Gavia Libraria

On bad library-school applications

The Loon honestly can’t be bothered to write yet another “how to get into library school” manual. There already exist some dozens (approx.) of these, and their advice overlaps considerably.

She would, however, like to address two groups in particular who flood her with bad applications: just-graduated language-and-literature majors, and humanities Ph.Ds. Do believe that she has no onus against either group; she was a lang-and-lit major in her day, and she pursued a humanities Ph.D until the pursuit shattered her.

So. Wet-behind-the-ears would-be book folk. Understand that you are the bulk of what library-school admissions deliberators see. Understand that you are the bulk of existing librarianship, for that matter. Understand that this means you have a strike against you, for no fault of your own exactly: we are glutted with applications from folk like you, thus disinclined to add yet more. You’re in a bad place on the supply-and-demand graph.

Applying to us directly after graduation is more often than not a mistake. Since your coursework, even if it was impeccable, will not particularly set you apart from the crowd, we look for more. Experience with a diverse range of humanity helps. Work experience, the closer to either people or information (preferably both) the better, helps. Leadership experience helps considerably. So does supervisory experience, even at a coffeeshop or retail outlet. Computer savvy often opens our doors, but be aware that means rather more than office-suite software these days.

Rule of thumb: if all your planned recommendation letters come from professors, you have a life-experience deficit. We will notice. We will not be inclined to admit you. Mend the deficit, then think about library school.

Now, then. You humanities scholars who have been hearing about all these alternative-academic careers. Librarianship’s easy and fun, right? At least it’s there. It’s just slinging books around; how hard could that be? And you’re already a scholar, so you know all there is to know about academia, right? Any library would be lucky to get you! So you’ll send the same letter of application you’re sending to tenure-track jobs, all about your wonderful research, and that’ll do it.

No. It won’t.

Understand that the typical faculty member, never mind the typical graduate student, hasn’t got the least tiniest clue how libraries operate and what librarians do. Understand that LIS folk (both professors and professors-of-practice like the Loon) know this, and will recognize it in your application. We will know you’re flailing aimlessly for something, anything to do with your life. We will know you don’t particularly want to be a librarian. (If you’ve written your application essay especially poorly, we’ll know you consider librarians a lesser species and librarianship a lousy fallback for a tenure-track career.) We will therefore pass you over for someone clueful about our ways who does genuinely want to be one of us.

Unless your research is directly applicable to library service or library innovation (which isn’t impossible, but is somewhat unlikely), shut up about it in your application essay. You cannot imagine the depths of the Loon’s utter indifference to the minutiae of your dissertation. Since you have a Ph.D, we know you can do academic research; while that does count for something, if it’s all you can do, and all you know about academia or information services, we’re not interested in you.

Doubly don’t give the impression that you want to be a librarian (or archivist) because you were in a library (or archives) once and enjoyed the experience. The Loon wishes she were joking. If that’s all you know of our field, how can we possibly know that library school and librarianship will work out well for you? Believe it or not, we care about that, rather deeply.

Triply consider: if you’re all huffy right now because how dare that birdbrained Loon say such things to you when she doesn’t even hold a Ph.D—you’re still too enmeshed in the nastier sorts of snobbery that academe fosters. Clear your head of that evil miasma before you apply to library school.

If you’re a good teacher, highlight that; it’s vastly more marketable a skill in academic libraries than traditional humanities research. (The Loon sometimes thinks that academic librarians value good teaching considerably more than the rest of academe. Perhaps it’s that we see so much bad teaching.) If the digital humanities are your thing, definitely talk that up. If you know more about scholarly communication than where to sign a publishing contract, talk about that.

A few words for both groups, now. It’s not at all hard to find out what librarians do. Ask a few. (The Loon takes part in these conversations often; they’re more fun than a school of minnows.) Read some professional magazines and journals. Check out Library Day in the Life. Volunteer in a library or school; we will notice that and approve. The Loon recommends telling library volunteer coordinators that you are interested in a career as a librarian; this is quite likely to get you more responsible assignments and more contact with librarians than otherwise.

If no library is within reach, consider a literacy network, youth-tutoring enterprise, or other social-services nonprofit; all will give you experience that library-school application-readers will value. Consider learning your way around online, as well. Start a blog, if you haven’t already. Tweet. Contribute to Wikipedia, enough to understand the tech and the pecking order. Find online librarians (who are legion) and follow them via your newsreader of choice.

None of this advice, harsh though some of it is, is meant to dissuade you from applying to library school. It is (somewhat selfishly) meant to lighten the load on the Loon’s heart when she reads application after application that she cannot in good conscience decide to recommend for admission. She’s a much happier bird when she reads an essay from someone who knows libraries and librarians from the inside, loves us anyway, and has experience and skills that will be assets to a library. If that’s you, write that application; the Loon will enjoy reading it.

2 thoughts on “On bad library-school applications

  1. Sarah

    Good advice, a lot of job applicants could do with following it too! Even (most disturbingly) some people that already hold librarianship masters degrees…

  2. Amanda Werhane

    Yes yes yes yes yes!

    Further, if you’re a straight-from-undergrad person who /does/ get accepted to an LIS grad program, please oh please leave the ‘tude behind.

    That whole “too cool for school” thing? Not appreciated by those who aren’t ashamed of being excited to learn.

    Snickering at your classmates who sit in the front row, groaning when said classmates raise their hands to ask questions, complaining to a professor’s face that their assignment was “a day of your life you won’t get back,” endless tirades at the pointlessness of the master’s degree requirement when you can learn everything you need to know on the job?

    Please oh please: grow up, get some work experience, and wait until you’re less burned out to apply to grad school. (: