Library School Grads Know Nothing : thoughts on the shift from Thinking to Doing

This week of “contemplation posts” ends on the subject of knowing nothing, or at least on knowing very little.   Terri Tomchyshyn, the 2010 Outstanding Alumna of Dalhousie University‘s School of Information Management, recently blogged that LIS students and recent grads must remember that the first few years of their professional lives will be a constant learning experience.  Although LIS students will learn a lot of things during graduate school, all their book-learning will yet be refined by real work experience because:

don’t get all cranky on me when you read it – when you graduate, you still don’t know much.  You’ll have had two years of theory, maybe a practicum, and may be even some “real” experience in part time jobs, but all that theory really needs to be put to the practical test.  You’re not quite ready to run a library or information centre on your own – experience needs to come into play, as do good work mentors and colleagues from whom you can learn how to be a professional in a work environment.

Terri’s words struck a chord with me.  My graduate program taught me a lot about librarianship and organizational management, but I knew I wasn’t going to enter the workforce as some sort of David Beckham of LIS, ready to change the way others play the game.  I understood I was going to be the freshest, greenest (and perhaps most lost) librarian during my first few weeks on the job, but I don’t think I could have fully prepared myself for the stress that comes with determining how I could best improve the organization or with determining my colleague’s expectations of my work and then trying to exceed them.  As I mentioned earlier this week, we all want to do well on the job, but in the case of recent grads and recent hires, we often have only theory and ambition to drive us forward.  We’re taking each day on a wing and a prayer, hoping each week is better than the last.

The problem lies in turning our schooling – all of our theory – into practice.  Librarians, on the whole, are practitioners.  We have our graduate schooling, and we research, write, and publish, but by and large we are part of a profession that puts our knowledge to use.  Those first few weeks on the job for a librarian (or any professional) are difficult because the movement from using knowledge-sets to using skill-sets is awkward.  We must reconsider everything we’ve been taught and determine when it’s best to use what we’ve learned in one class and when it’s best to avoid what we’ve learned in another.  We have to truly start thinking for ourselves about the knowledge we’ve learned by evaluating when it’s appropriate to do one thing or another.

This is why it’s good for us to find mentors, colleagues, friends, and others who can give us some guidance on the job.  It’s not that recent grads need to hear that “Everything you know is wrong” so much as they need to see how everything they’ve been taught needs to be tested in the workplace.  Every organization is different, so all these theories we’ve learned much be reconciled to our work environment, work culture, and organizational structure.

September Madness

This is a reflective piece.  Blogging means having the privilege to be the author, editor, and publisher of your work. 🙂

Here we are, not yet at the middle of September, and I’m already looking back on the month as if it is already over.  Having started a new position in August, shifted offices between two libraries in the system before Labor Day, and then begun the school term complete with orientation week, weekly reference meetings, web editing, library tours, new faculty days, frantic students who can’t find rooms and frantic students who just need some one to talk to, and I’m a little run off my feet.

Blogging about the beginning of the term is a little odd for me. Regular readers will remember that it was only last Spring that I was a student at the same university that I now work, so I am experiencing a professional transition as much as I am dealing with what is ostensibly the busiest month in the academic calendar. I think the transition has worked out well thus far.  It seems to me that my colleagues respect me and are glad to have me on board.  It seems to me that I can give my opinion and not have to worry about hearing crickets break an uncomfortable silence afterward.  It seems to me that I have a ‘decent-enough’ sense of what I am supposed to do, what I can do, and what I should do. My plan (one of my plans) is to “get done” the stuff I’m tasked to do, but to also “get done” some great ideas that will make those tasks so much better.  I may be on board to create tutorials, but I can use this opportunity to help the library system reconsider what sort of tutorials it creates and why, how it measures the ‘success’ of the tutorials, and how to integrate them into its web platform, learning, and user-outreach strategy.  Oh I’ve got big ideas, and yes, I think I may be putting them into action bit-by-bit.

That’s not to say that life is a like a box of chocolates every day of the week.  There are definite moments that make me want to tear my hair out, and there are other moments that leave me stressed and wondering if I’m a fake or a fraud instead of a faculty member, as the “F” on my university ID is supposed to mean.  But for the most part, I think it’s so-far-so-good.

So if you find yourself in Halifax and anywhere near the Dal campus some time, feel free to look me up and we’ll go for a coffee.  So long as you visit after September comes to a close, I think I’ll be able to find the time.


Librarianship: How to solve our existential crisis

Why is it that librarians spend so much time trying to figure out who they are and what they do?   I’ve read several thought-provoking blog posts over the past couple weeks about how librarians should define themselves and whether or not librarianship is a true profession, and after reading each post I wonder why we’re allowing ourselves to get caught up in this debate in such a way, again and again, and again.

This is not to suggest that these issues don’t have merit.  Ryan Deschamps’ post on professionalism and librarianship stirred up a hornet’s nest, and it was the right thing to do: it’s good when we stake our individual positions on this matter from time to time.  Ryan has shown it from all sides, allowed others to come out for or against, and even staked his own ground, which we should all consider, too.  Mark and Deborah‘s posts over at Re:Generations, meanwhile, have demonstrated some of the reasons why we wonder what we are or what we may like to perceived as professionally.

But I’m still bothered by this entire debate.  It’s not that I think it’s pedantic – it is a necessary debate. However, this debate requires not just commentary but other facts and arguments, and

Reference is cool, but what else do we do for society?

also different voices.  I would like to see this considered, en masse, outside of the LIS blogosphere.  I think some of the answers librarians are looking for when we try to figure out who we are might be found if we didn’t limit these question to just our peer group.  We usually end up talking in circles (as has been seen time and again) if we keep this conversation to ourselves.   If you asked your friend, neighbour, spouse, city councilor, and postal carrier what a librarian is and what a librarian does, what answers would you expect to hear?  I think we, Librarians, should stop asking ourselves what our place is in the world and actually talk to the world at large to see where we stand and where we can go from here.

For what it’s worth, I believe that many people in LIS have skills and expertise that can be used – and ought to be used – in the communities we serve.  Meghan Ecclestone pretty much took the words from my mouth when she asked why CBC’s Q didn’t invite a librarian on to talk about possible revisions to a racist Tin-Tin and its censorship/collections/cultural implications even though Jian Ghomeshi opened up the programme by asking all of Canada, “What’s a librarian to do?”.

Our expertise lends itself to large social concerns

LIS professionals have expertise in copyright, policy, information ethics, data generation and preservation, IT and IS, just to name a few.  Do our friends, neighbours, and culture players understand this?  Probably not.  If we’re going to ask ourselves if we’re a profession or if we’re professional, I think we should ask ourselves if the communities we live in and serve understand our expertise and if we offer it well enough to society at large.

On organizing and networking

One of the things I do in my Working Life is serve as one of the two co-chairs of the Dalhousie student chapter of the CLA.  Although I took this role on with a little bit of reluctance (I’m a busy guy, always on the go, etc etc), I’m happy to do my part in this volunteer capacity.

There has been quite a bit of work involved with standing in for the CLA at the student level.  This workload is balanced, however, with the opportunities I’ve had to meet an inordinate amount of people – young stars and veterans alike – in the LIS field in Canada.  In the past two weeks I’ve spearheaded a successful Professional Partnering Programme that matches LIS students at Dal’s School of Information Management with professionals in the region, as well as helped organize an annual talk given by the president of the CLA to the students of the class. Last Friday, John Teskey, CLA Prez, rolled into town and gave a great casual chat to 35 students on the role and effects of technology within the profession and on our own careers.  It was all very good, and the organizing committee was more than pleased with the results.

By reflecting on this past month, however, when so much of my time has been committed to organizing these two events, I’m glad to have shoved away my initial reluctance to take on the role of co-chair. I’ve met a lot of people – formally and informally – in the past six months (let alone the past year) by way of working with the CLA, and I’ve begun to figure out exactly what fields I’d like to work in, ideally with whom, and ideally where in the world I’d like to work.  But it hasn’t been all one-sided – this close interaction with seasoned professionals is perhaps a small reward (if not an intangible perk) for my volunteer associations work.  I may be left “some-kinda-tired” at the end of certain weeks, but in the long run the local LIS community has improved – if ever so slightly – by my efforts, and hopefully so will my career opportunities.

So is this a general call to go and volunteer in associations in your field?  Possibly, yes.  I think it may be more pointed, though.  If you’re an LIS student, then think long and hard about taking part in these extra-curricular activities.  The coursework in your programme will help you learn about theories and methods in librarianship and information science, but don’t forget about the stuff going on outside of the classroom.  Where a people-profession, for sure, so be sure to get to know some people.

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The library science doctorate and the professional librarian

(A tender caveat: these opinions are only partly uninformed.)

I subscribe to a listserv for library managers, directors, and administrators, aptly called  LibAdmin.  I’m hardly a library manager, director or administrator, but I plan on being one soon, and the mailing list has afforded me the chance to be the fly on the wall and listen in conversations I’ll may get to take part in in the future.

I’ve noticed that every couple of months some one asks the LibAdmin crowd if it’s advisable to take a PhD in library and information science in order to advance their career in academic librarianship.  The question is premised on the fact that university librarians are on the whole considered deans, and deans have PhDs; therefore it’s reasonable that (1) the peer group demands new members to be as qualified as they are, and (2), there will surely be candidates for any university librarian position who already have the PhD, so enrolling in one well ahead-of-time is just a wise career move for a potential applicant to make.

The discussion that ensues after this question is asked is interesting at the beginning, but not substantive in its follow-through.  Although this is partly to do with the nature of e-mail listservs, it is most mostly owing to the diverse nature of the academic librarianship.  Most respondents to the question answer by saying they have X, Y, or Z degree over and above the MLIS and that this degree either helped them or did not in their career.  Developing anything close to a consensus in this argument is a bit of a fool’s game, not because the question or its answers are foolish, but because everyone’s got a story to tell and so many times these stories are struck from personal experience.

But is there anything that can be distilled from discussions about whether or a doctorate in LIS is necessary to secure a position as a university librarian in North America?  It might be fair to say that many institutions expect their applications to have a PhD in hand even if the time spent attaining it might have been better served in the field or by doing graduate work in public or educational administration.  It might also be fair to say that in spite of all the arguments which suggest that getting a PhD makes good business sense, many recent University Librarians do not have the degree and cannot be called “doctor” and yet maintain their budgets, explore avenues for institutional growth, and have the respect of their dean-level peer group.  In the end, the situations are always going to be particular to the applicant and to the institution itself.

As for me (this is where the “partly uninformed” part comes in), if I had to come down with an opinion in this argument, I’d argue that it might be more important for an academic library director to be an expert in organizational management than to have spent 5-7 years researching X topic in LIS.  The day-to-day affairs of a university librarian deal more with planning, projecting, and organizing than it does with breaking new ground in his or her particular field of research, be that field indigenous peoples and intellectual property or the digital divide as it exists in North America.  That’s not to say that I have no care for the PhD in LIS.  On the contrary, I constantly wrestle with the idea of conducting further research in the field (particularly in digital technologies and (inter-)national copyright reform or in civil rights, ethics, and LIS), but before doing so I’d like to first spend some time considering the organizational structure of libraries, archives, and museums.  I think if I were to enroll in an MPA or an MBA, I might have a better opportunity to engage in critical and interdisciplinary work in library management, which might do me and my own little part in the profession a little bit of good.

What are you thoughts on the subject?  How does the PhD in Library and Information Science fit within the profession of (academic) librarianship?

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CLA 2009 Recap: Tech / Copyright / Leadership

Last weekend I attended the 2009 CLA Conference in Montreal. Although I’ve already reviewed some sessions that focused on tech/people intersections, I haven’t given a good re-cap of the conference as a whole. And I don’t think I’m willing to start now that a full week has passed  since the conference ended. Many other bloggers, far more eloquent than I, have already written about the weekend so it would be just as well to look them up. Instead, I’m going to render my experience into three broad categories. We love the number three, especially when categorizing and listing things, so it should work out well in the end.

1. The Tech.

I’ve written a few times about the tech conversations I had already, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse much longer except to say that CLA 2009 confirmed to me the fact that technology and social media are great tools to help people but remain secondary to the relationships we have with our communities. I’m more than happy to start a Twitter account for any organization I work with or for, but I’m going to use that Twitter account get in touch and keep in touch with the organization’s community and not just because Twitter’s cool. The People Factor remains essential to librarianship.

2. Copyright in Canada.

Copyright is a bit of an academic interest and pet project of mine, so I made a special point to attend several sessions dealing with copyright legislation, debates, and struggles in Canada. Bill C-61 may have fizzled out in Ottawa last year, but it was only by the mechanics of Parliament that it did, and we can be sure that the next iteration is in development and soon to hit us over the head again. Tony Horava at the University of Ottawa and Olivier Charbonneau at Concordia University both gave good talks that reminded us of the current lie of the land and hopefully reinforced the fact that the status quo is not good for any one or any organization. Whether you represent a culture industry, Big Media, or the average citizen, you are likely demanding and expecting change regarding copyright, digital use, and fair dealing. More librarians need to become informed about the byzantine frameworks, policies and debates going on about copyright and then get vocal on this issue.  To do so is not just to act in the interests of the profession but also to act in defense of our civil rights.  Both copyright holders and copyright users have rights and privileges under the Copyright Act, and we must see to it that ours are not eroded.

3.Librarianship and Leadership.

Our profession (let us all reserve judgment on the “whither a profession?” debate) is rather fortunate relative to other fields in the culture industry. We are part of an organized, international group of managers and leaders who know more than a thing or two about preserving and promoting the cultural, social, and intellectual interests of our communities. But the proper administration of LAMs demands more than an expertise in virtual reference, government documents and cataloguing. Our profession, privileged as it may be, needs to “take care of its own” and improve its ability to manage its resources. What’s more, I’d go so far to suggest that it’s not enough to lead only our institutions.  Rather, we must “use our skills for good” and play a larger, leading role within society. As librarians, we have a developed expertise in the organization, dissemination and use of information, and as a profession we owe it to ourselves to use this expertise to improve the communities in which we live. By developing and nurturing our profession’s leadership skills, we stand a greater chance of not only strengthening our cultural institutions but also leaving an indelible mark in society. I may only be at the start of this new career in information science, but I know enough to applaud initiatives like the National Summit on Library Human Resources that was held in October 2008.  When we consider the future of the profession, we must consider how we’re going to govern it and why we’ll govern it in such a manner, all the while reminding ourselves to question how it will fit in with and shape society at large.

That’s enough pontificating for one evening. Carry on.