Choosing Practice Over Theory

The debate over practice vs. theory is quite familiar in LIS education. If you think about it, the very nature of our profession and our degree really does spur this kind of discussion. It’s funny because I’ve been recently writing about what students who are interested in digital libraries should do while they’re in school. Taking classes in the things that interest you is an obvious tip. In a way, I feel like a hypocrite because I haven’t even done all of those things myself. In fact, and I could be wrong about this, most people seem to find what they want to specialize in within the first year that they’re in school. Then they tailor their electives to match those interests; i.e. if you want to be a children’s librarian, you’re probably going to take classes related to that. Really, a MLS/MLIS program is too short to teach you everything you need to know, but it should give you a solid grounding that you can draw from. It’s really your time to take the classes that you think will prepare you best.

If you take a look at history of my coursework, you would probably wonder what area of librarianship I want to go into. I’m seriously all over the place. I am actually very interested in academic and digital librarianship, but I haven’t taken a digital libraries class. To be honest, I’m not sure if my schedule will allow me to do so, which I’m not entirely happy about. Here I am writing about the importance of understanding the theory behind the practical and yet I don’t always listen to my own advice. Is it important that someone understands the why and how a digital collection is built? Probably! But my own experience of understanding that is outside of the classroom. I’m not sure what’s more important, having that hands on experience, or learning about it in class. The likely truth is, both are just as important but why have I not chosen to do that?

This fall, I have chosen to do an instruction internship as opposed to one in a digital library. I was particularly inspired by the Seek a Challenge post written by Michael Stephens, in which he gives excellent advice to students. I have very little experience with instruction or with public speaking. This is something that makes me feel very uncomfortable so naturally, I chose to do an internship in an area that I know needs improvement (and also scares me). The other part of this is that I have chosen to do an internship in this area, as opposed to taking a class that would teach me a theoretical understanding of how to teach. Once again, I have elected practice over theory. I’m not saying that this is necessarily good; but I had to ask myself if I would learn more by doing or by sitting in a classroom and being lectured. I chose to learn by doing and I figure if I really want to learn more, then I can take the class offered by my school next semester. I’d probably get a lot more out of it since I could see the practical application.

Obviously, everyone has different learning styles and will approach their own education accordingly. I never really thought of myself as a person who hates learning about theory in library school. Ideally, practice and theory should go hand in hand. However, we only have a limited amount of time in school to learn so much and there are times when choices have to be made. What do you think is more important? Getting hands on experience or learning the theory in the classroom?

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11 thoughts on “Choosing Practice Over Theory

  1. I’ll be a chicken butt and come down on the side of… it depends! I think you hit it exactly when you said that library school doesn’t really give us enough time to explore or even be exposed to everything that we should, so I kept myself open to saying “yes!” to every opportunity that came up, and then tried to explore further on my own. I found it easier to explore theory on my own than practice (since I needed someplace to practice), so my education was a lot of guided practice (internships, etc…) backed up by independent theory exploration.

    • In general, my program is really weak on teaching and providing students with the opportunity to observe or teach info lit. classes. When my mentor suggested this internship to me, I jumped at the chance- even though I haven’t taken any classes that might have prepared me for it. I’m just wondering how it will all pan out. Hopefully well!

    • I’m with y’all. I think because our time is so short, we should take the classes that are interesting to us but are not necessarily resume-worthy. Having a theoretical background, to me, means having a broad information science theoretical background–developing instincts, if you will.

      Hell yes to challenging yourself and developing necessary skill sets outside of the classroom. Way to hack your degree!

  2. I agree that it depends. I think there are some things you can’t teach (thus practice is key) and there are things that you can’t teach yourself (so some sort of guided learning is necessary–be it an internship or class). Personally I prefer a mixture of both. My favorite classes teach theory but require students to get their feet wet with hands on experience.

  3. A mix is good, but one that leans more heavily toward practice is best in my opinion. I think it’s great that you’re taking an instruction internship — teaching is such a valuable skill in this profession, especially if you want to work in an academic library!

    I started volunteering at an archive before I took the class Archives & Manuscripts. Learning the theory was definitely helpful, as it complemented my work. I think what was especially great is that a practitioner taught the class, so she was able to really fuse both practice and theory together in class discussions.

  4. I would agree that a mix of theory and practice is best, but in this job market, would probably put more emphasis on practice. My guess is employers will be looking at what you have done rather than what you’ve thought about doing. Huge kudos for taking a scary internship for the challenge! I think my biggest library school regret is not taking the instruction class (never offered during the evenings when I was in the program). Because I work full-time, there wasn’t time to do an internship to add to my practical experience in that area either. We did a tiny bit of instruction and observation in my online searching class, but not enough to make me feel confident in the skill. I guess there’s a reason they say “practice makes perfect.” I think your strategy sounds like a good one!

  5. I’ve sort of been pondering this question from a different angle. I was actually thinking of writing my own blog post about it, but I’ll give you the light version. I actually work in two different libraries, and I have a fair amount of practical experience at this point. However, my current full-time job isn’t really giving me the kind of experience I want. I work in ILL, which is a library skill, but I haven’t really learned anything new in a while. I’m sort of just showing up and doing the work now. I do get opportunities to work with our digital initiatives librarian in my spare time, but I would like to be doing more of this. My other job is just on alternate Sundays at IMCPL’s reference desk, which I know is valuable experience, so I’m basically leaving this job out of the discussion.

    However, the stable source of income (meager as it may be) has allowed my wife and I to finally start saving a significant amount of money, which will be invaluable in the economically rocky days ahead (not to mention making our trip to Europe next year possible). This makes the prospect of simply quitting this job for another job that will likely be part-time or pay less and giving up my foot in the door of a State Library very uninviting.

    So basically I’m left with the paradox of being fortunate enough to actually have full-time (and beyond) library employment, but being sort of unsatisfied with the practical experience I’m getting. Being employed full-time also means that an internship may not be possible. I’m looking into post-graduate federal internships, but I’m not counting on that. I’ve more or less just decided that I’m going to make the most of my current situation and gain as many different types of experiences as possible and hope that my sheer amount of experience coupled with connections and/or already being hired in my preferred type of library will lead to a better job.

    I’ve also thought about trying to get some experience with the University Library’s digital team. I don’t really have time for another job though. Do they accept volunteers there?

    • Jared, I’m in a similar position. I work in Circulation/Stacks full-time and would love to gain more experience in other areas. While I’ve been able to do reference as well, there are only so many extra responsibilities I can take on in my position. The stability of a salary and benefits so far has outweighed the idea of quitting FT work and doing internships in other LIS areas. I do volunteer once a week at an archive (my weekend is only one day!), since that’s where my main focus lies — but even then it doesn’t feel like enoough.

      • I’m right there with you guys. I wouldn’t trade my full-time employment for an internship in this economy, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m gaining the professional experiences I would like to be right now. I’m fortunate to have gained some library experience, but mostly just feel stalled these days. I’m working on how to translate my random skills to the library world while trying to pick up some others on the side.

      • Good to see I’m not the only one with this “problem” (granted, it’s definitely a “first-world problem”). I count myself lucky to have gotten every library job I’ve interviewed for (including one I had to turn down). I know most MLS students would kill to have two jobs, especially the full-time one. Luckily, my job does come with a fair amount of downtime (invaluable in getting schoolwork done), and so I’ve been able to help with some digital projects that our digital initiatives librarian is working on. I’m seriously considering putting in some volunteer time in an archive or DL department. However, I do value my free time. I’m taking an archives class in the fall, so I guess I’ll wait and see if I fall in love with it before I put free time into it.

  6. Personally, I prefer experience heavy classes over theory heavy classes. Over the summer I took User Instruction and the bits of education theory were rather excruciating, but the part that was good for me was the actual standing up in front of the class and instructing bit. I can read about teaching for hours, but that’s not going to improve my teaching skills like spending hours in a classroom. Obviously we should understand why we do what we do, but knowing a lot about theory isn’t going to help you in your job/job market as much as more tangible skills. So you’re definitely not alone in your feelings! Good luck with your internship!

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