Category Archives: LIS Education

What I Gained With My MLIS

As my Facebook and Instagram feeds are flooded with graduation photos, it’s time to reflect on my education, now that I graduated with my MLIS almost exactly a year ago.  In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the MLIS curricula, and for good reason.  Education is expensive and job outlooks are bleak; it makes sense that we need to re-evaluate this investment.  I’ve been critical of our degree myself.  But as I’ve read many posts questioning the value of our degree, I’ve tried to take stock of the 2 years I spent in school and consider how some of my more theoretical courses have made me a better librarian.

I am a strong believer that students need to be realistic about what to expect from a graduate degree.  Only getting practical, task-based skills is not the point of our education.  I agree that our classes should offer meaningful, thoughtful assignments we can include in our portfolios and should be testaments to our employable skills, but they should primarily give us the necessary conceptual tools to be innovative, creative professionals.  In other words, theory matters; having a strong foundation in theory is one of the things that separates librarians from other library staff.  Now that I’m a year out of my education, and a year into my professional career, I’ve reflected on some of the more theoretical courses I took in school and how they’ve helped my career so far.

Digital Media Collections: this class was, probably, intended for students who wanted to go on to do video or multimedia curatorial work.  In this course, we explored the idea that collection design is a form of argument, expression, and experience.  We learned how to figure out a purpose and audience for a collection; how to best select, organize, and describe items in a collection; issues of copyright, fair use, and creative commons licenses; and how to best present our digital media collections.  The final project was building our own video collection on a certain topic. Though I have never worked with digital media collection building, or even print collection building, this class gave me the skills to:

  • thoughtfully consider how to best organize and present resources in instructional Lib Guides;

  • determine who my potential audience(s) is/are when developing instructional workshops;

  • plan library resources and services in ways that are commensurate with open access and/or fair use principles;
  • articulate some assumptions database and search engines make when organizing and structuring results, which helps me aid students on the reference desk.

Classification Theory: this class was intended for theory nerds like me (I can only assume).  In this course, we explored different classification systems and investigated how classification can be a political act.  The final project was a critical paper.  Though I am a self-professed theory buff, the knowledge gained from this class has been instrumental in my contributions to developing an information literacy curriculum in my university.  Among other skills, this course has helped me:

  • articulate the differences in classification and retrieval systems.  I use this articulation to help students better understand why they get the search results they get and when they should look to the open web or databases;

  • implement a critical pedagogy in my instruction; this class helped me to understand how some students can feel marginalized by traditional search engines and classification systems.

Social Media for Information Professionals: potentially the most wishy-washy course on the schedule that semester, I took this course because it fit the best with my courseload (honesty, right?)  In the class, we read McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” and other mass media theorists, particularly as they relate to the concept of “value added”.  The final projects were a presentation on how an information organization would use a social media site of our choice (I chose Pinterest) and a critical paper.  As a librarian, I’ve used the theory to:

  • co-develop a social media plan for our library’s marketing and outreach activities;

  • think critically about if, how, and when we should adopt particular social media for the library to have the most impact on our mission

Undoubtedly, some of our programs need to do a better job of knowing what it wants to be.  Some schools are more professional in nature, and do a great job of offering quality “core librarian” courses, like reference, instruction, cataloging, and archiving.  Students who work full-time, or have children, or would otherwise not be able to gain much practical out-of-the-classroom experience are some types of students who would be a good fit for these programs.  At the same time, there is a lot of professional experience to be gained from more theoretical or non-traditional library school courses.  As is often the case, we don’t always know what we’ve gained until we’ve needed it.

Have any of the classes you took in grad school been surprisingly useful in your career?  With the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish you had or hadn’t taken?  Leave a comment or tweet your thoughts to me @beccakatharine.

Searching the Library Website and Beyond: A Graduate Student Perspective

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Julia Skinner, a first year Information Studies doctoral student at Florida State University. She blogs at Julia’s Library Research.

I just finished my MLS, and one of the issues raised frequently both in and out of the classroom was how to get college students and researchers to use the library website. Academic librarians I’ve talked with have spent hefty amounts of time (and money) designing sites that meet the self-described needs of patrons, but still find most of the searches that guide students to library resources to be coming from Google. I decided to take a look at my own search habits to get a sense of how, from the graduate student perspective, these tools might be employed, and hopefully generate some discussion about searching on the library website and beyond.

Like many other people, I usually do a quick Google search on my topic early on in the research process. This isn’t necessarily to track down every resource I would be using, but it does give me a general sense of what’s out there on my topic beyond the realm of scholarly materials. Since my own work relies heavily on the journal articles, scholarly monographs, primary sources, and other reliable sources, I feel like seeing what people have said outside the ivory tower can be a good way to give myself some perspective about how my topic is thought of and applied elsewhere. Most of the time, like for my research on Iowa libraries during WWI, there’s not much. But sometimes this search helps me find something useful (for example, in my recent work writing chapters for an encyclopedia on immigration, I was able to find information about nonprofits serving the immigrant community and some news stories.)

Obviously, the university library is still my go-to source. Journal articles, ebooks, not to mention circulating and special collections, are all where the meat and potatoes of my bibliography can be found. I love that many libraries are putting these collections online and purchasing more digital subscriptions (especially in the winter when I have a serious sinus infection and am locked in my house trying to work!) Sometimes, I find these resources through Google Scholar, but most of the time, it’s through searches within the library’s resources. This is especially true for journal articles, which I’ve found Google hasn’t really nailed yet when it comes to bringing desired results from a simple keyword search (I know, it’s a lot to ask, and hence why I love the library site!)

One tool I use heavily is Google Books. Not everything is on there, and most of the things that are have a limited availability (i.e. a preview where only some pages are available) but I have saved countless hours by doing a keyword search in GBooks to get a sense of what’s out there that mentions or is relevant to my topic, but maybe isn’t something I would have grabbed while browsing the shelves. I can then go track down the physical book for a more thorough read, or if I am able to access all the information I need from the preview I can just use it as a digital resource. Some other useful documents are in full view as well: many public domain items, including some ALA documents, can be found there.

Of course I don’t just use Google Books and assume that’s all there is. I also track down public domain titles on sites like Open Library and Project Gutenberg, and approach them in the same way. It’s a great way to get that one tidbit that really pulls an article together, and I usually find that some of those works don’t overlap with the offerings I find in the databases the library subscribes to. I will sometimes use different search engines, search a variety of fields, do Boolean search, etc. all of which helps me extract more little nuggets of information from the vast world of material related to any given topic. Even though I’m an avid Googler, I use library resources just as frequently. I remember speaking with a student a few years ago who could not find anything on her topic through a keyword search, and assumed there was nothing out there on that topic. I was amazed that she hadn’t even considered the university library’s website or physical collections before throwing in the towel! It makes me wonder how many students feel this way, and how we as LIS professionals and instructors can help effectively remove those blinders.

One thing I think will be interesting in the coming years (and which is a great thing to get input about from academic librarians!) is learning more about search habits among undergraduates. I’ll be TAing for our MLIS program this semester, so I’ll be working with students who are my age, getting the degree I just recently obtained, who are tech savvy and knowledgeable about search. What happens when I TA for an undergraduate course? Is sharing my search strategies helpful for papers that only require a handful of sources, and don’t require you to look at a topic from every imaginable angle? I argue that teaching search as something done in as many outlets as possible has the potential to make students better researchers, BUT only if that goes hand in hand with instruction on critically evaluating resources.

Without that, one runs the risk of putting students in information overload or having students work with sources that are irrelevant/untrustworthy. I’m a big fan of helping students recognize that the knowledge they have and the ideas they create are valuable, and it makes me wonder if building on their current search habits in such a way that encourages them to speak about the value of those sources, the flaws in their arguments, etc. will help promote that. I remember having a few (but not many) undergrad courses that encouraged me to draw upon my own knowledge and experience for papers, and to critically analyze works rather than just write papers filled with other peoples arguments followed by I agree/disagree. I feel like teaching is moving more in the direction of critical analysis, and I’m excited to see the role that librarians and library websites play!

This Librarian’s Blog Name Says It All

In a recent Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts I asked – in a not so direct way – what ACRLog readers wanted us to write about – and a few of you shared your thoughts – though I really didn’t expect that. One comment in particular stood out and I wanted to share it with ACRLog readers. This one comes from Elizabeth, who writes:

I’m a newly graduated LIS student trying to break into the world of academic librarianship. I’m having an extremely hard time getting interviews, so I would love a little real-world advice. Most of my classmates are still unemployed, so I know there are many of us out there who love some first-hand advice on getting a job and what being an academic librarian is really like.

What made me most want to mention Elizabeth’s comment was the name of her blog, which tells you everything you need to know about her situation and her interest in the topic: The Adventures of an Unemployed Librarian.

Just the fact that we have a new-to-the-profession colleague coming up with a blog name like that should somehow concern us. It’s encouraging to know we have enthusiastic folks who want to break into our world of academic librarianship, but it’s disappointing that we have so little to offer them. Let’s see if we can help Elizabeth and her classmates by responding to her two questions: (1) advice on how to get a job and (2) what it’s like to be an academic librarian.

My not-so-original primary piece of advice is to start getting library experience early and often in your developing career. Take advantage of every opportunity to land an internship (in the Philadelphia region several academic libraries offer them) or possibly a part-time position. It may offer only limited professional experience, but more importantly you’ll be getting exposure to the environment and people. You need to start building your network early. If your region has any sort of local library association for academic librarians (in the past the Philadelphia region has had a number of informal groups that were not affiliated with ACRL) try to get involved – or at least attend meetings. It’s a good way to start connecting with other academic librarians who can provide advice and support. In my academic libraries course (which I’m unfortunately not teaching for the first time in seven years – being replaced by a full-time faculty member – for now) my project assignment requires the students to get out to academic libraries to interview librarians. If Elizabeth had an assignment like that at some point in her LIS education I don’t think she’d be asking, post-graduation, what it’s like to be an academic librarian. Our future professionals should be finding out the answer to that question while they’re in the LIS program. Meredith gave some advice that could help with respect to positioning yourself for letting potential employers know who you are and what you’ve accomplished in your career path to date. I advocate starting a portfolio of your work early on in graduate school, and keeping it up to date and accessible to potential employers.

Elizabeth, if you and your fellow unemployed students have heard all that advice before, you have my apologies for my failure to provide enlightenment. Let me see if I can do better on your second question. I could go on for several thousand words on what it’s like to be an academic librarian. In fact, I have. My first piece of advice is to take a look at an article I wrote a few years ago titled “Passion For Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It–A Reflective Inquiry”. PORTAL: LIBRARIES AND THE ACADEMY 3(4):633-642, October 2003. I think it will give you my perspective on what it’s like to be an academic librarian. But there are many perspectives, which is why you can help yourself by using time you may have now to go to academic libraries in your area to meet and talk with academic librarians. I know this sounds like an awkward thing to do, but I’m sure most academic librarians would be glad to have a cup of coffee with you and tell you about their job and their take on the profession. Try not to be totally random though; try to get recommendations from an experience colleague. So if you have any contacts in your area (if you don’t get in touch and perhaps I can find a good one for you) ask that person for some advice on good folks with which to chat.

A final thought about Elizabeth’s blog. I think it can help to have a thoughtful blog. As a potential employer I might like to see if someone is intellectually curious, and what sort of issues they are thinking about through the posts they write. If a potential job candidate is expressing an interest in academic librarianship, how is that reflected in their blog posts? I’d consider re-thinking the title of the blog. It might be better to have something with a more positive spin that reflects an interest in academic librarianship. What about “The Adventures of a Future Academic Librarian”? Or if you are really interested in what it’s like to be an academic librarian, start writing some profiles of academic librarians and what they do. Call the blog something like “What it Means to be an Academic Librarian”, and use it to learn about the profession as you explore the issues of the day.

What other advice do ACRLog readers have for Elizabeth and her classmates?

Assessment is the New Black

I’m teaching a course this semester for the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at Illinois called, “Libraries, Information, and Society.” Like similar courses, it presents an introduction to a number of core concepts for future information professionals, as well as an introduction to professional skills, values, and employment environments. This week, we heard an excellent presentation from my colleague, Tina Chrzastowski, author of “Assessment 101 for Librarians,” an essay that appeared Science & Technology Libraries in 2008. The point of the presentation, and the message that I hope my students took from it, is that the ability to design an assessment program and to use its results in planning and decision making is a critical skill set for any information professional. Assessment is the new black – it goes with whatever job you have, and it is relevant to every library environment.

Assessment may also the new instruction, though – a critical skill set for academic librarians that is not clearly and appropriately addressed in LIS programs. It is no coincidence that instruction librarians have been among the early leaders in assessment activities (I’m looking at you, Deb Gilchrist!): this reflects their connection to broader campus efforts to identify student learning outcomes, but also their experience in having to learn critical skills on the job that were not a focus for their professional education. The list of studies showing that teaching skills are required for a wide variety of academic library positions is almost as long as the list of studies showing that few LIS programs have ever made this a focus for their coursework or their faculty hiring (a shout-out to those who break that mold, including the University of Washington and Syracuse University). I imagine that a similar list of studies will find their way into the literature regarding the importance of assessment and evidence-based library and information practice for librarians of all types, and the need for greater attention to those skills across the LIS curriculum. As we remain concerned about attention paid to instruction in LIS programs some 30 years after those first studies started to come out, though, it may take a while to see real change. Of course, it may be that assessment is really the new knowledge management, in which case the courses will be available much more quickly!

As Chrzastowski’s article points out, there are many resources available to librarians interested in continuing professional education in assessment. The Association of Research Libraries has held two successful conferences on this topic, and there is an international movement in support of evidence-based practice that supports a journal and conference programs. As with instruction, there are “lighthouse” LIS programs, too; in this case the University of North Carolina, which offers a course on “Evidence Based Practices in the Library and Information Sciences”.

What can ACRL do? If assessment is the new instruction, should we see more attention to looking at assessment across the association, and to fostering the development of a corps of academic librarians (beyond assessment coordinators) who see this as a critical area of personal expertise? Since assessment skills are critical not only to public services and collections librarians, but also to technical services and information technology specialists, is this an area of functional specialty that could broaden our appeal across the academic library enterprise, or be an initiative on which we can fruitfully collaborate across ALA divisions?

I don’t have the answers, but I know you all look good in black!

What An Academic Librarianship Course Should Offer

A few weeks ago I invited ACRLog readers to participate in a survey which asked respondents to rate academic library course topics as essential, important or marginal. Respondents were also able to make suggestions for additional topics. Over a hundred readers responded to the survey. Here is what they had to say.

First, some information about the respondents. Over 50% have been in the academic library profession 6 years or less. We’ve had past indicators that ACRLog, like most library blogs perhaps, is read by the “new(er) to the profession” demographic, and this respondent data appears to support that. There was almost an even split on taking an academic librarianship course; 54% never took one and 46% did. Again, that sounds reasonable to expect. Not everyone who ended up in an academic library was thinking about it when they went to library school, so an academic librarianship course may have seemed less important at the time. Also, there are several LIS schools that have never, and still do not, offer an academic librarianship course.

The survey asked respondents to identify, by choosing from a list of 30 topics, what should be the most essential topics for an academic librarianship course. Respondents also indicted which topics were “important” and “marginal”. The topics most frequently selected as essential are:

higher education industry (current issues)
academic freedom/tenure
academic library standards
public service operations
reference services
information literacy
instruction/teaching
collection management
scholarly communication
student issues
future of academic librarianship

Those items that received the highest percentage of “essential” ranking were information literacy, instruction and higher education industry. I think this list confirms that most of the topics on my course syllabus are the ones that practitioners want LIS students to study. The one activity that made it into the essential category was “a required presentation”. I can certainly understand that because it relates to instruction skill, and the presentation is a crucial part of the job interview. I used to have students do a five-minute presentation on their class project (a study/analysis of a single academic library that the student visits and reports on during the course), but gave it up. The presentations were not well crafted or delivered, and I could see it was really painful for the students to sit through them. So I agree entirely that LIS students need to learn how to present effectively, but there’s just no room for that in most courses. My recommended solution is for the LIS programs to offer a number of short workshops, perhaps a full-day, where skilled practitioners would be tapped to offer a “how to” session to give LIS students these important skills that can contribute to interview and workplace success.

The topics most frequently selected as important were:

visit to an academic library
academic library field study
higher education accreditation
higher education organizational structure
faculty status for librarians
tech service operations
web 2.0 technology
library as place
e-resource management
faculty issues
career advice/keeping up skills
community colleges

Again, all these topics are covered in my academic librarianship course. In addition to what students can learn from the class discussion, recorded lecture content and supplemental reading, guest speakers cover many of these topics in their presentations. My course features both F2F guest lecturers and those who visit via distance learning systems. That visits to and field studies of academic libraries are considered important suggests that out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities are vital to the development of a future academic librarian. I heartily agree. Visiting academic libraries and talking to the academic librarians one meets there is a fundamental learning method, not just for LIS students but even veteran practitioners.

So what topics did the respondents think were just marginal for an academic librarianship course?

academic library leadership
human resources management
metadata services
special collections / archives
budgeting
higher education history

Of these topics, leadership/management issues comes as the biggest surprise. It seems to be much on the minds of practitioners so I expected it to rank higher as a priority. I do spend some time on higher education history the first night of the course as I think it’s helpful to have that foundational information, but the other topics are better covered in those courses designated to give LIS students a primer on administrative, leadership and management.

I received a lengthy list of “suggested topics” that an academic librarianship should include – those items not among the 30 from which respondents could choose. There are too many to list here, but here are some of those that appeared more than once:

publishing and presenting for tenure
how to survive your first year as an academic librarian
project management
decision making
grantsmanship
advocacy
organizational politics
writing skills
ethics
assessment
reading the Chronicle
instructional technology for teaching
copyright
marketing
green library practices
mission statements
liaison relationships
dealing with deadwood
pedagogy
course design
vendor relationships
involvement in campus activity

A number of these, while not listed on the syllabus as official course topics, do come up as discussion topics at any point throughout the course. Marketing would be a good example because the students explore that as part of the course project and there’s usually some discussion about their findings. Reading the Chronicle is also covered through class assignments. Again, some of these skills are covered elsewhere in the LIS curriculum, but they could certainly be discussed in the context of academic library environments. The mention of writing skills is interesting because I find my students’ writing to be all across the quality spectrum. Fortunately, most are quite proficient. While I certainly want to help those who need improvement it can be incredibly time consuming and beyond the scope of what I can realistically accomplish. Like presentation skills this is something, while quite important, that needs to be dealt with outside the course.

I don’t know about you but I found the responses to the survey most informative. On one hand it affirms that much of what I cover in my academic librarianship course are the topics that practitioners find to be most essential or important. What about others who teach these courses? What do you think? The responses also provide me with some new ideas for additional topics of discussion. Why not spend some time talking about how academic librarians can contribute to the green campus movement? So many thanks to those of you who took a few minutes to respond to this survey. We are all stakeholders in the LIS education of our future academic librarians. Practitioners, it seems, have much to contribute to, and much to gain from, the development of a quality curriculum.