Practice Makes Powerful: Experiential Learning in Law Libraries

By Michael Muehe

As I near the end of my MS in Library and Information Science program (with just two classes left following the Spring term), I began to reflect on just how fortunate I was to have so many experiences coincide with my studies. I remember being advised early on to “work in as many law libraries as you can” to truly see an array of working and teaching styles, organizational frameworks, and patrons. I took that advice and ran with it. Having since encountered students in library programs going without library experience (largely because of the pandemic), I have to count myself lucky, fortunate, and grateful that as one opportunity ended, it seemed another was waiting right after, taking me from Harvard Law School Library to Roger Williams University and from the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service to the University of San Francisco. Certainly, being paid for these experiences helped provide critical stability and security in my life, but I also gained something much more internal.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Similar to law school clinics and externships, any experiential education offers the ultimate opportunity to learn what we don’t in the classroom, putting our curriculum into practice. This was something I always viewed in a linear manner – learn the material first, then put it into real-world settings. However, I realized that, because my program offers but one course in law librarianship, having these experiences instead alongside my coursework has coalesced into an almost alchemical, symbiotic educational experience. While I learn about law librarianship daily, I have been able to take practical, generic courses across subdisciplines, such as archives, coding, and social informatics, where I can look for nuggets of new, eye-opening information that I can apply to my work.  In turn, I can apply situations I’ve already experienced in this specialized area of librarianship to my coursework; for example, working with the Harvard Law School Library’s Historical and Special Collections as I learned about archival description issues; working as a research librarian at Roger Williams University while I learned about reference interviews; and working with the team at the Congressional Research Service as I learned about equitable access to information and technology all provided critical contextual environments. Not only did these parallel positions develop my foundational professional skill sets, but they also immediately reinforced my learning – something helpful for students with ADHD, like myself.

Ultimately, each of these experiences wove thick threads of extra skills into my theoretical coursework – all before I even graduate! And, I get to take it all with me to the next internship, position, or chapter in my career journey, not unlike a growing snowball or tumbleweed, picking up things along the way. While the practice surely hasn’t made me perfect, it has unexpectedly left me feeling empowered and matured in this new profession; to our law libraries, I hope that you’ll continue offering similar programs and critical opportunities for our future librarians; to my colleagues, what experiential opportunities did you have during your librarianship program and how did they shape your law library careers?


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.