Student Governance

by Paul Lai

Another school year is upon us! Over the next few weeks, we will add some more tips and discussions to our Starter Kit Series as we welcome new library students to the blog. We’d like to encourage returning students to revisit the series along with us as well and especially to dive into the comments to share your own experiences and tips.

For today, I’d like to bring up the idea of joining and serving in student governance as a useful part of a library student’s education and experience. Librarians foster civic participation by providing education and information for informed citizens in electoral campaigns. Librarians also face the challenge of being advocates for libraries to legislative funding bodies, corporate boards, and other governing organizations that hold the purse strings for libraries’ budgets. All of this work requires a solid understanding of on-the-ground politics and how to navigate bureaucracies and hierarchies. Please also take a look at a related and overlapping post by Britt last year, Student Organizations and LIS Education, which focuses on the many benefits (and difficulties) of being a part of student organizations on campus such as ALA student chapters, professional development clubs, and special interest groups. Make sure to read through the comments there, too, which offer an excellent conversation with many people sharing thoughts on their schools’ particular organizations.

I’ve always been a lurker in student groups and never a huge fan of being an officer (all that responsibility! all the work trying to get other students involved!). But after a few years in my previous career where I served on numerous committees and attended countless meetings with my colleagues, I realized how important it is to be involved in the daily governance as well as the decision-making process of whatever institution, organization, or community to which you belong. It is often in these smaller groups where decisions get made, both formally and informally, that shape the way the institution is run. Additionally, there is a lot of networking and more subtle building of consensus that only happens in these types of groups. (See also an earlier HLS post by Annie, Playing Nicely with Others: Doing Group Work, for more comments on working with others and tips on successful group work.)

So, in addition to getting to know your fellow LIS students, building relationships with them as your future work colleagues and peers, I suggest looking beyond your own program to the larger institution of your school. Think of yourself as part of a program shaped by a larger system. Look to make your voice heard, not just in the program with other students and faculty, but also in the university at large, with people in related programs and in the administration. Learn where your LIS program is situated in your school–details such as which dean the program reports to have a lot to do with the types of resources, funding, and support the program has. In short, think of yourself as part of a larger community in the institution. (Also worth considering is Micah’s post about connecting LIS students more with other grad students on campuses, HackLibSchool, meet GradHacker.)

On a more mundane level, getting involved in student governance is also a great primer on how democracy works in action. You’ll learn how people run meetings, how people debate topics and come to decisions, and how people navigate bureaucracies and hierarchies. These lessons are all invaluable for grounding lofty philosophical questions about the values of librarianship. Become that informed citizen that we are always championing! Understand how to articulate your positions and needs; figure out which people on campus you need to approach to address various issues.

I greatly admire my fellow students who have taken on leadership roles in the student organizations and governance. I have learned so much in the past year from watching them and listening to their appeals to the rest of us for participation. In my school, one of the big issues the current leadership has been trying to address is a lack of communication with students. Like some other library science programs, ours includes many people working full-time (our classes are all evenings and weekends) and with substantial family obligations, so it is difficult to get students to come to campus for extra meetings beyond classes or to deal with discussions and issues outside of course work. But it is work that is important if we are to be heard in the institution.

I, for one, plan on being more active in my program’s student organizations and governance bodies this year. We have a Student Governance Organization that acts as a representative body for MLIS students specifically to address any needs we have and especially to be a liaison to the faculty and administration. I am also going to look into being one of the MLIS program’s voting members to the university’s Graduate Student Advisory Board this year. The GSAB includes reps from each of the graduate programs on campus and is primarily a forum to exchange information and build community between the programs. (I am unclear on how much of a voice the group has with the administration.)


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