This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and is reprinted here with permission.
I went to an information school for my graduate degree. The orientation of the school was such that, as informationprofessionals, the graduates would be the vanguard of the new digital age, creating programs, answering complex questions wih relevant resources, collaborating and developing methods to vet and tame the wilds of cyberspace, and transforming that most venerable of institutions, the public library, fully into an organization that was equally comfortable and skilled with print and digital media.
Or perhaps that's what I thought when I got ready to start my practical experience interning at two excellent libraries in sseparate towns. Those internships, and my subsequent work, removed some of that optimism about the future, but they also taught me several things school did now, and quite possibly could not.
The Care And Feeding of People
One of the first things about getting out of school and into the practical world is the immediate realization that there's an entire power structure of people in your organization with whom you have to interact. Sometimes that power structure isn't always interested in the ideas that come from the newly hired. That can be disenchanting for a freshly minted librarian with the idea that he or she can affect change in his or her organization and the world. It takes time to figure out how communication works in an organization, and whose ears you have to bend to get ideas put into play. A great deal of frustration (and worse) can be avoided with someknowledgeabout how to discern and interact withan organizational structure--it's about gathering and manipulating information, but not the kind that resides on a server. Learning those interpersonal skills makes it easier to interact with outside organizations as well--they usually have similar structures that have to be interpreted to achieve results.
The other immediate difference is that instead of abstract concepts, there are now actual people in front of you who you must help, manage, and/or work alongside. In public service, this often means having to get information "good enough" in the amount of time that the person you are helping has, instead of being able to take the time to get to the perfect resource. People frequently take the first available possibility and run off with it, even when you know there's better stuff to unearth if you could get more details. It also means dealing with people who have incomplete information--not just the legendary, "It's a book. It's blue. What is it?" conundrum, but people often don't know the machine-friendly terms for searches, or are dealing with constraints on their abilities, self-imposed or otherwise.
As the cherry on top, most of the time, the people you help will thank you, and then you will hear nothing about what the impact of your help was on their lives. I quickly learned to cherish when something was said, or even better, written, because those elements are few and far between. Knowing how little feedback would appear would have helped create more realistic expectations for the working environment, and it definitely would have helped with the confidence issues that came hot on the heels of the lack of feedback.
All The Things They Don't Know
Being a librarian means knowing enough about a few things to help people get pointed in the right direction for their information needs. It's a very extensible, flexible skill, and deplyd correctly, it makes a librarian look like a subject expert despite having only learned a little about the topic from the person asking the question.
For example, technology has been a place where I've had to make the most adjustments from school to public service. Thisis notjust in theconsiderably smalled budget for purchasing print and digital materials, but also in the general technology saturation and expertise in the community. I was ready to meet a population that was engaged with their technology and looking for ways to do interesting things on the Internet from home, or use tools of the library to create their own productions. That still hasn't really materialized--instead, the grand majority of technology work that I do is helping people get logged into our computers, helping with formatting for projects or resumes, getting signed on to social media platforms, and printing--lots of printing. When it comes to digital devices, most people are looking to get the library's electronic collections on their devices through apps. School had suggested quite heavily that the great leap forward into the new technological era was upon us, but reailty says that the public library is not always at the vanguard of such things
For as natural a partnership as public school libraries and public libraries could be, another shock to the system is finding out just how difficult it can be to cooperate on anything. The school ecoystem can be a very tough nut to crack, whether it's dealing with overworked staff, a school system hostile to their media specialists, or a school system that simply believes you're not useful to them and that they don't need anything from the public library. The lack of information exchange can manifest in bad ways. Enterprising students enter the library looking for resources on their school assignment and proceed to check out and clear out the library of any print information available; when the next batch of students (looking for the same information) arrive, then the public library staff has an idea that there's an assignment afoot, but the books are already gone. If the instructor has insisted on a minimum amount of print resources, sometimes a workable situation can be finagled by pointing out that much of the electronic materials were originally published as books and could be cited as such, but sometimes there's nothing for those students to do but hope the print materials return on time. If yearly assignments are made known well in advance of when they deploy with a check-in or heads-up coming from the school, or if the public librarian receives a response when asking about them, easy fixes are possible, but the communication isn't always as robustas it could be on either end.
All The Things We Don't Know
And then there are the intensely private teens and tweens themselves. Straddling the line as both "person who is genuinely interested in your life and goals so that we can help make them real" and "person who has to come over and enforce the rules when things get out of hand" is difficul, and the perception of what staffers are like skews interactions for good or ill. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I'm just not interesting enough to get people to pay attention to what I'm offering. Plus, there's all the other ways that teens and dtweens can interact with each other that don't involve a library at all--it's a crowded world out there, and the public library canseem like the lowest on the list when it comes to making decisions about where to spend time.
Attempts to gather input from teens have mixed results. Sometimes the things that teens want are going to be uphill battles based on policy, cost, and/or noise. More computer time has to be balanced with getting everyone a shot at using the computers. A great program for getting teens to hang out together and follow their interests runsinto the problem that the room you are in did not get a lot of sound-dampening insulation installed. Deploying a computer that's excellent at processing raw video into finished, polished products hits the snag of "people might use this more if there were creation tools available as well"...and the part where the high school has a fleet of computers and an entire class devoted to video production and editing.
The community where the library is situated can have a large impact on what's doable as well. Even if the community is upper-income and well-to-do, teens aren't always going to take part in those riches. One of the things I learned quicklyabout my internship communities and the community whereI work is that teens and tweens often have limited mobility options--being close enough to a school to bereachable by foot impacts whether or not te library is an after-school destination. In a community where both parents work, visiting the library may not be possible because of a need to get home and look after family members or watch the house until the parents get home. In a community with a plethora of after-school and weeked activities, the library has to fight to gather teens for programming because the school system provides busing backto their houses and the libary doesn't.
In the library school setting, it can seem like a given that people will be willing to work with the library and that the public library is a destination on most people's minds. The difficulties involves in getting to that point are abstract or buried in favor of talking about the good things that happen. A reality check abou the amount of work collaboration entails can help avoid crushing youthful optimism.
The Bottom Line
My internships, actually doing librarianship, were some of the most valuable experiences I had. I put into practice the things thatthe school taught me about organization, reader advisory, and interview technique, and things relating to gahering, sorting, and presenting information helped cement the importance of those things. But information does not exist in a vacuum, and the rest of being a ilbrarian, including programming, soliciting opinions, collaborations, and adapting what was taughtto the community of your practicce, is something that the information school didn't teach me, and is something that is equally important to my success as a librarian. I think programs that require practical experience as a condition of graduation, like mine did, acknowledge the existence of this other sphere. What would be a useful next step would be for informaiton schools to start trying to integrate this part of practice into the disciplines and tracks they have in which thelikelihood of interacting with people is high. That way, new graduates can begin to leverage their ideas and knowledge as soon as possible, instead of possibly spending a period of time setting situated in their context and feeling like they are floundering while they do so. Their optimism and enthusiasm will thank you later.