Friday, July 20, 2012

What Library School Taught Me About Genealogy

Amy Johnson Crow wrote a blog post about her job and the general perception of librarians in the genealogical public. I've been meaning to write something along the same vein for a while now. Her post makes a good jumping off point and this is a fitting opportunity to add to the discussion.

I share Amy's frustration in the labels people place on each other, including generalizations and perceptions of librarians' purpose and value. Librarian doesn't always equal book shelver. Often they deal with the organization and classification of information and all facets of a user's experience (you = user). In fact, many MLIS (graduate degree) programs are moving away from "library school" and instead switching to "i-school" where the "i" stands for information. There's a lot of information out there and more is being generated every day. Today's MLIS students are studying ways to create it, save it, organize it, share it, access it, preserve it and make the entire process easier for users.

Each library school/i-school graduate takes a different path to meet different goals, but they share many of the same skill sets which are used in various aspects of the workforce. I'm going to tell you what I learned in library school and then you can see how it has helped me in genealogy.

Building a foundation
In my program, there were three introductory library fundamentals classes all students were required to take. This is where I learned how to define a research issue/question and plan the steps to solve it. I also learned how to search for and retrieve good information and omit results outside of my intended search, This comes in very handy in genealogy and helps me use my time efficiently. I also learned to analyze different types of information and determine which would work best for a given information issue.

I'm "special"
With the prerequisite classes under my belt, I concentrated on my selected Special Librarianship track. I've always been interested in research in a corporate setting and the rest of my classes reflected that. I had units in patent searching, competitive intelligence, market research and more in order to give me experience searching many different types of subjects. I use these skills today when I research the family history field including searching the genealogy business market, recent records and living people.

Fear no citations
You can run, but you can't hide from source citation manuals. My program used the APA Publication Manual. I wasn't a fan of APA. However, it did give me a greater appreciation for Elizabeth Shown Mills and her contributions to genealogy. I don't fear Evidence Explained at all. I'm just glad it's not APA.

Records management
You have files. Lots and lots of files. And books, and images, and journals, and maps. You get the idea. How do you organize those? How to you ensure that they are preserved in current media formats? How do you decide if and when to thin the collection? These are some of the things I learned in my records management class. This knowledge has helped me immensely in one of my current client projects which includes the organization of thousands of family history digital files.

Writing and more writing
I had to write a lot in library school, but it wasn't as awful as it sounds. It's very easy to write when you enjoy the subject matter. In my last assignment for the program, I had to take a position and bring the facts to back it up. I went against the status quo and introduced a new idea in library services. It was a risky position because my paper was being judged by faculty and I needed to "pass" this pass/fail grade to graduate. All the research and writing skills I picked up in the program must have worked because I passed and didn't get any negative feedback.Years later, this experience gave me the skills I later used for my ProGen proof argument and many other instances where I had to make a statement with my writing.

Search way beyond Google
My favorite classes were "Online Searching" and "Advanced Online Searching" taught by one of the foremost leaders in this industry. I love, love, love the search process: deciding what to search for, how to tell the database what you want, and how to get only the results you want without the unnecessary results. In these classes we had free access to some fancy tools and normally expensive subscription databases. Imagine being charged for each result you get in a search. You learn very quickly how to be specific and thorough in your search. I learned how to play in the parts of the Web that Google doesn't cover and to search databases filled with incredible information to which most people don't have access. It was so much fun and I learned such valuable skills in these classes. I don't know of a genealogy education program that teaches the research skills I learned, though they would be valuable to know. I'm very glad I got this experience in library school as it has been essential in my daily genealogy work. 

All the little extras
I also had classes in reference, systems analysis, government resources and a seminar pertaining to special libraries. They might not sound exciting, but when you love research like I do, they were very enjoyable. Plus, most of them offered skills or information that translated easily to genealogy resources.

Information abundance
I really did enjoy graduate school because it was all about information. The assignments were flexible, so I had the choice to study different kinds of libraries and analyze many types of collections. This has helped me immensely in working with genealogy collections and determining the best online and print resources for whatever project is on my table. 

I didn't go to library school specifically to do genealogy research. I originally trained to be a general business researcher in a corporate or independent setting. Life is funny, however, and I found that I enjoyed genealogy more than the other subjects in my wheelhouse. The rest is history.

If you've read this far, I thank you. Often my info-nerd talk elicits blank stares. However, Amy's blog post and my similar observations compelled me to share how my own library school experience shaped the genealogy work I do today. 

I was very impressed when brought Amy Johnson Crow on board. The same with brightsolid's acquisition of D. Joshua Taylor. These companies know the value of good MLIS-packing talent when they see it and their user experiences are better for it. Librarians and other information professionals do so much more than shelving books and their value is found in many places including but not limited to traditional libraries.


  1. Hi Amy,
    An excellent post. If going back to school were an option for me at this point in my life, Library Sciences sounds very appealing! I too love searching for information. I too love looking for information. Who's got it? Can I get at it? Why or why not? Is there a work-around? Sometimes I think I enjoy "the chase", more than the capture! :-)

    Thanks again for a great post.


  2. I love you Amy. Excellent post. Even though my MLIS is slightly (ahem) older than yours the principles still lay the foundation for everything. My specialization in University libraries taught me to research and prove things to survive scholarly debate too. Great training for a genealogist. Librarians rock. :)

  3. Great post Amy. As another "older" MLS, it is thrilling to see the enthusiasm you and other professional librarians bring to genealogy. I am of the firm belief that it is not only my undergrad degree in History, but my Masters Degree in Library Science that have always been the fundamental building blocks I use in my genealogical research.

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  6. Amy,
    GREAT post. As the ONLY genealogy librarian while I was in library school I was "strange". Who wanted to help, let alone listen to someone that had to tell you their whole story? It is me, and it is us. As you mentioned library school taught you and me the way to "analyze different types of information and determine which would work best for a given information issue." Sounds like deductive reasoning, a cornerstone in genealogical research...who knew library school was applicable to genealogy???

    It's not that you need and MLS to do genealogy, by all means, you don't. It is the skills that you develop in library school (and in other places) that can help you in genealogical pursuits.


  7. As I tell all my students in Genealogy for Beginners, "librarians are your best friends" - so treat them well!!
    Thanks for a great post, and fabulous explanation of the skills needed. This was my 2nd choice for my masters at a life-changing moment in my life (divorce, 4 kids)... no jobs nearby, so I got my masters in something quite else. Cheers.

  8. Your making me really want to go to library school! Been thinking about it...

  9. As a VERY recent MLIS graduate and professional genealogist, I wholeheartedly agree! I spent most of my time in grad school educating my fellow library school students on genealogy and as a board member of a genealogical society, I like to educate the society about how beneficial the "information" portion of the MLIS degree is (adding to Janet Hovorka's experience as a librarian). Thank you for making this clearer.

  10. Very interesting! I finished my MLIS about 6 months ago and work in a "non-traditional" library setting. Geneaology is very interesting to me and I've just started to devote some time to it. I almost wish I'd taken some archives courses.

    In your section, "Search way beyond Google" you mention some fancy expensive databases. Are you by chance referring to Dialog? I took an online searching course with such high hopes and ended up watching my professor search Dialog most of the time. If you are referring to Dialog, I'd be curious to hear if you use it in your daily work now. Most people's reaction when I mention Dialog is "what libraries still use that?" (I will admit it does help to hone/creat search skills.)

  11. As a librarian (retired), I am glad you put the case so eloquently for professional librarianship skills and helped redress the sterotyped image of us.