Theory and Practice

“For young persons just starting out in the world of work, apprenticeship has important advantages. It offers an efficient way to learn skills, for the training is planned and organized and is not hit-or-miss. . .”  [U.S. Department of Labor, 1969]

Meredith Farkas’ writing on the skills needed for 21st century librarianship really interested me primarily because she acknowledges the all-too-easily overlooked aspect of learning on the job. She discusses how she learned more during her first month of working a reference position than during her entire course on reference librarianship. Somewhat sadly, I agree with her sentiment.

I am in no way blowing off my reference course work, nor am I arguing for a boycott of graduate reference courses. As one of the world’s biggest cynics (kidding), even I would argue that understanding the concepts and theory that support reference work is of great value and worth the time investment. But it may be a waste of money. Feel free to roll your eyes.

Nearly every week at the Reference Desk I say something silly out of nerves or awkwardly pause simply not knowing how to answer an inquiry (I’m still the new girl). I seem to especially struggle when attempting to tell someone how to navigate the Library of Congress classification system, which is no doubt a result of being a copy-cataloger — uhh it is the way it is because that’s the way it is (don’t worry, I’ve never actually said that out loud).

Point being, I didn’t need to spend a couple grand to better prepare myself for the appropriate responses to a seemingly impossible job to predict, day-to-day. This revelation has led me to start evaluating whether or not librarianship should transition back toward an apprenticeship model. Turns out I’m not alone.

Miss Julie on her own blog goes in-depth as to why she believes that graduate programs for librarianship could be greatly improved if they would make room for more hands-on experience. You might be saying to yourself, as the eyes continue to roll, “But wait! that’s what Directed Field Work (DFW) is for!” And you’d be right, but the problem is that DFWs are not required and they are not even a major aspect of our program, and from the look of it, not even a major part of most programs, if not all, in the ol’ U.S. of A. Right? At UW we even have a limit on the number of DFWs we can attempt and the number of DFW credits we can count toward our degrees. In many ways a limit such as this is necessary but 8 credits doesn’t leave much room for investigating different paths. Still you may say, “Well, that’s why securing employment, internships and/or volunteer opportunities is so important.” Again, no argument here but I would counter that if the consensus is in favor of hands-on experience, why not make it mandatory? Why not make partnering up with LIS professional a staple of the program? (I know, there are some serious issues dealing with staffing, budget, and access, to the say the least. Dare to dream.)

Maybe there are some skills that can’t be taught via Powerpoint. Maybe there are some important skills that need to be taught in the classroom before being released into the ‘real world.’ Quite possibly, this course has allowed me to pause for a moment and consider what I have done to get to this point and what I can look forward to. I am merely wrestling with the fact that I am willfully in the hole some serious cash for this degree and I’m not so sure every class has been worth the bill. Take a look at Miss Julie’s post, especially the comments section, and let me know what you think.



Farkas, Meredith. “Skills for the 21st Century Librarian.” Information Wants to Be Free. Jul 17 2006. Accessed: Apr 16 2012.

“You Might Not Be Doing it Wrong, but You Could Certainly Do it Better.” Hi Miss Julie! Jul 18 2011. Accessed: Apr 16 2012.

7 thoughts on “Theory and Practice

  1. This is a great post Kaitlyn! I read Miss Julie’s post and while I understand the general frustration, I disagree with most of what she says. However, I believe that education and job training are very different things and while they can overlapp and complement each other they do not have the exact same purpose. I learned this lesson after graduating with a BA in English. While that degree taught me many valuable skills it didn’t match up with a specific job. I think part of the problem is that as a society we constantly tell people that a degree will get you a job or that you have you have a degree to get a job. While this may be partially true, it takes a lot more than a degree to get a job. Degrees are just one component of many jobs and I think they should be marketed as one more tool instead of the magic ticket.

    • Totally. I think you’re spot on with your last sentence. I’m a big proponent of personal responsibility/accountability so Miss Julie is less of a kindred spirit and more of a cautionary tale. A degree is far from a golden ticket.

  2. Pingback: There Is NOT an App for That | The hAPPy Librarians

  3. Kaitlyn, Your post is terrific because it reveals a critical piece of graduate training that is missing: the structured/guided support for fieldwork experiences beyond a midterm and final report. I did a DFW in a school library last quarter and would have loved to have a instructor-faciliated student forum to discuss my experiences and grapple with my challenges in a day-to-day way. Like you, I think that practical experience in librarianship is critical, however, I think that it would be made even more meaningful and useful if there was more formal guidance and feedback at the school level, rather than simply with the DFW supervisor. It would allow for an ongoing conversation re: professional experiences that would be grounded in the real-world. What do you think? Alpha

  4. I agree, I think that practical experience is critical and often support for practical experience at least at our school is somewhat marginal. It would be terrific if we had ongoing formal SIGs set up that supported and helped guide students through their experiences of fieldwork and part-time library work while in school. The SIGs could be facilitated by external librarians (based on domain and focus) and iSchool instructors. I found my own fieldwork placement challenging and would have loved to bounce ideas off other students in a more structured and collaborative way rather than merely submitting a midterm and final report.

  5. I really like your idea of setting up formal SIGs to support and guide students. It is important to note that any hands-on experience must be paired with opportunities to discuss said experience. If I am advocating for more collaboration in the practical sense I certainly wouldn’t stand for not having anyone to lean on in the program in order to collaborate in an intellectual sense.

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