I came to library science grad school with no previous professional library experience (unless you count my one-semester work-study position precisely one million years ago). And everyone I talked to in the biz said to get some experience. Donít expect to those MLIS letters after your name alone to land you a job; what every employer is looking for is practical experience, in addition to the theoretical training–and it was ever thus, in every profession.
So for a few months Iíve been volunteering at a couple of libraries in my western Massachusetts home, and last week I was put on the payroll of one of them. I am now a trained substitute circulation desk worker, and Iíll be filling in from time to time, four hours here, three hours there, as needed. Itís changed my life. I went to class last Saturday and my entire educational experience has changed:
- I can relate to the class discussion in a real way. I can now say with some confidence, ďWell, this is our policy when we find someone looking at pornography on one of the public computers,Ē or, ďIn my library, we have filters on the computers in the childrenís section but not the adult,Ē or, ďWhere I work, even children have a right to privacy about the books they take out,Ē that is — kids from age 12 can have their own library card and not even parents can pick up a kidís books or otherwise know what their child has borrowed unless the child has given them express permission. As a parent I was annoyed when I wasnít allowed to pick up my daughterís books, simply because it was an inconvenience, but now that I understand the reasoning behind this policy, I am delighted: Even my 11-year-old has the right to privacy! Thatís how it should be. And really, all I have to do is ask her for permission to pick up her books and the issue has been resolved.
- I appreciate much more the challenges that librarians face, and all that they do in response. What a mishmash job, part scholar, part expert, part customer service, part public employee, part civil liberties advocate. That mix is what draws me to itóI am definitely a generalist–and I increasingly see how you can make library science what you want of it. Itís a very broad field.
- Itís practical. I am learning lots of theory in my classes, but now I get to see how it all plays out in practical terms. The importance of privacy seems obvious when Iím working on a homework assignment, for instance, but when a patron has a fine on their account, I see what privacy looks like by remembering to ask about the fine in a polite and discrete manner. When I am trying to help a patron find a book, I can see why cataloging rules are so crucial, and I can practice using them when I look stuff up.
- I can see the importance of not falling into jargon. As journalist I am totally against jargon, but as a new librarian using it makes me feel like I belong. But itís utterly alienating to patrons, I think, so I am trying hard not to use the little Iíve learned.
- It helps me understand my libraryóand my communityómuch better. And the world of libraries, for that matter. One of the hard parts of having to enforce some of this libraryís policies, on a practical level, is that they differ from so many of the other libraries around. I live in a very small city but weíre in the country, and many of our patrons live in towns and villages with populations of, say, 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000. And from what I gather, the libraries in those towns are often casual about their lending and reserving and renewing practices, and thatís appropriate, really: The patrons and librarians know each other, the facilities arenít open very many hours, and their computer systems are often very limited. My library is a larger library, with more hours and materials. I can see that this library wants to maintain certain standards befitting its position as a medium-sized library, and that can be hard for patrons to understand, at times.
To that end, thank god for the ALA and its suggested guidelines. From what I can tell, my library aligns its policies as much as possible to those suggested by the ALA. As both a resident patron and a new employee, that proves to me that they arenít being arbitrary or difficult. They are simply working hard to fall in line with the library worldís accepted best practices; they see the bigger picture that might not always be obvious to someone who just wants to pick up their husbandís book on hold. My library is extremely concerned with privacy, courtesy, and service. Everyone Iíve met here takes their job, their role in the community, and their role as public servant, extremely seriously.
Itís a great library. Itís a great job, and itís wonderful to feel even more a part of this new field. If you are considering this field, I recommend finding library work, paid or volunteer, as soon as you can. Even a couple of hours a week makes a difference. It has to me.