01 January 2004

In the Know: Thoughts on Entering the Field of Librarianship

by Georgie Donovan

All the friends that I've met in library school have been accomplished in one or more areas of their lives beyond librarianship. Some of my friends like Lori Ito Hardenbergh and Holly Jeffcoat have previous advanced degrees in other fields; some of them have had interesting careers like Annabelle Nu�ez's work in the arts and as an actress and Lia Ladas's work in publishing. Others are knowledgeable about a craft or art like Amy Verheide's work in photography, and many have wisdom and smarts from raising children like Toni Anaya. Yet, I think for all of us, librarianship is a different world and the professional aspects of it are different from any other discipline. Though I've attended conferences for writers (I did a master of fine arts program in creative writing and wrote and taught before returning to school at SIRLS), the ALA conferences are different in their scope and purpose from others. Though networking is important in any profession, librarianship is a small field and people have close-knit relationships with one another that span decades. These are two examples of practical things that I think library students would like to know—things that new students in the program asked me about when I was the president of the Library Student Organization (LSO) at SIRLS.

Library school education in some ways hasn't decided to move out of the model that was set up in the first library schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I thought I would write a short article describing some of the things that I think SIRLS students may want to understand—sort of a "always wanted to know but were afraid to ask" article. These are, of course, only my opinions about these issues and stem from my limited experience so far with librarianship. This experience includes my work now as the special assistant to the dean at the University of Arizona Libraries, and pre-library school work in a rural children's library, in circulation at a urban public library, and in the humanities department of a large academic library (UGA). Besides library work, I also taught college-level English for 5 years, and education and librarianship have a few things in common too. I hope, though, that in the spirit of discussing what I have perceived to be true, a new student may be able to latch on to one or more items that are helpful in their endeavors.

Web and email savvy

I feel sympathetic in a way when I hear an incoming student say that they're going into librarianship because they love books because I never really touch a book at work, and I think this is fairly typical of all library jobs except those working with children and young people. With a library science degree, most of us will be in demand as managers of library systems and libraries themselves, and in the academic library especially, we'll see a move toward libraries managing digital information (and not books) and delivering it electronically to faculty members and students. The people doing research in the academic (and even in the public) library want information quickly and conveniently and they would love to have it delivered to them in their office or home--where they're doing work. Libraries are making this possible through virtual reference services, document delivery, online database access, and portals to resources.

Part of this trend—which isn't exclusive of public and school libraries as their users are computer-driven as well—means that as librarians we have to be the most comfortable, the most savvy, the most knowledgeable of anyone at using computers. If you're fairly new to the web, the best thing you can do is play around on it and spend a lot of time just seeing what's available. Especially check out librarianship sites, things like the ALA website and its divisions, the online version of Library Journal, and the news or opinion based sites like LISnews.com or librarian.net.

Most librarians are also on several listservs too—and keep up to date about the issues and the hot topics in our field. Knowing what's going on will help you in job interviews, in classes, and in conversations; there's always a lot of controversial and interesting discussions going on.

Because of all this listserv activity, it's good if students can learn to manage a huge amount of email right away. Learning how to keep folders, delete or discard unimportant messages, overlook repeat postings (you'll get tons of repeat messages if you're on different library listservs) and respond quickly and briefly to important messages will save you time and energy. I get all my listservs in digest form so that I only get one message every day from each listserv. (I'm on one for an ALA round table—the Social Responsibilities Round Table—one for a librarians' organization I'm a a part of called the Progressive Librarians Guild, the IRLSADMIN listserv, the UA-LSO listserv that is so full of essential information, a UA news listserv, a UA leaders listserv, an ACRL listserv, and a several other news, political, and work related groups.) This helps cut down on the number of messages I get and the time I use reading them, if not the amount of content. I don't read every listserv digest every day, but I always read the IRLSADMIN and the UA-LSO listservs because they always contain information that's important to my life and studies.


The American Library Association (ALA) has two conferences every year: an annual conference with a lot of speakers and workshops for continued learning and professional development and a midwinter conference that is primarily focused on committee meetings and getting work done. The ALA annual conference is the largest conference in the world focused on library-related materials—and one of the largest conferences in the world just in general. Typical attendance is 25,000 and includes approximately 2,500 separately scheduled events. It's a huge, enormous conference coupled with a trade show that brings around 1,400 booths of vendors ranging from publishers to large database companies to library furniture suppliers to jewelry makers.

Junior librarians and first-time conference goers often spend a lot of time at the trade show part of the conference, picking up free galleys of books and freebie promotional items from the vendors there. It may or may not appeal to you to go around to 1,400 booths and pick up cheap items with logos on them made in China's sweatshops (you can guess my opinion of that). But all in all, it's much more rewarding to attend some workshops and discussion sessions and to try to get involved in one or more ALA committees in an area that appeals to you. For people new to the organization, there is a New Members Round Table that can help you meet other new members and help place you on a committee where you can meet future friends, employers, colleagues, or research partners. You may also identify a group immediately that matches your academic or career interests and call or email the coordinator to see how you can get involved. Committee work often takes only a small amount of your time but helps you be in contact with a network of people who you will know your entire career. This is how people get jobs: not just through the ability to put something on your c.v., but through the people you meet who can help identify positions and libraries where you would make a good match.

University of Arizona and Library School Education

UA has lots of resources for students--tons of organizations and tools (look at all the pages on the UA website including software tutorials!)--besides having some of the best teachers in the world. My father gave me the advice to always take the best teachers and not focus on the best course description or title; so even if it's a subject you're not sure you will like, but you know the teacher is top-notch, then take the class anyway. Don't take classes that you think sound good despite the fact that you don't believe the teacher is particularly organized or charismatic.

Whether they like it or not (!), you can see how the instructors—including some adjuncts—have been rated by their students at https://aer.arizona.edu/ASUA/ and you can look on many professors' websites to see whether they've won any awards at teaching (the university gives awards for teaching). Also, ask classmates and people you know about each teacher and try to see whether the instructor maintains a fair classroom, a rigorous classroom, an engaging classroom—whether they lecture or whether they focus on assignments and coursework that integrate different types of learning and different types of assignment. I don't think we should be looking for the easy professors, but for the ones who are connected to the field through research and education and the ones who can help us make connections, too.

I believe students can be more demanding about the quality of education we are receiving. Last semester, I took a course with Kathy Short, a professor in the LRC department. I found her by doing a search on the UA website for award winning educators (she has won the 2003 Extraordinary Faculty Award from the University of Arizona Alumni Association and the International Reading Association named her the 2000 Arbuthnot Award Winner for Outstanding Educator in Children's and Adolescent Literature among other awards). I took a class on the Art of the Picture Book with her—a subject I wasn't sure whether I would need or not—but I was enlightened by the coursework and amazed at the careful and deliberate way she taught, the incredible resources she brought to us, and the thoughtful way that she truly educated. SIRLS students who take all of the core requirements of the program can take courses out of the department as long as they don't take more than half of the required 36 hours outside the department. I think we can all use these hours to find the best teachers and the best education that will make us stronger and more rigorous thinkers and researchers as well as more culturally and politically aware.

This makes me consider what I think it's important for beginning librarians to know. Library school education in some ways hasn't decided to move out of the model that was set up in the first library schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The idea was to offer a vocational training program to librarians in subjects that they could use on the job (interested in studying library handwriting, anyone?). Some students would still like these skills and a few employers would no doubt like someone who already knows the practical ins and outs of cataloging, binding, etc. The jobs that require that previous knowledge are probably not for us: junior librarians. To be the best decision-makers, perhaps we would do better to use our graduate studies to focus on the issues of librarianship, understand policy-making and management, understand ways of thinking and strategies that different cultures use to approach problems in our workplace, understand theories of information and its organization, understand the politics of librarianship and its relationship to democracy and intellectual freedom. Don't doubt yourself if you're taking classes that are improving your way of thinking and your broadness of vision instead of getting a hard-nosed look at the how-tos of working in a library. You can get that in your first job or in internships.


Once a friend of mine asked, "Why do we have to focus on diversity so much?" I don't think it was racism so much as a misunderstanding of how essential a diversity of cultural backgrounds and different ways of thinking is to our work. Diversity is a part of everything that a librarian does, from who works in the library to how much they get paid, to who walks in the door of the library, to what they find on the shelves there, to how the information is organized, to how the materials are catalogued, to what happens in a storytime or a presentation or a information literacy course. SIRLS is lucky to be a part of the premiere diversity program for library schools in the country, the Knowledge River program. Knowledge River recruits students to the SIRLS program who are thoroughly knowledgeable of and sensitive to the language and culture of at least one Hispanic or Native American group. The program helps to retain these SIRLS students by helping them identify financial aid and by offering opportunities to learn more about our field. The program also offers courses in SIRLS each semester that are open to everyone, geared to the information environment as experienced by Native Americans and Hispanics. I believe that the Knowledge River program is one of the strongest aspects of SIRLS—something that sets us apart from all other library schools in the country. Even if you're not a Knowledge River student, look at how some of the KR courses could fit into your curriculum and be knowledgeable about the great students that attend our school because of being recruited by KR.


I've saved my favorite topic for last, but I think to be "in the know" as a SIRLS student, it's good to be involved in the Library Student Organization (LSO). Because we're a small school headed by a small faculty and staff, I feel that some of the services have to be provided by students working for themselves to create opportunities. Through LSO, everyone can work together to do things that wouldn't otherwise be possible. In the past, LSO has sponsored networking opportunities, workshops and speaker series, social opportunities to meet other students who will be your colleagues in the field, and to publish information on their website http://sir.arizona.edu/lso that can help everyone. The new webzine in which this article will be published, BiblioTech, gives us an opportunity to publish our work and spread it around the world. The officers who work with LSO are dedicated to providing great opportunities for feedback and programs that benefit all students, but I don't consider their mission "to serve" the library students; these are students, too and they don't work for the students. Instead, they are conduits to the resources, information and assistance that students need to put their own ideas and projects into motion.


As I finish writing this, I wonder if I've been too bold in making suggestions, but I definitely tried to stick on the course of suggestions that all of us can follow, regardless of what path we're heading toward in the field. I feel strongly about a number of issues in librarianship, but I wanted to use this space to talk about things that we all need to know and to think about, and to give some background info to folks who may just be starting our program now. I love our field and I think it's an exciting and important time to be starting out in it.

Georgie Donovan has a bachelors of English degree from the University of Georgia and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing with a focus on poetry from the University of Texas at El Paso. Spring 2004 is her last semester in the SIRLS program. She is a former president of the Library Student Organization and a member of ALA, the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table, ACRL, and the Progressive Librarians Guild. Last September, she started work at the University of Arizona Libraries as the special assistant to the dean. She writes, enjoys painting, cooking, and playing the piano, and is a fairly decent ballroom dancer.

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