So, You Want To Be A Librarian? Part I

So, You Want To Be A Librarian? is going to be a continual, on-going series on stuff that I should have known about before I applied for lib school. Stuff that I didn’t find out until AFTER I had applied and the rejections AND acceptances started rolling in. Stuff I generally felt would have been beneficial to me before I made final decisions to what schools and programs to apply to and eventually, what I wanted to do when I graduated (other than get a big girl job and pay off the massive student debt).
So the first question you must ask yourself is, Why? Why do you want to become a librarian? What is it about librarianship that you feel would make you an ideal candidate? Do you dream of working with kids? Working in a corporate setting? Working in a special library or archive? Teaching aspect? Collections? Fondling rare books? If you don’t know off hand, that’s totally okay — a lot of students in my first year program have various ideas of what they want to do but are being persuaded by new interests and technologies that they did not think were available to them or were not feasible with a MLIS degree and even more have no clue.
But that is what the beauty of the MLIS degree — unlike many other graduate programs — is that it is entirely flexible based up your desires and wants. And the other great thing about getting into a MLIS program now? Jobs are booming. The next decade or so is going to see more jobs and opportunities open for those in MLIS degrees not just in traditional settings but every where. The skills learned as a librarian are so completely flexible with the ever changing needs of current and emerging trends and technologies, what company wouldn’t want to hire someone who has this skill set? And oh yeah, most of the jobs that are coming open are not necessarily new jobs but the Boomers are finally beginning to retire, which means a mass exodus of people (who will begin to suck up Social Security, but that is another rant) are opening up existing job markets for new grads. So in short, a MLIS degree can be whatever you want it to be. Now that you have an idea that becoming a librarian isn’t just slinging books to snotty patrons who demand absolvence of 50 cent fines, the next decision is where do you go to school.
Like any other graduate program, where you opt to go to school makes a difference on how you want to jump start your career. BUT, and this is a big but, you could go to the right school and get the right degree and still not end up in your chosen career path or perhaps have difficulty finding a job. Grad school really boils down to what you put into it. While yes, some snobbery is looked upon in certain fields by where you choose to go to school, what really matters at the end of the day is how you choose to use the tools given to you. There are two types of library schools: theory based and practical based. Theory based programs are ones that will train you to work more in the research and academic fields of librarianship. These programs are geared more to the whys and hows over the actually working in the field. In U.S. News and World Reports rankings, a good portion (if not all) of the top 5 lib schools are theory based.
Clearly, not everyone who accepts and attends these schools will all go into academic research or want tenure track jobs in the academic field, but it is something to think about. If you’re not sure what approach to take, that is still totally okay. All of the schools do offer traditional teachings along with the rigorous work needed for the academic track. At this point, if you’re pretty sure you want to go to lib school, but you’re not sure what field yet and you’re even more confused on where to apply. Again, totally okay. Take deep breaths and lets look at some factors that one has to consider.
I knew I wanted to go to lib school for a number of years but wanted to test out the waters in other areas first. While working on my first Masters, I realized that I should have just applied and gone to school. But I don’t regret getting my first Masters because it gave me the self-confidence I needed to realize I could compete successfully in such a rigorous area. When TheEx and I started dating, this was a big topic of discussion between us. TheEx is one of those hyper-intelligent men that knew everything about anything and had started but never finished a grad program when he graduated from undergrad ages ago. At the time we were dating, he was working in the insurance industry and was his talents (and passions) were not being fully utilized. Our plan of attack then was for us to apply to graduate programs in our respective fields but at the same universities. As he was terribly close with his family, we choose programs that were mainly Big 10 and in and around Michigan.
In no particular order:

I did not finish my application to UofI nor my application to SJSU. SJSU was picked AFTER the break-up between TheEx and I because California is a gazillion miles away from Michigan. Also, SJSU is moving to online-only program, which seemed to negate the whole point of moving away from Michigan.
UofM and UofW both rejected me and I was accepted to Kent State and Wayne State. I know why I was rejected from UofM and UofW: I got overly quirky in my SOP’s (Statements of Purpose) and my GRE scores were not the best. I take responsibility for that, wholeheartedly. To be fair, I was working full time AND doing another Masters program when I started working on my applications, so my attention was diverted towards other things. My choices then were based upon locality and where TheEx was applying for his graduate program, not based on what I wanted to do. This is not to lay blame on him or my choices, to be fair, I probably would have picked nearly all the same schools but I was not armed with more information at the time I picked the schools so that is the one regret I DO have. Also, three of my schools (UofI, UofM and UofW) are mainly theory based, not practical based.
Here are things one needs to consider when applying to lib school (again, in no particular order):

  • Location. Most people tend to choose schools either close to where they live OR in the area where they eventually want to work. This is a huge factor when considering schools for any program, so first make a list of areas you want to possibly be in when you graduate.
  • Cost. If you choose an out-of-state school, your first years tuition is going to be significantly higher than if you are an in-state student. This is a given for any program in any discipline. Wayne State will cost me about $10k a year in tuition. UofM would run me about $18k a year in tuition (though both are state schools). If I would have gone out of state, the cost is even higher. More money spent means more loans or other methods of funding your education have to be considered.
  • Type of programs available. Do you want to go to a theory based school or a practical school? Do you plan to specialize? Is there a school that is general enough that you can get what you need without having to transfer? Do you want to enroll full time or part? Do you plan on working while going to school?
  • Lecture delivery. A lot of programs now offer online only or mostly online programs. There has been a lot of discussion whether or not such programs are actually viable and worth the time and energy. There are a lot of pros and cons with this issue and not just in the librarian community. This also comes down to your own learning style: Are you a visual or a lecture type person? Are you self-motivated enough to keep up with the demands of a online only program OR do you prefer to be in a classroom environment? Do you want a mixture of both?
  • Internships/Practicums. Some schools require them, some do not. Some schools will help you find them, others require that you find them yourself. Let me add that in my current experience, if you do NOT have any library experience in any field or setting, internships and practicums are fantastic for gaining the experience.
  • Job Placement. Some schools, like Wayne, have a general discussion list that every lib student is subscribed to and everyday I receive dozens of emails of available jobs ranging from director positions in major library systems to internship and volunteer work. Wayne has career advising appointments available, a career center and they work with you from your first day in the program to making sure you are successful. Wayne is not alone in this, but it is telling to me that they want their students to succeed in every way possible. Just because a college or university boasts a high job placement rate does not necessarily mean they have the tools to do so. I’ve heard from many a librarian via interviews and message boards that have felt their school could have done a better job in preparing them for “real world” and given them more “real world” experience. This may be true (and some of the schools that were rebuffed for this include UofIllinois and UofMichigan), but it all comes down to you. How much are you going to hustle when you’re competing for jobs with dozens of candidates?
  • Application process. A minor yet important part of the search process, the application process. A lot of schools have rolling admissions, some do not. Others only accept applications in the fall/winter while others allow you to enroll for either the fall or spring programs. Some applications may be due as early as December and others as late as March. What this boils down to is how much time (and money) do you have to spare and how prepared can you be to get it all done in time?
  • ALA accreditation. This is the MOST important part of the process — is the school ALA accredited? Nearly every job posting I’ve seen, regardless of where, will require that the applicant either be near completion or have finished their program from an ALA accredited school. The number of ALA accredited schools is seemingly shrinking (there are less than 50 in the U.S.) and many are currently in review or have lost accreditation. Even IF you have a MLIS degree from a university/college, if the school is not ALA accredited, your chances of finding a position will be extremely slim. On many message boards I’ve read, schools that are in ALA review are not worthy of consideration for application. Why? Because if the school loses ALA accreditation, you will NOT have an accredited degree from the university. My understanding is even IF you started the program before the review, the school MUST maintain its accreditation for you to have an accredited degree.

This information should give you a good foundation when searching for library schools. Also keep in mind that you will hear wildly disparaging advice from current and post MLIS students on the application process, especially when concerning if the school is “good” or not. What I’ve presented are basics that should help any navigate the world a bit more easily than I did. Next in the series: The application process and the dreaded GRE test.