Thanks to a blog post, “MLIS Programs Need To Be Revamped,” I had a chance to reflect on my MLIS program experience. I am a relatively new graduate. Like many other LIS students, I have attended the program part-time while working full-time at libraries.
Although I wished a few times that I were attending the LIS program full-time, I still think that I learned much more because I was working full-time at various libraries while studying. There are several disadvantages to being a part-time student. Less face-to-face time with your fellow students, LIS professors, less chances to work on any distinct awards or scholarships (mostly due to the lack of time), and less chances to be involved in any student chapters of various LIS associations such as ALA and ASIS&T.
But there are some great advantages as well. One of them is a chance to meet with great librarians and have them as mentors. As in any vocation, what is taught to be librarianship and what librarians actually do every day are quite different. Although it is true that a lot of instructors at LIS programs are either current or ex-librarians, meeting them in a classroom and working with them at libraries are two different things.
In my case, it was working with great librarians that convinced me that I picked the right path. I decided to become a librarian after I quit the PhD program I was attending. At that time I didn’t have a slightest realistic idea about what being a librarian is like other than that a librarian works with books, which by the way is becoming more and more an anachronistic idea. But I knew some good librarians that I respected. I was also extremely lucky in meeting great librarians as my supervisors. They were passionate and knowledgeable about what they did, and this greatly impressed me. My ex-bosses were surprisingly generous in training me and giving me chances to take initiatives. They also were happy to listen to my (many times naive) ideas and to provide guidance and advice.
Many LIS students who work as library assistants are quite knowledgeable and intelligent. They may not know all the details and challenges of librarianship, but often they spent much time in academia (with Master’s degrees in non-LIS areas) and/or have the experience of working for years in other areas as professionals. (I also believe that it is a generalizable truth that smart people who love to learn are naturally drawn to librarianship.)
Unfortunately, work assigned to library assistants are often clerical and mundane. This can easily depress ambitious budding librarians. I still have the vivid memory of fixing all the broken links in the knowledge base of an open-url link resolver system day after day. It was an undoubtedly repetitive task. But the fact that my boss made efforts to explain to me exactly how open url works and how that creates and solves various problems in e-resources management made the mundane work interesting and more bearable. (And I assure you, explaining this to newbies is not an easy task.) At one library, I made several video tutorials. Those who worked on making video tutorials know that it can be quite tedious and time-consuming. But the fact that I was encouraged to document the process, experiment with various tools, collaborate with very smart and cool student workers, and present the result to the library staff made all the difference. I loved working on video tutorial projects.
In addition to having these lucky chances to meet and work with great librarians, I also tried to maximize my advantage as a full-time library assistant/part-time LIS student by picking courses that would have direct bearings on the work I was doing at that time. Right after I worked at a corporate library, I took a course on corporate libraries. While working at a library that was going through some digitization projects, I took courses on preservation management and digital libraries. While working at a reference desk, I took a reference class. And while I was working at a systems office, I took technology-related courses and had a great conversation with a systems librarian who was usually very very busy for a chat. (I was never refused an interview when I requested it for homework!)
Of course, it would be far from the truth if I say that I enjoyed my MLIS program 100 % . I took some classes that I wasn’t interested in because they were required. I did some assignments that I thought were not that helpful. I sometimes skipped classes because I was bored. And many times I wishsed that there were certain classes that I could take for credit, which were only infrequently or not offered at all. There were also classes that I wanted but could not get in because they were already filled up. On the other hand, I also have to admit that there were classes in which I would have been more attentive if I had known that I would be looking for jobs in those certain areas. I also still wish I had more time to interact with faculty/instructors/students in the program while I was attending the program.
But overall, I think it is still a good strategy to work at a library first, see if it really is something one would like to do as a career, and then continue working while attending the program. Working with real librarians, watching them work, and learning from them was the greatest lesson I learned. I hope that many LIS students try working at various libraries in many different areas of librarianship to find out which area interests them most and which type of libraries is the best fit for them.
One thing that surprised me most after I started working as a full-fledged librarian was how much more challenging it is to be a Digital Services Librarian than I thought. I had previous (and strong I thought!) experience in almost all the aspects of what I do right now. Still the level of responsibility and decision-making involved in being a librarian, particularly a solo web services librarian, was higher than I thought. This is a great thing because it proves that librarianship is full of challenges and adventures. I kind of hoped that that would be the case when I was a LIS student. But I am happy that I can confirm it as an actual truth now.