ASSOCIATES (2012, November, v. 19, no. 2)


What They Don’t Teach You in Grad School

Angela Duncan
Assistant Director of the Library
Davis Memorial Library
Methodist University
Fayetteville, NC

I will graduate from San Jose State University with a Masters in Library and Information Science next semester. While I am proud of this accomplishment and excited about my future, it is bittersweet. I’ve had fourteen good years, learned countless lessons, and gained priceless skills as a paraprofessional. I know that my paraprofessional experience will serve me well as a librarian. In fact, I can’t imagine entering the profession without this experience. I learned many things on the job that they just don’t (or can’t) teach you in graduate school. As it turns out, this is not only my experience. Many librarians who cut their teeth as paraprofessionals have similar reflections. Below some of my colleagues share what they learned as a paraprofessional that they don’t teach you in graduate school.

Tracey Pearson
Director of Library Services
Davis Memorial Library, Methodist University
Years as a paraprofessional: 3

I haphazardly fell into the library as a cataloging assistant without a cataloger. The previous cataloger insisted on reading every book before it was processed. My predecessor was frustrated and stopped working years before she finally quit. When I took over the position both staff members were gone and I inherited approximately 10,000 books that had not been cataloged along with an antiquated library system that used floppy disks larger than your head! I was encouraged to pursue my library degree which I did. I then discovered what those red books titled “LCSH” were for; up until then I was making up my own headings.

Library school taught me everything I needed to know about cataloging, but nothing about human resources. My MLIS taught me nothing about hiring, conflict resolution, firing, or disciplining employees. No instructor ever said that I would be managing someone whether it was a work study student, staff, colleague or volunteer. Let’s face it, most people who choose library science do it because they love books; people not so much.

So, now you have a librarian who may not be suited or prepared to manage people and more than likely that person is your boss. Again, we librarians love books, information literacy and research; people not so much. Then and now library schools seem to teach the textbook and not practical application.

I learned practicality as a paraprofessional. I supervised an 80 year old assistant who hid any book that mentioned sex. I managed work study students that were mentally ill, unmotivated and downright scary. I dealt with a coworker who constantly broke all the sexual harassment rules.

I cut my HR teeth in that library. I learned that I could personally like someone, but fire them for their poor work performance. I learned that though you may be the youngest others will look for you to lead. I also learned how to respectively tell a woman that was old enough to be my grandmother that if she hides one more book I will send her butt home (I didn’t say butt — but I was thinking it). I learned how to lead, with a director who didn’t want to lead. I learned conflict resolution between a dirty old man and the secretary. I learned to manage personalities and that should be a library class all its own.

Sarah Scott
Library Associate IV
Seattle Public Library, King County Library System
Years as a paraprofessional: 7

What I learned as a paraprofessional that I didn’t learn in grad school is the practice of public library service (as opposed to the theory of librarianship). My MLIS program was invaluable in that it facilitated the development of my professional philosophy and my understanding of the foundational principles of librarianship and a variety of skills that went beyond the scope of my paraprofessional work. But there were many things I learned working as a paraprofessional that were simply not covered in my graduate coursework. These include:

Mary DiRisio
Information and Reference Services Manager
East Regional Library, Cumberland County Public Library & Information Center
Years as a paraprofessional: 8

Fifteen years ago, I began part-time in the Children’s Department of the Olean Public Library in upstate New York, shelving books and doing story hours. This quickly progressed to coordinating the Summer Reading Program and creating informational flyers for the Children’s Department.

After a few years I moved to Adult Reference and added Volunteer Coordinator to my responsibilities. I also backed up the Circulation Department with checking in and out books, taking fines and issuing new cards. I started doing adult programming, the adult summer reading program and publicity.

I learned so much as a paraprofessional that I use every day as a librarian. Some of the important things are the most basic; shelving books helped me to know the collection better. While working at the Information Services Desk I can recommend and find needed items more quickly than someone who hasn’t spent hours in the stacks. Knowing how to issue a card, take a payment for a fine and check in and out books is important because even though I am no longer responsible for these tasks at times I am responsible for people that do them.

Customer service is also something that I learned on the job. To fine tune the reference interview and discover that a library customer that asked for the medical section really needs books and local information on the support for Alzheimer caregivers, is vital. A series of gently asked questions allows the information services professional to narrow down what the customer is looking for and then help them locate it. To read a customer’s face and follow with the next question is a skill learned on the job.

I feel that my time as a paraprofessional is critical to my development as a librarian. Currently I am an Information Services Manager at the Cumberland County Library System in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Understanding the jobs of my staff because I worked in these positions helps me to support them in developing their library skills and shaping their careers.

My journey to a Master’s in Library Science began in 2003 when I enrolled at Texas Women’s University – an excellent program. I chose the online option as I continued to work while attending school. This allowed me to contribute more fully to the class discussions as I was speaking from real work experiences. I graduated in 2005 with a 4.0 and find that by melding my paraprofessional and professional library experiences I am better qualified to support my staff and co-workers and to serve the public.

Lisa Jacobs
Reference Librarian
Davis Memorial Library, Methodist University
Years as a paraprofessional: 3

Library school is something that I saw as indispensable to the type of librarianship that I wanted to get into. However, this does not mean that I do not think library school could not be better than it is. There are many social aspects that could be touched on that would make work life much easier for students after graduation. I believe that the transition from library school to library job would be much easier if students were able to work in a library before or while attending library school. This is not possible in many cases, as I witnessed from many of my classmates, but I believe that this would make transitioning easier. ‘Transitioning’ not only in the aspect of typical librarian duties such as cataloging or reference but ‘transitioning’ in the aspect of the social structure of libraries. This social structure was mentioned a few times in my classes but what made it interesting for me is that I was witnessing the relationship between library staff and librarians in my job while my professors spoke about it in class. It is not enough to learn about cataloging, acquisitions, systems, or reference; library students should learn about how a library works as a whole. Now, as a graduate, I have seen some of the problems that my classmates, who have never worked in a library, have had when they enter the profession. They have complained about the structure of libraries, about the distance they have felt with their coworkers and the way that some of their coworkers treat one another and their patrons. These are not things that are always addressed in class and I wish they were. For this article, I could have mentioned my experience as a cataloging assistant and how the library course aided me in my job but that was only the tipping point. Of course attending classes complimented my work in ways that were indispensable, but working while attending library school helped solidify my future in libraries.