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What are they teaching in library school these days?


A recent poll in the LIS Career News asks library professionals, “What do you wish you’d learned in library school?” Having only seen one program personally, I wondered if there could be a program that would be able to teach you all that you need to know, within the confines of a program of study. With many of the last generation of librarians still coping with the changes technology has made, and a new breed of “tech-savvy” young librarians entering the field, what should the face of our education look like?

I look upon the history of librarianship and see a much more scholarly approach to what being a librarian “was.” A large portion of library education came within classification competencies and the ability to instruct patrons on proper literacy behaviors. When I speak of “literacy behaviors” I roll into one concept: bibliographic evaluation, literature selection and comprehension, statistical resource location, and general culture awareness. Librarians, often through their own desire for knowledge, were seen as the ultimate point of reference for a person looking for information. Part sage, part proto-Google the librarian needed to know not only the “aboutness” of their library collection, but also the particulars of how that collection was arranged.

In the last 15 years librarians have needed a new set of skills to accompany the development of library technologies utilizing the computer. Resources via such tools as Dialog required knowledge of command line search construction that seems to be falling to the wayside in the era of the keyword search. With the dawn of OPAC’s (Online Public Access Catalog), the librarian needed to be able to not only search the system in an expedient and expert manner, but to also be able to instruct patrons on how to adapt from the analog card catalog to the digital interface. As time has progressed, it seems ever increasingly difficult to stay on top of the new technologies emerging daily, while still staying abreast of whichever subject area the librarian covers, the best practices for reference interviews, strengthening your CV, participating in professional organizations, and eking out time for some semblance of a personal life.

So what can we truly learn in the modern library school? Many of my peers have seen programs that felt a bit too theoretical and not practical enough to suit their comfort level. Whereas this may be true for some aspects, certain ideas are best brought forward as nebulous theoretical concepts. Take for instance library management. Professors can instruct you in all the theories from TQM to satisficing, but until one actually takes the proverbial reins, there is not concrete way to evaluate how the situation will unfold. In the same vein, is it even possible to teach someone to be a “people person” or how to accurately read the personalities of those they are meant to manage? These are life skills that only come with experience. The experience need not always be taken directly from a library but there are many things which are library-centric. The real skill for new students is the ability to glean the portions of their education in order to recognize the personal application to their position. But where are we to learn the practical skills before we enter the great unknown of the working world?

Short of transforming the LIS educational system into a trade school, I wonder if the concept of apprenticeship could actually work for the library. It is commonly thought that the skills you need for any job are learned within the first two to three years you are at your new position. An apprenticeship could help to ease the transition between abstract seminar topics and understanding how to fulfill the tasks put before them as librarians in the field. There are similar practices in the UK which require new library graduates to apprentice for a time and then have their librarian mentor sign an accreditation form, signifying their ability to be noted as a full professional. This may sound a bit archaic to some, but this level of commitment would help to weed out the less than professional from the ranks and allow for valuable developments in the field of librarianship.

Until there is something even remotely attainable around these concepts, what can a library student do to make themselves more aware of the practical side of a library?

  • Take advantage of any internships, field placements, or assistant jobs in any library
  • Make contacts with a professional in the type of library you wish to work in and create a dialog on what they learned from their experiences
  • Start reading the blogs of those in the field (they often speak more on their experiences rather than about what librarianship “is”)

There is no right or wrong way to learn the skills for your future job. I myself had worked for a few years in a hardware store. I learned the value of customer service, how signage can affect customers, the value of asking questions from a customer, and impromptu problem solving skills. I also helped out as a doorman for my local undergrad college bar. Again I observed how people interact, the value of conversation, and; to quote from the TBS Superstation mainstay “Roadhouse”, to “…just be nice.” Many of the computer skills that I use on a daily basis were products of my own curiosity and fascination with technology. When I can I avail myself of any training so that I can learn a bit more, and make myself better equipped for whatever may come my way.

For sites on LIS jobs and career planning take a look at these sites:



  1. 02/19/2008 at 7:08 pm

    What they are teaching in Library school today isn’t any different than 15 years ago when I went. I went late in life – as I had spent many years in libraries but couldn’t get anywhere because I wasn’t a “Real librarian.” So I went to get my union card. Most of what I learned in library school was theory – I learned the rest on the job. And I like technology, so – even though I am old – I am not passe’ – so, no, you won’t learn what you need to be a good librarian in library school. But it gets you the job and then you can innovate to your heart’s content.

  1. 02/18/2008 at 1:32 pm

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