Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Practical Practicum Experience, by Ayanna Gaines


When I was first asked to host a practicum student for the fall semester, my first response was overwhelming positive. I’ve always thought it important to encourage new librarians and library students, and I always remember how much I learned during my own librarian internship. Then my initial shout of “Awesome!” turned into a muttered “Oh crap.” Who was I to think I had any sort of useful knowledge to pass on? What if I screwed up?

You see, as much as those of us with interns and practicum students would like to be wise mentors who are ready and able to lead and nurture, I am willing to bet that I am not the only one who is quaking inside. While a practicum student may be nervous about doing well or not screwing up, we mentors have the same fear. We want to provide the kind of experience that will benefit an intern, but we also realize that librarianship is a profession with aspects that can’t always be taught. It’s relatively simple to demonstrate a cataloging software system, but how do we teach the art of dealing with a flustered student who has a paper due in two hours?

Another unexpected experience I had, leading up to working with my student, was having friends and colleagues tease me. People, upon hearing that I had a practicum student, often wondered if I would have her fetch me coffee or clean my office. I would laugh at these suggestions -- after all, I wasn’t a Hollywood director. But I did take a great deal of time to ponder what kind of tasks I would have her do. I even took to Twitter to ask what kind of experiences others found useful during their own practicums. I got some excellent responses, and learned that what people really wanted were projects that they could list on their resume; another hint I received was to ask my intern what kind of experiences she wanted. I thought these were both solid ideas.

It turned out that my student was interested in learning about all aspects of librarianship in a community college, which, in some ways, made my job a little easier. I came up with projects like weeding a small section of the H’s and going through book donations and determining what books to keep. I talked grant-writing with her and took her to meetings. Yet there were days when I would panic when I saw her walk through the door, when I would realize that I had been so swamped with work that I hadn’t had a chance to develop a good project for her to work on that day. Some days, my planned project for the day would have to be rescheduled because an expected box of book donations hadn’t arrived. In those cases, I would punt, showing her that there were other lessons that could be learned by simply sitting on the reference desk: what to do when a line started forming, deciding whether to answer the phone or work with the patron in front of you, figuring out when it’s time to ask another colleague to consult.

By the end of her internship, my practicum student was exposed to the ebb and flow of life in a community college library. Beyond that, having an intern was a learning experience for me as well. It encouraged me to reflect on the whys and hows of librarianship. Engaging in reflective practice is something we are usually too busy to do as librarians -- we get too caught up in the day-to-day activities of our job. But taking a step back and thinking about our habits and processes can be truly enlightening.

Ayanna Gaines is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ventura College in Ventura, California. She loves maneki nekos and cheese. Her office needs cleaning. This is the second post she’s written for Letters to a Young Librarian. The first was, “The Art of the Shmooze.” You can follow her on Twitter @PopCulLibrn

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