Emily Minehart is a second year MSLIS student pursuing a Certificate in Special Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Graduate Assistant at Illinois’ Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where she is processing the Gwendolyn Brooks papers. Emily is currently an SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable steering committee member-at-large. Emily was asked to write about professional development as a student and how she stays in conversation with practicing librarians.
Professional involvement has been one of the foundational pieces of my library education, and I have benefited greatly from having a mentor who is involved in the profession. Classroom experience is important, but I feel as though I have learned more through interacting with practicing archivists and librarians than in my coursework. I am studying archives at the University of Illinois GSLIS, and have been lucky to work in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) there for the past year and a half. My direct supervisor and professional mentor, the RBML’s archivist Megan Hixon, has taught me more than I can convey about archives, their relationship to a rare book library, and how to address problems (75 dead bugs falling out of a folder all over my desk is my favorite example) in a large academic library. She has allowed me to communicate with other involved parties, like preservation librarians. Learning how librarians and archivists from different units interact while having different backgrounds and approaches is an important part of academic librarianship and something that seems very difficult to teach in the classroom.
In my experience, the most significant lessons I have learned have come when I asked for help, more responsibility, or for specific experience. This goes beyond the workplace and classroom. It is important for students to seek out ways to become involved in the profession if they want a more holistic education. I am a student steering committee member of SAA’s Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable. Being in contact with new archivists and other archives students has been reassuring and has challenged me to engage directly with the decisions SAA is making. Being involved with a professional organization as a student helps me to better understand the career in front of me, and it feels as though I have agency over my future and the futures of my peers; that makes some of the drudgery of library school feel valuable and more widely relevant.
Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to attend a conference. GSLIS is accommodating of conferences (they offer travel stipends and professors are understanding of missed class time), but the idea of presenting remains intimidating. SNAP is working very seriously to make SAA’s annual conference less daunting to students. We, as a committee, are trying to facilitate conversation between student SAA chapters with national SAA, and we are brainstorming ways to welcome students and first-time attendees to the conference. Still, presenting seems overwhelming. I think the best way to overcome that is to have a mentor; my supervisor attends conferences and will be part of a program at the Midwest Archives Conference this year. Hearing her talk through the process has been reassuring, and knowing that I will be able to find her at the conference itself is comforting.
Professional development as a student has both broadened and deepened my education, and I feel more qualified to enter the field this spring because of it. While groups like SNAP are doing great work to facilitate a connection between students and professional organizations, I feel strongly that there is no better way to become involved and feel supported than to have a mentor who also participates in professional development. Librarians at Illinois are extremely generous and approachable, and GSLIS students benefit from their graciousness. Knowing the general character of librarians, I imagine this is true in other library schools as well. However, I believe that an institutionalized mentorship program would help students approach conferences more confidently and would ease the transition into the profession after library school. SNAP certainly assists new archivists, and many ALA groups provide online resources, like those published by the RBMS Membership and Professional Development Committee, but there is still something more tangible about having a person to speak to directly. A profession-wide mentorship program across library schools would boost student confidence and professional participation, and would lead to better-prepared and more involved professionals entering the field. Certainly such a program would not be easy to execute, especially in the case of distance learning programs, but I believe it would be widely beneficial.