Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Learning What Can’t Be Taught

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?



  1. BananaRama says:

    I graduated 2ish years ago and here is what I wish someone had taught me: the realistic ins and outs of government administration. Like how it was going to be ridiculously difficult to surplus inventory or how to prepare a budget request or negotiate a contract or understand how state contracts work or how many forms you have to fill out relating to personnel or a basic class on “How to Run a Functioning Library While Attempting to Anticipate Changes that Your Institution Will Make 6 Months from Now without Warning and After You have Signed a Vendor Contract.”

    • quirkylibrarian says:

      Oh man, THIS. I’ve worked in public libraries for nearly five years, and I’m currently in my third semester of grad school. The number of my fellow classmates have no clue about how government administration works and who’ve never worked previously in a library is frankly terrifying.

      When people complain about what they wish they’d been taught in library school, I think it’s half, “I wish I’d had actual experience working in a library so I wouldn’t have been so shocked after library school” and half, “I wish my teachers had given me more realistic and practical information about dealing with bureaucracy.”

      While it’s awesome to take a class about the history of intellectual property rights, it’s even more awesome to know how to prepare a budget request or write a grant proposal.

  2. This is a semi-serious response to a flippant post. I know I’m risking letting a little professional idealism slip through. But an MLS by its very nature should prepare graduates to learn what they didn’t learn in library school.

    We could debate about the merits of an MLS for a long time, but at the core it’s a degree that’s all about learning how to learn and assisting other people in learning. Surely we should be able to turn that knowledge and discipline around and just learn whatever skill we think we need for a given situation.

    Most librarians, again by virtue of the jobs they work, have access to a wealth of information on a daily basis. Most librarians will also have some down time in the day that they can use to take advantage of those resources and do some professional development.

  3. Librarian and Former Attorney says:

    I feel I actually learned more about how to be a librarian in library school then I did about how to be a lawyer in law school. It only took one year in library school versus three in law. I knew nothing about practicing law when I graduated. At least I knew something about librarianship!

  4. An initial reaction, and a negative one, was that schools should prepare students for other careers. But on further reflection maybe there is a nugget of truth in those pessimistic thoughts. Teaching people how to freelance, or work in non-traditional ways, would be very helpful to those struggling in the field. A bit of realism from schools on the current job market, and preparing students for a non-linear entry into the field, may be just be what is needed.

  5. I wish they would have prepared me more for the power of inertia. Inertia is a powerful thing.

  6. Many professions are highly specialized and require some education (degree, certificate, professional training) and continual practice to ‘keep the saw sharp’ and stay on top of emerging developments and standards. Librarianship (versus simply working in a library) strikes me as this type of profession.

    I’ve wondered whether the transferability of an MLS degree is hyped by library schools when I see how readily library folk claim expertise in areas outside their profession and suggest they could get work in those areas outside libraries. I see it all the time wrt technology and other domains as well. For example, in the recent LJ issue, Aaron Schmidt referred to a UX Librarian. User-experience design is a specialized profession and while there may be plenty of librarians that can do a decent job for their own library, there’s very little chance anyone working for a single library or small system could develop enough skill to be marketable on the open job market. The standards are much higher and the competition is steep.

    To flip this on its head: friends, family, colleagues and even staffers at my local library rely on me for reference. I’m pretty handy at finding information, assessing its authority & authenticity, and contextualizing it. This merely makes me a resourceful individual; it doesn’t mean I have enough skill to work as a reference librarian in an academic library.

    • Just realized I was thinking more of Andrew’s comment when I replied … and veered off topic. Oops.

      WRT the original post, I’ve worked in loads of environments over 30 years. I started at huge, well-run corporations and they helped shape my work style. Then I moved to a few very small companies during the dot boom. Big difference. During that time my employers deployed me as a technical consultant to large firms, so I went from being a purchaser of tech services to a provider of them. Another shift. After the dot bust, I entered the publishing industry and even though one of the companies was large, the culture was very institutional (heavily reliant on precedent, inert, extremely political). Being successful in this environment required going up another steep learning curve.

      My field requires that I ‘keep the saw sharp’ by continually acquiring new knowledge & skills. Learning the tech stuff is the easy part. The much more difficult part is assessing the work culture & knowing which ropes to jump and which to skip. Experience may be the only teacher for that one.

  7. they should force the swap, as in, what did you learn that you’re willing unlearn to learn something else? there are only so many hours of classes before they boot your ass out the door. unlearn flowcharting to learn storyboarding? unlearn picture books to learn ebooks? unlearn dewey to learn bisac? and then that old info gets burned out of your brain and replaced. I wonder how that would go.

  8. library_yeti says:

    I learned nothing about pedagogy. Nada. Zip. If it weren’t for the fact that I was working in a library while getting my MLIS so I knew better, I could have gotten through my entire library school curriculum with the impression that teaching in a classroom is not a part of librarianship.

    And I hope that the professor who taught my reference class in 1999 knows about the internet by now.

    • Nerdy Librarian says:

      I’m with you here. While my program, did touch on budgeting issues here and there, the best classes were those taught by professors (ph.d or otherwise) who had practical experience working in a library. They were the ones who could actually share useful information and allow students to benefit from their experience.

      I was surprised and somewhat disappointed that they were in the minority in my program.

    • Nerdy Librarian says:

      Hmm…that was supposed to be in response to Didi.

  9. I think you’re giving library school too much of a pass. While I don’t think library school should ever be expected to cover all the possibilities, there are some areas that could be greatly improved. Which is why I’m now pursuing an MPA to cover the holes in my MLIS. Budgeting and management are 2 big areas that my library degree completely glossed over. I had one management class – and our professor deferred to a student in the class who had real world experience the professor didn’t for any real world examples/case studies. I had nothing about budgeting in any way, shape, or form in library school. It is quite possible to teach different management and budget models that will translate to any type of job a student might have in the future. MPA and MBA programs have figure it out so somehow I feel like library land has no excuse.

  10. Kris Smith says:

    Weird, I rather thought that a MLIS degree was more like a driver’s license. It lets you drive on the road legally, doesn’t guarantee that you will drive well, and doesn’t tell you what to drive. You will continue to learn over the years as you practice. There is a difference, the DMV doesn’t host the “What do you wish was on our DMV booklet?” convention. There are so many drivers who could benefit from a little hand holding. But my mind is wandering. I think it is the same with a degree. You get the chance to be a librarian, but you don’t know how well you will do, or what type of job you will get.

    • That’s strange, I thought it was simply buying the right to work at a job with an artificially created barrier too!

  11. Kris Smith says:

    It seems to be the only way. There used to be a time when you can work your way up from page to head of the branch. Those days are long gone. You can barely get a job with a high school diploma.

  12. Ask not what they should have taught you in library school, ask why they did not tell you why bother. Want to be a law librarian you need a JD; an academic librarian you need a second Master’s degree or a Ph.D. would be nice: want to workout of state you need a driver’s license from that state (but Canadians can apply: want to work in a public library don’t forget fluency in Spanish and Farsi, etc. Want to hold your head up high after getting an MLS don’t read the annoyed librarian.

    • How interesting you are, Joyce!

      The empathy and advice you received regarding your daughter’s job search a few posts back did not seem to make an impression on you.

      Your subsequent attack prompted some bristly replies and reading your comment today suggests this feedback did not prompt reflection.

      Now you advise people who want to hold their heads high should not read this blog. If you comment here again, it will indicate even your own opinions do not matter to you.

      I’ll be interested to see how it plays out. Jean

    • I imagine someone graduated magna cum laude from troll university…

    • You mean that having more skills and education makes it easier to find a job? Shocking! Next you’ll be telling me that work experience is helpful too.

  13. AlwaysWanted2B says:

    I totally agree with the gist of ALs comment. I went to library school before there was such a things as microcomputers, the internet and online databases. Library School taught me many basics and key principles. I have since learned more from other sources than I did while I was in school. I have built on that knowledge and will continue to do so. I would far rather learn about personnel management and handling difficult situations from someone who has extensive expertise in that arena than a faculty member in a library school. We are in a world of continuous learning. Take advantage of every opportunity to improve your skills and learn more.

  14. Kris Smith says:

    I agree with Always. Practice, practice, practice. The tact and knowledge will come gradually.

  15. When asked for advice by those considering an MLIS, I immediately tell them: Get into the library, NOW. Apply for staff positions, volunteer, whatever it takes to work and observe day-to-day operations. This will give a better idea of what goes on. Also, should you continue to pursue the degree, it’ll get you started on the “2-3 years of library experience” that so many libraries ask for in their job ads.

    Library schools could address this experience demand by requiring applicants to have at least begun work in a library.

  16. Techserving You says:

    As someone who worked in (good, Ivy league) libraries for 9 years before entering library school, and who was extremely shocked by the large number of MLIS classmates who were in library school without any library work experience, I love this post.

    First… yes… the claim that a librarian may be “web designer,” “marketing director,” and “reference librarian” all in one is, for the most part, ridiculous. It is akin to the claims that mothers are doctors, teachers, chefs, accountants, etc., all at the same time. After years working in large academic libraries, I have taken on a Library Director role in a small public library, and I basically run EVERYTHING. This does NOT make me a systems librarian, webmaster, marketing director, reference librarian, YA Librarian, Reader’s Advisory Librarian, etc., all in one. In fact, in the future, I could probably not get a job in even one of those areas. I could probably either get another Library Director job at a somewhat larger library, or return to working in Acquisitions and Collection Development, my functional area prior to this position.

    I do have to say that the MLIS is good for one thing in addition to qualifying people to apply for professional library jobs. I DO believe that it “indoctrinates” people into a “tribe,” of sorts. I didn’t learn much new in library school, beyond certan specific vocational skills (like basic web and database design) but I did develop somewhat more of a kinship with my fellow librarians. I was always the very irreverent library worker, and I still am to a great extent, but I now have a bit more respect for the profession, and feel more of a connection to my colleagues.

    But as far as wishing I’d learned more in library school… first of all, I don’t believe anyone in this day and age has ANY business attending library school if they don’t have significant experience in paid positions in libraries. They have no clue what the field is all about, they’re not going to learn that in library school, they probably won’t get a job, and they’ll be sorely disappointed. I consider ON THE JOB experience – both before and after library school – to be of utmost importance. Library school just provides a needed credential. I don’t even think it puts everything into an overall framework – I had a number of classmates who literally cried during classes like cataloging, simply because it was all taught in such a vaccuum. People entering library school without prior library work experience may believe that they are learning some overall context, but they are missing huge areas of information. For some, this is too much to deal with. The curriculum, even in a good program, can seem chaotic and they may not have the mental framework in which to “hang” the information. I think it’s hard for people immersed in the LIS culture to understand just how LITTLE knowledge the regular person with no library work experience has. My Board hired a library assistant (giving her an actual librarian title) shortly before I came on the scene… and she is almost 50, but has never worked in a library before. She’s never held anything but a part-time retail job before!!! She reminds me of me in my first student position. She knows SO LITTLE about library work, that she doesn’t even realize there is stuff she doesn’t know. It’s very frustrating to work with her. Library school actually wouldn’t help her all that much, although it might expose her to some of the more complex she could possibly encounter in a job. But I really think it takes years ON THE JOB in a decent-sized library (preferably academic, because academic libraries most closely follow established library standards) to really GET IT.

  17. Techserving You says:

    Joyce – this is not the first time you have raised the issue of Canadians (apparently) stealing librarian jobs in the States.

    I mentioned before that you are ignorant when it comes to this issue. Librarianship is one of the fields in which, due to NAFTA, a labor market survey does not need to be conducted. AMERICANS are free to get jobs in Canada, too, no problem, and they do. Maybe your daughter should move to Canada.

  18. I would like to have learned some social work, abnormal psychology and some child development.

  19. As one of the people organizing and moderating the panel, I’m both excited to see that this has is being discussed here and a tad annoyed. Particularly with the statement “Other than library school students, I don’t see who could be the beneficiaries of such a discussion.” On one hand yes, the topic is particularly relevant to those currently in library school. But it’s also something useful for newer librarians who as you say, “quickly realize that they’re not saving the world on library card at a time.” The hope is to have an honest discussion of unanticipated problems that new librarians encountered like the problem of inertia (mentioned in the comments) and how they have tried to address the issue.

    An hour and half long discussion is certainly not going to teach a person all that they need to know about working in a library, but maybe some ideas will come of it that help new librarians or even those who have been in the profession a long time. The goal isn’t to “learn what can’t be taught.” It’s to offer an honest space for discussion and the offering of solutions.

    Annoyed Librarian, you have strong opinions on this. Perhaps you’d care to join the panel and offer your thoughts?

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE