Dear library school student,
Some people enter library school knowing exactly what they want to specialize in—academic or public, metadata or reference, archives or schools. Others need to take several classes or an independent study or practicum in an area before they know what path they want to follow. There are several things you should do to prepare yourself for the profession if you come to library school knowing you want to be a subject specialist. These same steps can help you decide if that is the path for you if you are undecided.
Before I get into my suggestions, I want to warn you that you shouldn’t put all of your hopes into getting a graduate assistantship or hourly position in the library specialty of your choice. There will be a lucky handful of people who get to do this, but economics mean that these opportunities are available for fewer and fewer students. Don’t use that as an excuse to not get as much exposure as possible to your desired specialty.
Back to my main theme, though, you should acquaint yourself with what it means to be a subject librarian in the area that interests you. To do this you should seek out the relevant specialist on your campus and talk to him or her—preferably before your last semester in the program! Take time to cultivate this relationship. The subject specialist can be a mentor for you throughout your library school career. Most are happy to give advice about coursework, projects, job applications, etc.
Find the library association for that subject and see what kind of information they offer. Many have information online about becoming a librarian in their specialty. Attending a conference may be out of your means, but many library associations offer assistance or scholarships to students wanting to attend a conference, so it’s worth pursuing. Some associations even have smaller regional meetings that are more affordable. You might be able to carpool with other library school students from your area.
Look at job ads in that specialty. See what sorts of skills and experience are being required. In some specialties, like music, if you are the only librarian for that subject on campus, you may be required to do public service, instruction, and cataloging. However, there are also institutions that need people solely to catalog music materials or to provide music reference service. Looking at job ads will give you an idea of the types of classes you should take and experiences you should seek out while you are still in school.
Once you’ve confirmed that you want to be a subject specialist you should take all of the relevant classes in that area offered by your school. Make sure to round out with classes in areas like cataloging, collection development, copyright, digital libraries, instruction, and special collections, as these are all areas that the average subject specialist should have some knowledge of, even if they don’t have direct responsibilities for them.
Do at least one independent study or practicum. These are especially useful if, for example, you know you want to be a music cataloger but your school only offers a general cataloging course. Don’t wait until your last semester to approach the relevant subject librarian on campus to ask for advice, or to ask for a practicum or independent study. The reason for this is two-fold. First, if you say you are serious about being a subject specialist in this area and we haven’t ever seen you (in our class or in our library) until now, we will wonder why. Second, we often have limited time to offer independent studies or practicums. If you wait too long, we may not have a spot for you that semester.
But, you say, I’ve got an undergraduate degree in this field or a masters (or PhD!) in the subject; of course I’m qualified to be a librarian on this subject! Just as liking books does not make you qualified to be a librarian, knowing something about a particular subject does not make you qualified to be its librarian. Every subject specialty has attendant issues that aren’t necessarily obvious to students in that discipline. Take time to educate yourself about the field so that you can get the education and experiences you need while in library school. This will make you a much stronger job candidate in the long run.
Kirstin Dougan is the Music and Performing Arts Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She tweets both @kmdougan and @mpalillinois.