March 20, 2008

Uncomfortable Question: LIS Education

Thanks to Graham Lavender for this question:

What is your biggest criticism of MLIS programs in North America, and what do you think library schools should be doing to fix this?

I guess one of the dangers of asking for open-ended uncomfortable questions is that somebody could ask a penetrating question on an issue I haven't really thought a lot about.

Such is the case here. But I'll give it my best shot.

First of all, Graham is a MLIS student at McGill, where I graduated in 2000. Obviously I'm not going to comment directly on McGill too much except to say that the program has changed dramatically (vastly for the better, from what I can tell) since my time there.

I'll address this post to a hypothetical student and/or LIS faculty member. I'll mostly concentrate on the librarianish aspects of Info-schools and not so much on the "how much overlap can we manage with computer science, business and information technology programs at our institutions before those programs get annoyed at us for trying to poach their students"-type programs. I didn't do one of those programs, wasn't interested in one and really don't know much about them.

I'll come at this from a couple of different directions. I was recently on a search committee here at York and our experience I think was quite illuminating. I can say quite safely that for this search (and all the others I've been involved in here) where you went to school, what courses you took and what marks you got were all nearly totally irrelevant in getting you the job. The only place might have been as a four or fifth tie break to get on the short list. What really matters is experience. Have you worked in a similar environment to the one being advertised? If so, can the people you worked with articulate your contribution in a reference letter and can you effectively describe what you did during the interview. Even very basic entry level positions have so many applicants that we can be picky.

From this perspective, I would say that a very important part of the MLIS experience has to be the facilitation of solid work experience. Be it work in the institution's libraries or via a practicum/co-op placement elsewhere, this is vital. The value in getting you the opportunity to have a practical learning experience as part of your education can not be underestimated. The practicum should replace two courses and could be two one-term placements or one two-term placement.

The other angle that I'd like to approach this from is how I think MLIS-like programs should be structured. The first year or so is mostly going to be core courses and I think this is probably where most programs are doing ok. An introductory course to the profession, it's history, themes, significant personages, etc. is inevitable. Everyone should take at least one cataloguing/metadata course (even if Everything is Miscellaneous is the text -- how cool would that be?) because as unglamourous as it can seem, the organization of information is the core of what we do. Everyone should also take at least one course on collections, broadly defined to include books, databases, indexes, digital collections and a variety of formats. Reference sources and services also deserve solid treatment, although in the modern era I imagine the course would be very different from what I took 9 years ago; many would also find it interesting to take a subject oriented reference/collections course, such as the scitech & business ones I took. As a final part of a core, I would also think that a organizational context course (or two) covering management, marketing and budgets would be very useful.

One interesting thing that always comes up is the technology course. How many courses should be part of the core and what should they cover. Well, I'm pretty minimalistic on this, surprisingly. You often see on blogs long laundry lists of stuff every librarian should know about technology, as if we're not allowed to have colleagues whose talents and interests compliment our own. Everybody should take one (maybe two) courses that establishes a basic common vocabulary and knowledge base as well as some experience with a few key tools, like a basic web development tool, a CMS, blogs, wikis or databases. Beyond that, students can explore more in depth in their electives, reading courses or practicum placements. The idea that everyone should be able to program or even have a deep understanding of what programming is to be a librarian is absurd. Students can also explore new tools or solidify their experience with basic ones while working on assignments for other courses.

The second year should concentrate a couple of electives (archives, specific subject area collections/reference courses, some advance tech stuff, etc.) and the practicum placement I mention above. Most importantly, I think the second year should replace at least two courses with a thesis option (three or four course equivalent) or two directed reading courses, one per term.

I think the reason that I'd really emphasize a directed reading course or thesis option is because I think we really need to learn to think like librarians. To take an issue and explore it deeply and critically, to formulate ideas and to express them coherently. It is a graduate program, after all.

Does the output take the form of one big paper or a series of blog posts? That's not really that important. The important thing is that a significant part of the program should be to grapple with the past, present and/or future of the profession. Can it have an active component like building a wiki, programming an OPAC widget or some other web site? Sure, why not. But the important part of this should be analyzing why the wiki, widget, web or whatever are important contributions to/aspects of the profession not the details of the construction.

It's interesting that in my vision, combining a thesis option and a two course practicum could replace 5 or 6 of 8 second year courses, probably nearly all the non-core courses. That's ok. If someone knows what they want to explore, turn them loose and let them learn on thier own. It is a graduate program, after all. In my second year, I did two one-course reading course -- one on information architecture and one on digital libraries -- as well as a practicum placement at the McGill Physical Sciences & Engineering Library. Not surprisingly, all three of those were very important aspects and indicators for my future career. I followed what interested me and it got me where I could apply that knowledge. At the risk of repeating myself, that's what a graduate program should be about.

The above rantings are really just off-the-top-of-the-head thoughts and musings about a complex and important issue. I'm sure there's lots of stuff I've left out that I'd mention in I thought about the issue for a week instead of a day before answering, or if I'd actually done some reading up on the issues or researched the state of various existing programs. As well, my answers could be totally different next week, month or year.

(Don't forget, if you have more Uncomfortable Questions for me, just leave a comment here or on the original post.)


Graham Lavender said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments! I'm sure my readers will find them useful too.

Anonymous said...

As a veteran librarian (6+ yrs) and spouse of a fellow librarian (10 yrs) it's our firm belief that graduate programs should provide students with ample opportunities to participate in practicums and field experience. In graduate school, we may not have been the best students, but we hustled to get experience and felt more comfortable when interviewing and being able to discuss real-world issues with potential employers rather than what we read in a book or a paper.

Ian said...

I just recently finished my MISt @ U of T. One of the professors there at the end of every one of his classes gives a talk entitled how to get a job in _________ (I'll leave out the branch of librarianship because it would identify the prof in question) - it was the most enlightening talk I attended my library school career. The jist of his talk was that work experience was key to getting the job and once you were out there no one cares if you got B's or A's all that matters is your competence.

I knew that experience was key ahead of time but it was nice to hear that affirmed. My previous work experience was key to getting my current position here @ Memorial.

In general I think library school would be better organized as a co-op type with 4 terms of school combined with a minimum of 8 months of work experience. The work experience really lets you decide what you are interested in. When I got into library school I thought that cataloguing was where it was at but after doing it for a while I bolted for public service at the first opportunity. Besides everyone knows that Science Librarianship is where it's at!

John Dupuis said...

Anon, Ian, thanks for the comments. I hope that lib schools are reading what we all have to say and moving in that direction.

Of course, I would still like to plug the usefulness of reading courses for people looking for academic jobs. Focusing on issues and building up research interests will definitely work in your favour when you apply for academic jobs.

Anonymous said...

what about teaching theory and practice? i know that the search committee i was on wanted the applicants to teach a mock class showing their ability to do instruction...btw, you're right about exp counting for a lot; the candidates who have even a 4 month co-op on their resume rise to the top of the heap of our short list!

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an MLIS student just finishing her first 4-month co-op term, I must say this post and discussion are good for the self-confidence! I had never worked in a library before this term. My primary reason for trying the co-op program was that I had no practical idea of whether or not I would actually enjoy working in a library; all of my happy previous work experience has been in the outdoor education field, and mucking about knee-deep in mud with kids is a far cry from working in a quiet, small, sci-tech library. Luckily I enjoy this very much as well. The theory I have learned in class has been invaluable. I was previously suprisingly ignorant about this field for someone who decided she wanted to be a librarian. But the practical experience has been as valuable to my development in this field as it has been to my job prospects. One of the most interesting, unanticipated advantages to taking this co-op term has been that I know now the kinds of courses I should be taking. I have a far better idea of the kind of background understanding that I will need going forward.

Love the blog, btw. Thanks!

John Dupuis said...


To Anon March 26, thanks for bringing up IL, which I didn't really address initially. Overall, I guess I didn't see an IL/teaching theory & practice course as part of the core. I saw it more as an elective that someone interested in the subject would take, probably in the second year. And hopefully, someone really interested would be able to do a reading course or two to really explore the theory aspects of teaching and a practicum to get some practical experience.

To Anon March 27, you're welcome. I'm glad to know that all the wonderful commenters and I have been helpful to the development of your career path.