LIS education, Advocacy, and the Future of Librarianship

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?

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