What is a student worth?

This morning, as I was getting off the bus and into the rain, I tweeted about the first day of my professional placement. This tweet turned into a giant thread about the nature of work experience within LIS, whether placements should be compulsory and/or paid, and the difficulties inherent in taking time off paid work or other responsibilities. I am slightly stunned by the response it got. I hope this doesn’t make me some kind of influencer. :/

You might have to click on a few different tweets to see all the responses. I was typing on my phone and so was slower to respond. Plus I was, yanno, doing a placement. I’m concerned that some of my thoughts on the topic may have been buried or misinterpreted, so here is a very quick overview. I also want to make very clear that my views on this topic are, as always, my own. They are definitely not those of my former employer, my placement host, my future employer or my uni.

In short: I have no issue with work experience or professional placements. I fully appreciate that for many LIS students, a placement may be the only practical experience they get before they graduate. Placements can lead to great networking or job opportunities, and we all know how hard entry-level jobs are to find these days. Plus with so many of us studying online (me included), every little bit of library experience helps. Many students find their placements to be enriching and rewarding experiences that allow them to apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical setting.

I do have an issue with unpaid placements—if they are unpaid, they should not be compulsory. Being a student is financially precarious enough as it is. By forcing students to attend unpaid work experience, we are implicitly sending the message that their labour is worth nothing. That in order to be professionally recognised and accredited, they need to have invested their time, energy and enthusiasm in a host organisation that couldn’t even be bothered paying them. That they ought to have enough funds from somewhere else to support themselves, and that if they don’t, they’re not welcome here. This kind of attitude only further entrenches the class inequality within LIS. The payment wouldn’t have to be much—even a small stipend would help immensely. Something to take the sting out of that fortnight’s rent.

In addition, being on placement should not be an excuse for the host organisation to use the student as free labour doing the crappy jobs. I am fortunate that this is not the case for me. I am doing my placement in a well-regarded institution, doing some interesting stuff. I also had to quit my job in order to do it. I am sandwiching my placement in between short-term contracts; scheduling has been very difficult for me, and I don’t even have children or caring responsibilities (it must be ten times harder for those who do!). I am also fortunate to have good finances, a second job, and a week’s worth of annual leave payout. Plenty of students don’t have this to fall back on.

The issue of who would pay a placement stipend is a tricky one. I believe organisations who take placement students should consider a stipend part of the cost of doing business. After all, most hosts are already investing staff time (ergo money) in training the student and showing them the ropes. The flipside, of course, is that places that can’t afford to pay students will simply stop offering placements, and only the richest libraries will take students. I’m not convinced. I think they would find a way—after all, students are going to be running this profession one day, and wouldn’t you want to make sure you taught them the right things?

I’m glad that we’re talking about unpaid placements. I hope that our conversations today might be a catalyst, however small, for some reform in this area. Professional placements are not, strictly speaking, work—but they prepare students for the world of work in LIS. And they are worth paying for.

You don’t scare me! I’m a librarian!

Being a librarian, I have discovered, comes with a lot of advantages. I can defeat Google with my superior searching and indexing skills for the benefit of patrons everywhere. I can talk proudly about how hard I work to make my library a better place. I can shush with impunity (only because our ref desk is in a designated quiet space). I can meet other librarians and know we’ll have something in common. Above all, I can sleep at night, knowing my job is intrinsically good and whole and meaningful.

See, I used to fear all of these things. I once thought Google was as good as it got, and I didn’t want to ask for help. I never wanted to talk about my work in case I appeared boastful, egotistic or fake. I used to hate shushing people, for fear it would perpetuate librarian stereotypes. Other people terrify me, so networking was (and is) painful and scary. And I’ve worked jobs that I was scared to go to, because the job crushed and violated my morals each and every day, and there was no end in sight.

So how did I do it?

Obviously I didn’t come straight into libraryland knowing this stuff. It wasn’t until I started my MIS, and received explicit instruction to this effect, that I realised the extent of my poor search habits, that there was something beyond Google (don’t look at me like that, I’m a millennial). I finally realised I hadn’t necessarily been doing it wrong, but that I could be doing it so much better. Search prefixes. Boolean. Union catalogues. Discovery layers. Trove. OMG. So empowering. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone (even if they weren’t interested). I found myself full of something I hadn’t known existed: ‘information confidence’. Not confidence in myself, necessarily, but confidence in my ability to locate, distil and critically examine information. It’s a good feeling.

You’ll have noticed I tweet a lot about cool stuff other people are doing, but not a lot about cool stuff I’m doing. This is partly because I can’t talk about things at work that aren’t yet public, and also because I’m keen to not humblebrag about how great / busy / exhausted I am. But recently I’ve become much more aware of the importance of highlighting librarian labour. Every aspect of library work—reference, acquisitions, programs, cataloguing, outreach, shelving, the lot—is valuable. Some parts of that work (programs, outreach) are more visible than others (acquisitions, cataloguing). Some of that work is valued differently (by management, and also by payroll). Being primarily a back-of-house worker, I need to work harder at demonstrating how hard I work and what I do to make collections accessible and discoverable by our users. It’s critically important not to minimise the length of time or amount of money one spends doing something, lest others think they, too, could achieve it in that timeframe and with that budget. I always used to diminish myself when talking about my work. Now I talk about my efforts with pride. It’s a powerful feeling.

Recently, I’ve had to up my shushing skills. Our reference desk is situated, oddly, in our library’s ‘quiet space’. People really value this space, and so I’ve had to get used to enforcing the quiet by way of a good shush. I don’t like doing it. I used to hate having to go up to noisy chatters or loud call-takers and ask them to keep the noise down and take the call outside. But at least it no longer scares me. Being a staff member affords me certain privileges within the library, and shushing is one of them. (Others include being able to evacuate people in a fire drill and using the exalted Staff Toaster™ for lunchtime jaffles.) I’ve only really gotten better at shushing through experience. I now know how best to phrase a shush, from a pointed smile to a simple ‘shhh’ to a polite ‘hey can you try and keep the noise down, this is a quiet space’ to a firm ‘take the call outside, please’ (and they know I’m not asking). It’s a comfortable feeling.

People scare me. People are weird, unpredictable, incomprehensible things. I always look the wrong way and say the wrong things. I can’t people. It’s a known fact. So naturally a big part of librarianship (as with many other professions) is networking with fellow library workers and people in related fields. ‘Why did I choose this career?!’ I say to myself, perhaps not as regularly as I used to. ‘Nobody told me there would be so much socialising!’ The best way to overcome this fear, it turns out, was to face it head-on. Knowing that I find this sort of thing hard and scary, I deliberately inserted myself into situations where I would be forced to network and make small talk. I did this at ALIA meetings, at ASA meetings, at NDF and at NLS8. People seemed to want to talk to me back, so I took that as a sign I wasn’t doing everything totally wrong. I still don’t always know when to stop talking, and I can’t always tell when someone would, politely, like to talk to someone else. But I definitely know I’ve gotten better at this. It’s an incredible feeling.

I’m exceptionally lucky to have a job that comes with a good set of morals. I haven’t always been so fortunate—I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in call centres, I’ve worked in warehouses and I’ve worked in some questionable pizza joints. To be clear: blue-collar, low-skill jobs are not in and of themselves morally deficient, and I would never judge someone for working in these fields to support themselves. But all of the above places existed either to sell a product or to make people’s lives miserable, and I feared for my health and my sanity while I worked in them. Libraries, on the other hand, exist to make people happy. We exist to enrich the populace, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We offer a place to rest, to study, to discover, to chase small children around beanbags. We are here for you. All of you. And we don’t charge a cent. (Except maybe for photocopies.) How could I ever fear a place like this? How could I ever again be scared of going to work? For as long as I’m in the library sector, I don’t think I’ll be scared of my own job. And that’s a great feeling.

It’s a great comfort to look back on things I used to fear so much and know that the fear is largely gone. Don’t worry, there are still non-library-related things I’m scared of (heights, mostly). But on the whole, conquering these fears has made me a better, more confident, more engaging and more effective librarian.

And that’s a wonderful feeling.