As part of the Library as Research Lab Fellowship (LaRL), I have had the opportunity to explore many different careers in librarianship while honing a new set of research skills. While I had some experience working as a research assistant in various contexts prior to this program, LaRL has privileged me insight into what it means to conduct research in an academic library setting. As part of the Student Learning lab group, I have been able to be directly involved in the design and implementation of an original research study concerning the nature of student learning in in-person instruction sessions. Along the way, I have also been able to connect one-on-one with various practitioners working in the library to learn more about what they do and to get a sense for what kinds of roles I envision myself eventually holding as a future information professional. As a whole, my experiences have contributed to a greater understanding of the library as an ecosystem, allowing me to better articulate the space I would eventually like to occupy within it.
I chose to enter the field of information based on my vision of pursuing a career with impact that has a clear focus on social justice. Libraries and archives — with their intentions of providing access to information and preserving cultural heritage — struck me as an ideal environment in which to fulfill my goal. I arrived on campus ready to dive in, but was quickly overwhelmed by how much more complicated things were than I had originally anticipated.
One of the first major things I had to contend with was the fact that while my conception of libraries and archives was stuck in the analog, I would have to master many brand-new technical skills related to digital content in order to be successful. Luckily, picking up things like programming, digitization tools, and content management systems turned out to be a welcome and enjoyable challenge.
The second major realization I had is that there is so much nuance in what it means to be a librarian or an archivist, with a dizzying number of niche roles that one can hold. I found myself asking a lot of questions about where I might have the most to offer and be the most fulfilled: What kind of setting do I want to work in – public, private, academic, institutional? Do I want to be a subject specialist or an instructional librarian? Do I want to work in a more forward facing role such as reference or be part of a more behind-the-scenes contribution such as processing and collection development? Maybe I want to do something with metadata? (But wait…what is metadata?!?) And what about research?
To answer these questions, I have tried to explore the breadth of the field during my time here at UM. Participating in LaRL is one such example of where my explorations have taken me. I was drawn to the fellowship because I was curious as to the form research takes in a library setting, but I was also very much interested in learning directly from current librarians. On both of these fronts, I have not been disappointed.
On the research side of things, I have been able to supplement my background in social science research by learning new tools and methods and how they can be applied to library-related projects. My work in the Student Learning lab so far has been some of my first independent experience with survey design, cognitive interviewing, and using Qualtrics. The next phase of the project will allow me to brush up on my semi-structured interviewing skills and to learn new-to-me data analysis methods.Whether or not I choose to pursue a library assessment related role as I move into the job market, I know that having these skills under my belt along with a deeper understanding of the research process will be a valuable asset going forward.
And in terms of interacting with current practitioners, I have had the privilege of working directly with two experienced UM librarians — Angie Oehrli and Doreen Bradley — in our Student Learning lab subgroup. Angie has also been serving as my supervisor for the internship credits I am receiving for my participation in this program. As part of my learning objective to learn more about the different careers that are possible for librarians and archivists, she has been connecting me with people in different departments so that I may set up informational interviews to learn more about their careers and the day-to-day duties of their positions. Thus far I have met with subject specialists in Psychology and Social Work, a library assessment specialist, and an information/access services librarian. I also have plans to meet with a metadata librarian and a special collections librarian in the coming weeks. Thanks to the generosity of these professionals taking the time to share their perspectives and advice, these informational interviews have proved invaluable to me in gaining insight into what I may eventually want to do post-graduation. While I still may not have found the perfect role or myself yet, I now have a deeper understanding of the library as a system in which each person has an important role to play.
As I near the halfway point in my LaRL stint with graduation quickly approaching, I am reflecting on the sum of my experiences as a current student of information. When I recall my excitement at the beginning of the program and how this was quickly replaced with confusion and a strong sense of being overwhelmed, I am comforted by the fact that the actions I took to explore my options are allowing everything to finally start to come together. Well-designed programs following a model similar to LaRL which bring information students, information researchers, and information practitioners together are a worthwhile approach for other institutions to experiment with going forward. Experiences such as these are what help students like me who are still very much in the exploratory stages of their careers see the field from a broader angle, aiding them as they begin to figure out where they can have the most impact.
Tori Culler obtained her B.A. in Psychology withminors Social Work and English from Appalachian State University and is nowpursuing her Master’s degree in Information with a focus on Digital Curation atthe University of Michigan.