Why LIS should take a note from conservatories.

Good librarianship is an art. The distinct combination of talent, education, experience, and affinity that librarians possess must come together into a cohesive unit, guided by the librarian’s sensibilities, in order to provide the professional level of service expected and required of librarians today. Why, then, are our training models designed to produce indistinguishable workers, full of core competencies but unable to produce artful solutions? Educators in Library & Information Science must begin to focus on producing dynamic librarians capable of striding forth and revolutionizing their field. By recognizing that there is no “one true way,” and instead supporting the creation of artist-librarians, each with their own style, approach, and direction, Library & Information Science education becomes a sort of “conservatory model,” and begins to change the future of librarianship.

But what, exactly, is meant by “conservatory model”? Usually seen in arts education, conservatories combine concentrated instruction in foundational theory with a great deal of practical experience. Students in a conservatory are treated as artists in their own right from the beginning, and are expected to showcase that artfulness as they mature. Workshops and master-classes hone particular skills, and allow students to tailor their education according to their needs.

Any practice is based on a theoretical framework, and librarianship must not be an exception to the rule. Helping others interact with information, for example, falls flat without a working definition of information itself. That said, the ways in which those theories are passed on can vary significantly, from traditional lecture modes of rote learning to more Socratic explorations of a topic. In the conservatory model, a large part of the instruction is on an individual basis, with students studying closely with faculty who are themselves expert, practicing artists. This has the advantage of allowing the artists-in-training to mature (with the guidance of their faculty) into colleagues of whom those instructors can be proud. Faculty may take a much more collaborative approach with their students, intervening as needed or requested, assisting in the development of a new generation of artists.

Conservatory models also recognize that, just as students are artists in their own right, these artists-in-training each come part-and-parcel with their own talents and skills. Because the instruction is so individualized, it can be customized according to the requirements of that student alone. Students will have every opportunity to ask questions as they need to and will move more quickly into their areas of interest and specialization. Also, this style of training encompasses any previous learning the student may have had, eliminating the repetition that may be faced in traditional lecture classrooms.

Library & Information Science education must consider the conservatory model, particularly as the field changes and current training models are found lacking. Large lecture classes may be successful at imparting purely factual information that must be learned by rote, but when the subject to be tackled is as individualized and as ever-changing as information sciences, lectures are less successful at conveying the required mastery. Artful handing of the situations information professionals encounter on a regular basis entails a grasp of the subject matter that must be internalized, and is likely impossible to gain by rote memorization. Information science presupposes graduate-level education because the problems faced are often quite complex and their solutions may not be readily apparent.

Students are often told, when considering graduate-level education, to consider their potential faculty as paramount when selecting an institution. What, then, if they arrive at that institution and find that their chosen faculty members teach relatively few classes? Or, conversely, what if they take a class with a particular faculty member, and are so infected by that instructor’s enthusiasm that they switch areas of interest, only to find that the professor is going on sabbatical? It may be possible to work with certain tutors in other capacities, but current Library & Information Science programs do not seem prepared to offer this sort of close working relationship with the teaching faculty often, if at all.

People drawn to Library & Information Science are a diverse lot, and an exciting facet of the field is the sheer assortment of backgrounds that practitioners possess. Library & Information Science education, though, does not seem actively interested in mining that incredible pool of talent and diversity for the multi-disciplinary whole that could result. Instead, schools of information request that students put their former interests on the back burner, and the Library & Information Science masters’ degree programs rubber-stamp identical automata, holding forth their core competencies as a shield against radical innovation. Imagine the resurgence that could result for Library & Information Science from a true fusion with genetics, or public administration, or music? Beyond subject specialization, taking a new lens to traditional Library & Information Science education and practice could revitalize the field—but it’s not happening.

Enter the conservatory model. It is designed solely to create expert artists, giving those artists access to stellar individual instruction coupled with access to excellent, enthusiastic faculty who recognize the talents held by their students. Conservatory teaching is notoriously flexible, and can be varied every semester if needed, based on the instruction the students themselves will require. One-on-one tutorials, as with some of the work in British universities, allow tutors to adjust every meeting with their students to be the best possible educational experience for them both. It’s also self-sustaining: when artists trained this way have commenced, they are prepared and even expected to continue the cycle by teaching. They have the foundation they need, and are colleagues (albeit probably less-experienced colleagues) of their tutors. They have synthesized their academic foundation with their practical experience and created their own style, their own brand. Their degree is unique; no one else has had the same experiences, even if they had similar tracks.

Though no two conservatory experiences are identical, there is a side effect of this style of teaching: a lineage of thought, passed from tutor to student, and on, as the student becomes an instructor and begins the process again. Obviously, each individual will re-interpret their teaching, editing slightly the training they received according to their own conscience, but the major ideas and ethics can then be traced back throughout that lineage system. Especially as tutors in a conservatory model are often chosen specifically for their approach and lineage, ideas flow through the system, and are preserved.

As the conservatory model becomes known in the information science world, faculty can seek out teaching opportunities within this structure, and students could choose an institution when they know they’ll be able to work this way.  As librarianship is recognized as an art form as well as a science, people holding graduate degrees in Library & Information Science will gain increased recognition as professionals worthy of respect.

5 replies

  1. I really like this format of teaching and learning, but I think there has to be a paradigm shift on two fronts in the LIS education community for this to be a viable option.

    1. LIS schools are beholden to the ALA and it’s core competencies because they want accreditation. Accreditation is the carrot, core competencies are the method by which the schools obtain the carrot. Employers require ALA-accredited master’s degrees, so it’s going to take a huge wind to turn this boat.

    2. LIS faculty are limited in the amount of time they can spend with students in one-on-one or small group settings because they are thinking about publishing and committee work and all the comes along with being a faculty member. I don’t think faculty would be willing to give the time that the conservatory model requires as long as the universities require such heavy publishing requirements.

    All that said, it’s still a wonderful concept and one that I think needs to be explored further. Thanks for bring it up and starting the conversation.


  2. Thanks for introducing this possibility. I think this format might work better in exploring customer service, library-funding-models by region, and managerial styles–especially to help quieter individuals (can you tell I’ve been reading Susan Cain?) to learn effective-yet-personality-consisent techniques. I am hesitant about the Socratic system of learning with so much post-modern and constructivism (can you tell I read Lane Wilkinson’s blog occasionally?) because I find it hard to understand/predict which facts are set and which are descriptive and maleable.


  3. I’m curious how many LIS programs offer courses that are purely lecture-based? Even in my largest courses, all of our classes incorporate active learning components, activities, and opportunities to internalize and apply the lesson. Maybe we’re closer to a conservatory model than we think?


  4. Thanks for this discussion! I think it provides a really interesting framework for thinking about not only how to improve classroom teaching, but also about how LIS programs can more closely integrate practicums/internships into the learning trajectory of their students, and take advantage of the mentor/apprentice relationships that naturally develop in those settings.


  5. I love this idea, but it seems impractical given how many people are enrolled in LIS programs compared to the number of people enrolled in conservatories, and when you compare the student/faculty ratio in each type of program. Working artists are expected to teach, for the most part, as part of working as artists, even if they also play cello in the symphony or sometimes travel to show a new exhibition, while the practice of library science doesn’t really lend itself to having the amount of experienced teachers who don’t need to be working directly in the field.


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