Knowledge, Theory, and Practice: Mid-Semester Reflections

As I reach the half-way point of my first semester in the Library Science program, I’m going to take some time to reflect a little bit on what I’ve done and where I’m going. 

As I review my previous posts and the things I’ve written during class discussions and for other assignments, I can see that I’m gaining knowledge about a variety of aspects of the library profession. While I came in knowing the kind of job I am aiming for, I’ve developed a clearer picture of what that job entails and how to get there. I’ve also learned about the underpinning of the library that I hadn’t even considered before. I’ve read and thought about everything from what information is to what should be the ethical response to homeless people passing the day in the library. 

All of this knowledge and theory is good of course, and important as a basis for everything a librarian does, but after a couple months of studying I find myself with a nagging worry in the back of my head that I’m not going to be ready. I think this is because at the end of the day, a librarian’s success is based much more on what she does and how well she does it rather than on how much she knows. I find myself wondering if it’s really possible to learn how to do while spending so much time alone in my room reading and writing and learning about being a librarian. I’m taking all of my classes online, which probably increases my concerns. 

Even in classes that teach the skills required, I’m running into these same worries. I’m also taking a reference class this semester and learning about how to more effectively search databases, conduct a reference interview, and locate simple answers in print and online reference materials. I have done (and will be doing) exercises that familiarize me with a variety of resources and how to use them to answer questions, but it still seems like there is only so far I can go with these assignments. Without dealing with real people, I’m worried that I’ll graduate with the credentials to get an interview, but not what I need to actually get the job. 

An experience I had last week while observing a reference desk for class may help illustrate. The librarian staffing the desk had to briefly leave the desk, perhaps to check in the back room for a book a patron wanted or something similar, and I stayed at the desk. While she was gone, a patron come up to the desk with a question. I thought I would try putting my new knowledge of searching and interviewing to the test, but ended up stumbling along clumsily while trying to help the patron find what he was looking for. Then the librarian returned and found the information right away. She was impressed that I had been bold enough to step in and reassured me that it takes time and practice to learn not just the general skills but also to master the library’s specific tools, but I can’t help but wonder how much of that experience I’ll be able to develop on the job and how much I’ll need to have to get a job. 

Obviously, I have a long way to go and many classes left to take before I’ll be out on the job market. I will also be reducing my class load to two classes starting next semester (compared to three this semester) to allow me more time to digest what I’m learning and seek out opportunities to gain experience. I’m currently working at a library but my position as a circulation clerk doesn’t provide me with much of a chance to develop skills more complex than checking books out and collecting fines. However, next semester, when I have some more time and will have gotten a little more established in my job (I just started there in September), I hope to talk to the children’s librarian there (and perhaps also the children’s librarians I met while doing my observation assignment at a different library) about working with her to start getting some experience.

Thinking about Employment, Part 2

Based on my perusal last week, successful candidates for a children’s librarian position will have:

  • An ALA-accredited MLIS degree
  • Knowledge of child development
  • Ability to answer reference and reader’s advisory questions for children
  • Knowledge of effective library programming for children
  • Knowledge of children’s literature and the ability to effectively develop the children’s collection
  • Computer skills
  • Strong customer service
  • Flexibility and willingness to work in other areas as well (circulation, adult reference, etc.)
  • Experience

I already have customer service skills that I have developed throughout my work history thus far, and would be ready to complete a diverse set of tasks beyond the typical children’s librarian position. As part of my undergraduate English degree, I took a children’s literature class and an adolescent literature class, so I have a head start there. I also took a lifespan development class during undergrad, so I have a basic understanding of child development, although I could probably do with a refresher.

My education in the MLIS program at WSU should allow me to gain the other major qualifications needed. I will graduate with an ALA-accredited degree. I am currently taking a reference class and a computer class, and plan to take “Programming for Children and Young Adults,” a collection development class, a children’s literature class to expand on what I learned in college, and “Website Development.”

Interestingly, none of the job postings I saw mentioned a certificate in child and youth services as either a requirement or a desired qualification, so I am leaning towards not adding the extra semester it would take to get the certificate officially, but to use my electives to take classes that are part of the certificate to gain the needed skills employers are looking for. (Taking the classes also leaves open the possibility of adding the certificate later on in my studies if employers do start requesting it.)

That just leaves experience. I am currently working in a library, but not in the children’s department. I plan to find an opportunity, whether unofficially at my job, through an internship, or by volunteering, to gain child/youth specific experience before I graduate. Some of the experience requirements are fairly extensive, however, so I might need to start in an entry level general librarian position and work my way up, which would be fine.

What I discovered this week essentially makes the goals I discussed earlier in the semester more focused and specific. I still intend to learn the necessary skills and gain the necessary qualifications to obtain a job and do it well, but this week’s post specifies what those skills and qualifications actually are.

Thinking about Employment, Part 1

By searching job postings on the ALA website, I was able to find several children and youth librarian positions at public libraries. These postings were all very similar to each other, and spread out across the country, from California to Washington, D. C. 

For example, Churchill County Library in Fallon, Nevada is hiring a Children’s Librarian with the following job description:

The incumbent is tasked with providing services to children including: developing the children’s collection, providing storytimes, planning and implementing the Summer Reading Program, and providing outreach to organizations which serve children. In addition, the Children’s Librarian works the Circulation Desk, answers reference questions, contributes to the maintenance of public and staff computers and software, and interacts positively with the public in person, on the phone and online.

Similarly, the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, District of Columbia is hiring a Children’s Librarian to perform the following tasks:

  • Provides reference and advisory services to customers in the area of children’s literature.

  • Provides assistance in study-oriented activities and in developing children’s reading interests.

  • Plans, schedules, conducts and evaluates children’s programs and class visits.

  • Develops and maintains the branch collection of children’s literature to meet the needs of the community.

  • Compiles reading lists on assigned subjects and prepares books displays.

The third job posting I focused on was for a Librarian 1 at the Virginia Beach Public Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with job duties described this way:

Presenting Every Child Ready to Read curriculum-based storytimes and special programming for children, preparing and delivering education programs for parents (or caretakers) and other adults, to engage them in library services and teach them to help children be successful readers, providing reader’s advisory, reference and information services to children and teens, assisting with the management of the Summer Reading Program and additional system-wide youth programming, providing high quality school-age and teen programming with an emphasis on S.T.E.A.M., creating and maintaining community partnerships, and providing training for staff in youth services. Additional duties may be assigned to ensure the standardization of Youth and Family services programs across the system.

Common elements of these jobs and other similar positions include

  • Customer Service Skills
  • Understanding and Enjoyment of Children
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Planning Literacy and Educational Programs for Children
  • Building Community Partnerships
  • Children’s Reader Advisory
  • Development Collection

Depending on the size of the library, children’s librarians can also have a more diverse job description, including adult reference service and full development collection. At this point, I don’t have a preference between the two. I think I would enjoy either a more diverse set of responsibilities or the ability to focus only on children. 

Nearly all of these jobs require an ALA-accredited MLIS. Other qualifications vary by position, and include things like:

  • Michigan Librarian 1 or 2 certification
  • Computer skills
  • 3-5 years of experience working with children in a library setting
  • Knowledge of children’s literature
  • Experience planning events for children
  • MLIS classes on issues of children’s librarianship

Children’s Librarian positions would likely involve reporting to a public services, reference, or circulation supervisor or a children’s department head. Depending on the size of the library, they could also involve supervising support staff. 

Most of these jobs would require previous experience in entry-level positions. Getting a job as a children’s librarian would likely be an upward move on a career trajectory. It also provides the possibility of continuing career advancement by moving into management positions overseeing the whole children’s department or even all the reference or public services departments. At this point, though, I think I would be content to stay in the middle level of actually working directly with kids and families rather than supervising the librarians who do those things. And with a typical salary for children’s librarians around $50,000, I wouldn’t need to move up to a higher position I would enjoy less just to pay the bills.

Banned Book Week: A Clockwork Orange

Last week was banned book week, and my classmates and I celebrated by reading a banned book. I chose A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It wasn’t difficult to see why this book has been challenged and banned, as it contains strong language and graphic violence and sex, which are common reasons for challenges.

I’m not sure if saying I “enjoyed” the book would be exactly the right description, but it is very well-written and thought-provoking, as the best books are. I have no regrets about reading it.

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Alex in a future dystopian England. Alex enjoys violence, and spends his nights terrorizing the town with his gang for kicks and giggles. Eventually, he is caught by the police and put in jail, where he eventually becomes the government’s guinea pig for an experimental process based on behaviorism (think Pavlov’s dogs) to turn criminals into law-abiding citizens.

I was most impressed by Burgess’s use of language. Alex and his friends speak a slang language that is a mix of Cockney, Slavic, Russian, and other things, but after about a chapter I was able to easily understand almost everything they said. This is a remarkable feat, and fascinating from a linguistics perspective. It reminded me of what M. T. Anderson did in Feed. As a geeky English major who loves words and language, this part of the book was fascinating.

The story itself also delved into serious questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be good.  After his treatment, Alex’s thoughts and language remain unchanged, but he is no longer able to commit any acts of violence without feeling extremely ill. But does this make him a good person? Are intentions or actions more important for morality? The recurring question in the book is whether or not free will is a requirement for both humanity and true morality. Once Alex’s free will has been hijacked by the “healing” procedure, is he still a man, or has he been reduced to something more animal like? Or did his violence put him on an animal level because of his complete disregard for other people, and the treatment restore some level of humanity? There is no neat answer to these questions at the end of the book, leaving readers to think hard about them and come to their own conclusion, which I consider to be a virtue in literature.

Burgess also raises questions about what we consider good and bad through the comparisons drawn between Alex and some of the characters considered to be good. Nearly everyone in the book, on both sides of the law and of all ages, political leanings, and social status, has few qualms about engaging in violence and using people to advance their own aims. So who got to decide that Alex is the enemy and men who beat him up in the library are justly punishing a criminal who wronged them several years ago? The government and law enforcement officials are just as vicious as the people they are punishing. 

While A Clockwork Orange is certainly a challenging read that I would recommend for older, mature readers, this book is an excellent piece of literature that wrestles with hard questions about humanity and morality that is well worth reading.