I noticed a notice that the ACRL NMDG wants speakers willing to travel to ALA Midwinter and talk about “things they wish they had learned in library school.”
They seem very excited about it. “Who knew that you’d become a web designer, marketing director, and reference librarian all in one?!” Actually, the answer to that question is easy, since no one really is all those things. The ability to make webpages doesn’t make you a “web designer,” just as putting up flyers or posting to the library Facebook page doesn’t make you a “marketing director.” But I digress.
This seems a topic of neverending interest for some librarians. I can understand. They go to library school, eventually get a job in a library, and realize that the two activities are only tenuously connected.
So, they look around at all the things they need to know how to do for their job and think, “if only I’d learned this in library school, because now that I’m a librarian instead of a student I’m incapable of learning anymore.” At least, I assume that’s the rationale.
I suspect that’s especially true for that strange breed of library school student who never worked in a library before, even more so for those who go to library school straight from college. They must be really surprised when they finally get a job in a library and discover the awful truth that they won’t be saving the world one library card at a time.
Other than library school students, I don’t see who could be the beneficiaries of such a discussion, unless there are librarians who are willing to go through library school again, and the only librarians I’ve met like that are thinking out of desperation. Once you’re out, you’re out. Wishing you’d learned something you didn’t is just pointless. Learn it now. Or forget about it. Or self-medicate.
For library school students a discussion like that will have minimal point as well. Oh, sure, you think it will. Here are some presumably recent graduates discussing those things they wished they’d learned not so long ago. But it won’t be.
“What you wish you had learned in library school” can’t be taught, because it is totally dependent on three factors: what you learned before library school, what you learned in library school, and what job you managed to get after library school.
That sounds obvious, and it is. What isn’t obvious based on the popularity of this discussion is how radically different those three factors are among librarians and library school students.
If you were a business manager who went back to library school somewhere and ended up as an instruction librarian at a community college, your list would be totally different from the recent college graduate who went to library school and ended up as a reference librarian at a rural public library. Or vice versa.
The background, age, and experience of the student matters at least as much as the library school instruction.
The library school instruction matters, but only somewhat. Library schools trick you into thinking that you’ll go to school and come out knowing how to be a librarian. To do this, they use some variation on the phrase “prepare you for a career,” but that’s a vague phrase.
A “career” can mean any set of jobs over the course of your life, and all sorts of things prepare you for them. Also, there’s a definite difference between preparing the fish for dinner and preparing the student for a career. After the preparation, the fish is finished, but the student isn’t. They just think they are because the school told them so. Then some of them get upset when they don’t get jobs they believe they are qualified for.
Library school does “prepare you for a career” in a way. It doesn’t teach you all you need to know to work every possible library job, which seems to be what some students believe. However, as a commenter put it recently, it does qualify you to apply for professional librarian jobs. That’s all it does, and that’s preparation of a sort, right?
The other, larger, longer factor is the job itself, if you manage to get a job. Every job and every library require different sorts of professional and life skills to navigate successfully, and you can’t possibly know the exact combination of skills you’ll need until you’re actually working the job. Annoying, I know, but true.
So you’re in a job and need to know how to perform some technical task or manage particular personnel problems, and you wish you’d learned that in library school. But if you had taken a different job, most likely you’d have wished you’d learned to perform some other task and learned to manage something else better. That’s just the way it is.
If library school were to truly prepare you for every possible skill you would need in the first five years of every potential library job, library school itself would last about ten years.
I’m basing my estimate on the failed Columbia library school experiment where they tried that very thing: a ten-year MLS that would prepare you for every eventuality. The suicide rate after year four was so great the experiment failed and brought down the library school with it.
What you wish you’d learned can’t be taught. It would take too long and the suicide risk would be too great. It can’t be taught in another sense as well.
For me, the things I most wish I had known or glad I did know when starting out as a librarian were the sort of things you can’t learn in school, like office politics. For example, learning to turn the tables on someone trying to manipulate you is a valuable skill, but it’s one you only learn by doing, or don’t learn and get manipulated all the time, whichever you prefer.
If I were planning that panel, I’d ask, What do you wish you’d known that can’t be taught in library school?