Monday, August 29, 2011

Less than twenty four hours!

Well, here I am, about to start library school tomorrow! Not much to say right now, other than that I've been unpacking and learning my way around Montreal (it's a big city so that should take some time). Fortunately I have a great librarian friend who is going to walk with me to campus tomorrow so I don't get lost, haha. She even works in the building where I'll be taking classes, so that's doubly convenient!

Wish me luck as I get started! :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Librarianship as a Second Career

As yet I have no personal experience to verify this, but I've been told that many of the people you encounter in library school are coming into librarianship as a second career. This is true of me as well. Initially, upon graduation from university, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go into teaching or librarianship, so I decided to teach abroad for a while to help me with the decision. Of course, I eventually learned that teaching and librarianship are so closely interrelated that it's easy to combine them. In no way does it have to be an "either/or" situation! That's why I want to become a teacher-librarian.

Even so, I'm really glad that I spent some time in the workforce before starting library school. I recently read Graham Lavender's interesting post about setting professional goals for yourself during your first year as a librarian. In this sense, I feel as though I have a head start, as I've had four years to develop confidence in myself as a professional. Because so much of the work I was doing as a teacher is quite similar to what librarians do (interacting with users, ensuring access to resources, assisting students in decoding material) I already know my work style, how I communicate with others, where I excel and where I could stand to improve. I was also fortunate to be in a school that emphasized Web 2.0 technology and collaborative learning, so I am familiar with that sort of educational philosophy.

Above all, though, the international school instilled in me a love of international education. As Britt Foster says, "Society needs more spaces where status does not affect access." (Said so succinctly, Britt! I've been trying to articulate the same thought for ages without success!) Unfortunately, in an international setting, status heavily influences access. It affects which languages you speak, what educational opportunities you have, what resources are available to you, what technologies you know how to use. So librarians in international settings have unique challenges as well as unique opportunities to connect patrons with materials and ensure those materials can be used.

That is why, in some ways I don't even feel like library school is truly is a career change for me. Although, my job title will change, I was an international educator before and an international educator I'll remain.

There are currently two opportunities that I'm interested in becoming involved with. One is the McGill students chapter of Librarians Without Borders, which currently has an ongoing service learning project in Guatemala. I am hoping to be extremely active in this student organization.

The other is to assist my friend and former coworker DJ Juhlke with the organization he will be working with for at least the next three years, Mountain Child. It aims to assist impoverished children in the Himalayas. There, DJ will contribute to the opening of small, multi-purpose aid stations throughout the mountains of Nepal. These aid stations will serve simultaneously as clinics, schools, and community centres. DJ is going to be the "principal" of the schools, though I imagine that his job will be a bit different from that of other principals I've known. He will be doing a little bit of everything, from helping to build the stations themselves to training both local and foreign teachers.

Before we parted ways in Korea, I told DJ that I was interested in helping him to secure library resources for the schools, or maybe even to open a community library in Nepal. "But right now," I said, "I don't even know anything about librarianship yet. I don't know what you need."

DJ laughed. "That's okay. I don't know what I need either! But we'll make it happen!"

So I'm hoping that I can spend some of my time in library school, especially with Librarians Without Borders, gathering ideas and tips that I can use to get some resources to DJ.

On a more personal note, I'll be moving to Montreal on Saturday. I'm excited for classes at McGill to get underway.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In the International Library, the Signposter Tends the Gate


Made using the Card Generator

As a newbie preparing to start library school, my librarian friends have offered me some helpful advice.

"You're going to see a lot of your classmates freaking out if they don't get an A+ on every single assignment," they have told me. "Of course you need to do well, but it's more important to apply what you're learning to a real-life context as often as you possibly can." I have seen this sentiment echoed on numerous library forums and blogs: Get as much library experience as you can while in school, be it through volunteering, part time work, internships, co-op programs. If your school doesn't give you skills you need in a particular area (ie. graphic design), find another way to acquire them.

Here I can already see a major difference between library school and other degrees I've done: I'm responsible for tailoring my library school experience toward the kind of career I want. Just showing up and taking notes is not going to cut it.

To me, this indicates that the most successful library school graduates are not those with straight As, but those who have strong transdisciplinary skills, the ability to think across traditional categories of knowledge. Graduates who recognize full well what they don't know but have the motivation and tools to track it down will be the most successful in their job searches.

On a more personal note, I think transdisciplinary thinkers are the coolest people in the world. You can throw them into any situation anywhere and they will have the resourcefulness to handle it. Of course, librarians are transdisciplinary thinkers by the very nature of their work. This is what most excites me about the librarianship field!

My other passion, international education, dovetails nicely here. Students with transdisciplinary skills have the ability to tackle any subject with initiative and confidence. Add to that an international setting when you are operating among myriad cultures not your own, and there is a whole other layer to the experience. Immigrants, Third Culture Kids, expats, missionaries, and other cross-cultural people are constantly facing new challenges: shifting between cultural codes, acquiring new languages, adopting new habits, adjusting to varying levels of technology and creature comforts.

So, having already served four years as an international educator, what kind of transdisciplinary skills will I require to be a librarian in this context? How can I use my time in library school to get me there?

It's no secret to anyone that the library profession is changing. As the blog everyone's a librarian now put it:

The librarian's traditional position of authority, as gatekeeper between the user and the information they seek, is now being eroded - as Chris Anderson identified in The Long Tail, anyone can now publish their thoughts online, without the need for a publisher's investment in printing or distributing their material.

The blogger goes on to comment that the librarian's job is now to serve more as a signposter than a gatekeeper. Rather than relying on librarians to give them access to information as in the past, people can now access it themselves on the Web. However, with the huge glut of information out there, people need an information specialist, someone "in the know", to point them to the good stuff. That's where the librarian as signposter comes in, helping their users create pathways to the information they need.

All of this is very exciting, but to my thinking, international librarianship requires a fusion of both gatekeeping and signposting. At the international school where I worked in South Korea, for example, I could serve as a signposter, teaching my students how to locate and respond to useful information in a very Web 2.0 fashion. But given that most of the students there wanted to attend North American rather than Korean universities, I also had to serve as the gatekeeper of Western academic culture, ensuring that my students understood that issues like plagiarism are viewed very differently in the West than in Korea.

Nor may I always have advanced technology available to me. Serving as a teacher-librarian at a 1:1 international laptop school in Korea, for example, requires a very different approach than does settling up a village library in Uganda where most patrons have never touched a book. In that situation, knowing how to create an old-fashioned 20th century card catalogue would remain a highly relevant skill, as would the 21st century blogging necessary to solicit overseas donations to stock the shelves.

So I will have to "hack" my librarianing, patching together librarianship methodologies from various eras as appropriate to my context. I already have an idea of ways I can jump in and be of use…but I'll save that for my next entry.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Learning the Library

Hi, I'm Laura. I'm not a librarian yet, but I will be!

In September I'll be starting my MLIS at McGill University. Since this blog will chart my growth as a library professional through the two year program, I thought it would be appropriate for my first entry to introduce my career background, my professional interests, and my aspirations. So welcome, and happy reading. I hope you enjoy my story.

In 2006 I finished my MA in English Literature and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation I felt a bit lost. I wasn't exactly sure where to go or what to do with myself. A friend from my MA, Katherine, had enrolled in McGill's MLIS program. Hearing about the topics she was studying and the sort of work that she hoped to do was exciting to me; I thought I might like to do something similar. I began to talk to other librarians, asking them about their fields and what their lives were like day to day. The more I heard about their jobs, the more enthusiastic I became about a possible career in librarianship. I wasn't sure what kind of librarianship I'd like to be involved in (I had an interest in archives but didn't know what it entailed) but imagined that I'd sort it out once I was in the program.

However, at that point I did not feel ready to go back to school. I'd been a student my entire life, which I'd enjoyed, but I wanted to have a wider range of experiences before I did another degree. More than anything, I wanted to travel. When the the opportunity came up to work as an ESL instructor at a teachers' college in South Korea, I accepted it enthusiastically. I didn't really think of it as a career move at the time. It was simply going to be a challenging and exciting gap year, and afterward I'd come back to Canada and start my "real life".

I'm so glad things didn't work out according to my original plan! Within three days of arriving in South Korea, the country had gotten under my skin and I knew that I wanted to stay more than a year. I spent the next few months getting to know my students, adapting to teaching, and learning about Korean life and culture. There were many challenges. The Korean school system operates very, very differently than its Western counterpart. In Western schools, asking questions is encouraged, as it demonstrates the student's investment in their learning. In Korea, asking a question is a disrespectful act because it implies that the teacher, who is supposed to be the authority on the subject, has not adequately explained the topic. So of course, when I encouraged my students to ask questions, they were very reluctant to do so because they feared offending me.

The other issue that I ran into repeatedly was the Korean school system's emphasis on memorization over application. Korean students are expected to memorize facts, formulas, grammatical structures, etc., which they can do with astounding accuracy. Many of my students could recite the definitions of English words such as "pallinode" or "temerity", words that would stump native English speakers. However, they were rarely able to apply this knowledge in any meaningful way. When they spoke English, they relied on memorized phrases (which had often been taught incorrectly). Here are the classics:

"Hello how are you I am fine thanks and you?" (Said in one breath without waiting for a response.)

"In my family I have mother, father, younger brother."

"You are very beautiful!" My personal favourite. ;)

But when you said something to them that deviated from the script they were expecting, they had no idea how to respond. Very few of them felt comfortable making what linguists call "spontaneous utterances", ie. talking without having to think about it.

A way to meet both these challenges was to form a rapport with the students. Speaking English with a native speaking foreigner was a terrifying prospect for many of them, so I tried to do things that would help them to feel comfortable. I met them for coffee, went to movies with them, held office hours, and encouraged them over and over again to ask me questions. Instead of revisiting the more formal, businesslike English common in Korea's English textbooks, I tried to teach them English they could actually use. (After one lesson on the expression "That sucks", one student e-mailed me to say that she'd heard it on Grey's Anatomy and finally knew what it meant. That felt pretty good!)

I loved what I was doing and realized that I could easily make a career out of it. Not only was I being paid to teach, an activity I enjoyed, I was being paid to travel. All around me, I was surrounded by ex-pats who weren't just doing this for a year, but were making their lives of it. Maybe I didn't want to be a librarian after all. Maybe I wanted to be a teacher.

Still, I felt that I had it in me to be a more effective instructor, something the conditions at my job prevented me from doing. For one thing, I was spread too thin. Every week three hundred students went through my classroom. I taught the same lesson twenty-two times a week. I couldn't give them any homework because there was no way I could grade three hundred papers. Lesson planning was next to impossible because the students who were almost fluent in English were lumped in with the students who could barely introduce themselves. I only saw each class eight times a semester - not enough to make any real difference. As long as I remained in the Korean university system, it would be hard to be anything but a human tape recorder. I wanted to do more than that.

So when my contract was up, I began to apply for jobs at international schools in Korea. These were private schools that were run in a Western style with the intention of putting their graduates into Western universities. Ultimately, I was hired by Gyeonggi Suwon International School in Suwon, which came out of an American educational tradition and employed teachers from all over the world. There I began teaching 9th and 10th grade English Lit, Drama, Writing, and public speaking. I was to teach my students in a Western style, which meant I would expect them to ask questions, collaborate with one another, participate in discussions, debate, perform, and reflect.

That was a challenge at first. Over 95% of GSIS' students were ethnically Korean, and because it was a new school most of them had just come out of the Korean school system. So there was a lot of adjustment as we all got accustomed to learning in a new way. But as the years passed and the students got the hang of it, they grew in confidence and their English academic abilities improved. I began to get more creative in my teaching and formed really close ties with my students.

With Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the play I co-directed last spring for 6th-12th grade students.

And all this time the debate raged in my head: Did I still want to be a librarian? Or did I want to keep teaching? The answer came to me in the classroom.

We tend to think that because teenagers have grown up with access to the Internet, they automatically know how to make best use of it. That is one of the primary arguments for cutting funding to school libraries - why do students need books when they can just jump on their laptops? The experience of teaching research skills to my students, however, soon made me realize that trained library professionals are more crucial than ever.

These were smart kids, but they struggled with the research from the beginning. I taught them how to choose appropriate keywords for their Google searches, how to tell good websites from bad, how to use the library databases, and how to keep their sources organized once they'd found them. All the while I was thinking to myself, If I was a librarian, I'd be better at this.

But here's the thing. In our Web 2.0 world, a librarian is always a teacher. Forcing myself to choose between two narrow categories suddenly seemed silly. I knew then that I wanted to find a place for myself as a teaching librarian. After all, I love teaching, I love connecting students with resources, and as a teaching librarian I can do both!

Although it was never my original plan to spend four years in South Korea instead of one, I'm so glad I did. My time there was so much more than "just" a gap year; it launched my career. Not only did I get to meet fantastic people, learn about other cultures, and save a bit of money, I also gained some incredible teaching experience and found the niche I want to pursue in librarianship.

Now I'm excited for the next phase of my career. Maybe I'll become a teacher-librarian in a high school. Maybe I'll become an academic liaison librarian in a university. Or maybe I'll end up pursuing an option I'm not even aware of yet. It just seems like there are so many possibilities out there in the library field! I can't wait to get started.