LIS Education – Vocational Training or Rigourous Intellectual Engagement?

What do we want from our LIS education? Laura Cohen has a list of suggested skills, which she calls foundations skills, for LIS programs in today’s world of Library 2.0. I like the list – think that most of the items are extremely important for people to have a handle on in order to be successful at librarianship. In response, Steven Chabot, from Subject/Object, posts an interesting comment. In the comment (available on his blog also), Steven writes: “While I agree somewhat with what you have listed, was not the degree conceived as Library Science? Many of the things you have mentioned, at least in terms of having to teach or learn them, could be picked up with a few hours of an O’Reilly book. Am I paying thousands of dollars to evaluate URLs?

Recently, Steven has been bemoaning the lack of academic rigour in his MLS program. Without a doubt, Steven has a point. Many of the technical skills can be learned on one’s own or in workshops. Yet, one problem is that there is a contingent of MLS students who have no library experience – and not much in the way of technical experience. LIS school must endeavor to train students with divergent backgrounds. How can I with over ten years of experience in libraries and extensive experience with technology have the same educational needs as someone who has never worked in a library and is not comfortable with technology? How do schools account for different experiences and varied levels of knowledge? Honestly, I don’t think schools themselves do account for such variables. Should they? Or should that be left to individual instructors? In my experience in graduate school, it is the professor that takes into account the varying degrees of knowledge held by students. I must add that some are exceedingly proficient at this – and some are not.

I have to wonder if in this time of uncertainty about libraries and their purpose if that same uncertainty does not plague library schools. Are MLS programs vocational in nature or theoretical? Which should they be in order to best educate librarians? Should students with differing levels of experience be allowed to have different programs of study? If the MLS becomes something that people just want “get through” is not the library profession as a whole going to suffer? I don’t really have any answers to these questions. Ultimately, I believe that a person who wants to learn how to be a librarian, who cares about the information needs of library users, wants to help people find information and believes in librarianship will do well whether they are self-taught, educated via a vocational MLS program, educated via a theoretical MLS program or taught through experience.  I believe in the value of the MLS (I wouldn’t be going otherwise), but believe strongly that we are all hold responsibility for our own educational experience.

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7 Responses to LIS Education – Vocational Training or Rigourous Intellectual Engagement?

  1. Sarah says:

    Agreed. To some degree I think we as students decide how “practical” or “theoretical” our degrees are–at least in my program 2/3rds of my credit hours were either “guided electives” where i had to take 1 class each in four different “buckets” of options, or were purely up to my choice. As I know that I’m the sort of person who can pick up a new software program on the fly without too much difficulty, I focused more on classes that hit the big-picture issues that drove those technologies. The one purely “practical course” I took was on advanced database searching and search engine technologies, which gave me a good understanding of both the technology itself and the user needs, corporate strategies, and wider policies that have caused the search industry to evolve as it has.

    The best librarians seem to strike that balance between technical expertise and higher level theoretcal understanding. And I think that both are at home in our field and our degree programs. We are practicioners, but in a very intellectual/theoretical field. We are possibly the last true interdisciplinarians in an increasingly expert-driven world. Paradoxially, that puts us in a very important niche, and our schools will serve us best by giving us the ability to become equally proficient in the paradigms of theory and practice. Instead of angsting about our liminal position between academic and clerk, we should learn to revel in the freedoms and options it allows us. 🙂

  2. Steven says:

    I am glad, Sarah, that you have so much flexibility in your choice of courses. I, unfortunately, have an entire year of required courses to get through, which leaves me only another year of electives. Our required courses come in 2 flavors: those for all threes streams (Libraries, Archives and Information Systems), and those just for each stream. Toronto is also explicitly an “I-School“, if that means anything.

    “Should students with differing levels of experience be allowed to have different programs of study?” Yes, experience, but also different passions, research interests and curiosity. I have a class now where 50% of the mark consists of A. Creating a Blog. B. Posting on other’s blogs. C. Editing a Wiki. Sounds great, right, so easy. Yet, despite its ease, that is still time I have to spend, which I feel could be better spend learning something that I don’t already know. I should be able to get a pass on that course.

    I could be using that time to do what Jennifer suggests, taking my education in my own hands. We look at cataloguing codes in my introductory class, but no theory behind those codes, and no reading of journals is required? Is this good? Maybe, maybe not everyone has a theoretical interest in everything.

    My problem is, next year I might be wanting to do a research paper (worth 2 courses) or a thesis (worth 4 courses). If I don’t have time to do my own self-directed reading because I have to take Blogging 101, and we don’t look at anything research worthy in these introductory classes, how am I supposed to know what kind of librarian I am going to be? How can I be secure in my choice?

    Great post, btw, your questions are very necessary.

  3. […] For some higher level discussion of LIS education, see this and the things Jennifer Macaulay, of Life As I Know It, points to. I have seen these pieces, and others in the past, that I would love to engage with. I somehow don’t seem to have anything to add. But I know that cannot be right. I mean, in essence, I’m getting 2 MSLIS in a row. I should have much to contribute to a conversation on LIS education. I think my conundrum is that I don’t have much to add in this medium. A nice long conversation, some essay length “discussions” back and forth, and so on. The best I could say in a reasonable length blog post is that it is a very complicated issue. *Sigh* Oh well, I generally agree with these folks. The practical is, well, practical. And where the hell is my theory (and history) and intellectual rigor? […]

  4. Sarah says:

    I’m beginning to think I was very lucky with my school, though I chose it for geographical convenience. OU is not neccessarily the flashiest LIS school out there, but I do think they do a good job of enabling people to focus on theory or practice, low-tech or high tech, LIS or Knowledge Management. That said, “blogging 101” was a little too cutting edge at the time to be in my program, and while I don’t think that sort of thing should be required, I do think an elective course on 2.0 technologies could be a valuable asset to my alma mater’s curriculum.

    Darnit…I think I’m going to have to write up a proposal and call my old department head now…done right that could be a really cool class. 🙂

  5. Julian says:

    Three years ago, I started library school with basically nothing. No library experience (but certainly neither a stranger to nor afraid of technology), barely out of college… nothing. I was there because it looked interesting. One year later, I was no longer in library school. Two years after leaving, I am in far better shape with my career in libraries than I would have been if I had been able to finish, and definitely more committed to that career.

    Perhaps the whole world would say that I had never had any business being there in the first place. I was the least likely person to be there. I wasn’t the career changer, the 10- to 15-year library worker, the dual-masters-program-er, the returning-to-the-workforce-er…

    All this time later, I fully agree with the last paragraph and sentence of this post. Over the last two years, my work experience, though not at the highest level of this profession, has been invaluable compared to my past educational experience in library science. My future library studies (hopefully to begin again next year) will further enrich what I have built for myself. The theory helps in the appreciation of the practice.

    I apologize for possibly de-valuing the degree by pursuing it when I did, the way I did, and perhaps not for all the right reasons. Next time (which will hopefully be next year), I hope to atone for it by having a clearer plan.

  6. Ross says:

    A recollection of your blog post was with me when I struck up a conversation today with a library school intern from Uppsala. Her chief complaint with her program was that it was too theoretical; information theory, I suspect. She was enjoying an opportunity to get some practical work, albeit it’s not the most skilled work.

    I asked her because in the back of my mind your post made me think about LIS education vs. post-LIS education. I don’t think we ever sit through lectures the way we did in library school. It’s all workshops. Is that because we had our heads filled with enough theory in library school already? Maybe. As I suggested to my early-LIS colleague today, I think we probably have a lot of the theory in our heads already; We may not identify it as being specifically relevant to our library work. So getting it in library school is largely a way of codification and co-option. I don’t think I could point to anything theoretical that I learned back then: It all got ‘absorbed’.

    Are workshops a better way to address our current, immediate needs? Definitely. But are they not appropriate for library school? That’s debatable. I think we felt back in the dark ages that library school was ill-equipped to give us practical training. We’d get that at our first professional posting. And in truth, my library school was ill-equipped. But that was before we had so many online tools at our disposal for learning some of the nuts and bolts. Why not have ‘concentrations’ that address practical areas of technology or practice?

    As for the boredom factor, the differential background experience of LIS students means anything you teach will be redundant for some folks. Post-LIS you simply wouldn’t sign up for something you already knew about. In school, it turns out to be mandatory.

    I wonder whether library schools have to acknowledge that not all LIS students need the same things pedagogically. Rethink the required course concept. Get course credit for job experience, or maybe simply acknowledge it for certain students and let them apply their learning to other, less familiar areas of LIS. I just don’t know whether you can cookie-cutter the library school degree, either on the way in or the way out. Admit that the students who graduate from library schools won’t all turn out the same.

  7. Elspeth says:

    I think the problem is that the programs have changed so much in the past 10-12 years since I graduated with my MLS (they added the “I” a year or two later). When I visit libraries, they appear to be the same as ever, with maybe a bit more technology, but they don’t look like start-ups or anything. There are still books, there are still patrons, I’m sure the reference staff are still asked where the bathroom is 50% of the time.

    But what I see of “library science” programs and “library school” students (I’m thinking of blogs where people refer to themselves as “in library school”) is totally different. I don’t see the library management, the library science theory, (or at least not as much) but as a fellow librarian called it “Computer Science Lite”. There is too much that is being squeezed into former and current library programs, probably so that library programs continue to exist when education dollars are scarce.

    I think that there used to be tiers of library science education — you could get a degree at a community college in library work, and you’d be trained for a different job than if you got a master’s in library science. When I was in library school, there were a lot of people who were trying to get into a new field, and a lot of people who had been long time library employees and were in school to get more education. Most people went to library school to become library management, whether they planned to do that or not. Starting in the late 1990s you saw people going to “library school” to become webmasters. As Steven indicated, you can get that knowledge from a book or technical school or other course, you don’t need to get a Masters’ in Library and Information Science to become a webmaster.

    So I think that the schools need to officially redefine themselves. Are they focusing on staffing libraries? Creating library managers? Information Scientists? Or maybe there needs to be some outside categorization to indicate to prospective students where they need to go to get the education they are planning to use. We’ll see.

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