Career Pathways: How to choose a MLIS program

CareerPathways

“I guess what I’m asking is, how did you get your job?”

After working with a local school librarian for months, I’d endured some awkward probing from him. He asked me where I went to school and where else I’d worked. To be honest, I wrote it all off as a weird way of trying to be friends, or maybe even harmless flirting. I never thought that he was looking at me and wondering how I was qualified before this question popped out of his mouth with all the grace of a runaway train.

I’d just finished two sessions of summer learning talks and had three more to go. I think I rattled off something about how I had management experience and some experience in training and presenting for other librarians–a key part of my job. He nodded his head, but kept looking at me sort of absently, as if the pieces still weren’t coming together. I decided I wasn’t going to read my resume to him and made myself busy with checking my work email.

It was not a great exchange. To this day, my working relationship with this person is more stilted and careful than before The Question. Mostly, I came away wishing that I had a better response ready. I wish that I was more comfortable and confident in listing my qualifications and talking about the career path that led me to managing a children’s department in the main library of a major urban system. This probably isn’t the last time I’m going to field this question. So, I want to get some experience talking about my career  path with a more sympathetic audience–meaning all of you dear readers.

If you’re just joining me, you might not know that most of the content here is from my first few years in a professional library position. I started blogging when I was a full-time library assistant and I continued through my work as a rural branch manager. I wanted to give some perspective about what it’s like in the beginning of a career as a youth services librarian. I didn’t have a lot of other examples of newbies in the blogging world, but I knew I wasn’t alone and I wanted to leave a trail for other new librarians to find and to say, “Phew, okay. I’m not the only one making mistakes and this is normal for where I am in my career development.”

Now that I’ve progressed in my career and I’m reclining in a more peaceful stage, I want to stay true to that motivation by continuing to talk to early career librarians. I’m starting a series about all the factors that have driven my career so far in hopes that it will help some new librarian, even if we’re only comparing experiences.

Welcome to How to Choose a MLIS program. In future posts, I’ll be writing about the types of libraries I have worked for and the characteristics of each, the reasons I chose them, and the reasons I left them.

Also, as I move through my career timeline, I’m going to talk about my personal reasons for making career decisions, because those were just as important as my professional reasons and I don’t see many other professionals talking about that.

Some background:

I chose to go to grad school and pursue an MLIS during my senior year of undergrad. I was majoring in Creative Writing and focused on creative non-fiction. In the beginning, I wanted to be a journalist in the style of Nora Ephron. (Give me a first-person piece all day long, please.) I landed a couple of internships with local publications and found out that the road to that kind of creativity in journalism was…practically a deer trail in a remote forest, accessible only by hiking for three days with a map and a compass.

It was really unlikely for that to be my experience in journalism, and trying it would leave me financially unstable for a long time. So I went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a career that I would love and would also leave me with some time and energy for writing in my free time. Adding to my list of needs, my partner and I were getting married the next year. He was in the military, so I would need a career with jobs all over the country in case we moved a lot.

I landed on libraries because I loved the public service aspect and the idea of helping people with information and books. I’d worked in bookstores during college, mostly for minimum wage and in unhappy, abusive retail environments, but I worked in the children’s section and knew our stock like the back of my hand. My co-workers marveled at how I could find everything and make recommendations like it was nothing. It seemed like a natural progression for me to move into libraries, but I actually thought, initially, that I wanted to work with adults.

I graduated, took my GRE while I was working a horrible temp job (making what I thought was a BIG $11.50 an hour) and living with my parents, saving money for my upcoming wedding. After my nuptials, I moved to a new small town with my partner and I enrolled in grad school right away. For money, I struggled to find a job for months before I worked for a consignment store where the owner paid me $7 an hour completely under the table. Truly legit adulting.

How I chose my first program:

The first university I attended wasn’t for me. I chose it after talking to two academic librarians I knew in my hometown about their experiences in the profession and what I could expect from grad school. They both recommended this first program to me because it was inexpensive and they’d had a good experience as in-person students. I chose it based, not only not their recommendation, but also because it was the only fully online program in my state at the time. It was an hour away from the small town where I lived and in a major city. It was the program that was closest to me physically, which also came in handy. It checked a lot of boxes on paper. As a new student, when I enrolled in classes, I was one of the last to sign up and one of the online courses I needed in my first semester was full. The instructor couldn’t be reached, so I wound up taking one class in person and two online.

Things went downhill from there. I found out on my first day of class that I wasn’t allowed to park on campus as a grad student and would need to walk, at night, for several blocks in a high-crime area. My in-person instructor took a personal phone call in the middle of class, and talked in front of the class for five minutes. Another instructor I had online was on vacation during the first week of class and didn’t send any indication to his students that our class wouldn’t start for another week. When we tried calling him, we learned he had given us the wrong phone number in our syllabus and only found out he was gone because I called another instructor to ask about it.

I was also disappointed in the lack of financial aid I received from the university. My partner and I were not earning very much, but I didn’t receive any aid based on need.

I was only in the program for two weeks, but everyone I interacted with left me wanting more from my experience. I dropped out and took a financial blow for it when I was charged with $1200 for tuition. I wish I had known more about finances at the time because I should have negotiated that down, but I didn’t. (Yes, you can negotiate your tuition and fees.) I eventually paid it off when my partner made some bonus money.

When you know better, you do better.

There were only three schools in my state that offered a MLIS program and I just eliminated one as a possibility. The second was a very well-known program that was designed to be three years and was…quite expensive. Most MLIS programs are two years, so despite the school’s reputation for excellence, I didn’t think it would outweigh the expense and delay in starting my career as an MLIS-toting professional.

The third school almost had to be good enough, but I was willing to look outside the state if necessary. It had some online courses, but I knew I might be taking some courses in person and driving an hour and a half to get there. I emailed a faculty advisor and asked some questions about what I could expect from faculty, the resources they provided, and what courses would be best for me going into public libraries. I had my suspicions that it was going to be focused on academia after seeing that many of the elective courses were geared towards that. The advisor responded to me quickly and warmly. She acknowledged that the program leaned a little more heavily toward academia, but that she and other professors would be eager and willing to help me make connections with public libraries. She also said they were working on adding more courses for a public library focus and were committed to diversifying their faculty and student body. I found out that the program offered diversity scholarships, which I didn’t qualify for or want, but it was nice to hear. I visited the school, met with an instructor, and got a good feeling.

I submitted a FAFSA and was happily surprised that I received some need-based grants that helped me with tuition.

I enrolled. After my first semester, the school introduced a fully online program, so I only had to take one course in person. My experience as an online student was good, mostly because I found my peer connections with professionals I knew locally. I was getting on-the-job experience while I was studying by volunteering at my local public library and interning for a major urban system an hour away. I had good communication with my professors and when I told them that I was using resources available in my local public library because those were most applicable to me, they all understood, with one notable exception. During a reference course, my instructor once sent me a pretty harsh email basically asserting that I wasn’t trying hard enough because I used public library databases and resources. He ultimately gave me a high grade and gushed about my final project, which was based on local history sources we had at the library where I volunteered.

Do online degrees hold you back?

Honestly, no one has ever asked me in an interview if my degree was online or in person. No one has ever asked about my MLIS program experience at all. It’s a line in my resume that checks a necessary box and employers care way more about job experience.

If you live in a big state and you aren’t currently located in a major city, chances are that an online program is a better fit for you than trying to drive for hours to a university three days a week. Online programs are also really handy for people with children and/or full-time jobs with fluctuating hours. They’re quite common now and I think anyone who looks down on them is unreasonable.

I think creating connections for myself locally was pivotal, though. I worked hard in class, but I worked just as hard to be professional, dependable, and assertive as a volunteer and intern. I was offered a part-time job in the library where I volunteered after a few months (earning $16 an hour in circulation, no less), and was eventually promoted to become a part-time librarian there. During my internship, I met a mentor who gave me great career advice and continued to check in with me after my internship ended. My internship gave me my first experience at designing and running programs. It was huge for me and helped me get that promotion to become a part-time librarian.

By contrast, I knew people who went to more expensive, renowned, traditional schools, but never tried to get on-the-job experience during their studies and were shocked that they couldn’t get full-time librarian jobs right away.

There’s definitely something to be said for the peer networks you develop in traditional programs and completing a rigorous degree is always something to be very proud of, but there’s no career advantage in public libraryland except for people who work really hard on the job.

TLDR;

  • Submit FAFSAs to multiple schools and compare the aid they offer. Negotiate if there’s one you really want to go to, but another school made a better offer.
  • Visit campuses. Meet with advisors and instructors. Read reviews or ask former students.
  • If you do find yourself in a program that leaves you wanting more, find a new one. It happens, unfortunately.
  • Don’t shy away from online programs. They’re great.
  • Get on-the-job experience, even if you’re only volunteering.
  • Let no experience be beneath you. Anything could turn into good experience or a paying gig.

That’s it for this week. See you next time!

Did this post help you? It took around 2 hours of my personal time to share with you. If you would like to send me a dollar for my time, I would not be opposed. 

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Culture and Bias in Library Policy, Part 2

Some public libraries have policies that seem, to me at least, precisely made to reduce access for homeless and disabled patrons. Like?

“Offensive” odors as cause for asking patrons to leave. Did you know that some illnesses and disabilities cause an increase in body odor? Can you imagine how hard it is when you live on a disability check and you’re undergoing exhausting medical treatments to then worry about how you smell all the time? One thing I fully appreciate as a woman is that maintaining a standard of beauty and socially acceptable bodily presentation is not cheap and it requires resources like disposable time and income and access to a bathroom for a long period of time.
Is it distracting when someone has strong body odor? Absolutely. For me, it’s not harder to deal with than a toddler who is having a tantrum next to my desk or a kid with poor boundaries who keeps interrupting me while I help other patrons.My humble solution to this “problem” is get over it. I try to be genuinely happy when I see patrons like this because I think of how many very serious priorities they must have tugging on them. Spending time in the library must be both an escape and a sacrifice for them.

No sleeping in the library. It’s easy to imagine why homeless patrons may come to the library to doze off for awhile. It’s a relatively safe space and it tends to be busy but nowhere near as loud as the sidewalks outside. In addition to homeless or intoxicated patrons, I do see some parents coming to the library and falling asleep. If their child is playing quietly and safely, I sometimes let them rest awhile until I gently wake them and ask if they’re okay.  I usually get a story about working two or three jobs and sincere apologies for dozing off.
Life is just really hard for a lot of people. I understand how in some branches, if you let people nap, you would quickly run out of room at all of your tables from all the patrons seeking rest and refuge. (Isn’t that a heartbreaking problem?) My solution is just to be compassionate in your response. Not every patron will want to talk about it if they don’t have a safe place to sleep, but some may, and it takes some training to learn the difference and to know how to enter those conversations. I personally think that if a patron is not taking up too much space and they’re not known to be problematic, it’s worth considering allowing them to rest for a few minutes.

Loitering. What does this even mean? Is someone loitering if they’re standing outside the building, using the wifi to download something on their phone? Or is just loitering if someone makes staff feel uncomfortable? To me, most people think “loitering” when they don’t understand what someone is doing and worry it could be something criminal. I have a lot of questions about the circumstances surrounding asking a patron to leave based on a loitering policy. I have a feeling this is used as a cover, at least sometimes, for some racially biased thinking.

What are some policies you’ve seen that tend to target homeless or vulnerable patrons?

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Storytime for One

storytime

 

When I moved from a small town library to an urban neighborhood library, I really thought that I was going to have so many families in my storytime. Bigger population means more attendance, right? Oh, how naive.

I learned a lot about the pressures on families in inner-city America during my first months of living in Baltimore. I learned that in cities that once thrived on blue collar industries, there’s been an economic collapse that will take generations to heal. In the mean time, there’s a lot of job scarcity and insecurity for adults trying to raise children and it translates in a big way to attendance in library programs. Mostly, for me, it meant that programs taking place in the morning tended to be sparsely attended in my neighborhood, where unemployment rates were soaring. Most mornings, I would only see one family in the library, and they were almost never intentionally coming for storytime. Probably 90% of families walking into the library in the morning were there so that a parent could work on applying for jobs. Almost immediately, I learned that unemployed parents didn’t feel capable of sitting down to enjoy a storytime when they felt they should be working on applications and searching. While I would always invite these families to participate together, I always saw parents send their child to my storytime carpet alone. They recognized that their child needed the interaction and they were grateful that I could help in providing that.

Some library folks would probably find this problematic. I’ve heard that some staff will never do storytime if a parent is not actively involved or if there’s only one child. For me, it was either provide a service this way, or don’t provide the service. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and I concluded that I didn’t have a lot of options for trying to reach more kids. The staffing structure I was working with didn’t leave a lot of room for me to do outreach, nor were there parks or public spaces where I could easily and safely go do storytime alone. I saw (and still see) a lot of value in giving a child a positive one-on-one interaction with a librarian and a personalized experience with a book.

Here are some tips on how I ran storytimes for one child.

Keep it short and simple. For me, I pulled a few books every week and prepared a full storytime, but when I only had one child, I would narrow down my plans to start with one book, a dance or recorded song, and some activity with a prop. If I got those three things in and the child still seemed engaged and interested, I’d add another book and maybe a flannel game.

Let most activities be a choice between two things. I would usually start out by introducing myself, learning the child’s name, and saying something like, “I’m so happy you’re here! I have some songs and games and some really, really good books. Since you are the only kid here, you get all of my attention right now. I don’t get to do this all the time and I will have to go back to my desk to work soon, but right now, I get to play with you. What do you want to do first? We could dance to a song about pretending to be a dinosaur, or we could pick a book together.”

Vocalize your time limits more than usual. When there’s only one child, I’ve noticed that it’s harder for them to understand when storytime has to end. Things go a little better if you make it clear from the start that you only get to do a few things together. After a couple activities, maybe say, “I can only do one/two more things now. Let’s make it extra fun.”

Be flexible. Admittedly, this is a skill that takes time to develop for a lot of people. When you only have one child, especially if you do storytime on the floor, your little listener is probably going to wander a little. They might point to things mid -story and ask about them. They might close the book for you and pick another. They might ask if they can go play on the computer. Try to appear interested, but rope in their attention to whatever you want for them. “Right? The clock is really pretty and it tells me when it’s time to go home. Do you think we should read my favorite part of the book next, or should we dance now?”

Your goal is to give them a positive experience they can remember.  Switching up your expectations in storytime and adapting to be child-led is hard, but that work is just as important as a traditional storytime. In an even more realistic way, it models for parents how they can be a teacher for their child and it gives kids a rich interaction during a time when they may have been alone with toys or a computer.

So shout-out to all library folks who are doing storytimes for one. You are very important.

 

**An unsolicited foot note: I’m using a lot of past tense here because I recently moved to another branch and these aren’t my current storytime circumstances. It was still an experience I wanted to talk about and share.

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Culture and Bias in Library Policy (Part One?)

I’m here to talk about the hard stuff today. I want us to take a look at some common public library policies and to examine who they’re impacting and how. I want us to go to work and really examine our experiences. Are there policies that are having heavier impacts on marginalized populations? Are there ideologies at work that show cultural bias?

Public libraries have a history of raising barriers to access and putting policies in place that are biased or discriminatory. Many of us in the South are working in buildings that once had separate entrances for white patrons and people of color. Dewey is downright offensive for pretty much every population but white, Christian men. We know that fines are especially hard on patrons with limited income and access to transportation. The movement against neutrality in libraries has brought so many of these issues to the foreground, but I’m of a mind today to call out some specific policies and practices that I haven’t seen tackled elsewhere. Ready?

Eating and drinking in the library.

Okay, I get it. People can make a mess, or eat something smelly, and they may even smuggle in alcohol in a juice bottle. I see you and I hear you. The flip side is that during the school year, I see lots of children who arrive on the city bus after school and they don’t leave until the library is closing. If we don’t allow them to eat or drink, it means that they’re probably hungry until they get home, which could be 8:30 or 9 pm. (That’s assuming they have food at home, which is not always the case.)

It becomes an issue of culture because the people I see trying to bring in a snack are usually people who need to spend as much time as possible in the library. They’re the family struggling to get homework and job applications done at the same time because they don’t have internet at home and unemployment is running out soon. It has a bigger impact on patrons who live in poverty, because, sure, if you have a car and income, you’re probably not the kind of person who needs to spend a whole Saturday at the library. You probably can leave at will to have lunch across the street or to just go home. If you have the kinds of struggles that come with poverty, it’s not so easy, and eating lunch over the keyboard or huddled over homework assignments seems like a necessity.

And, actually, depending on where you live and the demographics in your area, issues that largely affect impoverished patrons probably have a lot of overlap with racial economics, too. If you find yourself primarily telling people of color not to eat or drink in the library, I think it’s worth examining if that’s a discriminatory or even racist policy.

What might be a more balanced approach? If all things were possible, I would look at designating a certain space in the library for eating and drinking. I would try to make it as easy to clean as possible, and then I would also consider giving the custodial staff a small raise for the increase in their duties, as well.

Could most libraries do this? Probably not. I think some could, though, and that’s worth something.

Swearing in the library.

Some patrons are offended by it. It’s considered impolite or inappropriate, but by whom and in what circumstances is totally fluid. What I know, living in an urban area and spending plenty of time around people from all walks of life, is this. For lots of people, it’s completely normal conversation and it’s even a friendly, communal practice at times. People who like it and people who don’t are all over the place in terms of what demographics they could fall into, and, honestly, if I tried to describe how it works in my city, I would probably be relying on stereotypes and that’s never helpful. However, there is an observable culture around swearing as a gesture of friendship.

In my experience, most library personnel won’t stop an adult from swearing if they’re not being really loud and angry, or cussing someone out directly. If they get a complaint, they might step in and point out that, technically, the library does have a policy against swearing. (This has been true in all of the libraries I’ve worked for.)

It gets trickier with children. Lots of people in my area swear in front of their children, and lots of people don’t. Most families that are on opposite sides of the issue seem to co-exist pretty peacefully beside each other. But should I let adults (or children for that matter) swear in the children’s department?

For me, it’s not as easy as having a policy or not. It comes down to differences in culture and what my role is when there’s a clash. I am a white lady and most of my patrons are black. If there are two black women who are casually talking and they happen to drop in some swear words, but are otherwise pretty happy and keeping an eye on their kids, I let that go every time. It’s a private conversation and walking over to ask them not to behave a certain way is just…wrong. It’s making a judgment on their way of life and it feels imperialist to me. If a patron happened to complain to me about that situation, I would probably say something like, “I understand how you must be concerned about what your child is exposed to, but I think those patrons are using the library in a respectful way and don’t feel it’s necessary for staff to step in.” This has never happened to me and I doubt that it ever will. If it did, though, I imagine it would be hard and the patron would be very angry with me, but I would try to make them comfortable, provide my supervisor’s name if necessary, and stand up for my decision.

I would and have interceded when adults have used loud and angry swearing in the children’s area. I say, “This is not a conversation that’s appropriate for a library. It’s our policy that you go outside.” I’m fortunate that I have security available if I need back-up, but including that “policy” word is important for signaling that they need to comply.

 

I feel like this post is long enough for now and I’m running out of juice today. I hope to return later with what, doubtless, will be more unpopular takes on policies that overlap with cultural bias.

 

 

 

 

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From Small Town to Big City

Long time, no see, amiright?

First came summer reading and then came something exciting. I moved from a small city in North Carolina to Baltimore! (You can collectively say “oooo-ahhhh” now.)

As you might imagine, it’s been a huge adjustment and I wanted to start my writing ventures off again by talking a little about what that process looks like.

First, there’s getting used to living in a place with a much, much denser population. Even though Baltimore is actually somewhat small, there are a lot of people packed into the area. Combined with a very old infrastructure (indirect routes, poor road conditions, and precious little parking) and tons of pedestrians, basically any errand that takes me out of my neighborhood takes two or three times longer than it would have in a smaller city. I’m also contending with being a very sensitive introvert. I’m outgoing, but having people crowded around me in a grocery store or being in a noisy restaurant makes me anxious. I’ve had to find ways to cope with that.

For work, that means I’ve done a lot of driving around, figuring out alternate routes to work and getting to know the lay of land in my branch’s corner of the city. I’ve also familiarized myself with public transportation routes in case of emergencies and to help patrons find their way to us.

For me, balancing my life got a little trickier. Having to spend more time running errands, doing more planning when I go out with my husband (finding out where to park mostly), dealing with a much higher cost of living and a lower salary, and setting aside time for self-care was initially taxing work. Ultimately, I rely more heavily on my husband now as a partner, which is a good development, but I’m also learning to regularly stop myself before a weekend and gauge how I’m feeling. Am I missing my time in nature? Maybe I need to plan to spend a day outside the city, hiking or walking along the bay. Am I missing quality time with my dogs? They can come too. Am I stuck in a rut of cleaning and meal prepping the whole weekend? It’s time to make a date of doing something new.

There was also a huge change in culture. I went from living and working in a place that was mostly white, Christian, and conservative to a place where I was in a cultural minority as a white woman. Baltimore is rich in diversity and it’s a pretty liberal city. I want to write a lot about what’s it been like to work through such a huge transition and especially about working with populations with experiences that couldn’t be more different from mine. Let me just say for now that it’s been an amazing journey and it’s one that’s freed me to become the kind of librarian I’ve always wanted to be.

Adjusting to being a very small part of a large urban library has been the most challenging process. In my last position, I had meetings once a month with our director, I was close allies with city managers, and I was able to swing by and talk to our county manager when he was available. I had friends in different departments of our county government, and I felt deeply connected to the work we were all doing for our patrons and citizens. In my current position, I often don’t know about important library initiatives until the last minute or until after they’ve passed. Our administrative structure is so vast and complicated that I barely know who does what beyond my own branch manager. There are also smaller things to adjust to like a work culture that doesn’t necessarily get to know patrons who are with us regularly, a deeper divide between librarian staff and circulation assistants, a greater emphasis on policy enforcement, and the presence and influence of a security guard. Learning how to use my voice and to show some leadership under these circumstances has been discouraging at times, but I always fall back on my love for my work and for the families I’m serving.

I’ll be back soon to talk a little more about transitioning and some things I’ve done to be successful. Until then, xo!