Grad School: An Interview with Brenda Nicole Shelton

A 2015 graduate of Southern Oregon University, Brenda Nicole Shelton completed a Masters of Library and Information Science University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017. She works at the Beaverton City Library.

Ed Battistella: What did your graduate studies involve?

Brenda Nicole Shelton: My program was focused on preparing students for their careers as “innovative information professionals.” I don’t think a lot of people realize librarians are information professionals and not just book jockeys. My program also served other information professions such as archivists and IT. There was a basic core curriculum that focused on digital trends, collection development, HTML coding, metadata, and database organization and operation, to name a few. I learned how libraries are organized and operated, as well as the preservation and cultural skills that archivists need. We also learning HTML coding and metadata markup, which are so vital in any information profession, whether you go on to work in coding or museum work. You could navigate through the program with no chosen focus, or you could choose a path, such as Archives, Public Libraries, Academic Libraries, etc. Since I knew I wanted to work in public libraries with youth, my studies also involved learning about early literacy and teaching skills. Another key facet of study, particularly for library science, is intellectual freedom and equitable access, so we also studied some identity politics and about social inequities, as well as barriers to information and materials access that make libraries so necessary and vital.

EB: What sorts of things were you reading?

BNS: I read such a wide variety of things that it’s hard to recall it all. My core classes involved a lot of reading of standards and coding rules. Some dry procedural stuff. We read about linguistics and the different methods of organization. We read a lot about the history of libraries, as well as current professional pieces about trends in libraries and best practices. Every so often, we would read things about social movements and how they affected libraries in multiple ways. In my Youth Services classes, I would read a lot of Young Adult fiction and picture books coupled with book reviews in order to learn not only how to assess materials to collect, but also how to booktalk and prepare for storytimes and reference. With my concentration I also read a lot of materials about children’s brain development, as well as teaching and learning methods.

EB: How has your education so far shaped your career goals? You minored in Gender Studies and I see that you also worked with the Guerrilla Feminism organization in Madison and served as the gender studies librarian at Wisconsin.

BNS: My activism is really what made me want to become a librarian. While I think all librarians love books, and reading is a core part of their identities, I believe public libraries at their core are champions for equity and access. At least, they should be. In library school you talk a lot about intellectual freedom, which is what libraries champion, not only by offering free materials, but in fighting against censorship and the social and economic barriers that bar individuals for accessing information for educational gain or pure entertainment. When I was in college, I worked at a Women’s Resource Center where I connected individuals with resources that either helped then grow socially and shape their identities, or that helped them navigate out of abuse or trauma. When I worked with GF, it was all about digital connection between people and information, and I did a lot of that work at the gender and women’s studies library as well. In that position, I helped compile and update an online database of free academic resources for individuals who didn’t have access to the resources higher education allows. I also did a lot of work on the library’s published annual journals that connect scholars to new publications in the field. My work in public libraries is also about connecting people to information for free. I had a passion to fight for people’s access to information and materials before I began my professional studies, and I think that interest and my experiences only amplified that desire. Information access is key not only in how we navigate the world, but also how navigate our own emotions and build our identities. Those core values describe both social work and informational institutions, so I’m glad I get to meld those two in my work.

EB: What did you enjoy most about your graduate work?

BNS: My graduate program was dedicated to us spending half our time in class and half of our time in the field. The jobs and volunteer work I did while I was in school were the best teaching experience I could ever have. You can read for years about how libraries run, best practices, and theory, but nothing beats actually being in a library and interacting with patrons. I ran a Minecraft club for kids at the Central Library in Madison for a few years, and it was the best experience I’ve had in my recent professional and academic life. I not only met a great librarian who taught me so much, but I spent my time every week learning from kids. I think those kids taught me more than anything else in my graduate work. Not just about Minecraft and how to play it, but about what kind of listener and professional I want to be.

EB: How do you like the library field so far? What does your work entail?

BNS: I’m really enjoying my work. The majority of my work involves being at the desk helping find books and materials for youth, and also often for adults. When I’m on desk I help keep the area clean, and I also create rotating displays to help showcase our materials, as well as posters that promote my programs. A big part of my work is in-house promotion and programming. I develop and lead weekly programs for young teens. My young teens really enjoy DIY crafts that help them be creative, and they also really like anything rooted in pop culture. I think a lot of people don’t realize that libraries offer free programs for all ages every day of the week, from storytimes, to free computer classes and author visits. Most people I talk to just think I sit around reading all day, and I think people still have a really outdated view of libraries. It’s not a quiet space where I sit shushing people all day. Libraries are actually a great place for kids to play and people to connect. My position also involves updating booklists, school outreach, and I’m about to begin a project to help implement more programming and inclusion for patrons with disabilities or special needs at my library. I don’t have time to sit and read a book all day. There are too many things to do and people to help!

EB: Where do you see librarianship heading in the future??

BNS: While libraries have fought against claims they are “unneeded” or “outdated” in the face of the Internet and Amazon, I think you’ll see even more emphasis on libraries in the future. In the face of “fake news” and moves to defund libraries, archives, and museums even further, libraries have become a key topic of conversation in the national spotlight. Libraries have begun to fight for information access and intellectual freedom even harder in the last year, and I think that will only increase. Issues like preserving net neutrality and fighting against censorship and the spread of false information are key core values outlined by the American Library Association. When they spoke out publicly against executive orders this year they created quite a buzz. I think you’ll continue to see libraries working locally and nationally to speak up about injustice and fight for intellectual freedom, access, and the dismantling of oppressive systems.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

BNS: It will be hard. I’ve never been someone who struggled in school, but grad school was the hardest school experience I’ve ever had. It was a busy, challenging, and often lonely time for me, but it helped me get to where I am today. I don’t think I’ve talked to a single person who didn’t struggle at some point in grad school. Yet, I met people who inspired me and became my mentors, and I wouldn’t be who I am today, and having the enriching experiences I do everyday at work, if it wasn’t for that. I think grad school can be very competitive, and you can feel like you are not doing enough or succeeding as well as your peers. My best advice is not to compare yourself to others and to really stick with, and stand up for, your ideas. Also, I’ll always remember this answer that a grad student from another program gave at my orientation: “You don’t have to read the whole 50-page article, just read the abstract and the conclusion and you’ll survive.” Probably not what a professor would ever want to know about, but I think there’s an important truth tied to that about cutting yourself some slack while in a challenging program.

EB: What are you reading currently?

BNS: A librarian who used to talk to us about audiobooks always told us her kids would ask her if she read a book “with her eyes or her ears?” I’m reading The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez with my eyes, and Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner with my ears.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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