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Career Strategies for Librarians
Slow Down: Making the Most of Library School
by Patricia Katopol

Sarah was a decent student. Of course she showed up to class and even participated during most
sessions. She turned her homework in on time and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. When you
saw Sarah in the halls, she was either running in from her internship in the university’s library, or running
out to her part-time job at a local restaurant. While other students were hanging out in the lounge or
discussing the effect of the economy on jobs for new grads, Sarah was nowhere to be found. She didn’t
have time to waste on anything that wasn’t required.

Do you know a Sarah? Are you a Sarah? If so, it’s time to slow down and take time to make the most of
your stay in library school.

As a faculty member in a school of library and information science, I see a lot of Sarahs, students who
seem more concerned with  finishing school quickly than with learning about the profession. That’s right:
librarianship is a profession, not just another job. Professions require knowledge gained in specialized
training. The start of your professional life is the knowledge you acquire in library school as you prepare
for work. If you breeze through your program, you may find that you have the credit hours but not the
knowledge needed for the work you want to do.  Here are some ways in which students may cheat
themselves out of a rewarding experience in library school.

Get Library Experience. If you rush through school, you may graduate without ever having worked in a
library. Volunteering and interning can provide you with valuable library experience , but many students
with full-time non-library jobs and personal responsibilities aren’t able to add these activities to their
already overburdened schedule. An increasing number of entry-level jobs really aren’t entry level –
employers expect even new grads to know their way around a library..

Connect with Librarians. When it’s time to enter the job market, it may seem natural to ask a favorite
professor for a recommendation. But not so fast!  Often, your professors are researchers with scholarly
interests and expertise outside of the library environment. In many programs, faculty come from such
disparate fields as human-computer interaction, policy, or management, and may have never worked in
a library. They may not be able to provide the kinds of recommendations you need.

Library hiring committees want recommendations from practitioners. They want to know how you interact
with patrons, how you’ve used your reference or digital library skills in practice, and and how well you pull
your weight on team projects. Your professors can’t write these types of recommendations, but your
library supervisors can. You want to make time in your school program for library work experience so that
librarians will know you, your skills, and your career goals.

Working in the field also brings you into the network of working professionals.  It puts you in a position to
learn about job openings, interesting projects, and upcoming conferences.  If you make a good name for
yourself at work, others will think of you when sharing this type of information.

Explore Problems. Many graduate programs require a thesis. Sometimes students struggle to find a
suitable research project because they haven’t spent the necessary time reading and thinking about
problems in LIS. If you are truly involved in learning about your new field, reading and interacting with
classmates and professors can expose you to the more interesting problems in the profession -
problems that can lead to a thesis topic. If you only do enough to get by, you may miss  the opportunity to
observe and discuss trends in the field that may develop into a thesis topic.

Match Your Education to Your Career Goals. Some schools have tracks that suggest or require courses
for specific career paths. Tracks can help keep you focused on your career goals.  However, many
schools do not have this option, leaving you pretty much on your own to create your program. If this is
your situation, and you are overwhelmed with commitments other than school, you may wind up taking a
patchwork of classes as your schedule permits. Don’t assume that if you take an uncoordinated
selection of classes you will wind up as a Jack or Jill of all trades. Most likely, you will wind up with a
transcript that makes you look unfocused and not serious about your professional development. If you
commit to library school as an education for a profession, you will make time for special topics classes  
or advanced classes, rather than simply skimming topics in survey courses.

Perhaps you know someone in law school or medical school. Most people consider students in these
professional programs to be serious students who put almost everything else aside as they prepare for
their demanding professions. You shouldn’t treat your education with any less dedication. Yes, you have
a different knowledge base and set of skills to learn, but the information professions are also
demanding;obtaining expertise requires a serious commitment on your behalf.

Connect with Other Students. Everyone needs help now and then. Maybe you didn’t quite understand
the point of a journal article or you are having problems with your code in a computing class. People
attracted to library and information science generally like to help other people and your classmates
probably are happy to help you. You may see that generosity slowly eroding, however, if you are always
asking for help and never returning the favor. Because our busy student Sarah is frequently absent from
the department, she isn’t around enough to reciprocate when others need help. In fact, her classmates
may begin to think that if Sarah were around more often, maybe she wouldn’t have so many questions
and problems. Right now, developing a network with your classmates may not be a high priority, but if
you don’t develop this network, you may miss out on connections to job openings, recommendations,
and grants, not to mention friendships that can last a lifetime.

Attend Conferences and Guest Lectures. Did you notice the flyer announcing a talk by a visiting library
director? Or the upcoming presentation by the recent grad who now heads the competitive intelligence
group at a local company? Maybe you saw the notice for your state library’s conference or the national
meeting of the Special Libraries Association. You passed those by, too, didn’t you?  Guest lectures
provide information on topics that might not be covered in your classes.  They give you the opportunity to
learn about an unfamiliar area of the profession without committing to a class. They can also help you
see connections between different types of practice that you may not have considered previously.  For
example, an academic librarian’s talk can introduce a prospective children’s librarian to some new
methods for making the collection accessible to special populations. If you enjoy digital library projects,
you might pick up some project management ideas from the director of a small public library who has
had to learn how to manage a number of projects at once.  Learning opportunities expand at
conferences, where you are surrounded by panel discussions, poster sessions, and professional
development workshops. Whether you attend a guest lecture or conference, these events enlarge your
exposure to the profession and offer networking opportunities that are too valuable to ignore.  

While lack of time can be one obstacle to attending conferences and presentations, lack of money can
also be a deterrent.  But don’t let money stop you. Professional associations, conferences, and some
graduate schools (maybe even your own) often have financial assistance available for students, offering
everything from free registration in return for volunteer services to a scholarship covering travel, housing,
and conference fees. Check into funding before you dismiss the idea of attending a conference.

Get an Education Instead of Collecting Credits. Maybe you’re not working two jobs while maintaining a
20-hour-a-week library internship. Maybe you consider yourself a hardworking student. So hardworking,
in fact, that you are taking more credits than necessary for a full time load. There’s a reason why many
graduate programs suggest students limit their credit load. By carrying more hours than recommended,
you risk not doing well in any of your courses, or giving short shrift to some courses while concentrating
on others. This behavior will not endear you to your professors nor to the classmates who have to work
on projects with you. When you take so many classes, you probably won’t have the time or energy to read
journals in addition to assigned articles. This limits your knowledge of the field, making your
contributions to class and to your assignments less valuable.  You may find yourself unable to finish
class requirements in a timely fashion, necessitating an “Incomplete” grade.  If you earn an Incomplete,
you may have to complete the work in the midst of a new term, with new courses and all of their
demands. Even worse, if you don’t resolve the Incomplete, you will fail the course. Do yourself and your
professional reputation a favor and stick to the credit limits your school suggests.

Take Your Time. As with most things in life, you get out of library school what you put into it. Look around
your program and your classmates.  Look at the work you produce and compare it to that of less-rushed
students. Are you competitive? Are you just getting by? Be honest. Did you research and write that paper
in between questions at the reference desk? Did you start your final paper a week before the due date
because you “just didn’t have time” to start it earlier? Did you reject the interesting, but unfamiliar topic
that would have required additional reading in a new field, or did you opt for the easy topic with familiar
resources?

Of course, you shouldn’t ignore your financial and personal obligations while you are in school.  You
should, however, examine your priorities and determine whether you are giving library school and your
future career as an information professional the attention they deserve. You won’t be a better librarian by
rushing through school, taking more than a full time credit load, or being an invisible presence in your
program; you’ll just be someone with a library degree.  That’s not enough. Slow down and enjoy the ride.
You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author

Patricia Katopol is an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the
University of Iowa where she teaches management, knowledge management, information policy, and
special libraries. Her research focuses on human information behavior in the workplace.

Article published May 2010

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represent the views of the LIScareer editors.