One of the last classes I took to get my library degree was an "administrative practicum." In brief, I had the chance to closely observe the local public library director, a man named Fred Schlipf. Schlipf had a Ph.D. in Library Science, and had taught a couple of our classes.
Much of the practicum consisted of me sitting in his office and taking notes. How to deal with this. How to deal with that. I also got to ask frank questions about why he had chosen a certain approach; in return, I got frank answers.
Then, he had me work in every department of the relatively small library (a single building, serving a single town) for a day. After that, he asked me to tell him where I thought there were any problems. I didn't find many – but I thought the archives department could use some firming up.
So he put me in charge of doing that. I got to call meetings, work up agenda, give some work assignments, and evaluate the changes.
It was a wonderful experience, showing me precisely the difference between theory and application in my new field. It served me in good stead for many years afterward.
Like so many things, the only way to pay back that experience is to pay it forward. At the end of last summer, I was approached by one Robb Heckel, a master's candidate at the Emporia State University extension program in the School of Library and Information Science. He was seeking an administrative practicum at our libraries. I volunteered to take him on.
In his over 200 hours with us, Robb got to see a lot. He saw policy changes, administrative changes, budget retreats and presentations. He observed Board meetings and committee caucuses. He sat in on state legislative strategy sessions. He heard some of the deliberations around key personnel issues, and what it's like to negotiate with and manage important vendors. He came to our annual staff day. He attended our "district roundtable" -- where our strategic decisions are made – and then got to follow those decisions down to the branch level.
He got, in short, a very top level view of how a large library district is run, good and bad, warts and all. I didn't hide anything, and did my best to answer his often probing and insightful questions.
But here's the surprise. While I have no doubt the experience was a valuable contribution to his education, it was also a big contribution to mine.
Bringing in a fresh pair of eyes to my job let me see some things I hadn't seen before. My job has changed. While I still have a hand in the facilitation of decisions in-house, and still have an important role in setting tone and direction, more and more of my time involves thinking about and making myself available to a much larger community.
I saw the many things I like about this place – the thoughtfulness and openness that goes into our decision-making. I also saw the places where our growth has begun to make us inefficient, or where we don't quite live up to some of our values.
In short, by working with an "intern," I not only got a new perspective on my job, but a sharp to-do list out of Robb's questions.
I bet that would hold true for other librarians. In fact, I bet almost anybody would benefit from having a curious student follow him or her around and ask apropos questions.
Teaching is a powerful way to learn. As I suspect one of my mentors, Dr. Schlipf, would agree, sometimes you do things for your profession that wind up doing YOU a lot of good.