April 19, 2018

Seek a Challenge | Office Hours

Daniel Chudnov, librarian and programmer in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, recently blogged “Advice to a Library School Student” at One Big Library. Dan writes:

The best advice anybody ever gave me when I was finishing library school and looking for a job was “look at all your options and choose the most challenging one. If it scares you, like you think maybe you won’t be up to the challenge, you’re on the right track and should go for it.” If you don’t feel challenged now, you’re right to be looking elsewhere (especially if you’re young or don’t otherwise have lots of obligations to other people and can freely look around).

The current economic climate may impact “looking elsewhere” for many librarians already employed, but for recent grads who can move anywhere, this is sound advice. You’ll immediately better your chances to land a job.

More important, however, is the idea of seeking a challenge.

Slackers not wanted
At a recent focus group for a research project for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiatives conference, a small group of librarians and library IT support staff shared their insights about the changing educational landscape. They all agreed that the requirements for supporting a university’s mission are changing, just as our students are changing (see “Can We Handle the Truth?” Office Hours, LJ 1/11, p. 44). One librarian noted a particular challenge: “some librarians are coasting to retirement—they’ve checked out.”

Coasting, in library school and in our jobs, is not an option. Sending students who have coasted through their LIS program to your library to coast perpetuates this problem. I can tell which students are merely sailing through their program, just as I can tell when a professor has “checked out” of his or her own job.

Students—are you doing the bare minimum in your LIS program? Are you turning in “good enough” papers that show no excitement, curiosity, or passion for librarianship? Or are you going above and beyond the expectations of your teachers? You get what you bring to your program.

We can’t force you to learn or open your mind to the future possibilities of libraries. And, yes, you may get an okay or better grade for just coasting, depending on your teacher; grade inflation is alive and well in many LIS programs. A friend and colleague said of such slackers, “The field can’t afford them, I don’t want to teach them.” Amen.

This means professors, too
Professors, have you updated your syllabi lately? Are you still using readings and views of LIS from 1985? Have you changed your assignments to reflect current practice and emerging research about information behavior that excite and engage your charges? Some of the tried and true will always be valuable, but some of it may no longer work in today’s (and tomorrow’s) libraries, where the focus is on new trends, new tech, and new ideas.

The onus for change lies with both students and LIS faculty. Students should provide constructive evaluations of their learning experience. Faculty should respond with curricular changes and updated course offerings as quickly as possible. Library school administration should enable these conversations about change in an open, transparent process. LIS programs must be nimble and quick if they are to survive in the current economy.

“Still learning”
I have a little plaque in my office I purchased in England, quoting Michelangelo: “I am still learning.” I tell my students that the minute I stop learning, I need to pack up my office and go sell tomatoes on the highway somewhere.

Roy Tennant (LJ blogger and ­web4lib moderator) has some wonderful insights on this, including, “Learn as you breathe. You breathe all the time without even thinking about it. That is how you must learn.”

For those who have “checked out” of their library jobs, what would bring you back? Have you lost sight of why you got into librarianship in the first place? Have you stopped bringing your heart with you to work?

You owe it to your users to be competent, engaged, and always learning professionals. Imagine a challenge that would excite you, and go talk to your manager about it. Challenge yourself as well: explore that new web technology on your own, long before official training is offered.

I applaud the student who emails me before classes start to say she’s taking my web design class because it’s new and scary but necessary for her education. I applaud the librarian who takes on a difficult new project as a way to keep his professional fires burning. What challenge will you seek out today? How will you continue to learn? Maybe next to my “still learning” plaque, I’ll place a Post-it as another reminder: “Find your next challenge.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA