Guidance is Needed for MLIS Students
Several major issues brought up by participants seem to find a solution in improved guidance or mentoring for library school students. Knowing what classes to take, how to handle the job search, where to go to network, how to become professionally involved, and how to get that valuable library experience are all things that could be addressed by an advisor or mentor.
The MLIS Can't Do Everything
While a good number of respondents argued that the MLIS needs to be more rigorous and schools need to admit fewer students (an idea that may have merit), there was an acknowledgement by some that the MLIS cannot do everything. There will always be skills that library school graduates will need to learn in their first positions, and beyond that for the rest of their careers. Technology changes, rules change, institutions change, and the very definition of what it means to be a librarian has and will change. The MLIS can’t do everything, but it can prepare new librarians to face those changes with confidence, enthusiasm, and a willingness to embrace that change. All librarians can help foster the new generation of eager librarians by encouraging their enthusiasm and ambitious ideas, and by supporting them as they take their first, shaky steps into the ever-changing world of librarianship. As one respondent said, “Don’t sit back and whine because your school didn’t hand you these opportunities on a silver platter. Go out and get them!”
Comments from survey participants show that having an online option is greatly valued by some students for its convenience and, for some, for its ability to expose students to online learning technologies. However, some online students (mostly those who were not already employed before beginning their degrees), found an online educational experience lacking in rigor and/or opportunities for networking. Perhaps those students considering taking an online degree who are not currently employed in a library need more guidance, both in deciding if taking the degree online would be worth it, and in making their experience comparable to that of an on-campus student. Online-only programs could also potentially serve their students more successfully by finding ways to provide networking and practicum opportunities for their distance students.
Whether or not online courses are indeed less pedagogically rigorous than face-to-face courses, online degrees seem to have a stigma for employers, and new graduates aren’t convinced of their effectiveness. Schools considering switching to all online offerings or even considering offering some basic courses only online should keep in mind that students (and their eventual employers) will expect a higher level of engagement, the incorporation of hands-on work, and as many networking opportunities as possible in a digital environment. It’s unclear where the solution might come from, but there is obviously a perceived lack of value in a fully online degree at some hiring libraries that should be remedied if library schools continue to increasingly offer degrees online.
One thing to keep in mind is that these are perspectives of newly graduated librarians, not seasoned librarians with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answers of participants were largely focused on whether or not elements of library school would or did get them a job. The focus for this cohort is not how well library school prepares them for the work place—they want the degree to be more successful in getting them the job in the first place. This could have had significant implications for the expressed perceptions of these new graduates.
Some librarians, including some recent graduates surveyed, would argue that the focus on practical knowledge over theory is misguided. However, if this is the case, perhaps the priority of hiring libraries should be theoretical knowledge of possible hires, not their experience. Until this happens (and perhaps in a better job market), MLIS graduates will find experience, which they’ve learned leads to jobs, to be the “hands down” most important piece of their library school experience, whether or not it is emphasized or supported by their MLIS programs. Even beyond the job focus, recent graduates found hands-on experience helpful for networking with working librarians, figuring out how the “system” works, and, most of all, applying the theory discussed in classes. Many respondents did not seem to doubt the value of theory in library school programs, but instead question its value in the absence of practical experiences in which to contextualize them.
Again, more guidance for students could be one solution here. If students were made aware of potentially useful classes for particular tracks in librarianship, they could choose to take advantage of those courses, even if the track was not required. This would provide students with enough guidance to make strategic decisions about courses to take that might have otherwise been difficult to make, especially as they begin their programs. At the same time, students could also then be free to experiment, something that study participants clearly found valuable.
This issue is especially important when considering the wide breadth of careers that a library degree could prepare a student to pursue. Exposing students to the unique and varied career opportunities available to MLIS graduates early on could help students choose courses that best reflect their interests. In addition, when one degree is meant to prepare for so many different jobs, tracks can provide the differentiation required to successfully prepare students for careers that are so diverse.
It’s not clear how this issue could be resolved, but new graduates seem very opinionated about this topic, and their message is clear: adjunct professors working in libraries are preferred over professors who are not or have not been in the field for years. Beyond the practical, up-to-date knowledge adjunct professors bring, they also provide students with opportunities to network and gain experience in libraries. More programs offered by library schools or other organizations for library students that allow them to interact with practicing librarians would provide the students with these opportunities, regardless of the kind of faculty in their programs.
The vastly differing attitudes of survey respondents may result from varying experiences as new graduates at different kinds of libraries. Further research into how to properly prepare librarians for their distinctive library track (school, public, academic), and special libraries could alleviate some of this dissatisfaction. However, this brings up the issue of recent graduates who go on to excel in positions completely outside the traditional library tracks. Preparing all students for this possibility is a challenge, yet becoming too narrow in curricular tracks could leave those students who want to be flexible after graduation feeling restricted.