Advice to a library school student

Several times a year a non-librarian friend tells me "I have a friend who's interested in doing more of the tech side of libraries, he/she is [thinking about | starting | in | finishing] library school and I thought you might get in touch with each other, can I send them your contact info?" I always say "please go ahead" and I almost never actually hear back.

Today, I heard back from somebody. Then I responded with the following (a few parts elided for obvious reasons). Maybe it'll help somebody else:

Hi _____, it's nice to hear from you. (Thanks, _____!) I say that because more often than not when a friend of a friend going into library stuff is referred to me, I never hear from them. So already you're making a great impression. :)

Your background in cataloging is going to be very helpful, even if you never do it again. Some of the most capable library software developers I know spent some time early on as catalogers, and it really helps orient their minds to what our business is about under the hood. I'm married to a cataloger, and I've learned a ton from her over the years.

The best advice anybody ever gave me when I was finishing library school and looking for a job was "look at all your options and choose the most challenging one. If it scares you, like you think maybe you won't be up to the challenge, you're on the right track and should go for it." If you don't feel challenged now, you're right to be looking elsewhere (especially if you're young or don't otherwise have lots of obligations to other people and can freely look around).

Here's another thing I learned by chance while I was in library school. The most important stuff I learned that set me up in my career was stuff I learned on the job during library school, not in school or coursework. My classes were just fine, I did learn a lot, but I got a job where they said "go learn how to administer unix boxes, there's some oreilly books on the topic that are good. ask for help if you need it" and a few months later, out of pure fear, I'd learned how to do that. I learned Perl, I learned all kinds of stuff about how unix works, and the approach they threw me into was one where you build confidence in teaching yourself stuff. I've been doing that ever since. Heck, for the last two hours tonight I've been reading a tutorial for R because it sounds cool and maybe I can use it sometime. Seriously, if you have this kind of curiosity and learn well on your own, this is a good direction.

On the other hand in that job I worked with a bunch of really smart CS-major undergrads who were friendly and taught me lots of stuff. They thought I was awesome because I could find all kinds of answers to arcane technical questions online (this was before Google!) so they learned from me too. If you can find some people who know what you want to learn about, find a way to hang out with them. You'll learn a ton by osmosis and they'll probably learn something from you too.

After years of being a solo coder/sysadmin type in various jobs in libraries, I missed being in a group like that, so when I looked for my current job I was really lucky to find the group I'm in now. I learn all kinds of stuff from my colleagues every day, nearly all of whom are better programmers than I am. I value that almost as much as the salary they pay me. :)

I took some master's level CS classes at ____, and while I know their MLS program is good, the sad truth is that that degree isn't going to set you apart when you're looking for a new job that interests and challenges you more. I just got back from a conference (Access) that had half as many attendees as usual because nobody has a decent travel budget anymore. People are losing library jobs, retirees aren't being replaced, libraries are being shut down. In the middle of all this, there are many good jobs open for library software hackers. Vendors, universities, gov't, public libraries, every library that's still open needs more technically minded people. I helped start a list called code4lib years ago - look at the last few weeks' worth of archived postings and notice all the good-sounding jobs in there:

A few more things about that - join that list, and look around for more information about the code4lib community, the journal, the conference, the irc channel. I'd encourage you to engage with one or more of these even if it seems intimidating. We're not intimidating once you get to know us. :) You can lurk if that's all you're comfortable with or just jump in and ask or answer questions. Also, if those job descriptions sound like stuff you'll never be able to do, that's honestly where I was when I started library school. I got my first job because I already knew perl and unix - seriously, they told me that, that my resume stood out because I could hit the ground running. Also, I got that job because I contacted the people in the library and asked them questions about the posting and the library, so when they saw my resume they remembered my name and thought the initiative and interest I showed were positive signs. Don't go overboard with it, but people (like me, obviously!) in libraries really like to be asked about their libraries and what they do, so don't hesitate.

If you're not on twitter, hop on and follow me, @dchud (if you can stand lots of random comments about music and food and sports, i do occasionally tweet about work).

[more personal stuff elided]

[end sent message]

I hope this doesn't read as egotistical. The other thing I didn't say which I probably should have is that I busted it during library school and for that job and in the first 10 years or so of my career to be sure I was really learning this other "non-traditional" stuff that made my skills unique and practical and effective as an employee and as a job candidate. It's tiring but all those long hours can pay off if you can stay focused. Ain't nothing prideful about going out of your way on your own time to make yourself better at what you do.


Nicely said!

Not egotistical at all! It's clear that you want to help.


me too

Nice post Dan. I was really lucky to find the group I'm in now too :-) Keepin' it real in 2010.

This is great advice. It's

This is great advice. It's the kind of thing I try to tell folks who ask me, but it never seems to come out quite so clearly, either in person or in writing. Now I can just forward a link to this post.

Good advice

Good post, Dan, and not remotely egotistical. I get this question a lot, too, and while your answer is far more articulate and to the point, I cannot agree more when you say "every library that's still open needs more technically minded people." That really is the crux, and my advice usually boils down to "librarians with strong technical skills will be the last to be unemployed." Never heard a library IT director complain about the excess of technical muscle in their org, but constantly hear the opposite.

@Dale A - actually, there are

@Dale A - actually, there are some libraries where they are firing the technical staff and giving all Library IT duties over to university or organizational control. MLIS grads need to also be aware that in higher ed, many institutions are attempting to save money via consolidation, and there is the very real issue inept deans and clueless university leadership saying "why does the library need a tech staff, when the university can do all that junk" not realizing the difficulty or importance of vertically integrating library technology, and its complexity and level of difficulty.