WHAT ARE WE DOING RIGHT? WHY LIS STUDENTS HAVE CHOSEN OUR PROFESSION
by Ellen O'Brien
Since recruiting new librarians is a vital issue for our profession, when I was chatting with LIS student Ellen O'Brien recently, I invited her to tell me and my readers what had prompted her and her classmates to train for the profession. I think you'll find it as enlightening as I did.
I have just begun a graduate program in library studies at Rutgers. I've always loved books and libraries. As a young mother, I was given a great gift by a children's librarian who suggested the wonderfully funny books of James Stevenson for my children. At work in a high tech job, I noticed that I was the only person who collected lots of documents and created bibliographies of related information which I "shared" with (or forced on) my co-workers. When the opportunity arose and a former library employee urged me on, I took a leave from my job to enroll in Rutgers' program.
There were one hundred of us first year students this fall. I wondered how we all got here, since our interests and backgrounds were quite different. Our jobs ranged from legal and corporate librarians to enterprise consultant. Interests varied from archives and reference management to socially progressive libraries. Sixty-four percent of us were part time students, taking three classes or less. Eighteen percent were male. Twenty-two percent were from out of state. Thirty per cent were already working in libraries. Our ages ranged from mid-twenties to early fifties. How could a recruiter devise ways to reach all of us?
Our schedules and course selections were as varied as our personalities. Some took mostly night classes because they had other responsibilities. Others were mostly day students. Between jobs and families, schedules have had to be rebalanced and the temptations to add courses resisted. (This is really hard after spending time in the student lounge where you hear about courses that sound too good to miss, as well as some that sound too grim to be borne. )
Even we ourselves might not have been completely aware of what we thought we were getting into or why we came here. Last semester, it seemed as though we spent a lot of time at the beginning of classes introducing ourselves, but it wasn't until we started working together that we really got to know each other. Few of my classmates fit my previous image of librarians. I want to share some of what I found out about them here.
It quickly became apparent that most of my cohort had always liked books and libraries. When I asked them, "What do you like about libraries?" Catherine Campos said, "The atmosphere, the books themselves, of course, and the wealth of information available." Kirstie Venanzi, who works at a major academic institution in the Northeast, told me, "I particularly like libraries when they are the center of a community . . . public or academic. This means that I like the personal interactions that occur in a library . . . seeker of information, source of information, sources of entertainment, browsing for knowledge, reading, socializing." And "A deep abiding love of not only the books but the institution itself . . . I also like to do research." (Catherine again!)
Many of us already had experience working in libraries at some time in our pasts. Bill Hemming, the only person I know whose off-off-Broadway play was dissed in print by a well-known big city newspaper, said that he had found that writing and libraries were the two continuous threads in his life. Bill told me that he thinks people just trip into library studies because they love hanging out in libraries. An important aspect of our program to him was that people should know that "It is not a case of, I know all this stuff and I just need the degree."
Another classmate wished that more people could see what librarians do, to know that "it is more than shelving books. It's one of the most multidisciplinary things you can imagine." It seems librarianship has changed a lot and those changes should be made more visible to the public and perspective students.
Holly Black, who's a writer, had some well-thought out reasons for becoming a librarian. She said "(a) because my friend who was a children's librarian really loved her job so much more than I have ever seen someone love a job; (b) because I wanted something that tied in with writing young adult novels, and this is sure to keep me up to date in my field; (c) because I was tired of doing a job where the main focus was on profitability; and (d) because I really love books."
Theresa Wordelmann, formerly a recruiter in higher education and finance, said her inspiration was "A wonderful, marvelous librarian named Susan Pike. I loved to read and research, but it was really the conversations I had with her that roped me in and kept me interested in the profession." If only more librarians could keep in mind that somewhere nearby there is a potential librarian just waiting to be inspired.
Some of us are from outside the United States, such as Shilpa Shanbhag from India. While working for financial services and stockbrokers in Bombay, Shilpa became interested in information. "It was critical to these businesses", she said, "that the information be accurate and timely." She was fascinated by how much information was available but frustrated by difficulties finding it in India. A couple of university librarians suggested she come to the United States to study, then bring her knowledge and experience back to India. Even though Shilpa might not see herself as an information activist, she seems to have a mission: to see that no one else in her home country has to struggle to find information as she did. Shilpa would encourage other Indians to come to the United States and study in a library program, "but only if they have a plan to come back to India and share what they have learned." (A recruiter is born?)
While many of my classmates are teachers or were English majors, Shilpa's degree is in Physics. She was not the only student whose academic background surprised me. Sarah Oelker has a degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale. (Sarah also made serious props for Yale marching band like a 20-foot long shark made from card board on a wooden frame that ate some of the band members during half-time.)
One classmate with a Ph.D. in European Intellectual history contrasted the MLIS program with her doctoral program, saying, " I find the work rigorous, but different, more hands-on, more collaborative, less listening to lectures, more weekly assignments, [and] less long paper writing." Anyone being recruited for a program like this should probably be warned that there are intellectual challenges that may not be for the faint of heart but which are survivable and definitely interesting.
With such a diverse group, what are our career goals? Very roughly, about a quarter appear to be interested in reference work and/or academic libraries. Another fifth hope to become school media specialists. Others indicate interests in Children's or Young Adult librarian careers. Several, me included, are interested in special libraries.
Since our goals and backgrounds were so varied, I asked a few of my cohort "In your experience, what kind of person makes the best librarian?" Some typical responses: "People that love books, are patient, and have a genuine desire to help others." "People who not only love to read but love people as well, for these two ingredients are the most important factors in a good librarian." "we need all types of people in this profession . . . willing to learn new and ever-changing technologies . . . willing to teach patrons this new technology as well. . . Librarianship is quickly changing and we need to be willing to change along with it."
A word to the wise should suffice. Future librarians can be found in libraries. More information about what librarians do behind the scenes might be helpful. Good librarians, those who are patient, helpful, and love to read are great advertisements. Academic background may not be as important as interest, curiosity and self-discipline. Ultimate degree goals may not make so much difference and definitely, to quote a classmate, "People would be so much more likely to become librarians if they knew how much fun the people in this program are."
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NOTE: In case you're interested, I have a proposal online for a book of my best writing about America, Land of Why Not. It includes an outline and sample columns.
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Every week we went to the library, that repository of dreams, ambitions, alternate lives, shimmering possibilities, hard and false information, history, belief, story. Every week I brought home receptacles containing hints that my life might be different, wider than my mother's.
Marge Piercy. Sleeping with Cats: a Memoir.
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Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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