Library School & Work Experience

April 12, 2007

It’s that time of year again, library school students will be graduating next month and many have been job hunting and interviewing and preparing for the beginnings of their professional careers. With that there has been a lot of posting in library blogland about library schools and programs. Everything from the purpose, the effectiveness, the banality, the usefullness. You name it, people are blogging and commenting about it.

I read all of these discussions with interest for several reasons. First, I have sat on lots and lots of search committees within several academic libraries, so it is always interesting seeing what students and potential applicants think. Second, I like to see how my own library school experience compares to those who have graduated a few years after me.

I don’t really have strong feelings about my library school experience. I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate and find it futile. I will come clean upfront and state that since I did a dual MLS-MSIS program, I only took the five required MLS courses and then 2 or 3 library classes that I thought looked interesting and would help me. The bulk of my program was systems and IT related. However, I think what also makes me not hate it is that I worked full time in the university library while getting my degrees. That experience helped fill in a lot of gaps and made everything seem relevant while in class. I have learned, through resumes and comments on blogs, that this is not a universal or popular experience. Many new graduates have no library experience and have found the process of trying to get some very difficult.

I find that disheartening and frustrating. Disheartening because it sends a lot of people into the workforce who may not be prepared for the work or even know if this is what they want to do with their lives, and frustrating for the same reasons, except from the side of a search committee where this makes things more difficult when trying to fill positions.

As an ADS department head, I have always maintained that I will take enthusiasm, eagerness, willingness to learn, a sense of humor and a feeling that a person will work well with the members of the team over years and years of experience. And, at least for this department, not having library experience is not a huge dealbreaker. Have you worked in Borders or Barnes and Noble for a couple of years? Great! Starbucks? Even better! Any place where you deal with the public? Cool, I’ll take you! It’s kind of nice to work in a department where the main hiring requirement is not an MLS.

Even though I don’t have any condemnations for my library program or library programs in general, I will make this one criticism: when it comes to customer service and management they fail miserably. Everything I ever learned about customer service and managing staff came from every job I have ever had in my life. None of it from a classroom and I never even heard the words “customer service” in my MLS program.

It wouldn’t kill MLS programs to have a one semester course in customer service. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Every successful fast-food chain in America does it. Major department stores do it. Starbucks has created a corporate culture out of it. Library schools should take a few pages from those playbooks and develop a course or two. It could be a lot of fun. Think of it – mock transactions at the campus library circulation desk. Role playing bad patron interactions. It would certainly be a learning experience.

I think that library schools tend to forget that when it comes down to it, we are a customer service profession. On every level. Just because you are not at the circulation or reference desk, or teaching classes doesn’t mean you are not serving customers. If you catalogue items, your work is being used by patrons and library staff. Those are your customers. Bottomline: a customer service course would be a welcome and highly useful class in the MLS curriculum.

The other addition or revamped course I would like to see is a library/staff management class. I think I took one, actually I think I took two. The fact that I can’t remember speaks volumes as to how effective they were. I understand the need to know how to write misson, vision and values statements, five year plans, collection management plans, budgets, etc., but you can learn a lot of that on the job. What would really be helpful is some concrete experience and training in how to deal with people.

If I created a management class the topics included would be:

  • behavioral based interviewing
  • conflict resolution
  • giving and receiving feedback
  • interpersonal communication
  • negotiation
  • running effective meetings
  • team motivation
  • decision making and problemsolving
  • workplace violence prevention
  • position management
  • workplace harassment
  • an overview of workers’ compensation
  • an overview of federal benefits and programs like FMLA

Yes, I think that being an effective supervisor/manager requires personality traits that either you have or you don’t. However, even the best people can always get something out of some good training and information and the above topics are issues that anyone who manages staff deal with on a daily basis.

So while there is a lot that can be said about the value of experience, I think the theory or training is also important. It just comes down to what you are being taught. Perhaps if more library courses seemed practical and of value to students there wouldn’t be such a backlash come graduation and job searching.

Food for thought.

5 Responses to “Library School & Work Experience”

  1. Great article! I would add that we need courses (or segment of one) on time management and on communications (oral, written, online). How can we fit this in? Drop or drastically cut the amount of time on library history (I’ve never used anything I learned in foundations in librarianship except Ranganathan’s laws–and I didn’t use that until 20+ years after I graduated.)

    Can I use parts of your article in my newsletter, The One-Person Library?


  2. […] Posted by intothestacks under patrons , librarianship , management , work , school  This post from Mary Carmen makes me want to stand on my chair and holler. Excerpts: Everything I ever learned […]

  3. […] your personal expertise? A couple days ago, Mary over at Circ and Serve wrote a post with some excellent thoughts on hiring practices in libraries.  Among them, As an […]

  4. Canadian said

    I believe we are a service profession, but not a customer service profession.

  5. Mary Carmen said

    I guess we look at things differently and would like to hear about the distinction between customer service and service profession. I look at it from a process/task point of view. We have internal and external customers. Those who work in cataloguing serve internal and external customers via the records they create for library staff and patrons to use. Those who create tutorials have the patrons as customers. Administrative staff who use purchase invoices are the customers of the acquisitions staff. In my mind we are all working with each other producing a product or service that is needed or used by someone internal or external to the library, in essence our customers.

    But I concede that there are other ways to look at it.

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