What I Wish I Learned in Library School

by | Apr 20, 2018 | 0 comments

By Leah Hinds, Executive Director, Charleston Conference
Charleston Voices Series Editor: Matthew Ismail, Head of Collection Development, Central Michigan University

Late last year, ALA Council voted in favor of removing the requirement for the ALA Executive Director to hold an MLS degree. Since then, the topics of the MLS/MLIS degree and library education in general have come up with increasing frequency at conferences, in blog posts and social media, and in other job/career revisions. Libraries often hire and promote based on traditional skillsets and expertise, but should leadership and experience in other roles or industries be considered? Should a MLS degree be required for hiring in a library position? Does library education need to be updated or overhauled completely?

The ATG NewsChannel, the website for Against the Grain, published a blog post in March titled The Relevance of the MLS Degree as part of our new Charleston Voices series. We had such a positive response to the discussion that we decided to ask a number of professionals from a variety of stages in their careers, including our own 2017 Up & Comer award recipients and the Charleston Conference Directors, to chime in on the topic. Here’s what they had to say:

What do you wish you learned in library/ischool that you did not? Or, for publishers/vendors, what topics and skills do you think should be taught in library/ischool that are not?

  • I think that every person in library school needs to have a job in the field. I worry about the efficacy of online schools that do not ensure that students are working in a library during the process. I also think there should be more of an emphasis on research methods.
  • How maintaining systems can be harder than being “innovative” but that “innovation” gets the attention.
  • How to fundraise and ask for money; doing that in person is very different from writing a grant proposal.
  • I really wished I would have learned about how to manage people and effective ways to lead departments/groups/etc. It doesn’t seem like many LIS programs have robust class selections about how to manage people or deal with conflict with people you might be managing or working with. Some of that would have been really helpful to have learned in graduate school.
  • I wish I’d learned more about how acquisitions and cataloging worked. There is an entire department within the library that makes the work I do possible, yet I do not have a very intimate understanding of its work. What do all the fields that go into a cataloging record mean? How should Gobi be best used for firm orders and approval plans? How are library materials marked in ways that indicate my institution owns them? I have vague, peripheral ideas of how this works but there is a good deal of invisible labor that the public-facing librarians do not see, engage with meaningfully or encounter before items are shelved in the stacks.
  • The editors of Against the Grain went to school in the same time period that I did. This is a difficult question to answer because the library environment has changed so much.  However, in reflecting back on my own education, I wish we had more managerial and organizational training.
  • I wish that service to actual humans was emphasized more in library school.  We tend to learn principles/methods/practices with some imaginary user in mind, but I wish I learned more about how much and in what contexts I’d be interacting with my user community.  Library schools seem to recruit by emphasizing what potential students might like to do (do you enjoy research?  do you like organizing things?).  I believe library schools need to recruit and focus their curricula with our users at the center (do you want to work in a service industry/serve others in your profession?  do you enjoy working closely with a diverse user community?).  These kinds of questions would prepare potential students for the realities of library work.  I wish I learned various practices in the contexts of actual systems used in libraries (ILS, ERMS, WorldCat, etc.).  I learned some high-level concepts of e-resources management in library school, but never saw even a screenshot of an ERMS I might be working with until I got my first library job. I wish I learned practical skills (or even overviews of skills) that will be relevant for the next 5-10 years:  issues in scholarly publishing; digital scholarship; open access/open data; advocacy and outreach; information fluency in the age of the Internet; the politicization of our profession; big data management; innovative trends in assessment; user-centered design thinking, etc.
  • I would have liked to learn negotiating skills and what it means to negotiate (goals, process, dynamics, outcomes, etc), in the collection development/acquisition sphere, but this really applies to all areas of librarianship. Project management skills would have been really valuable. Knowledge of the scholarly communications ecosystem would have been highly useful. And understanding what it means to work with a range of providers – profit, non-profit, local, national, international… And more emphasis on critical thinking and why it is so important.
  • I would have liked to have had more management-related courses, but they were not considered important in 1986 at my university. I found out later just how vital they were and so began my 30-year interest.  Project management skills would have been really useful and well as grant-writing skills. Our library school did not really teach collection development or acquisitions.  At that time, SLIS was organizationally besotted with online searching and “the latest technology.” None of what we learned was relevant a few years after graduation. As a result, basic library skills were de-emphasized. As an example, I wish there had been more emphasis on cataloging skills.  Does that sound strange?  It might, but it is true. I would also have loved to have learned more about the scholarly communications process as well as the business of library organizations.
  • It’s been a while since I looked at a library school curriculum, and I’m sure it’s all quite different these years. So, I asked a couple of people who recruit librarians just what they wished to see in newly minted librarians, no matter for what type of position. My take-away was that a different mind-set is needed; maybe it’s already there but not seen enough, especially as there are more and more specializations within librarianship (metadata, digital libraries, archves, etc.). Library school education should be grounded in customer service training.  Instead of imagining the desired library as a perfectly functioning machine (all the more perfect if, for example, cataloging or other tasks are done perfectly), and users as people who figure out how to use it and ask questions at a service point (I realize this is an exaggerated description of the old order), librarians would first of all learn to think about how to meet people’s needs for information with a variety of tools, not all of which belong to the library and many of which aren’t found at the “reference desk.”  Librarians also need to help users to make their questions better.  Users will show up and want to know X.  They’ll often have a naive question.  Real support in that case will help with Dr. House-like diagnostics that help the librarian (and user) understand better what the user wants and help them refine the question to get a better answer — either a more precisely focused question *or* an appropriately high level question that will help them answer their question about, for example, Greek history by finding relevant resources about Chinese and Indian history, etc..  This is something good librarians have always *done*, but I don’t know how you teach it.  It’s the descendant of reference librarianship, but more ubiquitous and imaginative. And, yes, sure, we’ve “always done it this way” – but I’m not so sure.  Does every librarian think of her or himself as being on the front lines with users?  We should, you know.  This type of thinking isn’t something I learned in library school, anyhow.
  • This is a bit of a sad commentary, but library directors are now thinking along these lines. This is a library director writing about a position she wants to fill. The previous person in the job DID have a library degree, but now: “The IT Dept helped me write the job description and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a librarian. We have a strong information systems program and I could see someone in this role.  I can teach the library part.” My question is: are there not enough librarian candidates for some types of jobs in libraries these days, or is “teaching the library part” seen as the easier piece???


What would you change about library and information science education?

  • Human relationships are vital and it would be nice to have more of an emphasis on negotiation and conflict resolution.
  • Include a thread running through everything where we have the usual business, and then we apply the 5 question words (What, where, who, when, why) does this affect under represented and under resourced populations while using THIS lens.
  • Library schools must teach metadata, information organization, electronic resources management, and other technical services competencies and theories in the context of the systems in which those theories and practices are realized. In other words, stop teaching copy cataloging in isolation from WorldShare, Sierra, Alma, Evergreen, FOLIO, WorldCat, Primo, Summon, VuFind, EDS and other systems in which metadata and inventory are created, modified, and deployed. My digital libraries MLIS course had the class build exhibits using the open-source Omeka CMS. Why shouldn’t cataloging classes teach metadata and inventory using a test instance of an ILS? Exposure to really existing library systems and infrastructure was a critical gap in my MLIS education.
  • I would like to see library and information science education focus less on specific technologies and procedures and more on the critical thinking and intangible aspects of the profession. Learning an outdated MARC standard or making websites with online tools which won’t exist once students graduate isn’t helpful; rather, let’s talk about the tough things and get into the heart of the decisions we make as professionals. Talk about homeless populations in public libraries, about collection strategies when facing budget cuts, about how to show our value to stakeholders in a world where the intrinsic value of libraries is being challenged. I would like to see LIS classrooms focused on addressing the current challenges of librarianship, both through theoretical discussions and through examining real-world current solutions.
  • I would add a class called “Digital Humanities for Non-Digital Humanists.” The “digital humanities” has been a popular buzzword and theme over the last 10 or so years and familiarity with the topic is appearing more and more often in a variety of job ads. However, I don’t think there’s enough education on this topic for people who do not intend to lead in this area. We need a strong campaign for educating people who will work with and alongside digital humanists in order to foster a deeper and broader understanding of the work they envision and tackle.
  • Be sure that all library science students have the opportunity to work in at least one type of library, if not more, before graduating.
  • I am aware of the discontent among many librarians about the state of librarian education and in the UK there appears to be a drop of enrolments for library courses. My own beef is the lack of interest about how publishing works which I understand to be still the case among new students, at least at the university where I was a professor: when I taught a course on contemporary publishing to MLIS students most of whom were intending to seek jobs in academic libraries they were disappointed in my attempt to describe how companies like Elsevier works (where they were going to spend their budget) and wanted to discuss fiction and poetry publishing. I was also unable to interest the faculty in starting a course in data science as a module which I think would have been rather more popular. See what Carol Tenopir has recently said in an interview in Elsevier Connect: https://libraryconnect.elsevier.com/articles/trends-challenges-and-opportunities-lis-education-interview-carol-tenopir
  • A LOT!  We need to invigorate and refresh LIS education much like we refresh our collections and services in libraries regularly. Many of my LIS faculty are/were very intelligent and effective professionals who did not seem to have a passion for teaching or mentoring and who relied on outdated texts to teach obsolete practices. I would require all LIS students to engage in an intensive internship/assistantship in an actual library during their coursework.  I would require an intentional professional mentoring program for all LIS students.

Thanks to everyone who commented and gave their opinions! If you’d like to join the conversation, please comment below or you can email me at [email protected] and I’ll update the article with your contribution anonymously.


About Charleston Voices:

Charleston Voices is a new Against the Grain online series that will offer diverse perspectives on key issues of interest to the information professions. Whether you are a librarian, a publisher, or a vendor, Charleston Voices will address the topics that matter most to your professional life.

If you would like to write for Charleston Voices click to submit a proposal or email [email protected] with your ideas.


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