Experience Necessary

Check out our post on HLS today too! Nicole Helregel, ACRLog guest blogger and former HLS blogger, provides some tips for how to get involved in ALA and ACRL. See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Dylan Burns is a current Master’s Candidate in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He focuses on digital publishing and initiatives for both the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Scholarly Commons, where he traverses the gap between analog materials and the digital future. He is the Community Manager at Hack Library School and tweets about book history, media, and memory @ForgetTheMaine. Dylan was asked to write about his most valuable experience as an LIS student.

I am extremely fortunate to attend school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (soon to be sans library) encourages and facilitates interaction between professionals and students. Partially this is out of pure economics. The campus is home to an incredibly large collection and, as a result, they need warm bodies and learning brains to keep the library functioning. Without this experience I wouldn’t be the candidate for jobs, nor the librarian, that I am today.

I work in two units at the University Library. While geographically close, literally across the hall from each other, these two jobs, one in the Scholarly Commons and the other at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, could not be more different. Before I started at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library I’m not sure I had handled a codex older than 150 years old, since I started I do it daily, if not several times a day. Now I am starring in a YouTube series watched by hundreds and publishing on blogs read by thousands. At the Scholarly Commons I work with undergraduate researchers and graduate students on implementing and designing undergraduate research journals and online exhibits.  My library encourages us to gain experience in all facets of the academic librarian job; we answer reference questions, we help patrons, we help build the collection and design online exhibits. I am so lucky to have professional librarians and bosses that respect grad students enough to give us a seat at the table. What I believe is most valuable here is not what I am gaining from these experiences but the way in which, as a student, I am contributing to the larger library and campus environment. I am not a cog in the faceless machine, but an equal colleague, albeit one who is still taking classes.

Unfortunately, this is not how it always is for library students. Even here, at the number one program, funding and experience don’t always come easy, and while I was lucky to get a position some full-time students aren’t able to. Because of the experience I have working in and out of two divisions of the library here at U of I, I will be able to compete for jobs that students without experience might not be able to. From what I’ve heard from other LIS students, the situation at Illinois is much better than most institutions, both in terms of funding and mentorship opportunities. Recently, this was discussed at length on twitter between myself and several librarians and library students, with me suggesting that a requirement for experience might be necessary to create competitive graduates.

If the LIS programs in this country continue to be held as professional, that is programs who by their very nature lead to professional employment, and if experience is required even for entry level positions, it is essential that graduates have what they need to attain employment. Thus far, at most schools, this is on the student to seek out volunteer hours or practicums for no pay, while the students like me who are taken care of funding-wise don’t have as much to worry about. As funding sources dry up, as Illinois’s current budget crisis enters its 8th month, it might be unreasonable to expect every LIS student to have a Graduate Assistantship like I have, but as long as experience is required by employers it might be unethical to graduate students who aren’t able to compete.

Ten years ago, John Berry III, then editor of Library Journal, posited that “the profession must consider making the availability of a formal practicum a requirement for the accreditation of any LIS program” (para 2). It continues to be a controversial proposition to require experience as a graduate requirement. He continued that “While many schools offer such opportunities, few make them mandatory. Yet some kind of library practice gives a new graduate an immense edge in an extremely competitive employment arena and adds substantially to the educational value of the coursework” (Berry III, 2005). My experience builds on my coursework, and my coursework builds on my experience; they are the two legs upon which my library self is built.

Whether or not we make experience mandatory in gaining the MLS will continue to be a controversial topic. While I see fostering an open and inclusive environment essential to the future of our field, I believe that it is necessary that LIS programs take into account what employers need from graduates in constructing curricula. If that means that experience is necessary, then it might be time to revisit these kinds of requirements. In the end, I want to stress how lucky I feel I am to have great mentors and great support. What I think is important for current professionals to know is that we need your help as much as you will once we graduate; mentorship is essential to a functioning model of apprenticeship. In my experience, my most fruitful times in library school have come from interactions with current academic librarians and once I am a professional, I will work to guide others on this path. I value what I have learned and I will forever value the things I have accomplished here working with current professionals in serving this campus community.

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