The Silver Lining: Finding the Value in a Library Science Degree
By Mandi Goodsett
There has been a lot of talk recently about the value of a library science education and whether or not the current approach of library schools is successfully creating new librarians ready for work in the field. While I can't speak for the hundreds of library school graduates who are now desperately searching for library jobs or taking their first steps to settle into their new positions, I can offer my own perspectives of the value of a library degree.
I graduated with my degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this May, and describing what I've learned from the perspective of my experiences there highlights a primary issue in library science programs today—a library school education is extremely varied depending on the school attended. The GSLIS program at UIUC only requires two courses for graduation: Information Sources and Services in the Social Sciences and Libraries, Information and Society. Any courses we take beyond those two are chosen completely at our own discretion, provided we earn the necessary forty credits to graduate. Here is another hurdle: even within my own library program, the experiences I had may vary considerably with my peers' because the program had so much flexibility. I also speak as someone who has recently begun as a new library professional, using what I've learned in library school to meet the needs of this unique, rural University library, an experience that is certainly unlike that of many other library school graduates. Taking all of this into consideration, here are some elements of a library program that, I believe, give value to the library school education, regardless of the other details and requirements of the program.
- Opportunities for hands-on experience. While not every library science program provides distinct practicum or graduate assistant opportunities, just being a library student can often provide you with chances to get real experience in a library. Volunteer at a library on campus or in the community, ask a faculty member or local librarian if you can arrange an internship, or offer to shadow a librarian, even for an hour or two. If you're an online student and there aren't any traditional libraries or librarians nearby that can offer you experience, branch out. Try helping out at an archive (they often need help from community volunteers), museum, or special library (i.e. a law library, art library, music library, etc.) in your area. These experiences often turn out to be extremely valuable to you, regardless of the kind of library position you end up pursuing.
- Ability to join professional organizations. As a student, you not only are eligible for reduced membership fees for many professional library organizations, you are in a great position to begin to take leadership roles in the student or local chapters of those organizations. Being in a professional organization allows you to network, learn more about the profession, and demonstrate leadership in a way that can really come in handy when you are job searching later. If your program doesn't have many student chapters, see what you can do about starting your own—that will really make you stand out as a leader!
- Mentors galore. Your professors, besides sharing their wisdom and knowledge with you in the classroom, can also provide important guidance and advice to you in a mentor capacity. Often library science professors are more than willing to serve as mentors for students and, because you are a student, other librarians will often be happy to take you under their wing. Having a mentor as you begin to decide how to mold your journey toward being a professional librarian can be extremely valuable.
- Theories behind the practice. While some would argue that the theories we learn in library school are a waste of time, I would argue that, while probably less important than hands-on experience, theory is very important to a library science education. A shared set of values and understandings is an essential part of our professional cohesiveness as a field. And while you may think you won't use those theories, many of them will guide the decisions you make as a new professional.
- Networking. The friends and colleagues I met in library school are people that I will continue to talk to for the rest of my professional life. These are people I can turn to with questions or collaboration ideas, people I can commiserate with as I struggle to define my role as a new librarian. Regardless of the library program, the people you meet in library school will be some of the best resources you will ever use.
While I don't want to argue that the library school system doesn't need some serious changes to remain viable, I think that the things I've outlined above reveal a side of a library science education that proves the continued value of earning an MLS. And, in addition to those outlined benefits, there's another thing that we can take out of library school if we choose to—a sense of enthusiasm for our work and our profession. According to a study by James L. Mullins about the preparation of MLS graduates to meet the changing roles of librarians today, what libraries are looking for are new librarians who "have a spark, an energy for what libraries are now and what they will be in the future."1 So while recent graduates try to navigate a job market that is demanding and crowded, we can at least hold on to this silver lining: regardless of the quality of the library school or the experiences available to its students, if students embrace all of the opportunities available and step into the field of librarianship with enthusiasm, we can look forward to libraries full of passionate librarians, ready to improve our MLS education system even more.
1. Mullins, James L. "Are MLS Graduates Being Prepared For The Changing And Emerging Roles That Librarians Must Now Assume Within Research Libraries?." Journal Of Library Administration 52.1 (2012): 124-132. Library & Information Science Source. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
Mandi Goodsett is a new Reference Librarian at Georgia Southwestern State University. Her areas of interest are instructional technology and music librarianship. You can follow her blog at www.mandigoodsett.com.