Library School Confidential
In May, I graduate from Simmons College with my MLIS with a concentration in archives. I attended school full time, and will have completed the program in two years. My experience is probably not typical of most archives students for two reasons in particular: first my background is in writing, not history, which is a very common undergraduate major for archivists; and second, I chose to complete the program (which is in Boston) while commuting from Providence, and I don’t drive, so I relied completely on my bike and the commuter rail. I know a few other students who did this, which made me feel less crazy for choosing not to move to Boston. This is definitely not intended to be an objective overview of library school at Simmons or anywhere else, more a personal reflection on my last two years. If you want to read a more nuanced review of Simmons’s program, you should check out this post on Hack Library School, which I think provides a little more information about what the program is really like. For my own part, I’ll say that I mostly had a really good time at school. The archives track is extremely structured, so I only got to choose two of my classes freely (I took Digital Libraries and Photographic Archives). I learned a lot both in class and through jobs and internships. I found that what I learned in class was very consistent with what I learned in all of my workplaces, which I think speaks well to how current the curriculum at Simmons is.
I think one of the strengths of Simmons is that it’s in an area full of libraries, museums, and other historical and cultural heritage institutions. In my two years of school, I worked with a correspondence collection from the Mary Baker Eddy Library, art from the Anthony Quinn Trust. I processed textual and audio collections at Northeastern University, which has an amazing social justice collection in its archives. I’ve worked in the digital archives of one of NARA’s presidential libraries for the past year, and for the past three months of worked with photography degree projects at RISD. I’ve also helped work on the Uni, a portable reading room for public space that provided a really inspiring creative outlet for me, and reminded me about why I got excited about library science in the first place, and how much potential there is for exploration in this field. As this hodge podge of experience probably suggests, this means I’ve been working multiple jobs and internships concurrently at almost all times. Add a few hours of commuting a day to that, not to mention homework, and it probably seems really obvious that I’ve run myself ragged. I have. This past semester, in particular, I’ve really felt that I’d taken on maybe just one two many things, and was at risk of doing them all poorly. Fortunately, I’ve managed to muddle my way through it. I’ve of the mind that when I’m given an opportunity, I ought to take it. At least, I think that’s the case now, while I’m still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.
I started the archives program dead set on working with oral histories. I would still love to do this, but as it happened, my system of accepting opportunities as they were presented to me led me to work primarily with photographs and digitization/digital preservation projects. I’m definitely not complaining. I started the program with very minimal technological skills (I collect manual typewriters and used to work with microfilm, so no, I’ve never been at the forefront of technology.) But I threw myself into learning, and had a really delightful moment when my advisor referred to me as a “technology person,” something I never ever thought I would be called.
For me, going to library school was a lot like going to school for writing. I feel that in both programs, I learned skills that should allow me to fit into many different settings, working with materials from many different disciplines. As a person who is interested in too many different things, I love having studied subjects that in essence can allow me to infiltrate and contribute to so many professional environments. I am very tired these days, so I don’t know that I would attempt to convince anyone to go to library school necessarily, or to commute from Providence to Boston on a daily basis. But if it’s what you want to do, I will say it can be done. (There are also some great places to work in Providence, but I think Simmons has a more established connection with institutions in Boston, so there are a lot more internships and student positions there.) And you will probably get to do some really interesting things, and if you’re in archives, touch some pretty amazing letters. I’ve gotten to get my grubby (actually extremely sterile) hands into letters from Susan B. Anthony and Francesca Woodman’s student portfolio, to name only a few things. I’ve also heard rumors about an official special collections librarian concentration at Simmons, which I think would be a really fun program to go through. Not that I’m looking to go back to school anytime soon.