Q: I have worked in public and county law libraries for about eight years. I was given the opportunity to apply to library school through a “Librarian Trainee” program through my current employer. On the surface this seems like good news, but it is not turning out to be that for me. I am forty-something, and have found the rigors of graduate school to be difficult. I am supposed to be receiving training and support in librarianship on the job; what I am is a glorified “go-fer.” I act as a filler wherever they are short on staff. I am feeling used and disgusted with this arrangement, and have seriously considered quitting my position. If they are not going to assist me and support me in my studies, what is the benefit of me staying with this library system? I feel I will be just as ill treated when I graduate (if I graduate).
TA: I have several questions for you about the type of trainee program you are involved in, but since you are not here for me to ask, I am going to make several assumptions, and then give you some questions to ask yourself. It sounds like you’re getting more than you bargained for with graduate school, and less than you want from your supervisors and place of employment.
The first thing I would recommend is that you sit down and do a true cost-benefit analysis. You need to make a list. Actually, several lists. First, list your initial expectations of the trainee program. What did you think you would get out of a program of this type? Next, list what you see as the shortcomings of the program. Lastly, make a list of the things you can do to change the outcome.
At some point, you were obviously excited about the possibility of possessing an MLS, so you took advantage of an opportunity offered to you by your employer. The question now is, at what cost? Make a list of the things you get from being in the librarian trainee program. You are going to library school. Is this something you could have done prior to being a trainee? Is financial assistance for your education part of the trainee program? How about time off for school or a flexible schedule to accommodate your classes? It’s easy when we’re unhappy to focus on the negatives and everything that’s wrong. But in order to make an informed decision, we need to have all of the information, and that means assessing the positives as well.
You mentioned being unhappy with the absence of the training and support you need, and filling in wherever there was a staff shortage. These can be real disappointments, but can also be survived. In my opinion, the best mentor/protegee relationships occur naturally, not by assignment. You may not find someone in your current workplace to fill this role. But don’t give up. Keep looking and forming relationships with people at work and at school. Continue to be interested in all areas of librarianship and continue to reach out to others in the field. You will eventually find someone to assume the mentor role and who will offer the career guidance and support you value so highly.
Changing the Outcome
There are several things that come to mind to try in your effort to change the outcome of this situation. First, be proactive. In your journey from department to department, you are getting quite the initiation to the entire library – a bird’s eye view that some folks would envy. During your tour, perhaps you could identify special projects that relate to your coursework. Seeking out the opportunity to oversee a special project would demonstrate initiative, and you may have the opportunity to work on a more specialized task at a higher level. Another benefit: your experience may provide a nice case study to write about in one of your classes.
A second option for altering your current situation involves more of a shift in perspective than anything else. You said you felt like a “go-fer,” moving from department to department wherever there was a staff shortage. This may not seem glamorous, but you are getting a great opportunity to see all of the departments of the library and their inner workings. There are students coming out of library school who choose their specialization in libraries (and accept their first job) based on their coursework. You have the opportunity to try your hand at all types of librarianship long before having to make a decision about your first professional position. Consider your journey through the library as a practice-based supplement to your academic education. Additionally, I don’t know of any library that has never had to manage without a staffing shortage. Your experience filling in where needed says, “I’m a team player,” and will serve you well when you have to manage similar situations as a library supervisor or department head.
Finally, you need to consider how long the trainee program lasts and ask yourself if you can stick it out long enough to complete graduate school. With a wide range of library experience, initiative demonstrated through special projects, and an MLS in hand…Oh, the places you’ll go.