LIS Education, Advocacy, and the Future of Librarianship

Note: I posted this a bit ago on my blog, but since it has a lot to do with how we approach LIS education as students and new professionals, I wanted to post it here too!

A lot of discussion has been circulating about the future of librarianship in response to comments made by Jeffrey Trzeciak (of McMaster University) indicating that he wouldn’t hire any more librarians, preferring instead to give certain positions to people in IT or with PhDs. I agree that in many instances you might want to consider candidates from a variety of backgrounds, but to discount librarians (especially coming from the University Librarian himself!) is an indication of how deeply our field is misunderstood. I first read about it through Jenica Rogers’ post, which I think provides a great intro to the subject and some awesome perspective on why we need advocacy as professionals (not just as a profession or as institutions.) My fellow Hack Library School editors, along with Courtney Walters and a few others, began discussing the topic via Twitter (I was at work, so didn’t get to jump in until after the fact!) If you’re interested in seeing the discussion, look for #savelibrarians. In addition, some blog posts have started going up to discuss our future as professionals–a great post in particular is Courtney Walter’s discussion of our identity crisis as librarians/info pros.

There’s also a Google Doc where a group of folks are hashing out ideas, both by writing out our experiences and thoughts and by having really fascinating discussions in the comments. What I love is that it’s turned into a place where we talk about what our roles are and the future of our field, rather than a place where anyone makes personal attacks on Trzeciak or spews venom about the topic. There are two things that have stood out for me in these discussions. First, that advocacy is absolutely vital. We have discussions all the time about advocacy for our libraries, both to make our users aware of all we offer so they see our value and advocate for us, and so that lawmakers, etc. see our value and continue to provide support. This is incredibly valuable, but it’s equally important that users, administrators, and lawmakers see the importance of librarians too (for an example of this, see political debates in Iowa and elsewhere about the value of school librarians.) The term is a misunderstood one (I can attest from the range of comments I get when I talk about what I do, ranging from ‘Good for you, I don’t like books enough to do that’ or ‘you don’t look like a librarian’) but also very broad. Our big challenge in the coming years is to help people understand all the things we do and are capable of doing, but most of all making people aware of the passion librarians bring to the workplace that encourages us to try new things and go the extra mile to help users.

Another thing I noticed here, as well as at conferences and such, is the rather strong division between theory and practice. I feel like a lot of conferences (and yes, I include ALA in this) tend to divide programming to mostly focus on practical advice, with a few sessions on research/theory, but very little (which is frustrating for someone like me, who’s a researcher!) I wrote a blurb about it on the Google doc, but I think it’s worth putting down here because the idea that theory and practice work together is one that is fundamental to my perspective on the field. I was writing in response to a comment from Jenica Rogers that she wished Trzeciak and others would stop condemning LIS education and librarians in the same fell swoop (I argue that we shouldn’t condemn either, but I digress.) Here’s what I wrote:

 One thing programs do well is provide a theoretical foundation, while internships provide practical experience. Since publishing and other professional activities are required (or strongly encouraged) in many positions, this ability to understand and criticize theory, as well as the ability to add your own thoughts and findings to the body of LIS literature, is very important. By condemning LIS programs for ‘not preparing us’ sufficiently, the only thing we are doing is overlooking the fact that theory and practice are not separate, and that both should be used to inform each other. It also assumes that the student has no agency, and is simply there to be filled with knowledge, get a piece of paper, and leave. Most LIS students I know want more out of their programs, and many are willing to seek out opportunities to help provide the desired experience. It’s one thing I worry about as I go into my PhD (and hopefully a faculty position some time in the future!) because I want to approach education as something where theory and practice meet, and where my primary goal as an educator is to provide theoretical grounding and exposure to creating and critiquing research (whereas the goal of the internship coordinator, advisor, student, etc. is to find practical opportunities to gain experience in one or more areas of the field.) It’s the job of the student (and to some extent the faculty as well) to consider how and where these two things meet, and to understand how to take the learning from courses and apply it to the field.

In talking with my lovely friend Angela Murillo, I started thinking of ways I wanted to bring these together in the classroom. I felt inspired by a discussion I had with Jim Elmborg and my fellow B Sides editors, where we talked about different types of research and how they could apply inside and outside of the classroom. So, one thing I’m thinking is to give students one paper that is written based on a theory or method they value (the approach: here is my method or theory, now what research problem can I find to apply it to?) I would then assign students another paper that’s problem-based, where students have a research problem and then have to find a way to reach a conclusion/solution (Dr. Elmborg calls this ‘practitioner-based’ research, which is a term I really like!) My thinking is that many students will be encouraged or required to publish or present their work in scholarly publications, and even those who aren’t will still encounter issues or find ways to improve their library that would be valuable to share with others via field publications. My hope is that, rather than condemning LIS education, people will see the value in it as a place that provides practical skills but also shows the importance for everyone to add their voice to LIS literature and to share what they’ve learned.

I would be interested to hear how LIS educators, students, and professionals approach this topic: do you feel that theory and practice must be separate, or are there ways we can work to close that divide? What have your experiences been with advocating for your skills as a professional, and where do you see that going?

13 replies

  1. I am a LIS student, but I entered the field after starting a PhD program in Anthropology and deciding that route was not for me. So, in thinking about the connection between theory and practice, my mind jumps back to anthropology. There, I was strongly indoctrinated in the need to connect theory and practice — you’re not really advancing the field if you’re just going through the motions without understanding the theory behind what you’re doing and contributing to theoretical discussions.

    In libraries and information agencies, theory should inform practice and vice versa, not be kept separate. For example, theoretical and ethical considerations should inform the development and maintenance of collection development policies — we’re not just buying the stuff we think is cool or that we agree with! On the flip side, I’ve read several articles in library literature that had no overt theoretical argument; they simply gave a narrative account of implementing some new technological solution or other change in one library setting… Then we turned around and discussed that in relation to the theoretical issues from other readings for class that week, shaping our understanding of the theory.

    I think your idea for the two different types of papers to assign in your class is an excellent idea. I can’t say I’ve had that sort of paper in my LIS program, but I’ve done those sorts of exercises in anthropology classes — and I learned a lot through those papers!


    • Thanks for your awesome comments–and I’m excited to hear that my papers could be helpful! I like your discussion of collection development policies, because that’s an area where we constantly need to be self critical and try to look at how bias might be creeping in (something I talked a lot about yesterday during our poster session.) It’s awesome to hear that your faculty are finding ways to combine theory and practice with your readings too!


    • For folks reading this post, I definitely recommend taking a gander at Melody’s too. It’s short and sweet, but she brings up some good ways students can be advocates for librarianship and it has a lot of potential to generate some great discussion!


  2. I think theory and practice divide is something that all of library science struggles with, not just LIS programs.

    I definitely think it’s important to bridge that divide in our programs and out in the trenches. One great way of explaining theory that I heard through an ACRL conference session (Instruction Deconstruction) is that theory is the how and why, and practice is the what. It’s hard to advocate and assess what we’re doing without a how and a why.


  3. Seems like every one or two months some blogger comes out with a “librarians are obsolete” or “make librarianship a para-professional job” argument. Sadly, it seems to be librarians saying this which makes me wonder just how much effort they put into their jobs to believe that just anyone can do it.


  4. To an extent, I agree that anyone can do our job. Just as anyone could successfully defend themselves in a court of law, mediate an argument between spouses, or conduct research on the effectiveness of a termite repellent (my Uncle’s an entomologist at Sierra Research Laboratories in Modesto, A degree didn’t magically convey upon me the ability to conduct reference interviews, organize materials, or research and synthesize data for a customer. It didn’t give me the enthusiasm, and interest in information description, organization, and literacy either. It’s a piece of paper that’s supposed to show people you can be trusted to do your job well and that you should be taken seriously as an expert in what you’ve chosen to do. Just like my uncle’s doctorate (granted, his job is a lot more specific and as a PhD he’s more of an expert than someone with a master’s would be, but i digress).

    At SJSU the LIS program offered classes in a range of subjects having to do with information studies and even had suggested academic paths depending on what you’d like to specialize in. If you graduate and aren’t satisfied with the skill set you developed, it’s no one’s fault but your own. I selected classes that would teach me things that would apply to several different libraries as well as other jobs information professionals perform. I researched which teachers would be more likely to challenge me and show real-world application of the knowledge I gained. I’m confident that I can bring something to the table for any employer I work for, whether it’s a library or non-library setting.


    • Robert–I agree, doing research to get what you want out of a program is very important. I also think you’ve touched on something else by mentioning that training does not imply enthusiasm. LIS is a field I’m drawn to because of the excitement I hear when people talk about their institution, their patrons, or their research. I think that’s at the heart of what makes us marketable–it’s true, anyone technically *could* get the training, but by and large the people in our field are here because we love what we do and we love working with people!


  5. I appreciated the link to the Google Doc you all have going for this issue. I’m set at odds because on one hand, I see exactly where Trzeciak is coming from, and I agree with his decisions/opinions; on the other, I wonder if extremism won’t just make everything worse.

    What I don’t feel is true is that this issue is something that can be resolved through the existing models of the profession. In many ways, my MLIS studies are nothing more than a vo-tech education, and so yes, I feel that “paralibrarian” should be a valid career track, next to “librarian” as higher-level designation. Most professions have similar delineations (paralegal & lawyer, nurse & doctor, etc.) so I do not understand where the fierce objection to that concept is, other than defensiveness on the part of librarians who feel that doing so would undervalue their skill set.

    Maybe it would; but things need to change, and as Trzeciak’s opinions make clear, they are currently changing with or without us. Trzeciak sees MLIS schools pumping out paralibrarians, and I agree with him; he sees no value in that, but I do. What needs to happen is not to say, “well the MLIS is a worthless degree” but to ask, “what, then, makes a full-fledged librarian?”


      • Yes, that’s why I said “similar” delineations; my best friend is a nurse, so I’m very familiar with the differences and the incredibly rigorous training nurses must go through.

        But I feel your comment is reflective of why this discussion falls apart; because of the entrenched idea that a “para” anything is, simply, a lesser version of a “full” professional and that calling any type of occupation a “para” job makes people launch on the defense. Knowing nurses and working with paralegals, I can say with confidence that perception is NOT true. Rather, it is about a difference in focus concerning the same subject (medicine, or law, or information science).

        True, paralegals don’t go to law school and nurses don’t go to medical school for a respective doctorate, and therein lies the reason behind the idea that they aren’t as educated as the full professional lawyer or MD. And, honestly, they aren’t; but they ARE educated, and they ARE professionals. In fact I don’t know a single nurse (or EMT, for that matter) who would be insulted by being called a paraMD (while I *do* know MDs who would object to that!).

        Being “para” is being support staff, plain and simple, and that is a CRITICAL component of any professional field and hardly reason for anyone to get defensive. Law firms would utterly fall apart without paralegals and people would die in hospitals with out nurses. But so many librarians are jittery about being labeled “para” that no one really wants to discuss this kind of delineation as a viable alternative. Instead, we get Trzeciak telling us the whole degree is obsolete.

        I am, in fact, working on a paper that discusses what a librarian and a paralibrarian education should look like; it’s hardly ready for mass consumption, though. Short version? A librarian has a PhD, period. Lawyers do; MDs do; full professors in any field do; etc. Getting an MLIS should be a stepping stone to that. Paralibrarians should track completely differently, just as nurses do. Or, at least, there should be a very concrete difference between a Masters of Science and Masters of Art, which at least at FSU doesn’t really exist.


        • If the master’s degree program in ALA certified graduate programs is lacking, what specifically would you change in LIS education? Would you want something more akin to the Washington State University’s information school? Do you think LIS education should include more IT classes? Is there a specific aspect of librarianship that you feel shouldn’t be taught in a graduate program?


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