After stumbling through my first year as a part-time USF LIS graduate student, I knew I needed more library experience than reorganizing shelves at my kids’ school media center. I had great grades and four classes under my belt, but I desperately needed some real life experience to bring more depth to my studies and research as a graduate student.
How could I analyze ILS systems if I had never used one? How could I appreciate the urgency and oddity of reference questions if I had not experienced life at a hectic public library Information Desk? I needed experience as a librarian and not as a typical volunteer. So when is fieldwork not really fieldwork? When your graduate school tells you it is too soon for fieldwork, but your advisor enthusiastically states, “Sure, let’s get creative!” and the public library says, “When can you start?”
A fortuitous encounter at a family party back home in Illinois led me to follow Champaign Public Library on Facebook. After researching the library’s progressive use of social media for a USF graduate course, the idea of doing fieldwork there germinated, percolated and, thanks to Professor Diane Austin, hatched. I walked through the doors of Champaign (Illinois) Public Library on Monday, June 20, 2011 at precisely 9 am. By the end of that first day, I was navigating Horizon, trouble-shooting computer and printer problems on day two, and fielding reference questions on day three. I also spent time at the urban Douglass Branch Library, where the staff taught me about circulation, how to cull the stacks, and the incalculable value of patron-staff friendships.
Serving a population between 50,000 and 100,000 people, Champaign Public Library’s librarians use an intricate schedule that places everyone in front of the public on a rotating basis. I loved the democracy and high level of customer service this provided, although it also placed a tremendous work burden on professionals who have plenty of deskwork as well. From the time the library opened each day, volunteers streamed in and out, supporting a lucrative used bookshop; all sorts of community groups gathered to meet in conference rooms; and a flood of patrons filed into the sun-streaked second floor Adult Services.
With a high circulation rate of its nearly 400,000 item collection, 89 public computers, 25 dedicated OPAC terminals, over 400 seats and 122,000 square feet in an award-winning 2008 new building, Champaign Public Library (CPL) is a bustling, progressive and growing public library. I was thrilled to have been a small part of its formal fieldwork program, normally staffed by graduate students of the high-caliber University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who perform a 20-hour project for CPL as the culmination of their fieldwork credit.
I received in-depth training on CPL’s impressive customer service philosophy, which covered everything from wardrobe to smiling when answering the phone. CPLs fieldwork program (they call it practicum) was intense, very hands-on, and, quite simply, perfect for what I needed to learn in such a short timeframe. Their librarians trusted me from the beginning and expected me to perform at a professional level, which was quite gratifying. In addition to my CPL fieldwork, USF Professor Austin required me to produce an improved website and master basic HTML coding, which turned out to be a symbiotic combination of hands-on training and intensive research. Thirty days and 101 hours later, I was not only sorry to leave such a dynamic, customer-service oriented public library behind but eager to apply my real-life lessons to this fall’s graduate USF School of Information classes. Did I have a relaxing summer? Well … maybe rewarding is the better word!
- Champaign Public Library: http://www.champaign.org/
- For a tour of the Champaign Public Library: