What is there to argue about in library science? Well, how about everything…

Jeremy Bold is currently a full-time graduate student pursuing degrees in European Studies at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University and residing in Brooklyn, NY.  After graduating in May, he expects to be at least a part time-employed librarian and a full time-obsessed writer living somewhere in the United States.  He is an avid (albeit unpaid) reader, writer, photographer and, if it really means anything, philosopher as well. You can find him writing at The Socratic Librarian (an experiment in applying philosophical examination to the life of librarians, librarianship and a bit of the information professions more generally) and The Blank Rectangle (A blog about the most forgotten/ignored state in the US — North Dakota — where Jeremy is originally from).


Each time we have a meeting for my Emerging Web Technologies class, some kind of argument breaks out.  And this fact is awesome.  Oh sure, the arguments generally revolve around pretty nerdy subjects.  Is the book really dead?  What amazing/terrible thing has Google today?  Should integrated library systems be open-source?  What the hell are we talking about with Library 2.0?  All this discussion makes for a vibrant class environment, using anxiety-inducing moments of technological development to provoke thought about not just what library’s are doing now, but the things they should be doing to prepare for the future.  It makes me glad to be in library school.

But I’m about to graduate – so why is this the first class where I’ve felt excited to go to each class?  Why is the only course where I’ve felt the whole community of students to be really engaged in the discussion and challenged to understand and argue over the class topics?  Most of the librarians I talk with have expressed a lot of satisfaction with their work, but in almost all cases they expressed a common discontent – one might even call it, hate – of library school.  There is the sense that cataloguing class can only prepare you for the basic idea of classification, but using the most general of standards – something that you essentially have to relearn when you get your first job.  Library school has mostly felt like some kind of pre-professional school – a long drawn-out training program and mostly just a hurdle to real work in my first job.

So what the hell is library school supposed to be for?  In my mind, if we’re going to define this as a school for library and information science, then we’re going to need to start engaging the critical impulse – to not only host real disputes in the classroom, but encourage them.  I believe this is crucial in general and I have started my own blog – The Socratic Librarian – to begin developing that philosophical and critical thought approach to librarianship for my own professional life.  Already, there exists a rich history of libraries and librarianship in which to apply this perspective; yet I also feel that there is something crucial about the current moment which demands that library science programs also begin to inculcate this approach in all future librarians.

Libraries are facing real existential threats from outside and in as they struggle to orient themselves in a rapidly changing environment.  To return to the issue of Emerging Web Technologies, the speed with which the media and modes of communication of information are changing has only increased in recent years.  Our relation to information in the digital world has manifested demands of wider access to a complex information environment and simplified interfaces to help us receive and process all of that information.  Furthermore, public and academic libraries (at least) are facing impending budgetary crises, in which Phillip Pullman’s “greedy ghost” of market fundamentalism threatens to undermine our understanding of the value of libraries.

But even in the midst of a recession, when people are turning to libraries for “free access to books, magazines, CDs and DVDs, “ we can’t appeal to a consumerist ethic to shore up confidence in libraries.   Nor can we expect to rely on a statement like “the Decay of libraries is like Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain……..” (Ted Hughes) which is laden too heavy with sentiment to really provide guidance.  So how are we actually going to cope with these changes, some of which may be broadly and fundamentally shifting the ways in which we think about information and knowledge, and, in turn, the values and conceptions people have of libraries?

Now I’m not blaming anyone in particular here.  All I’m trying to do is point to the fact that we can no longer accept libraries as given institutions and therefore we need to encourage the examination of the nature of the library as an institution, the activities it has historically undertaken and the most effective and important ways for it to stay relevant in the future.  We won’t be able to do that by preparing students with classes that spend most of their time focusing on technical training.  We need to encourage discussion and debate over the values of this institution in a way that both librarians and users can understand.

And I’m not arguing that we should retool library science as a theoretical discipline – the librarian is a practical breed of scholar, one that is interested in not just reading research but in applying it in a form of knowledge by praxis.  (And trust me, I recognize the need to possess industry-relevant skills before you face to the job market only too well at the moment.)  But library school should not just be about teaching future librarians how to patch holes in the catalog or catch up with the present state information technology, but encouraging them to become librarians who live “the examined life,” who will be prepared to define and debate our projections of the future of librarianship as a profession.

Categories: Big Picture

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34 replies

  1. I’m of a rare breed that actually enjoys library school–though admittedly, I just kind of love school in general. However, I agree that the bridge between developing practical employable skills and developing a philosophy and values is one that’s difficult to create.

    How does your Emerging Web Technologies contribute to that bridge? Is there something about the structure, or content of that class that could be a model for other LIS classes?

    And as a side note, the fact that we can’t take libraries as a given institution totally ruined my day 😉


    • so as I was saying to Julia below,

      “Seems like these new classes on new developments in technologies (which I’m kind of assuming your Social Informatics class was about) are very motivating for people…Though I have experience with this open-format teaching style being done poorly as well.”

      So certainly an open format to class is helpful to starting that engagement, but certainly not the only thing. I suppose talking about “emerging technologies” helps with engagement because much of it is stuff that people are all using and think they know how to use already – and it’s amazing to bring that material into the context of a class because not only do you get differences of opinion on how people use those tools and the worth of some tools, but you also get to examine them on a more serious-level than just using them to connect with friends or to manage your schedule. Not to mention that understanding the technical, social, political, etc. functionalities of these developments in information technology actually has practical consequences for libraries and people and life, which certainly can’t hurt any!


  2. Wow. Jeremy – this is a great treatise on the intellectual hole that many of us perceive in LIS education. I honestly believe that this is an issue that MUST be made known to administration and the profession. Unfortunately I’m convinced that you’d ignite quite a firestorm with plenty of people who see LIS as a service profession with embedded technical skills. I could write an entire essay in response here, but I just want to encourage you to follow through on this – keep writing, talking and pushing for this change. I’m with you on this.

    PS. Calvin illustrates everything really well, doesn’t he? I’m in Brooklyn too, we should chat soon.


    • Hey Micah – always glad to know that I am not suffering alone! Yeah I’m really going to run up against this whole service-orientated profession thing pretty quickly here since graduation just over a month away for me…I’m hoping I can find some ways to push for critical examination of my library’s activities (and my own) even in the low-experience jobs I’ll be applying for.

      hmmm, topics for debate…obviously I think there is a lot out there we could be discussing, but one thing I’ve ran into and kind of brings up that point about whether librarianship is supposed to be just a “service-oriented profession” is how to handle Band-Aid style reference questions: the ones where users just want you to find the answer for them but not expect to teach them anything. I understand that people are often self-conscious about being ignorant about how to do something (especially when it comes to technology) but I don’t want to baby them either. That’s a real waste of expertise, especially in the academic setting where I plan to be. Moreover, it seems like the underlying approach in “the reference interview” is a form of covert interrogation to grasp user questions and then answer them without them realizing it – if the users are going to learn anything, they have to find out that they don’t know it, right? I understand this is really touchy issue though, but I think we could do something crucial by exploring more critical perspectives for reference in the hope of getting at an approach that is more educational for users and engaging for librarians.

      yeah, the calvin thing came together nicely, though it would have been cool to connect it all the way through — I guess blogging won’t be engaging the perfectionist in me.


  3. Also wanted to add – I’ve not had one good argument/discussion in Library School, and miss it dearly from previous academic programs. Lets pick a topic and argue about it here on the blog. Suggestions for where to begin?


    • How about we start here with this whole “no good arguments” business?

      I mean, really? We’re in the same program, and I’ve had whole classes where 90% of what we did was argue.
      You took Assessing Information Needs, right? If you lacked for good discussion in that class, I’d put the blame on yourself and your classmates, because the framework was there. My experience has actually been that of the core classes at Florida State, only Information Organization was focused on anything besides discussions.

      Maybe its different when you’re on campus and involved directly with people who work in the university libraries; when you have an actual community. This is what I really dislike about online classes. I feel that they can discourage networking and building the kinds of relationships that make productive debate possible.


      • Joseph,

        I wonder if we may have different definitions of what an argument/discussion might entail. I’m comparing this to my previous experience in my American Studies MA where 90% of my classes were Seminars where 15 students (American Studies, Religion, History, English) and a Prof would all read a book a week, meet for 2.5 hours and challenge one another, the author, the professor, the academy, established thought, etc. etc. with really well-thought out, well-articulated passionate discussions on the meaning of culture, “America” and more. I have had nothing close to that in the MLIS.

        Now I know this is a different type of degree, and I think that might be what Jeremy was writing toward, but it seems that we should be asking more, deeper questions of the nature of information in society, how it affects and changes culture, and why we MUST become librarians to change the world. Again, I might be just setting myself up for the PhD in LIS here.


        • I believe that people who pursue MA’s in other subjects first have the most frustration in LIS programs because those “academic” degrees are much more oriented towards seminar-style discussion and debate than profession-oriented LIS courses. Our expectations for academic engagement are different (not better, just different). This has certainly been my experience as well as that of several of my classmates.


          • I can agree with you somewhat about the “different” styles, but I think it’s problematic to call them “not better” or worse. Look at the context:


            This program on “Information and Knowledge Strategy” is just being started at Columbia (who used to have a library science program, no less!). I can’t say much about it really, but it seems to speak for a need/desire to broaden the scope and deepen the intensity of the traditional library-focused LIS programs. Being adept at working with information is no longer a task for librarians alone; it has become a huge part of business, warfare, society, etc. Furthermore, these other venues for information may introduce alternative ways of working with information to the traditional practices of libraries, not to mention opportunities for reconsidering the way libraries go about their work.

            It seems like these are essential reasons why we should be encouraging what I feel to be a deeper kind of academic engagement in the context of library school, not abandoning it.

            I think this is a great thread – it might make good for another post, which I’ll have to think about more…but maybe I should just make sure I graduate on time… (I certainly wouldn’t stop anyone who wanted to do something on this though!)


  4. I’ve had a lot of good debates in LS, but almost exclusively in my youth services classes. I think this is a) because the instructors are willing and love to let that happen; b) the youth services librarians are a smallish cohort, are comfortable with one another, and are willing to trust one another as is necessary for a good debate, and c) so much good stuff to debate. Porn in the library? Do we label books with racy/violent content? Why aren’t public librarians mandated reporters (for child abuse)? Does “Twilight” have any value at all?


  5. Very interesting points, but I have to say that I’m very happy with my program. While there were a few classes that were duds and some that were purely technical, I have had some really great discourse in my classes. Urban Public Librarianship, Information Policy, Government Documents, and Instructional Technologies all provided fertile ground for some quite thrilling class debates. I have found that the amount and quality of class discourse improved dramatically after finishing my core classes…which probably suggests that core in general needs to be revamped. The one exception was Knowledge Organization (Cataloging), which turned out to be surprisingly theoretical. I had an excellent teacher who was good at breaking down grand conceptional notions and tying them to the most mundane technical skills. It was definitely the core class that I learned the most.

    I lucked out by finding great teachers early and sticking with them. There are certainly some very poor professors in our program, and I attribute any weakness in my own LIS education to them.


  6. I took a class called the Representation and Organization of Information, which was heavily based on discussions of the reading. The teacher was actually from an education background, not library science, but he saw the value in active learning- that we learn best through talking to each other, not just someone standing there lecturing at us. He even arranged the classroom so that we were all facing each other.

    Currently, in my collection development class, the professor always asks us to bring in clippings of current events that pertain to librarianship. This means we get to talk to each other about pertinent issues in class, which makes everything way more interesting.


  7. So I’m totally guilty of probably being the person in class that always has her hand raised with a comment. And I definitely think that, especially in my core courses, there was not a lot of space or time for discussion/arguments. It was kind of just you needed to learn this core stuff and then you moved on to electives where the “fun” began.
    However, one of my favorite classes was Management and Org. of Public Libraries where the professor, who had years and years of experience working in all types of public libraries in all kinds of communities, was constantly pushing us to debate the status quo and to challenge what we were being taught and to ask questions, etc. And I was always surprised when the same 4 or 5 of us, out of 20 or so, were the only ones to talk and engage. I started to feel self-conscious about it. And I just thought it was such a shame that more people were not passionate about what we were learning about. Maybe they were, but they just didn’t verbally express it.

    But that is what is so great about this blog and my Twitter friends – there *is* a discussion going now and I am feeling very engaged and finding myself questioning not only what is going on in the library profession but what is going on in my program and in other programs. And I’m very hopeful that I can bring this all back into my program to make it one where like Micah said, we “should be asking more, deeper questions of the nature of information in society, how it affects and changes culture, and why we MUST become librarians to change the world.”


  8. I’m curious as to whether this kind of discourse started for you all early in your degrees or whether it took a while to rev up. I just finished up my 2nd quarter (as a part-time online student, so I’m only 4 core classes in), and it seems like there hasn’t been a huge difference of opinion yet when it comes to core material, which bothers me a little.

    It feels like we’re all tiptoing around everything that could potentially ignite an argument or debate. I think part of that is due to our lack of familiarity with the material – no one in their right mind wants to start up a passionate argument on something they know little to nothing about. But debate, to me, is a big part of how I learn, and it’s been frustrating to just have to hope that eventually when I start my electives it will happen.

    One of many reasons I’m glad places like HLS exist. 🙂


  9. Jeremy–awesome post! I’m excited to read this as someone who’s ultimate goal is to do research and instruction as an LIS professor, because getting people engaged and excited is the best way to make a class more meaningful. In Social Informatics, Andre Brock basically came in the class, sat down with his coffee and said, ‘well, what do you think?’ There were few lectures, and a lot of great discussion on the class blog and in the classroom. Andre’s teaching style encouraged me to branch out and look at new topics, but also got me really excited about keeping on top of new developments in our field. I would love to see more passionate discussion and more of a focus on talking about what’s happening now (rather than relying solely on articles from journals, although those do have their place too!) Your post is an inspiration for this future instructor–thank you!


    • yesyesyes! I’ve been thinking about this idea of becoming a LIS professor as well…but alas, i am growing weary of schooling and I can’t in good conscience commit myself to another several years of it at the moment. Seems like these new classes on new developments in technologies (which I’m kind of assuming your Social Informatics class was about) are very motivating for people, which my Emerging Web Tech class certainly speaks to. Though I have experience with this open-format teaching style being done poorly as well…glad that your experience was a good one. And…just out of curiosity…where might you be looking to do your Ph.D. in LIS? (just in case i change my mind!)


  10. I went to library school in the golden age! I am so sad for those of you coming up now who aren’t getting the same experience I was fortunate to experience. The cutting edge program I went to was intense, stimulating, philosophical, and flat out amazing. Unfortunately my program closed the year I graduated. As a practicing librarian I often think about discussions, arguments, and aha moments from when I was in library school. It put everything into context and has had a profound effect on shaping my professional practice.


  11. In our classes there tend to be few really involved discussions/arguments too. One of the big reasons to me seems to be that people are very quick to take offence when there’s disagreement. Everyone’s very polite and just quietly disagrees without saying anything. Most of the profs aren’t comfortable with anything that takes the class off the track they’ve laid for it so disagreements tend to be smoothed over so we can move on, at the expense of really getting into any meatiness of the issues. This means we tend to clump off into groups of people we know won’t be offended by our ideas.

    It’s frustrating. I like making claims and defending them and confronting people fiercely, but I also don’t want to alienate all of my classmates/future colleagues. There are a few people who are agitators and I respect them and wish there were more. I wish I was one of them but without a culture of recognizing that attacks on ideas aren’t attacks on people, I’m too scared of being an asshole.


  12. My in person classes always have at least one good, if not fulfilling debate. My online classes… are significantly less satisfying. Even when I call people out I am largely ignored. This may be in part due to the constraints of an online program. It may also be laziness on the part of my online colleagues.


    • I do think that in addition to having presentations and group projects, library schools would do well to adopt debate as part of their curriculum. I’ve taken science classes that included debate as part of their pedagogy I don’t think any classes at my school do.


    • I agree that debate is largely missing in online courses. Instructors require us to respond to other students’ posts, but this typically generates single responses, not extended conversations.


      • I agree with that statement, Molly. Every once in a while I find myself completely lost on where to even respond because all responses are basically, “great post, or i think that’s cool, or interesting idea!”. Coming from a Philosophy B.S., this all has been almost off putting to the whole thing. I’m interested in the subject, the topics, and a lot of the technical stuff I have been learning, but at times it seems everyone simply agrees with one another for convenience. A BS sentence or two will pass as one of those weekly “two responses”, and rarely do any of the “discussions” get interesting. Anyways, sometimes I try to post disagreements just for a kick even though I feel as though I will be disliked by whatever classmate I am responding to since there is rarely anyone else doing the same. No one ever seems to write back to my disagreements though.. which is disheartening.. maybe I will have to try out some in person classes..


        • I find it frustrating when “great post” counts as being involved in an online discussion board. I had one professor who told us that that would not count! She wanted us to be engaged, etc. I sometimes wonder if the conversation on discussion boards would be more interesting if people weren’t required to submit. But then, would it just be a few people involved? Hmmm


  13. Your experience is interesting, but I would venture that there is plenty to argue about even in classes that may have seemed really boring at the time.

    My library programme, through FIMS at University of Western Ontario, had (and still has) a mandatory attendance policy. Missing a class without a valid reason was cause for dismissal from the programme. Since everyone had to be there anyways, the 10% participation portion of our grades were drawn up from actual participation in class. Because LIS increasingly defines itself as a management profession to distinguish it from library tech programmes, our library school, I think, felt justified in requiring everyone to speak up.

    This policy makes classes much more participatory and often gets debates going, even in cataloguing.


    • I think that’s probably the best way to look at they dynamic change taking place in libraries, and how we should be adapting too it. Then again, I tend to believe Canadians do things better.


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