The Applicant Pool

Wading through the personal statements of prospective librarians

May 21, 2013


“Far too many people are floundering in our educational system and I believe libraries can change that.”

“What else is a coffee-obsessed, over-organized, well-read information analyzer with a love for technology to do?”

“I am a convener, a catalyst for action, a collaborative project manager.”

“I want to be forever bothered—bothered people make great things happen.”

I hope these folks don’t mind my quoting their fine words; I couldn’t think of a better way to convey the depth and breadth and richness of the gems we find when reading personal statements from people applying to the University of Washington’s MLIS program. I’ve been doing admissions work off and on for almost 25 years now (gulp), and not only have I seen it all—including the guy years ago who said he wanted to be Batman when he grew up (I stopped reading right then and voted to admit him, because that took guts)—I’ve seen it all change.

Back in the day, library school applicants often covered two basic points in their personal statements: what job they desired and why they wanted to work in libraries. These got very specific on both counts. They would give job titles like subject bibliographer or cataloger, or name a specific kind of institution in which they wanted to serve, like a rural public library or a community college. And of course, they all loved books.

Most would also tell some version of the Road to Damascus story. How they were working in an office and wound up maintaining the files and building the databases, or discovered they enjoyed doing the research for their college papers more than writing the papers themselves, or how a friend saw their alphabetized spice rack and suggested they should be a librarian. Librarian? You mean I could do this for a living?

Sound familiar? Often, librarianship was also a second career choice, one that people found along the way but that few people grew up aspiring to, aside from those of us who were genetically predisposed from birth. (Thanks, Mom.)

Today, I continue to be struck by how things have changed. Far fewer people come to us, at least to our program, by way of Damascus. The profile of applicants has shifted; we now get a substantial number who are within a year or two of completing undergraduate degrees and more than a few college seniors. And while many speak of experiences with books and libraries, I also find a less specific sense of what their interests and intended careers are. Not vague, necessarily, just general.  Instead of “I want to be a public librarian,” it’s not uncommon to see “I want to work to improve and develop communities and promote social justice through better access to information,” which, of course, can often amount to the same thing.

By the time you read this, our decisions will be made for the coming year. It’s tough work, sifting through these statements and recommendations (please, please, pleeeeease write strong letters with specifics for people you’re recommending) to find the applicants we think show the greatest potential to succeed with us and, professionally, beyond our program. It’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility, as my faculty, student, and staff colleagues on our admissions committee all know. We’re changing lives at every turn, and the profession we all care so deeply about as well.

It can also be inspirational. Let me leave you with one more excerpt: “I know times are iffy. I’m entering the field precisely because times are iffy—it’s worth working to make sure these institutions endure.” Isn’t that just the sort of person you want in your profession? I do, and we’re working to find and nurture even more of them . . . but that’s another story.

JOE JANES is associate professor and chair of the MLIS program at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.


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