An Unconditional “Yes!”

Anytime someone asks me if they should go to library school, I want to give them an unconditional “Yes!” Since I’ve graduated, spent almost two years working as a full-time librarian, and started to pay back my student loans, I haven’t given one unqualified “Yes!” to anyone. I’d like to say something about why that is.

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From 6:00 to 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights, I work at the information desk with one other employee, often a part-time library clerk. Recently, we were doing a little arts and crafts project to pass the time, and she asked me to cut out a shape for her. While I did my best to cut a straight line, she leaned over and said, “Putting your master’s degree to good use over there, eh?” We both laughed.

Her joke cuts to the exact nature of a debate being had in the library I work in, and in libraries across the country. Usually people ask some version of, “What does it mean to be a librarian today?” or “Now that everyone can Google things, what do you do?” There are simple answers to these questions most people who work in libraries can pull out. One hears talk of “vetting information” or “knowing where or how to find information.” Plenty of librarians can fill an evening with anecdotes about programs they’ve run or relationships with people that reach beyond the walls of the library. Critical voices in the library world regularly talk about the effects privatization and automation on librarians’ work. These are all good answers to the question of what it means to be a librarian today, but all of them fail to address what my co-worker meant with her joke.

How can we answer the questions people ask about what we learned in school and why we claim professional status in a convincing, accessible way? In my experience, it does little good to start talking about metadata or information architecture. Most people don’t see how those have anything to do with working in public service. The only situations that breed more ridiculous answers are the inter-staff debates I’ve experienced.

At my library, there is a historical tension between librarians and non-librarians about who can use the ILS for certain tasks. Librarians clung tightly to the privilege of “looking things up for people” or “placing holds,” but conceded that non-librarians could use the ILS to do “circulation” tasks. The organizational power structure allowed librarians to decide who could do what with the ILS, since the administration was composed of librarians. Librarians created a situation where there were “low-level” tasks non-librarians were permitted to do, and “higher level” tasks only librarians were allowed to do. Of course, this had nothing to do with the reality of who could do these things, let alone who should be doing these things.

When I started here a few years ago, I was new to the ILS. There were non-librarians (clerks, senior clerks, technical services employees) who had decades of seniority on me and could teach me things about the ILS they were not allowed to do. As our institution’s workflows change and we institute a user-centric plan of service, librarians are being asked to do things they had previously delegated to “non-professional” staff, and we once again find ourselves in the position of having to ask people we are supposedly senior to to teach us how to use the ILS.

I will spare readers the numerous examples of petty territoriality I’ve witnessed. Managing organizational change and the character of librarianship are worthy subjects for other articles and writers. Instead, I want to walk the conversation back to its roots in the education of librarians.

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The Information Studies Department at the graduate school I attended was a small, but had ALA accreditation and was fairly well regarded in the region. Aside from its reputation, most students surveyed while I was there said the reason they chose it was affordability and the location. Set within the College of Computing and Information Science, the department had hitched itself (or been hitched by administrators) to the ascendant computer science and technology departments at the university. Administrators and faculty hoped, understandably, that rising tide in “Tech Valley” would raise their ship as well. Instead, diminishing enrollment and a loss of identity have made the program less competitive and increasingly irrelevant.

The Information Studies Student Association was even smaller and more beleaguered than the department. As co-president, I was also 50% of the official membership. Although no one else attended our meetings, my co-president and I still functioned as the representatives for students to the faculty and department administrators. By constantly soliciting opinions from, and sharing information with, fellow students, we were able to develop a list of issues important to students. After sitting in faculty meetings for a year, we decided to bring student voices directly to the faculty through a survey.

During my time, I saw calls from students for changes in the curriculum dismissed as unrealistic or derided as the typical grumblings of an immature, idealistic student body. Administrators and faculty were correct about the unrealistic part–to me it was unlikely that a reform of the program would take place without faculty demonstrating strong leadership and a willingness to experiment. Without an incentive, and with the risks of losing funding or accreditation, why would they want to try something new? Understandable as faculty’s complacency was, it was difficult to stomach the way they regarded students’ well-informed, legitimate critiques of the program. Faculty often dismissed students’ visions with statements like “you’re never going to make everyone happy” or “a larger school could do these things, but these students chose to come here.”

Even though the results indicated the majority students felt the program was “adequately” preparing them for a career after school, we also presented pages of anonymized student comments to the faculty. The narrative responses ran the gamut from laudatory to extremely negative. The faculty received the results with an open mind, and we managed to have productive discussions about the results. In the end those discussions (and hopefully a somewhat better understanding of each other’s positions) were what we had to show for our attempt to bring faculty and students together.

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I want to focus on the dynamics of the disconnect between LIS students and faculty, and the way it is mirrored by the strained relationship between ALA and academic programs. All of this antagonism is seeping into our practice, making librarians less able to adapt and attract future library workers. Ironically, students and faculty actually have complementary knowledge sets that could fill in the gaps each side has in their experiences. For instance, it’s easy to see how a faculty member who hasn’t worked outside of academia in 20 years might lose touch with recent changes in the workaday realities of public libraries. It’s also not hard to see how students’ common desire to emphasize practice over theory could damage programs that are privileged spaces where there is time and incentive to do theoretical work.

Because there is no consistent formulation for engagement between the players who move between institutions and roles–the students, faculty, professional organizations who dispense accreditation, and practitioners–it is extremely difficult to agree on, let alone pilot, plans to decrease the gap between school and the “real world.”

There will always be students who want to participate in governance and those who do not. Making sure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation between ALA-Schools-&-Libraries is important. The current lack of efficacy in existing processes turns participation in many efforts into what most pessimistic critics already believe it is: a resume point. If students could see that their feedback influenced curriculum and the conduct of professors, they’d be more inclined to offer it honestly and promptly. If professors saw students’ non-academic experiences as assets in sustaining their programs relevancy and increasing enrollment, more students would respond positively to them as educators or leaders.

All this, and I haven’t even gotten to my vision for an interdisciplinary library education that equips library workers with intellectual, social, behavioral, political, and critical thinking skills! Imagine if you could go back to school and learn what you didn’t know you didn’t know. I’d sign up for classes in psychology, social work, management, computer programming, and communications. I’d skip classes teaching me “how the internet has changed the information landscape.” I’d beg to not take classes that lacked a practical, hands-on component.

It should not be a privilege to receive an education that was worth the large investment of money and time students make. We shouldn’t have to explain to future librarians that getting an advanced LIS degree is something “you just have to do if you want to work as a librarian” when we hear their complaints about how they can learn more at their job in a library than they can in their program. Most of all, I want to be able to reply with an unconditional “Yes!” to anyone who asks if they should become a librarian.

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Headshot-FixedBen Himmelfarb is a Librarian at White Plains Public Library who specializes in local history programming and adult services. Through participatory roundtable events, an oral history project, and a focus on community partnerships, Ben has reinvigorated the library’s local history program and created a platform for people to develop new narratives about White Plains. He recognized as a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2016. In addition to his work in libraries and public history, Ben writes, plays music, and hikes in the woods.