Unintended Education: The things we actually learned in library school

The single most vital, sine qua non skill for any self-respecting library-school instructor is learning to shut up during librarianship’s ubiquitous, interminable “what I didn’t learn in library school (but should have)” kvetch-fests. It’s useless to go on the defensive about being asked to shove a lifetime’s wisdom and skill into a two-year program. Nobody wants to hear about budget constraints, the lengthy red-tape-laden process of curriculum revision, or the neverending slog of updating syllabi.

Not long ago, though, the Library Society of the World’s Friendfeed contingent turned that well-worn wrangle on its head, spurred by this observation from Iris Jastram:

Looking at some of these old course readings, I’m realizing that ostensibly my Digital Libraries course was nowhere close to my current work—the readings are all about logistics of creating and running large multi-library digital libraries. But that was (accidentally perhaps) the single most useful course in my entire degree. It taught me how the web works, and some basic HTML, and gave me my one day of formal copyright training that somehow became my first campus initiative in my new job.

Rebecca Hedreen suggested that “Unintended Education” would make a fabulous conference-panel idea. Intrigued, I asked the LSW if they’d let me do a column; when they liked the idea, I asked for more examples of education they hadn’t intentionally sought out, but now valued. I reproduce (with permission, and grateful thanks) a selection of their responses, lightly edited for typos and readability.


There is no exact answer to just about everything. Just about everything can be countered with a citation or a reference that contradicts what you know to be true. Facts can move around—they are relative. (Except for 2+2=4, and the fact that humans landed on the Moon. Everything else is up for debate.) —Joe Kraus

[T]he importance of providing value for others, anticipating services they may need in the future and being able to communicate what I do to non-librarians. —Elizabeth Brown

Tech and tech services

Cataloging taught me how to interpret weird catalog and database search results at the reference desk. As in: Where did THAT come from? Oh, it’s searching THAT field!!? —Rebecca Hedreen

(The above was enthusiastically seconded by several LSWers.)

Of course now, I am struggling with [cataloging] criteria because it affects facets in Summon. As reported by many in the literature, facets surface a lot of cataloging errors. —Aaron Tay

Database design. Had no idea at the time how a course in MS Access and XML (that I took partially because there weren’t many other course options available that weren’t school media) would shape much of my professional career. —Abigail Goben

Common thread here: HTML and database design. They were part of the classes I chose, so I don’t know if that counts as unintended education, but they ended up over and over being the most applicable to work in the real world. —Laura Norvig

(I could have filled the entire column with encomiums to database and web-design classes! Tempting marketing for me, since I teach database design and will pick up an XML course next year, but not thrilling to read.)

The concept of OpenURL wasn’t even mentioned [in library school], but I did enjoy learning concepts such as Z39.50, TF/IDF, DOIs and permanent URLs, etc… We may not all be coders, but we should at least understand broadly how the systems we use work. —Aaron Tay

Career decisions

[I learned w]hat I didn’t want to do in the library. I didn’t want to be in tech services since I was lousy at cataloging and not tech versed enough for more advanced computer stuff. I didn’t want to do reader’s advisory since I’m lousy at it and not very well versed in the land of fiction. I didn’t have an interest in teen or children’s services because, well, I didn’t have an interest in it. Like many things in life, knowing what you don’t want to do can be as important as knowing what you want to do. —Andy Woodworth

Science and engineering libraries are actually kind of cool places, something you may not understand until you actually work in one. I never imagined I would end up an academic science librarian until I did a practicum placement at McGill’s Physical Science & Engineering Library. The experience completely changed my life and career. —John Dupuis


[G]roup projects in grad school were probably expected to teach me teamwork, but really planted the seeds of the management skills I would learn and develop later—wrangling people in group projects is totally Human Resources Management 101. —Jenica Rogers

That librarians can be excellent mentors, and that the best of us extend our ethic of sharing access and information to our colleagues and students. That being involved in the larger profession is an expectation, and a joy. —Steve Lawson

Networking is really important (got first academic job through word of mouth). Not all librarians are nice. Library school is what you make of it (never once talked to my advisor). —Jaclyn Bedoya

That sometimes it’s easier to do the work than to get a group to do the work (but it was only later that I learned that even so it’s still sometimes preferable for other reasons to get the group to do it). That the job of a manager is to “plan, organise, lead, and control” (this was the textbook’s mantra). —Deborah Fitchett

I have to say the unintended education was really about the power of networking and support systems between and among library school students to help you become more. It drew me outside of any library walls I worked in to exchange thoughts, ideas and information with folks from adult services, academic and school libraries, etc. before the dawn of social networks that make sharing easily instantaneous. —Marge Loch-Wouters

From my designated spot at the front of the classroom, I work hard to shove my students out of the classroom, both into varied information communities and out of their comfort zones. It’s good to be reminded why.

Note: This post is copyright 2012 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”