Apprenticeships: a Model For Library School?

Hack Library School welcomes a guest post from Julia Glassman, who has an interesting perspective on the “theory vs. practice” conversation. Julia is finishing her second quarter of library school at UCLA. She’s interested in information literacy, cataloging and metadata, and incorporating alternative media into library collections, and hopes to someday work in an undergraduate library. You can see her other publications at her website.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting my sister-in-law at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, where she was working as an apprentice in the Ecological Horticulture program. As a gardener and a sustainable food fan, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was living the perfect life: her mornings were spent in classes, learning the ins and outs of lettuces and strawberries and other tasty things, and in the afternoons, she worked on the program’s 25-acre farm. After a communal dinner in a cabin overlooking the ocean, the apprentices would retire to the large tents that served as living quarters during their six month stay.

I am very jealous of my sister-in-law. (Maybe I’d eventually get tired of the tent thing, but from here in my apartment in L.A., it sounds like heaven.) In addition to being totally romantic, though, CASFS’s apprenticeship program illustrates an important pedagogical issue that’s often talked about, but too seldom implemented: placing a premium on practical experience over classroom learning. The program consists of 300 hours of coursework and 700 hours of experience – a ratio that could provide a interesting model for the MLIS degree.

In 1972, sociologist Howard S. Becker bluntly stated in his essay “A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In” that although learners in both classrooms and on-the-job training experience problems with their education, the latter “is more likely to produce educational successes” (103). Although coursework has a lot to offer students, and makes up for deficiencies in practical training, students lose out when they have to rely solely on lectures and readings to gain knowledge. (Interesting note: I first read this essay when it was assigned, for our first class session, by one of my professors here in library school.) Luckily for me, I’m attending a program that has a strong internship component – but many programs produce graduates who have little, if any, practical experience. This over-emphasis on classes leads to problems with the quality of students’ education: many courses are so broad (or so easy) that only a fraction of the material will be useful to any one student, and even when the entirety of a course is useful, if we don’t have an immediate chance to put the material to use, we start forgetting particulars as soon as the course ends. It also leads to problems in the real world, when graduates try to find jobs in a glutted market without any experience in a library. (Warning: the link will ruin your day.) Librarians I’ve talked to sigh at applications from candidates with plenty of abstract knowledge, but zero on-the-job training.

I think it’s safe to say that most library schools at the very least assist their students in finding internships and other opportunities (although online students with full-time jobs may not benefit from this assistance). Even so, do these practices go far enough? Right now, internships tend to complement coursework, but what if it was the other way around? What if the ratio of coursework to fieldwork was reversed?

In light of this idea, I’d like to offer a wildly unrealistic proposal for the future of the MLIS – not so much to claim that we should implement this exact model right now, or to pretend that it wouldn’t create its own set of significant problems, but rather to offer a basis from which we might interrogate the structure and purpose of the graduate degree.

Let’s turn the MLIS into an apprenticeship program.

Here’s one way it could work. Graduate programs could coordinate with area libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations, much in the way that internship programs do now, to gauge those organizations’ needs for paid apprentices. Then, the number of students admitted could correspond to the number of apprentice positions available (this might also help to better tailor the number of degrees conferred with the number of jobs out there). Prospective students’ application packets could include applications to the apprenticeships of their choice. While they were working at their apprenticeships, students could gather, say, quarterly for intensive coursework, or meet in the evenings or online. Notice that this model would address two problems at once: students would gain the experience they needed to be marketable (and possibly rise within the ranks where they worked), and they would make a living (albeit not a very cushy one) while attending school.

Like I said, I’m not pretending that new problems wouldn’t arise. There’d be the chaos of coordinating with dozens or even hundreds of area sites, for one thing (although that’s exactly what my program’s internship coordinator does right now, and programs like teacher certifications seem to be handling it okay). Programs would also run the risk of pigeonholing students into job types they either changed their minds about partway through the program or never wanted in the first place, whereas the internship model allows us to dabble to some extent. Entering students might not know enough about different specializations to choose their apprenticeship wisely. Keep in mind that what I’m proposing is an extreme, idealized model.

Still, though, I can’t help but think of the wealth of practical knowledge that my sister-in-law gained on her farm. Why exactly are so many other fields, including library and information science, so dependent on the classroom model? Do we adhere to it because it necessarily has to be this way, or because we haven’t yet imagined something better?

21 replies

  1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t heard of anything like this anywhere in the US, but if I had, it would’ve seriously changed the way I chose which school to attend.

    Your point about “pigeonholing” isn’t an insignificant one, and I do find that waiting a semester or two before applying for internships is a good thing. How, then, can we modify our existing internship program into something more long-term and meaningful? Perhaps requiring more than one internship (and requiring those to pay, at least a little)? Or shadowing a professional for the first semester, to get a sense of what you might want to do?

    Thought-provoking article, thanks!


  2. An apprenticeship followed with moderate classwork sounds like an excellent way to give students more practical skills. However, if students were placed in positions that were already existing for the purpose of an apprenticeship program, it may become as hard to get into a program as is it to get into medical school or pharm school. Which may be good or bad, but an apprenticeship program couldn’t afford the flood of people currently entering library school. Classes would have to be capped and it would change the nature of schools. Some would lose funding with so few students, and they might lose out on learning opportunities that dovetail very well with what you do in the real world. I think with an apprenticeship you’d see a lot more online programs and a phase-out of the traditional brick & mortar institution.

    I’m working at a couple of libraries now while in school, and nothing is cooler than having a conversation with a patron related to some issues that I’m studying in class. I think the field absolutely needs that application of theory with real-world experience. So I wouldn’t recommend ditching the classroom altogether. And though I know that many people find the online degree more suited for their personal life/needs, I think you definitely miss opportunities to network and meet others and there might be a danger of staying within your bubble. *shrug* Who knows. But it’s an interesting possibility.


  3. As an MLIS student also in her second term, I wholeheartedly support the idea of an apprenticeship or even practicum for library students. One barrier for such an idea here anyway is union regulations which already resist the notion of our co-op program. Work done by student apprentices would be work not done by union members. Still, I hope that this attitude can shift or else libraries will find, as more and more librarians approach retirement age, that they will lack an experience pool of candidates to draw from.


    • I’ve been thinking about unions, volunteers, interns, clerks, and LIS students a lot. Has there been any cooperative work between the co-op program and the union? I have a lot of friends who have worked really hard to gain union apprenticeships in other professions, like meat packing and pipe laying, in part because the apprenticeship pay and benefits are amazing. I wonder what a collaboration between the unions and LIS students could mean for our education and our profession?


  4. I definitely support the idea of an apprenticeship program, but I’d also be open to a more rigorous graduate level program. It’s been discussed here and elsewhere before but the quality of MLS coursework can leave something to be desired. I also think it depends on what type of position you are interested in. Archives and children’s librarianship I can definitely see transitioning to an apprenticeship style program. However, I do think it’s important for academic librarians to go through the same higher degree process as their teaching faculty peers. Still I can imagine different schools catering to students by applying different models. Maybe a good compromise would be a 1.5 year program of coursework followed by a 1 year apprenticeship?

    (OT but I went to UCSC for undergrad, and thinking of the farm’s delicious goodies was a lovely way to start the day!)


  5. Actually, when you say:

    Let’s turn the MLIS into an apprenticeship program.

    it really should read:

    Let’s return library education to apprenticeships.

    IOW, the present model arose from an apprenticeship model … you’ll have to do some historical research in 20th century library education to fill in the details. Here’s a start:

    Cheers and keep up the good work … this is a great site!! I’ve already tweeted about several posts from here 🙂


  6. I read the “glutted market” link before reading your warning and it did, indeed, ruin my day. 😦

    That said, I completely agree that at least having the option to complete an apprenticeship-type education in library science would be fantastic. It would provide practical training, which jobs want but we don’t get in school (thanks a lot for assigning a reference interview project without telling us how to find sources on a topic we know nothing about, current class I’m taking. Yes, I’m bitter). Not to mention it would help people new to the field build connections and network. Even if LIS education isn’t completely transformed, I hope someone will start at least a few programs like this.


  7. I hate to say it but I’m going to anyway. I think an apprenticeship model would be very ideal but with the way things are now, I don’t see it happening for the same reasons why newly graduated MLIS students aren’t all finding jobs – the opportunities just aren’t there.

    If, as Stacie pointed out, only a handful of applicants were accepted to schools each year, this would be a very plausible model, and it would increase the chances of those graduates getting jobs, because the market wouldn’t be as flooded. This is just a symptom of how problematic the current education system is. Why shouldn’t library students be able to get apprenticeships? It makes absolute sense to me but it’s not going to happen until the system changes.


    • *SPIRIT-STICK raised* I absolutely agree with you Catlady…why shouldn’t library students be able to get apprenticeships? Or for that matter…why aren’t we [MLS students] writing proposals/grants for it now? Let’s not wait for the big organizations to do it…let’s create the change we want to see in the future LIS curriculums.

      I’ll add my 2 cents on to Caroline’s comments. I can live with a 1.5y program with a 1 year apprenticeship built in. There is such a huge gap of knowledge in the field of education where there very few [count on one hand- in the U.S.] library undergraduate programs in LIS. Perhaps it’s time for me to post a ‘I have a dream LIS program’. In my LIS Dream…I would like to see an experiental learning MLIS curriculum where faculty are teaching from CURRENT case studies– real life problems in the classroom and students are challenged to fix them. VS


      • I love this idea. I wonder how it would be incorporated into the ALA-accrediting standards? Could that be averted? What about jobs for grads of such a program? Would it be an umbrella program under an existing program… hmm. Food for thought.


  8. I think the apprenticeship idea is a great one, especially as I am going into this field with little experience.

    However, I also think library school needs to be harder to get into, not just more challenging once you’re there (also a great idea). Coming from the hard sciences, I am somewhat appalled at the writing, reasoning, and direction-following skills of some of my classmates. It’s harsh, but it’s true. I was expecting a higher caliber among my peers when I got here, but so far, it’s not much different from my undergrad experience.


    • JP…I agree with you. As I mentioned earlier, I am a HUGE supporter of experiential learning curriculums that require hands-on learning/critical thinking. My undergraduate education was tough, but prepared me for my career in human services. A requirement for each student involved a 150hr Practicum– so from Computer Science Majors to Underwater Basketweaving: you graduated with some type of ‘field training.’ VS


  9. As a MLIS student in an online program I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. A dilemma for many students trying to change careers is that we can’t even get our foot in the door. In my previous graduate program for my current career, I was much further along in internships and other on-the-job learning experiences that dovetailed nicely with my coursework. Sadly this is not the case in my MLIS program. I plan on volunteering on the weekend doing such tasks as shelving books. I’m sure that this experience will provide me the competitive edge when applying for positions when I graduate. (sarcasm)


    • Amen! Everyone says to volunteer to get your foot in the door, but I am just now being trusted to shelve after a year and a half of volunteering. I’m hoping that my parents are right and “experience is experience.”


  10. This is a great idea, and my MLIS currently has a similar program. Emporia State University’s School of Library and Information Management has an optional practicum program that places the student in a library for a term. Usually implemented during the student’s final term, our adviser helps the student find a library that will take them in, and that student usually does a special project like designing an instruction tutorial or helping catalog a digital collection. I’m not doing the practicum because I already have a library job that has allocated me special projects and amazing experience, but a lot of the students who do practicums find that their experience helps lead directly to a job.


    • My school does this, too, but I worry that I won’t get much out of it if the library’s only begrudgingly fitting me in somewhere. We’ll see when the time comes, if I don’t find a library job before then.


  11. Hi everyone!

    Thanks for all the comments! Everyone’s making really excellent points. I’m excited to see where conversations like this might lead us.

    Carolyn – last Christmas, my sister-in-law gave everyone in her family handmade gifts from the farm. The red pepper jelly changed my life, I’m not even kidding.


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