What Constitutes A Good Library Education?

Earlier this week, Amy J. Kearns from Library Garden asked What are the library students of today learning? I have been mulling over the post and the accompanying comments all week – thinking about my own library education. I have questions: How do we define a good library education? How do we know if library students are learning what they need to know while in library school? What do current students need to know to be successful? How often do people meet recent graduates that are ill-equiped to take on the challenge of librarianship?

Personally, I didn’t go to library school to learn about practical skills. I’m lucky enough to have learned these skills on the job. Honestly, I was much more interested in the foundations of librarianship – learning its history, reading about and researching important historical figures, discussing philosophical and ethical concerns and developing a sense of how my own beliefs affect what librarianship means to me. I can say that in my educational experience, SCSU has covered the foundations of librarianship extremely well. In fact, I have been happiest with the classes that covered these topics. I am developing my own sense of what it means to be a librarian and what librarianship means to me.

It is important to note that customer service is included with the foundations of librarianship. The primary importance of the patron and their information needs and desires is something that has been stressed in almost every class that I have taken. I would include cataloging basics (MARC & AACR2) and reference basics in the foundations category.

So, the basic building blocks have been covered. What have I learned beyond that? I have been taking as many management classes (and classes relating to academic libraries) as possible. These classes have focused on managing resources – including people. I sometimes find these classes painful because so many of the case studies and discussions reflect my real world experiences. However, they are vital classes – and I think they are making me more confident about my ability to make managerial decisions (I do have a job where I manage a department). One of my least favorite assignments was an “in-basket” exercise where we (the students) took the role of library directors and had to deal with a number of issues – personnel, budget, temperature wars, etc. – in our in basket within a tight time frame. The crux of the assignment was to identify which problems needed to be dealt with immediately, which ones could be delegated and which ones could wait. It was painful, but was a wonderful learning experience – in a safe, controlled environment. I think it is one of the best assignments that I have been given thus far.

What about technology? In the aforementioned post by Amy J. Kearns, she wonders whether students are learning about Web 2.0 technologies. There is an interesting quote in the Kearns’ post from another library blogger.

LibraryNation said…
I’m in library school right now and I’d have to say that there’s a division of thirds in regards to the level of skill we future librarians have: a third of us are really up to date on technology, web 2.0, and the like; a third don’t know a lot about these things, but really want to learn more . . . The last third don’t have much interest in learning about these technologies, or perhaps don’t even know that this is something they should be teaching themselves…

… And maybe you’re right about needing to educate our professors. I think they also fall into the three categories: those in the know, those who want to be in the know, and those who think it’s relevant/unimportant or are unenlightened.

Kathleen Houlihan from LibraryNation makes an important point about the divergent nature of technological skills among library students – which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the wide range in age for MLS students. There is a significant percentage of library students who don’t have a decent comfort level with technology itself when starting their program – which oddly enough mirrors my experience with people who work in libraries. I strongly suspect the same can be said of LIS faculty – some are technologically savvy, some would like to be and some don’t care to be. For the students, many need help and guidance with the basics: email, the internet, computers, etc. Web 2.0? So many students are not ready for that during their program – not even close.

In my time in library school so far, we haven’t talked about Web 2.0 or about Library 2.0 in any specific capacity. We have used some Web 2.0 technologies – wikis, blogs, chat rooms, etc. In each instance, however, there were students who were very uncomfortable using these tools. Anything significant that I have learned about these subjects has been self-taught – and is part of my process of keeping current and learning about what is new in the profession. I can’t say whether the faculty know about they technologies or not. I suspect that most do know about them, but have specific agendas for their classes – and many times Web 2.0 technologies do not fit.

Technology is a big problem – one that I don’t think we have dealt with successfully in the work environment never mind in the education environment. Everyone who works in library-related fields needs to be technologically competent. It isn’t going away. We will only continue to become more dependent on systems, on the internet, on computers and portable devices. With new operating systems that continue to lock down computers and impose stricter restrictions to fight spyware, viruses and intrusion, people need to know how their computers work – and how to configure them. I am concerned about how we teach this to people. We do not do a good job of it. This isn’t something that happens at library school.

I am in no way saying that we shouldn’t be learning about Web 2.0 technologies in library school. I’m just saying that we can’t really teach them to students who don’t have basic computer skills. Personally, I’m a proponent of learning about Web 2.0 by doing. Not only does this help one learn about new technologies, it can help students be more comfortable in a computer environment. The answer to how library schools could teach this stuff is by engaging in it. Follow the lead of LIS faculty like Michael Stephens (see http://lis753.wordpress.com/) and Amanda Etches-Johnson (see http://lis757.blogwithoutalibrary.net/). Both of these people are putting their classes online in a variety of ways – interspersing Web 2.0 technologies into the learning environment. LIS schools could make, sponsor or encourage students to create and participate in social networks. Education has social components that fit in nicely with Web 2.0.

In the end, it is difficult to know what constitutes a good library education. There are many variables – students come into programs with different levels of knowledge, they have divergent expectations, there are different educational tracks for academics, special librarians, archivists and school media specialists, faculty teach differently and have different experiences, etc. No two people get the same education from the same professor never-mind the same school. So far, I’m fine with my library education. Remember earlier (yes, this is a massively long post, I know) when I wrote that my educational experience is about developing my own sense of what it means to be a librarian and what librarianship means to me? I have taken it upon myself to make that my goal. Library school is helping me achieve this, and in that vein, I would have to say that my experience has been enriching, challenging and in line with my expectations. Could library education be improved? Of course, it could. I think there is significant room for updates to the curriculum and other improvements. But, there is already a solid foundation to library education. It could just use some sprucing up!

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6 Responses to What Constitutes A Good Library Education?

  1. Excellent points made… When I posted my reply, I was wondering whether this was even something that could be “taught” or if we were just all better off learning on our own (everything I know is self-taught). I’m somewhat conflicted – I think library students should seek out this information and learn it on their own… indubitably. But how will they know that being tech-savvy is important if they don’t see it in use… Sometimes making the connection between Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 is difficult. Especially when a lot of us don’t know that people are working on a Library 2.0. I think everyone is aware of the importance of technology, but I worry that many people don’t even know what this means. Technology is such a big label – does being tech-savvy mean we need to know how to build hand-coded websites? Know PHP and Perl? Know how to program? Or do we just need to know how to use gadgets and how to do a podcast so we can teach patrons? I worry that we don’t realize we need to be tech-savvy so we can communicate better with our patrons. And so they can communicate better with us. I think a lot of us have missed the boat on that one. Maybe I’m wrong?

    So what am I trying to say here… ? I’m trying to kick off an online social networking community for my grad program (using Ning…the same type of thing as the Library 2.0 community). We currently use a very dysfunctional listserv which fosters communication and sharing not at all. I’m hoping that if my fellow librarians-in-training see the usefulness of social networking for librarians, they will make the connection themselves and see what a great tool it could be for collaborating and communicating with their patrons. I have no idea if it will succeed or fail… I’m hoping it will be wildly popular with students and faculty. Fingers crossed!

  2. Richard says:

    Great post. Being a recent grad, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question over the past few years. The school I went to definitely had its pros and cons. I definitely took it upon myself to fill in any gaps that I saw in the curriculum. I agree that a lot of technology skills and knowledge come from doing. Still, I wish my school had offered this specialization when I was there!

  3. Sharon says:

    Not every librarian needs to know Perl, PHP, MySQl, XML, or any of the other Web development acronyms. Only those who will have to deal with the technology directly really need those skills. And not every librarian needs to know how to use an MP3 player, blog, or wiki, but I would hope that they’d learn just out of curiosity. The one thing that no librarian is going to be able to avoid is having to learn how to use new hardware and software every few years, and this has to do with attitude more than technical ability. I’m sure there are some people who would be very happy going back to the traditional card catalog. There are others who must have a particular software application on a particular operating system, and are unwilling to switch to a different, but equally capable, application or operating system. Maybe they haven’t yet realized what 30+ years of immersion in the world of technology taught me–that you will continue to have to learn new things whether you want to or not. There was a time back then when I was learning a new editor every year or two, and they weren’t all WYSIWYG editors, either.

    In my 1.5 years of working in libraries and going to library school, I’ve encountered people–librarians, professors, and students–who were very willing to embrace new technology, and many who were highly resistant to them. It’s not always a function of their age. We can only hope that the resistant ones find their niche shelving books or whatever other low-tech activity they enjoy, and let the rest of us get on with business.

  4. Sharon says:

    I’ve been thinking that my school should offer more classes in web development as part of the MLS program, but then I remembered that I learn subjects like that much better in a 3-day workshop, hands-on type of environment, or else by just getting a book and working through it myself. Some of those SI classes sound deathly boring to me, but that’s just me.

  5. […] are the library students of today learning? over on the Library Garden blog. I gave a summary of what I have been learning – as did […]

  6. […] What Constitutes A Good Library Education? […]

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