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What I Wish I’d Learned in Library School: Don’t

1. Don’t go if you have to pay for it.

Actually, I feel this way about grad school in general.  For those in academic programs, especially PhD students, and double especially those in STEM subjects, that’s an absolute.  STEM PhD programs have the funding, and if you can’t get it, you aren’t cut out for grad school in that subject.

Unfortunately, there’s precious little funding for library school, so not only are you never going to get a cozy stipend like our friends in STEM programs, or a less cozy one like some of our friends in the humanities, you probably aren’t even going to get much off the cover sticker price for your degree.  Nor will you likely find any of those TA jobs and whatnot that our academic colleagues have.  Your “financial aid” package will probably be a tiny little grant that might as well not even be there & will make you laugh it’s so insulting, subsidized loans that max out the subsidized loan limit, and then a fuck-ton of unsubsidized loans.

Look, I know that lots of us head back to school when we’re having trouble finding a job, hoping that additional credentials will make a difference.  And the unspoken economic logic also says, hey, at least while I’m in grad school I can take out student loans to live on, which at least have a lower interest rate than credit cards.  I recognize that this is a less-bad choice out of some pretty shitty options, such as not being able to pay for housing & food & stuff at all, but that doesn’t make it a good choice.  It is our personal, individual solution for a systemic problem, but individual solutions don’t actually fix systemic problems.  It’s just that no one who could do much about the systemic problems is interested in fixing them, so we’re stuck with our individual solutions.  I’m just laying it out there & reminding us all it’s a shit deal.

This seems to be the case in a lot of the helping & caring professions.  Which, by the way, are still mostly populated by women, so you’re probably going to be making a smaller income relative to men with which to pay back your loans.  A large personal outlay for a career that, while possibly rewarding, offers relatively little renumeration, despite its necessity for a functioning society.  See also: social workers, nurses, some teachers (especially early-childhood or non-union ones),

Seriously, though.  If you are considering library school, be super realistic about how much it’s going to cost you & for how long.  My loans from library school cost me about $450 a month.  I’m really fucking lucky that I found a job that allows my budget to account for that.  You might not be able to, especially if you ever plan on creating a family or saving for your retirement (hahaha!).  The wisest financial choice, and it truly pains me to say this, might be to skip it.

2. How to actually do anything.

Ok, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but only a little bit.  The archives program I was in required two internships (BTW, someone please tell me how to do internships while in a program that doesn’t support you financially? One does not have time for doing free work when one has to do actual paid work to, you know, live. I still haven’t figured this one out.), which meant that I did get some practical experience.  And some programs, like those for School Library Teacher (or whatever your state calls it), have strict practical requirements.  But the regular old librarian track, not so much.

My library school excused this by saying that they teach “theory.”  I call bullshit.  Yeah, they teach us theory, but to excuse not teaching us the practical aspects of the profession — how to use the back end of an ILS, for example — by saying that they only teach theory & that library school is not a trade school — no.  For one thing, that’s a lie to begin with.  In some areas, we do learn practical elements — remember those two internships I had in the archives program?  I learned how to use the tools that an actual working archivist would use every day.

But my actual complaint is not about the inconsistency (though I’m kvetching about that, too).  My point is this: what the leaders of my library school were calling “theory” is actually the practice of an earlier era.  Learning AARC or earlier standards for formatting cataloging information, for example, had a much more direct line to the actual work of librarianship — you needed to know that so you could type or write catalog cards correctly, for example.  Now, we still learn it, but damn if most of us will ever use that exact skill at work.  Our instructors now call it theory.

Instead, many of us will use MARC and OPACs.  Ok, we learn a bit about MARC — the 100s are this, the 400s are that.  But we do it on paper, and MARC is not something that an actual cataloging librarian is going to ever do on paper.  There isn’t that direct line between what we learn in the classroom & what we might do at work, whereas there previously was.  We should be looking at the back ends of the OPACs & ILSs that librarians use — and since there’s only like 3 of them these days, it wouldn’t be difficult for students to gain a passing acquaintance with all of them.  That way, when we go looking for jobs, we could say that, yes, we do actually have the skills required.  As it stands now, we finish library school without those skills.  Dear library schools, PLEASE TEACH US THE SKILLS WE WILL NEED TO BE EMPLOYABLE, THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT.

Some of your dear librarians have occasionally tossed around ideas of what useful librarian training might look like.  Some of us think we’d all be better served if it was modeled more along the lines of an apprenticeship than the master’s degree we now have.  Education, paired with practical training, an introduction to the field, and the ability to not go beyond broke while getting trained up — imagine it!  There are lots of reasons, historical & structural why it’s not like this — the snooty separation of intellectual work from physical work (many physical trades have apprenticeships), the gender dynamic wherein librarianship is still about 3/4 female, to name a couple.  In any case, we are clearly doing it wrong at the moment.

3. Sugar-coated bullshit is sugar-coated bullshit.

I’ll tell you, it’s almost like the powers that be don’t like librarians or something.

We’ve all heard it — I know I heard it in library school — the older generation of librarians are going to retire en masse AT ANY MOMENT NOW, and there will be all these lovely available jobs for us young folks.  Yeah…  That’s not true.  For one thing, librarianing is a career that lends itself to a late retirement, so many librarians stick on long past when a chef or a plumber, say, might hang it up.  My granny is almost 84 and she still puts in 2 or 3 days a week.  For another, even when older librarians do retire, many of their positions are eliminated, rather than filled by a new librarian.  (Which leads to speed-ups among existing library workers, btw, as a smaller staff needs to do the same amount of work a larger staff once did.)  And jobs that do exist aren’t necessarily going to be ones you can live off of.  (I’m looking at you, NYPL — three years ago I interviewed for a processing archivist position that paid $32k/yr; please explain how you expect someone to live within a reasonable commute of your NYC location, while also paying off the loans accrued in order to qualify your position. [I recognize that many of our readers would love to be making $32k/yr; my point is that for a professional position requiring a master’s degree, we should be able to live like modest adults, wherein you have options besides 47 housemates, a closet-sized bedroom &  a slumlord.  That so many of us find $32k/yr, especially in NYC, an unattainable dream is a sad indictment of the state of our society, not proof that librarians are living large.])

As I always say, libraries don’t produce a revenue stream.  Which means in out garbage-nightmare neoliberal economy, they aren’t worth having, because the market, that supposedly-impersonal arbiter of all things, says so.  This is why we can’t have nice things, it really is.   A good portion of the ruling classes don’t think that all humans deserve food & medical care (which sounds like a ridiculous statement, but is absolutely true), so hoping that they somehow think quality access to information resources (that’s what we do, remember) should be a thing is pie in the sky.

Why are our professors & colleagues lying to us?  Please stop that, y’all.

And so we librarians and our friends have these cutely little hug-your-library advocacy days, or book sales to keep the lights on.  As The Luddbrarian said earlier in this series, we have to come out of library school toughened up and ready to fight.  In order to do so, we need to be made aware of the realities of the state of our profession.  As it stands, we are utterly unprepared.  Perhaps our professors need to get out from behind their desks a little more?  I’ve had many interactions over the past couple years (PLG, I’m looking at you) that have shown me that older, securer librarians have no idea what it’s like down here.

It seems, if you listen to anything that your dear captains have to say, that library schools are not doing as good a job at preparing new librarians for the realities of the profession.  The question then — what is to be done about it?

[Part 1 of the What I Wish I’d Learned in Library School series is here; Part 2 is here.]


About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable mid-career librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

4 comments on “What I Wish I’d Learned in Library School: Don’t

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