Library school student power

Today I’d like to delve a little deeper into a topic I’ve briefly mentioned before on more than one occasion. I’m not sure whether students actually know about this; perhaps they’re completely in the dark, or perhaps they’ve been told but they can’t believe such an outrageous idea. At any rate, as far as I can tell, most students certainly don’t act as if they know about it. At its core, what it boils down to is this: library school students have power.

I can’t tell you whether this applies to students in other professional programs, or other Master’s programs, but I can certainly tell you that it doesn’t apply to most undergrad programs. Library school students are in a unique position to influence their peers and the profession as a whole, but they don’t seem to realize it. Here’s how I would describe this power:

  1. Professionals in the LIS community are not simply willing to listen to students; most of them are very much interested in hearing the student perspective.
  2. Library school professors are usually willing to change their classes based on student feedback.
  3. Students have a wide range of opportunities to set themselves apart from their classmates.

Before we get started, I’d just like to urge everyone to use this power for good, not for evil. Frankly, if your main goal in life is to hold power over other people, librarianship is the wrong field for you anyway. All of my suggestions should be fulfilling and add to your professional development in and of themselves; please don’t do any of these things just to feel powerful. Having said that, everybody wants to change the world, and it’s okay to make your voice heard.

Regarding point #1: librarians are notoriously nice people, so I can’t really blame a student who has a brief conversation with a professional and comes away saying, “well, of course he was nice to me. He’s nice to everyone. That’s his job.” But take it from me, professionals really are interested to hear what they’re teaching in school these days and we really are interested to hear fresh ideas. So how can a student get in touch with a librarian? I can think of a number of ways, some of which may be out of some people’s comfort zones, but there should be at least one that works for everyone.

  • Join a mentoring program, like McGill’s Professional Partnering Program. I know I keep mentioning this, but it’s really a no brainer: if there’s one available to you, sign up. And if not, start one on your own. This is a super low stress way to meet someone, since you know the professionals have volunteered because they’re interested. For bonus exposure, ask your classmates about their mentors and consider organizing a group event.
  • Attend events put on by professional associations. Later I’m going to urge students to become involved with their student chapters, but a great way to meet professionals is to go to events that aren’t designed specifically for students. For example, I’m involved with the Canadian Library Association Montreal Chapter, and we often organize informal social events. Students are encouraged to come to these events, and no one is treated differently than anyone else: professionals learn from students and vice versa. For bonus influence, start asking around to find out whether the chapter will be looking for new exec members after you graduate.
  • Start a blog. This is another piece of advice I’ve given before, but consider this: every time another blogger mentions your blog or quotes something you’ve written, you are influencing the biblioblogosphere. While I was a student, I got in touch with a number of librarians through my blog and formed some lasting professional relationships. And for every blogger who mentions your blog, there will probably be a bunch of professionals who read it, enjoy it, and don’t leave a comment. For bonus power, leave comments on other LIS blogs.
  • Find a professional you admire and contact them. This is where it gets a bit scary, and I’m afraid I can’t promise every librarian will want to be your best friend. You might be surprised, though, at the number of professionals who would be more than happy to spend some time telling you about what they do, or even showing you around their place of work. If there’s a particular library you’re interested in working at, get in touch with one of the librarians there. A good way is to look up the library’s website and find the email address of a librarian who has a job that looks interesting; just write to them explaining that you’re a student and asking whether you could meet with them to ask a few questions. For bonus points, make sure you have a few specific questions in mind when you actually do meet them, since some librarians may not have a good idea of what to tell you unless you ask.

Point #2 is fairly straightforward: if you don’t like the way a course is being taught, or if you have suggestions for how it could be improved, just tell your prof. Your best bet is to schedule a time to meet your prof in person, since this shows that you’re serious. Naturally, make sure your suggestions are constructive; don’t criticize anything unless you also suggest how it could be improved (this will serve you well in your professional life as well). At the very least, put in some serious thought when you fill out your course evaluations – profs read these comments and adjust their teaching based on them.

Point #3 mainly applies to having power over your own career path. As I briefly mentioned recently, many students choose to sit back and let library school happen to them, arguing that they can’t do much more because they’re “just a student.” Simply attending classes and showing up to an extracurricular event here and there means that you will receive your MLIS and impress potential employers to exactly the same degree as everyone else from your class. Fortunately, setting yourself apart is relatively easy, and not even terribly time consuming.

  • Get involved with a student group. And don’t just attend their events; if you actually participate on the group’s exec, you can put this on your CV or cover letter. In my experience, it doesn’t even matter that much which group you work with. SIS has a wide range of student groups, but they all do fairly similar work, so don’t worry if there’s no position for you at your first choice of group.
  • Organize an event. For example, in my second year of library school, I was co-organizer of Web 2.You. It can be intimidating to contact a well known speaker, but you will find that they are very friendly to students, and in many cases speakers who usually charge a fee will reduce it or waive it altogether for a student-run event. This is really a fun way to gain some experience, get some exposure, and help your fellow students (not to mention helping the local professionals who attend the event).

I hope this helps motivate students to take control of their careers. To the professionals reading this: do you have any tips for helping students exercise their power? Leave your advice in the comments!

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