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We live in the age of the free-agent learner – which is really good news for LIS professionals. Because as a free-agent learner, regardless of your circumstances, you’ve got multiple ways to expand your skill set.

Which options work best for you?
You get to determine which options are best for you at any given time. To do that, it helps to ask yourself some key questions.

For example, do you prefer a formal learning experience (that is, interacting with an instructor in a face-to-face or online classroom, either with fellow students or independently)? Or perhaps an informal experience, such as working with a mentor or learning community, reading a book, taking an online tutorial?

Additional questions might include:

  • Does online learning work best for your hectic schedule, or does the learning dynamic of face-to-face classroom interaction suit you better?
  • Is getting official credit for your learning important for your career, or would a noncredit option work just as well for you? (Often this choice is related to employee tuition reimbursement.)
  • Is it important that your education be delivered within the context of an MLIS program (perhaps through a continuing ed course), or is it useful to take courses outside the profession? For example, sometimes for purposes of building a portfolio, it makes more sense to take courses outside the library profession to demonstrate your interest in and ability to bridge multiple disciplines. (It’s also a great way to start building a broader professional network.)

Which learning paths work best for you?
Once you’ve thought through those options, you’ll want to next consider how and where to pursue your learning goals: on the job, from the LIS profession, from your own professional community, from an MLIS program (as either an enrolled student or occasional, self-directed learner), or from other sources.

Some things to consider for each of these options….

Learning on the job.  A learning organization is an effective and competitive organization, according to Peter Senge’s landmark 1990 work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday, 2006). Senge identified the habits that keep companies from learning from their experiences, and then sharing that knowledge in a collaborative environment. Senge’s core insights are just as applicable to individuals. One of his key points, that today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions,” resonates equally strongly with our natural human instinct to cling to the comfort of the solutions we know and are comfortable with. That said, it’s still possible to take a page from Fifth Discipline and create your own mini-learning organizations.

Learning on the job may include on-site training programs, project work, professional development funds, tuition reimbursement, or formal mentoring programs. (In fact, you may want to consider negotiating for professional development opportunities and support if not already company policy as part of your total compensation package when you start talking about salary.)

Or learning on the job might just be hanging out with those new Gen Y staffers who know the latest technology tools and are willing to share their knowledge, or those seasoned practitioners willing to coach you through your first budgeting adventure. These informal learning exchanges are perhaps one of the greatest benefits of working in our new four-generation workplace, so it only makes sense to take advantage of it whenever possible.

Your workplace is also a great place to learn by doing. Work projects give you an opportunity to develop new skills by working with experienced pros, and you’ll get immediate and ongoing feedback on whether your skills are up to the task. Get proactive and volunteer for new initiatives based on what new knowledge or skill development they’ll provide you. Or look into “job rotation,” which allows you to cross-train and add additional skills to your portfolio.

Learning from the LIS profession. It’s often noted that one of the really great things about this profession is people’s willingness to share knowledge. That means you’re part of one of the world’s biggest, friendliest learning communities.

There are all sorts of ways to tap into this broad and deep knowledge base. Find successful local practitioners who have done what you’re interested in doing, take them to coffee or lunch, and ask them what the key skills are in their position – and how they learned theirs. Even if they can’t take the time to meet in person, most will at least be willing to respond with an e-mail answer, albeit a brief one (and possibly a few weeks down the road). Be as specific as possible with your questions; “what should I do with my life?” is guaranteed to produce a glazed look and no useful answers.

In addition, enlist one of the most valuable and easily accessed learning tools of the professional community by signing up for the best blogs, electronic discussion groups, tweets and RSS feeds in your areas of interest. To get a sense of who’s most knowledgeable, most innovative, and/or most credible on a given topic, ask colleagues you respect who they follow, see who’s stuff gets cited, linked to, or retweeted most often, check out who’s writing for key publications or speaking at conferences or giving terrific web- or podcasts. Check out who your favorite bloggers have in their blogrolls and follow the links. Your goal is to identify and then begin to monitor a group of experts whose shared knowledge will help you increase your own.

In addition, you may want to consider signing up for online and regional courses, workshops, and one-day seminars through professional associations like ALA, SLA, PLA, the American Association of Law Libraries, the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), or the Medical Library Association (and their regional chapters). Check out classes offered by your state library (if your state has one) or library association, your regional bibliographic utilities or training organizations, or look into regionally-delivered vendor training. Attend preconference workshops at state and national association conferences, where you can often also pick up vendor technology training sessions for free. In addition, if you’re new to the profession, consider programs like ALA’s New Members’ Round Table.

Also, look for online tutorials and discussion groups (try, for example, Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn groups focused on your topic of interest), which can often be a great source of lessons learned and wise counsel. LinkedIn provides an especially wide range of professional groups whose members share questions, answers and expertise. Additionally, consider relevant YouTube videos and industry podcasts or explore the amazing presentations at TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Learn in grad school. Being in grad school is a terrific opportunity to learn – but it’s up to you to set your own learning agenda in order to most effectively position yourself for maximum career opportunity. Every course you take provides two learning paths that should go forward side-by-side: the structured learning identified in the course syllabus, and the self-directed learning you identify for yourself.

For example, in a business research class, your learning agenda might include researching the telecommunications industry, trends in corporate information centers, or social entrepreneurship if these are areas of interest for you. In an information ethics class, you may decide to perfect your presentation or group leadership skills. In a knowledge management class, you may choose to research bioinformatics for your class project with an eye toward expanding your sci/tech expertise. Approach every course assignment asking “what do I want to learn with this?” rather than “what do I have to do to get an A on this?” Align every paper, project, and class activity with your personal career agenda whenever possible, and you will be both learning the core LIS knowledge and positioning yourself for your post-graduation career.

Learn after grad school. Many MLIS programs are beginning to realize that continuing professional education/development (CPE) is not only a critical need among practitioners, but can also be a lovely source of additional revenue for the schools. So, for example, schools such as Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, the iSchool at Drexel College of Information Science and Technology, San Jose State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library & Information Studies are now actively promoting their online CPE courses to the entire profession, regardless of whether participants happen to be alumni.

Alternatively, consider community colleges, training DVDs, books for beginners, online tutorials, or the offerings of private training companies not affiliated with the LIS world. Depending on how LIS-centric the topic is that you need to master, these can be inexpensive and efficient learning options.

Learn from a mentor. For many of the skills you want to develop, especially the people-related ones, a mentor who will coach you through your learning path can be invaluable. As noted in Chapter 4, although some organizations have formal mentoring programs, the informal ones you seek out and structure yourself can be just as helpful, and sometimes more so. Keep in mind that the responsibility for making a mentoring relationship work will rest with you; in other words, you’ll need to identify what types of advice or learning you seek, how often you’d like to meet (although this will be decided by your mentor’s availability), etc. And most importantly, you’ll need to be willing to follow through on any learning assignments your mentor recommends.

How do you choose a mentor? There are many considerations, but perhaps the most important is chemistry. In Mentor Match-Ups – How to Find “The One” (or Two or Three), if the mix of personalities isn’t right, find someone new. Anyone who’s been in this awkward situation will vouch for the wisdom of finding someone who “gets you.”

Read books! There are a number of publishers who focus primarily on helping the LIS profession keep up with new knowledge, for example, Libraries Unlimited, Neal-Schuman, ALA Editions, and Chandos. This book is an example of a professional development book whose aim is to help you begin or advance your career. But there are others that deal with such topics as technology advances, programming for emerging populations, taxonomy-building, user experience, competitive intelligence, social media, gaming in the library, and hundreds of other topics that probably weren’t covered in grad school but are now either a hot job opportunity or a new responsibility that just landed on your desk.

Learn from your own professional community. Lastly, don’t forget that your network of professional colleagues is an incredibly valuable, informal, and readily available source of knowledge and expertise. As you go through your career, you’ll build relationships with fellow students, co-workers, association colleagues, fellow panelists at professional conferences, and myriad other connecting points. This community of colleagues is not only one of the most rewarding aspects of having a long career, it also offers a rich source of advice, counsel, and insight.

In fact, a still-timely book on “learning outside the academy” and a terrific resource on the topic of self-directed group learning is Michelle Boule’s Mob Rule Learning: Camps, Unconferences, and Trashing the Talking Head (Information Today, 2011). Boule (a former Library Journal Shaker and Mover) suggests that it’s time for individuals in the profession to start creating their own “knowledge ecosystems,” and then proceeds to provide clear instructions on just how that can be done, and where to find these types of learning opportunities. Unconference, anyone? More recent, very successful options are the San José State University iSchool’s Worldwide Virtual Conference 2.0 series and Library Juice Academy.

There are many, many ways to expand your knowledge and skills, depending on what criteria you need to meet. If you’re able to focus on the learning itself and don’t need a credential or credit to document it, then consider the least expensive options first, including informal learning.