For many library science students who come from a humanities background, like myself, it can certainly be a challenging but refreshing change of pace to start taking so many practically-focused classes when starting graduate school. While a few MLIS students will go on to get a PhD, most of us are just in it for the quick-and-dirty year or two so that we can gain the skills and degree that we can use to distinguish ourselves as professional librarians.
But that’s not to say that theory goes out the window. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that most classes, from reference services to network systems to archival methods, are a mix of theoretical underpinnings and practical strategies/realities. I find it particularly beneficial that many of my professors have been or currently are still practicing librarians, archivists, and LIS professionals. I’m mostly here for the practical knowledge. I spent my undergraduate years honing my writing, reading, and research skills; I’m now focused on the library-specific skills I’ll need to succeed. But that’s not to say that theory cannot inform and enhance my practical skills and decisions.
Nowhere is this mixture of theory and practice more pronounced than in the Digital Public History class I’m currently taking. Each week we plow through massive piles of dense theoretical reading about the nature of public history, digital history projects, and the nature of digital public history projects as created by various agencies (libraries, archives, museums, professional public historians). Each class consists of lengthy discussions about what constitutes quality projects, how projects can be successful, and how such projects can be successfully marketed. Our final graded paper is a critical review of a digital public history project, for which we were encouraged to contact the project’s creators and interview them.
In addition to all of these theoretical readings, discussions, and analyses, around the midpoint of the semester it was decided that the class wanted more practical knowledge as well. So, as part of our participation grade, we are, as a class (of 7 people), creating a digital public history project from scratch. We’re only allowed to work on it in class (which is a curse and a blessing) and our professors expect the bare bones of a functioning site as well as a future action plan by the end of the semester. This project exemplifies what I love about library science, particularly here at Illinois. We get to take all of the rich theoretical ideas and concepts we’ve been reading about and try to apply them to a real-life situation. We have to work together quickly and efficiently as a group (while some LIS students complain about the amount of group work that is part of the degree, I think it reflects most of the real-life work situations we will experience once we graduate). And we get to learn a new skill/program; we’re using Omeka, which is a free digital collections tool/site.
All of this practical experience, even from within the confines of the classroom, is an integral part of a successful LIS education. Don’t get me wrong; this class is very time-consuming and oftentimes stressful. But I cannot imagine getting nearly as much out of library school without classes that incorporate a strong dose of both the theoretical and the practical.