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My MLIS program experience

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.

Academic Librarians and Library Scholarship

What would be the difference between librarians classified as faculty and librarians classified as staff?  The first thing that comes to many people’s mind would be that faculty librarians are promoted based upon their scholarship/research outcome and are often given the title of professor just as other teaching faculty members in academic departments.

But, really, what would be the internal –and not external such as promotion criteria and job title– difference between faculty librarians and staff librarians? One may naturally assume that librarians who are faculty will be expected to spend more time on scholarship and research while librarians who are staff may focus more on daily library services. But is it really the case? Not many librarians in a faculty position actually can afford time for research and scholarship except outside their normal work hours and the weekends. Taking a sabbatical for research would be a rare luxury.

Although it is a nice thing for a librarian to be given a faculty status, there is a big difference between an academic librarian’s daily activities and those of a usual teaching faculty member. Not every librarian teaches regularly; no academic faculty is expected to provide services like what a library offers on a daily basis.

For librarians classified as non-tenure-track faculty, there is even a stronger inconsistency between their everyday work and what is expected of them. While there is no tenure issue that may justify spending time on research/scholarly activities, as faculty they are still expected to engage in some level of research/scholarly activities while performing all other library service-related duties.  It is problematic that while librarians are expected to spend most of their time on providing library services, research and scholarship may function as a more important criteria for evaluation and promotion later on.

On the other hand, there is a strong component of research in every librarian’s work. Particularly these days, librarians are expected to keep up with changing technologies and to be innovative in planning and executing both traditional and new library services. This requires a significant amount of research. But if you are a librarian classified as staff, your research activities may not be properly recognized and rewarded.

So we have problems in our hands. Should librarians focus on traditional scholarly activities such as writing research papers? Or should they rather invest more of their time on researching on and implementing new services and programs? Should librarians be given more time for continuing education and research? Or are librarians to be clearly distinguished from academic faculty because of the nature of each group’s daily work is significantly different?

In his recent article in Library Journal, “the Value of Innovation: New Criteria for Library Scholarship” Eric Schnell, Associate Professor/Librarian of Prior Health Sciences Library of Ohio State University argues that academic libraries need to create rewards systems based on the unique attributes of our field as well as individual departmental goals and needs and that recognition and achievement must be measured using criteria that both value the activities of academic librarians as they exists today and are flexible enough to adapt to future changes.

I think it is a high time to resolve the inconsistency between what academic librarians do on a daily basis and the criteria by which those librarians are rewarded, recognized, and promoted. And it should begin with admitting that academic librarianship is quite different from other areas of scholarship. Academic librarianship involves the continuous development of new customer services and the refinement of internal processes, as Schnell correctly points out. Furthermore, the continuous development of new customer services relates to many different areas such as metadata, collections, web services, systems, reference, and instruction.

The traditional model for faculty activity—teaching, scholarship, and service— is not a basis upon which librarians’ activities and academic librarianship can be properly evaluated, measured, recognized, and rewarded. We need to find a way to reward librarians who work differently and appropriately in the fields of their choice so that they can prosper no matter how they choose to pursue and develop their academic librarianship. We need a definition of academic librarianship that would represent well what successful librarians do most of their time, not what they may do during the weekends or outside the work hours in order to meet the promotion criteria.