May 19, 2011

So, You Want to be a Librarian (Part 1)

I get a fair amount of emails from people who want to know more about being a librarian. I think many people consider it an ideal job and wonder 1) how you get there and 2) what it's really like.

I am absolutely not an expert and I only spent a single year as a practicing librarian, but I'll tell you what I do know (or, perhaps, far more than you could ever want to know).

I got an undergraduate degree in history from BYU, took off a year to work full-time (in a completely unrelated field) and then went back to get a graduate degree at the iSchool at the University of Texas at Austin. The official name of my degree is Master of Science in Information Studies (fancy fancy, no?).

The American Library Association (ALA) accredits library school programs and most library jobs require an accredited degree (which is to say, if the program you are looking at isn't accredited, it's probably not worth doing if your end goal is a job). There aren't a tremendous amount of programs anymore (you can see the list of accredited programs here), and many of them are online.

Now, here's where we detour from facts, facts, facts into the murky land of Janssen's personal opinions. Venture forward with caution.

Many of these programs are online. And. . . I have zero interest in an online program. I finished my last three undergraduate courses online because we moved to Texas, and I found it horrendously painful. Sitting alone at my computer, writing papers for a professor I'd never seen, and taking tests alone in a local testing center was not my idea of fun. I have always liked school, but I couldn't stand this kind of education.

I wanted a professor who knew my name and my face, I wanted classmates, I wanted discussions, and projects, and a real-life education. I wanted a network. I wanted to be part of something bigger than a browser window.

All of which is to say that if you are asking for my opinion, I'd say that an in-person program is worth it if it is at all a possibility. The iSchool at UT happens to be strongly against going into the distance education business and that was an excellent fit for me.

Most library programs are about two years long, if you're going full-time, but I took a reasonably heavy load (12 credits) and finished in 16 months. I will say that I did not find the program particularly difficult. It was busy, but it was interesting and, frankly, the course work was less demanding than my undergraduate classes. And I had classmates who said similar things.

The University of Texas' program had five core classes and after that you could pretty much choose your own classes, depending on the track you were taking. I planned on going into services for children and young adults, so most of my optional classes were things like Materials for Young Adults, Electronic Resources for Children, Visual Resources for Children, Children's Literature, Public Libraries, and School Library Management.

I worked with Dr. Barbara Immroth when she was on the committee that selects the "Notable Books for Children" list and I helped sort, organize, and suggest books for that list. There have been few things I've loved as much as spending hours opening boxes of new books and looking through them.

I did an internship at an Austin elementary school which was invaluable. Plus, Kay, the librarian, has become one of my dear friends. A program where you don't do an internship seems like a major missed opportunity.

So. . .that was school. In Part 2 (which I make no promises about when it might appear), I'll talk about finding a job.


  1. I'm looking into programs in my area right now to see if it's something I'm really interested before I consider moving away to a school in another state. So, thank you so much for your insight!

  2. I'm with you on the online course. They are the worst! I had to take a few for my degree through Kent State and I wanted to stab my eyes out so many times... They always seemed to be such a waste of time. I much prefer sitting in a class and interacting with others. Like you, I felt that the course work was significantly easier than my undergraduate work. It was enjoyable (for the most part) but it wasn't too difficult. I'll me honest and admit one of the things I liked about the program was that I didn't even have to take the GRE to apply (as my undergraduate GPA was high enough). Also, like you, I finished the program much quicker than most do--in about 18 months--as I was trying to be done before I had Amelia. That worked out well and I also enjoyed my internship at the local high school. Just my two cents for anyone who may be reading the comments...

  3. I don't want to be a librarian, but did i fix my email?

  4. I totally agree with you on online programs, Janssen. My program was a wonky one with some strange distance ed, but I worked in a library the entire time I worked on my degree, and the contacts and friendships I made during that time were not only invaluable, but they helped me find my first and second jobs. I think any program that leaves out working in a library isn't worth the effort. If employers compare someone with great references and library experience to someone who did an online degree and never worked in a library, I think the choice would be easy! That said, I got my entire degree paid for and wouldn't have gone if I didn't score a sweet IMLS grant--if I didn't get that, I'd be looking into distance programs and a part-time position at a library so I could get experience at the same time. (uhh, sorry for the novel of a comment--I clearly have thoughts on the matter!)

  5. I have to agree with you that online classes are the worst! Yet, it's the only way I can get my masters at this point with three kids. I can't imagine getting a babysitter, driving to campus, finding parking and all that goes along with getting to class. I have to admit I don't miss that at all. Luckily I have some pretty creative professors and interesting course work and a required internship that was an awesome experience.

  6. As a student who signed up for my program because it wasn't distance and who has just finished one online class with a few more in the future...I DEFINITELY agree with you on there being a huge difference in online and IRL. I love going to classes with my classmates and having a network of people to discuss with (though we probably spend just as much time gossiping about how hard/easy/stupid/fantastic a course is as we do actually talking about the content). :)

    And as a UTAustin staffer who gets to work with the usability people in the iSchool - ROCK ON! I love working with that department and I'm glad to hear they are serving the students well too!


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