longer move up in the field without that piece of paper. In my library, I am grateful that everyone does everything. In my last library, I couldn’t even look up a book for a patron because I didn’t have an MLS. It actually hurt my feelings! I do too think it is a rubber stamp but I stick with it.

    I stick with it because I know I can make a difference. I know I can really, truly make a difference in someone’s life. You are right, my tuition far exceeds what I will make but the other benefits and rewards make it worth it. Experience counts for more in the library field, to me. I think if I can learn some things and take them into the world, it was somewhat worth it.

    Keep at it. You’ll be a great librarian!

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