Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three Bins: My Strategy for Getting the Most Out of Library School, by Andromeda Yelton


In September 2008, I’d just quit my teaching job and started library school. In October 2008, the bottom fell out of the world economy, and suddenly I wondered if I’d ever have a job again. I knew that when I graduated I’d be facing not only my very capable classmates, but a lot of unemployed librarians with more experience, and for a small pool of jobs. I figured I’d better be strategic about my library school experience to make myself as good a candidate for that job as possible. Here’s what I did.

First, I read a whole lot of job ads for anything that sounded interesting. I included ads that were out-of-date or in parts of the country I couldn’t move to, because the point wasn’t to apply: the point was to make a list of all the skills that showed up over and over. Then I divided those skills into three bins:
  • skills I had, and could prove that I had;
  • skills I had, but couldn’t prove;
  • and skills I didn’t have yet.

I then spent the rest of library school generating proof for things in the second bin, and (provably) picking up skills in the third. The proof is critical here - I didn’t want anyone to have to take my word for it that I had those skills. I wanted prospective employers to be able to evaluate externally verifiable evidence with their own critical thinking skills.

Some specific examples of choices I made to develop or substantiate specific skills:
  • Teaching: I could already point to my resume lines about teaching middle school, but I also taught some workshops for the Simmons GSLIS Tech Lab. Campuses are great for this; there are a lot of people who are happy to say yes and give you a venue if you volunteer to do something.
  • Writing: I knew I could do this but I couldn’t prove it, so I started a blog.
  • Integrated library systems experience: Simmons had an ILSes class, so I took it.
  • Coding: I didn’t know much, but I learned more by taking a databases class that included some PHP. Then I developed those skills further by building a database-backed web site as a final project for another class.

As you can see, proof comes in many forms: concrete resume items; your transcript; letters of reference (e.g. from professors or internship supervisors or the like); anything you can put online. Different skills lend themselves to different kinds of proof. The key, in all cases, is you don’t have to take my word for any of this; you can look at my web site or resume or transcript or letter of reference and make your own decisions.

There were, of course, skills I wanted to get that I couldn’t. I could learn about the open source integrated library systems but not the proprietary ones (as it’s hard to get exposure to them outside a workplace). I wanted to develop my leadership skills through activity in student organizations, but my childcare situation didn’t allow for that. I kept telling myself we all have both strengths and constraints; having a strategy let me make thoughtful choices within those constraints.

So I walked right into a job post-graduation, right? Well, no...the economy was still pretty terrible, and I was still geographically constrained. It took the better part of a year to land that job. But in the meantime, I got some contract work doing library things, and I got to meet a bunch of those people that we’d talked about in my library classes - and I actually had something to say to them. And when I did get that job, it was a strange and marvelous one that hadn’t even existed when I graduated.  It took a while for my work to pay off, but it when it did, it snowballed into much bigger things.

Andromeda Yelton does freelance software development; speaks and writes on library technology issues; and teaches librarians to code.  She is on the Board of Directors of LITA and the advisory board of the Ada Initiative. She blogs at  Andromeda Yelton: Across Divided Networks and tweets at @ThatAndromeda.


  1. LOVE this post! I will be attending Simmons in the fall to pursue my MLS and have been facing these challenging questions of what skills do I actually have, need, etc and this has given me a lot of interesting questions to mull over. Thank you for sharing! This blog makes the first slow hour working at the circ desk on Saturday mornings fly by.

  2. Thanks! Simmons is where I went too - they have a pretty big variety of courses, so if you figure out your bins early you can fill a lot of them with strategic course selection. :) Good luck with the MLS!