On Being an Older Library School Student

by Laura Sanders

During my first few weeks of library school I noticed that my cohort was a mix of people in their early twenties fresh out of their undergraduate degrees, and older people who were coming to librarianship as a second career. I count myself among the second group; I am thirty years old and worked for several years as a teacher before enrolling in library school. (I guess some people might take issue with me describing myself as “old,” since thirty is not exactly ancient. But librarianship is my second career and that changes things considerably.) After years of always being the one in charge, always the one responsible for lesson plans and grading and classroom management, I was looking forward to being a student again.

Yet during my first year I discovered that attending library school as an older student comes with its own unique benefits and challenges. Your knowledge and skills will shape your view of the librarianship profession, but you may relate to the world quite differently than your younger classmates. When I compare myself as a library school student to the sort of student I was during my first graduate degree, I see how my perspective and priorities have changed. Here are some of my reflections:

First off, the benefits…

You know yourself as a professional

Regardless of what field you worked in before, the greatest benefit of coming to library school with previous professional experience is that you already know how you operate in a professional context. You will likely already be aware of your strengths and weaknesses as an employee, how you respond in certain situations, the way you interact with colleagues, and under which conditions you are most productive. For example, years of teaching have put me in enough sticky situations to know that I can handle any curveball my workplace throws at me. When I take my first librarian position I may make mistakes at first, but I already have confidence in my own adaptability. I trust myself to improve with time and I know I will do a good job.

You’ve got the skills

More specifically, you will bring the skills you gained in your former career to librarianship. Although library instruction and readers’ advisory can be a bit daunting for many library students, they don’t faze me because teaching is so tied to both of those things. As another example, I know library students who have worked as computer engineers and can code databases brilliantly, or multilingual people who can link metadata in different languages. No matter what you’ve done, you will have a lot to bring to librarianship and your contribution will be unique!

You’re ahead of the game… in some ways

Depending on what you did before, you may encounter topics in librarianship in which you are already experienced. You might have already managed large groups of people, which would give you more to talk about in your management course. Or you might be proficient in html5 or Ruby or other useful programs that enable you to put a little extra sparkle in your assignments. Plus, you probably know how to sell yourself. It’s likely that you already have a clear idea of how you want to contribute to the profession, which enables you to be more articulate about your goals at job fairs or when speaking to your advisor.

Another important benefit: chances are you will have less difficulty finding student work. My previous teaching experience helped me to land a part time library job during the school year as well as a full time summer position in an independent library. I have learned a great deal from them. Your professional background will give you an edge when applying for such positions.

Despite all these benefits, being a more mature student has its challenges as well.

The financial hit

Paying tuition fees is never easy no matter how old you are, but I do find that it’s harder to be a student when you’re older. In developed countries, the late teens to mid-twenties are earmarked for university. But by thirty, time spent in school is time spent out of the workforce. Though I can’t say I enjoyed the relative student poverty of my undergraduate years, it was less difficult when all of my friends and I could sit in someone’s basement apartment eating mac and cheese out of a blue box. But now, the majority of my friends are working professionals and homeowners. It gets disheartening to pound the pavement for an apartment that’s in your budget, to turn down dinner invitations with friends because you can’t afford to go, or to watch the money you manage to scrape together going toward tuition instead of your retirement fund. Or for that matter, food. I just keep reminding myself that I won’t give up until I’m a working professional too.

You’re ahead of the game…but you have to start from scratch

It is likely that you were somewhat established in your former field before starting library school. But now that you’re changing careers, you’ve lost that established position and are back at Square One. You may have to do core courses in library school on topics that are basically just review. You may become frustrated when you’ve given assignments that seem like useless busywork. You may have to take positions for which you are overqualified as you struggle to get a foothold in your new field. Starting over is tough.

Different priorities

The first time I did a graduate degree, I was twenty three and had precisely one pressing demand on my time: graduate school. While that did gobble most of my time, it did not have to compete with the demands of a job, a partner, or children. But many older students are trying to do their degrees while working, holding relationships together, and looking after kids. Such a situation forces you to abandon perfectionism. By this I do not mean to imply in any way that you do not take your work seriously or that you do not strive to do well. But you have to be able to say, “This is good enough,” turn it in, and get on with life. While this is a challenge, personally I believe that balance makes us more efficient, productive, and happy librarians-to-be in the long run.

Thus, as you’re navigating your way through library school as an old(er) student, try to remember to work with your strengths and persevere. You may have a slightly different experience than the average student, but you can learn to make the most of it and even enjoy yourself!

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