Thursday, March 29, 2007

Theory and Practice in Library Education

Library "educators" are in a tough position in some ways. They don't have a natural audience the way scholars in traditional academic fields do, because the MLS especially is a professional rather than an academic degree. That's why it's easier in some schools to find a class in rapid-response informatics or distributed cognition environments than in reference or collection development.

If you're a scholar in an academic field, then theory and practice usually join together. Take history, for example. Academic historians usually write for other academic historians. Obviously there is a broad demand for popular history among educated people, and entire subfields of history that have active non-academic historians (particularly military history and the history of the American Civil War), but historians generally don't write for a popular audience. Here's a recent book from CUP, for example: Capitals of Capital: A History of International Finance Centres, 1780-2005. Considering the press, it's probably a great book, but most likely only specialists and students in economic history will ever read it. Historians are practitioners, and in their field theory and practice are one. Even teaching, the other activity of most historians, is training a new generation of historians, a new generation of practitioners. The scholar is also the practitioner, and what they practice is scholarship.

And obviously this is true of many areas of scholarship. Even in Education, a justly maligned academic field, the professors of education generally might have shoddy research methods and an intellectual laxity strengthened by their stranglehold on state educational licensing boards, but they are at least teachers training teachers.

But what happens when we move to fields where the theoreticians are not also the obvious practitioners, such as in LIS. When I was in library school, I was training to be a librarian, not, God forbid, a library school professor. And without fail, the most useful classes I had were taught by librarians at the university library who adjuncted as LIS professors. Some of the professors were very intelligent and productive and perfectly nice people, and some of them had even at some point been librarians, but it was clear they weren't librarians.

The absolutely worst LIS professor I ever had had never been a librarian, but had gone straight from college through an MLS and LIS PhD program. With his new PhD, he was now a real professor, but he knew nothing about working in a library. It's possible the class I had with him was even his first real class. He was terrible. Not only had he never been a librarian, but he'd never even been a teacher. I was at least ahead of him on that score. Frankly, he wasn't very bright, either, but he was well meaning. As an experienced teacher and scholar who wanted to become a librarian, what was I supposed to learn from this fellow?

A library school professor I know has often complained (and cited some statistics to prove) that librarians don't read the work of library educators. Library educators write mostly for themselves in a vacuum divorced from the practice of librarianship. It only makes sense. Historians write for historians. Economists write for economists. Physicists write for physicists. And LIS professors write for other LIS professors. They do write for practitioners, but their practice is the practice of being LIS professors. It's not the practice of being librarians. It doesn't even have a proper name like historian, economist, or physicist. Librarianist? Informationist?

I've told this library professor that the reason I rarely read any of the scholarly output of LIS faculty is because it has almost nothing to do with my work and I don't find it intellectually interesting. I have wide-ranging intellectual interests in the humanities and social sciences, but LIS isn't one of them. Their concerns are not my concerns. I'm not concerned with what a library school professor has to say, for example, about collection development in a research library. Without being immodest, I think I can say that I know a lot more about the subject than most library school professors. And unlike a lot of librarians, I could actually articulate that knowledge. The same can be said for reference as well, though in reference there are some very knowledgeable professors. I may have a lot to learn about these subjects from excellent and thoughtful practitioners, but I have very little to learn about them from LIS professors.

(I will except from my discussion techie subjects where theory and practice might be more aligned. But programmers aren't running libraries. I will also except from this criticism the occasional LIS professor who writes intelligently on issues of genuine concern for librarians.)

This also helps explain why the bulk of the library literature written by librarians is so dull, even if it's sometimes useful. They don't have the time or the inclination to do good theoretical work; they're writing as librarians for librarians and trying to come up with something useful.

I just looked through the faculty research interests website at a highly ranked library school, and not one professor had an interest in collection development (though a couple had interests in digital collections), and only one had a research interest in reference (and she's actually done some good work). LIS professors just don't find those courses interesting, which is understandable because reference and collection development are practices of librarians, not LIS professors. If I want to build library collections and teach people how to use them, there's little I need to know from LIS professors.

And those academic subjects that I do need to know about, and in fact know something about, have nothing to do with LIS. If I were an LIS bibliographer, then I would need to know what they're doing and keep up with the work in the field. But I'm not and never will be. As a research librarian, I need to know about actual academic subjects, not library science.

I see this as a great divide in library education. The further LIS professors gravitate away from the practice of librarianship, the less they offer to the profession. Academically, this isn't necessarily a problem, since some professors produce excellent work. There are a number of outstanding library historians. But while their work may be interesting historically, it doesn't help me in my practice. There are all sorts of LIS professors who write about exciting topics like human rights and race relations. But while their work might be interesting to people bored by librarianship and excited by politics, it doesn't have anything to do with the practice of librarianship, unless librarianship ceases to be about running libraries and serving library populations and instead becomes an exercise in romantic revolution.

But it does raise the question of what library schools are for? Are they for training librarians? Or are they for LIS professors to expand scholarship on various areas of information that is of little use or interest to librarians? Keep in mind, I'm not saying this work doesn't have scholarly value. I'm only saying it has no value for the practice of librarianship. These are two very different things, and it becomes a problem only when the library schools staffed by library professors are supposed to be training librarians. Isn't that what gets them accredited by the ALA?

Finally, I suppose that's one reason I'm so critical of library school. The professors don't want to teach the mundane subjects that will actually be useful in running libraries, with good reason. They're not librarians, they don't understand librarians, and they couldn't possibly speak with the authority I can on those issues. And they think that their area of LIS scholarship should be interesting for people who want to be librarians. Well, it's not. They teach for LIS scholars, but I don't want to be an LIS scholar. I'd rather be a librarian.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you about the problems in library school. I have a second masters and I learned much more about to do research from my subject masters classes. I had to spend an entire year learning how to do research, which I have found really invaluable as a librarian.

My library classes never taught reasearch basics. My management class never taught how to deal with unionized staff or difficult staff. I learned more about long-term planning and marketing from reading business journals.

What I have noticed is that many library students don't realize that much of being a librarian involves customer service. They concentrate on theory and then when they get out on the job realize that it is really hard to be PC and maintain hardline librarian ethics when you have to deal with the same smelly mentally-ill individual every day - with a smile on your face. The new librarians then lapse into cynicism and disillusionment. I have a hard time respecting or listening to people who never worked as actual librarians. I am actually quite PC but I am also a realist.

I also have to agree that much library literature is really poorly written. Every so often, I think that I should get published, then realize that I really have nothing original to say. I prefer the papers about actual practices to heavily theoretical ones because I can then decide whether I can adapt the practices.

I think library programs should become more practical and realistic.However, this might require a major overhaul of the current crop of professors.

-lover of conspiracy theories

Robert L said...

It's probably why I'm in favor of an apprenticeship program for actual librarians. Much of what we do can be learned on the job. Supplement that with classroom type readings, which most apprenticeship programs do, and you will have well trained librarians.

I also think the other advantage is that it will allow those clerks, pages and "para-professionals" (a term I hate, by the way) to actually rise past the professional ceiling and become even more productive employees of their libararies.

Degolar said...

Well articulated, AL. In library school I was actually reprimanded half-way through the program for having a bad attitude (despite a 4.0 GPA) because I always challenged my professors to be more relevant and show me how to put their theory into practice.

Karin Dalziel said...

I'm in library school, and I am learning a mix of theory and practice. I'm not so idealistic to believe that every class will be applicable to my life as a librarian, but I think most will - and I will have a practicum which serves the function similar to an apprenticeship.

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the topic. It reminds me of the "debates" I've had with my father, whose opinion I don't always agree with, but who I respect and admire.

I posted more about my thoughts here:

Scott said...

I am a professor at Syracuse University, and am the new program director of the MSLIS program. I've been a reader of your blog for a while, as it helps me to better understand some of the current problems in the field and better teach and advise my students. I'm rethinking the whole curriculum and trying to determine how best to prepare students in the short time we have them.

I was a librarian, and now I call myself a library scientist. I've spent considerable time thinking about my role and how I can be valuable to the profession. What follows is how I conceptualize the roles of librarian, library scientist, and information scientist and a little bit about how I teach.

I think we have done great harm to our profession by not being more clear about the difference between librarianship and library science.

It's clear in other professions. A medical researcher does something very different than a doctor. A computer scientist works on different types of things than a computer programmer. A political scientist and a politician are two very different things.

In each case, you have people that are working in a specific setting as compared to people who are attempting to generalize across settings.

That is the difference here.

Librarians are focused on a specific setting. Each librarian serves a community, and the reason they do a good job is that they understand the needs of that community. Now, some librarians flip into the role of library scientist when they take what they have learned and generalize it so that others can benefit. But that isn't their job, so it's something they have to fit on the side. Because of that, they don't have the time to do this well. If, as you argue, librarians are the ones that should be doing this, then more libraries need to give time and resources to their librarians to help them better the profession.

A library scientist looks at many library settings for things in common. This is where theory can come from. Many times, the library scientist can be informed by other fields, such as information science. Information science is another step away from libraries, but provides the conduit to other related disciplines, and Information Scientists connect the dots at a higher theoretical level.

Library scientists can take these concepts and then adapt them to something that can work within libraries. I have tried to do this in my writing by creating two versions of my work. One version is targeted toward other library scientists and information scientists. The other version is targeted toward librarians. For example, I did a free Webjunction module on bibliomining targeted toward librarians new to the topic, but it was informed by the things I wrote for ASIST and the Journal of Documentation.

Librarians then have the responsibility to take those works and apply them to their own information settings. The librarian knows best about their setting and can make decisions about what may or may not work.

It's this difference in goals - librarians serving a specific set of communities while library scientists trying to generalize across settings - that causes conflict between the two groups collaborating on research.

What professors teach and what professors research are two different topical areas. Librarians are much better than professors in their own domains. (as in your example - "collection development for a research library").

The problem comes that our classes, due to the economics of higher education, have to be taught to a broader group of students. So, we can teach a class about Collection Development, but it has to meet the needs of academic, public, special, and school librarians. The only way to do this appropriately is to teach at a more theoretical level where all of these areas come together.

What I then do is provide applied assignments that allow the student to explore their domain of interest. For example, when I teach weeding, I teach about large concepts of weeding and about following the library's policy. Then I have each student go to a library of their choice, plop down in front of a shelf range, and act as though they are weeding it for that library. The result is that the student gets to apply the theoretical knowledge to their domain of interest.

Do I do research in weeding? No. But I attend every ALA, I get and read American Libraries, and I run a monthly open discussion group for librarians, students, and faculty in the area where I learn about what's going on with weeding. In addition, our school has a Professor of Practice who is someone that has significant experience in the library field, and rather than being awarded for research, they are awarded for keeping an active connection to the profession. This professor is involved with all of our curriculum planning and helps us to stay in touch with the field.

Rather than an exam or thesis, our capstone experience is an internship where we are still available to the students as they explore their desired library setting. This is the place where theory and practice come together and is why we value it as the culminating experience in the degree.

I am trying to make a difference in librarianship - that is THE reason I stopped working on a reference desk and went for the PhD. I could help the handful of people that came to my desk, or I could help people who can help their own handfuls of people.

To wrap this up, I have a request.

What can we do to fix it, given the realities of the academic setting? If you were in my shoes - you have just taken over the MSLIS program at an Information school - what would you do to create a great learning experience for both local and distance students?

James said...

What my deloved alma mater, Michigan, did (in response to the Orangemen professor above) was this.

1) They had weird, forward-thinking classes on organizational theory, economics, computer science, sociology and math. These classes were required.

2) The other half of the curriculum were optional courses in your area of specialization and required internships in your discipline.

Theory first, practical second.

They also contracted out a lot of the "practitioner" classes to professional librarians from U-M libraries, some from publics in the area, etc.

I hated the theory when I was taking it and it has been a great benefit nearly every day at work.

Anonymous said...

I am an MLIS student at the U. of Denver. The curriculum was recently reorganized, partly to make it more relevant for students who now have several areas of concentration to choose from. Many on faculty are wonderful people, but one of my best teachers was an adjunct professor who taught me a lot of research skills (boolean searching, searching full-text databases, searching the Internet, etc.). His class was a nice balance of practice and theory.

Dan said...

I graduated from the now-defunct Columbia u. School of Library Service back in '91. It was a 48 credit program that was heavy on both theory and practice. We didn't learn just how to do things, but why we did them that way and what we could to do if we wanted to see change. We also had heavy duty bibliography courses (man, I think I memorized 50 resources every week!) and we actually had to write master's theses. Our management classes were based on actual case studies and even the tech service class dealt with those things one never thinks about unitl you get into the real world (such as forgetting to put paper supplies into your budget). And we had practicums, too.

There were a few snorer classes too, but overall it left me prepared to be other a librarian and an academic. It certainly helped me when I went to do a subject masters later.

In other words, it was a library school education should be. Big on Theory, Big on Practice and how to use both in your professional life. It's a shame to hear so many tales of idiocy in most library school programs nowadays

Anonymous said...

I think that Dan's description of library school sounds ideal. I believe that mixing theory and practice together in a course is that best way to teach - the practice makes the theory seem relevent.

I also think that management theory and financial economics should be taught. I keep hearing library students complain about how librarians don't spend enough time with individual patrons, while ignoring the fact that the lack of staffing due to budget constraints forces the librarian to multitask. If the student was taught how a budget affects all aspects of a particular library s/he might be less likely to dismiss older librarians as bad employees.

These posts are all great. I have been thinking about this subject quite a bit in the last year and I am pleased to read about some decent MLIS programs out there.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to come accross this topic. I have been thinking about this a lot the past few days. I'm about halfway into my MLIS, and I'm already being courted by a PhD program. I could go do it: it'd keep me off the streets and out of jail. But what happens then? I can't imagine teaching about something I have never done, and no one will want hire a PhD for an entry level user services job.

Curriculum wise, I grit my teeth and bear it. No practicum for me (and, should I arrange one on my own, I would only get ONE credit). I will be required to write a thesis, even though my research background is negligible. I wanted to be a librarian, but I am expected to magically turn into a researcher. And a "library leader", which is apparently accomplished through 4 credits of reading Stephen Covey and friends. On the other hand, our foundation course "Social Exchange of Infomration" was fascinating, I could have done that for semesters on end, but that wasn't really librarianship, it was social science. Fun, but not necessarily practical.


Anonymous said...

Your description of the research interests of the faculty sounded remarkably like that of my recent alma mater, Rutgers. Either that's the school you were referring to or there are others out there with the same gratuitous, over-theorized dullards and dearth of faculty teaching practical courses. Every one of the classes I valued, every single one was taught by an adjunct. It got to the point where everyone I knew would sign up for any class taught by "Staff" rather than a member of the faculty. Human Information Behavior my ass. Can you tell I'm still bitter?

Bedheaded said...

Dittos, AL. I took collection development as a two-week winter class, and I believe it was the kind of class that got kicked from professor to professor. The one class I took that seemed to have any real bearing on the reality I might face was my first reference class, and unsurprisingly, I ended up a reference librarian. I never learned a bit about instruction, and frankly don't remember any classes on instruction being offered, yet instruction is one of the primary duties of my position, and I've had to learn it as I go along.

cranky archivist said...

Count me as another who agrees with the myriads of problems in library school these days. I chose my SLIS program due to the presence of a very strong archives program, which essentially allowed me to split my degree into half library content and half archives content (I'm not an archives snob, but wanted to find a good path to working with Special Collections and manuscripts). If I hadn't taken the archives coursework, I would be very dissatisfied with my overall experience. The 6 required library courses were redundant, out of date, too general, at times irrelevant, and generally unchallenging. Several were taught by practitioners, and several by regular faculty. As others have stated, I felt the better of these were taught by the actual practioners. These "core classes" definitely were not faves of the faculty, and it seemed like they were doing penance when they got stuck teaching them. It definitely felt like the faculty had not standardized the curriculum (i.e., we will cover these subjects in this class, so it doesn't overlap with the other classes). From talking with other students, I discovered that the workload and class experience varied like crazy depending on who was teaching the classes. That never seemed right. I deliberately avoided taking classes with the department head and several other permanent faculty members, based on comments from trusted colleagues.

My archives courses were terrific--and were taught by 2 practitioners and a practitioner-turned-educator. We had to do a mandatory 150 hour practicum, which also included weekly class meetings. It was a lot of work for a semester, but I can say that the hands-on experience was invaluable. I also arranged for a second 150 hour practicum, as I could see that landing a job without more experience in the field would be impossible, especially given how tight the entry level market has become. I felt really bad for the general library students, as their practicums only had to be 40 hours. I can imagine that I would have felt extremely ill-prepared in a practical sense if I'd taken that route. The program did encourage everyone to pursue PT employment in a library environment while in school, (they had literally NO assistantships in libraries to help in this regard), but seemed very content to let the underprepared student stay that way. I actually started to feel embarassed for the program towards the end, as it was definitely giving me a real "assembly line" vibe. They're graduating tons of students on the promise of the "librarian shortage" which has yet to come to fruition....and provide little to no practical guidance to matters like....well, landing a friggin' job. Is this due to the educators' disconnect with the realities of the library working world? It definitely felt like it.

AL said...

Lots of interesting comments here. I'd like to address Scott's in particular. I won't have enough computer time until next week, though. I'd like to address what could be changed about library school, but I'm not sure anything can. The library school whose faculty interests page I looked at was Michigan, btw, not Rutgers, but I'd be willing to bet that if I looked down the faculty interest lists of any of the larger library schools I'd find more or less the same thing.

James said...


Research interests don't necessarily translate into the classroom.

Example: The professor who taught my searching and retrieval / comp. sci. class was on another planet from us, intellectually speaking. He was so smart you could see it coming off him like heat out of the top of a toaster.

He'd come back from a conference and tell us what his paper was about and it sounded like Chinese algebra.

He didn't teach us any of that Jedi shit.

Research informs teaching, at least it should, but I don't think it dictates it.

Anonymous said...

I am an academic librarian, and my library school had a large number of people who were interested in public or school libraries. So the coll dev course, for instance, was a mishmash of approaches to try to cover all kinds of libraries--none well.

And the students were a mix, too--people who were genuinely interested in learning, in how to apply that knowledge, and how to build a library career. Others were retired or had kids and just wanted some kind of part-time job to keep busy. So expectations from faculty--and learning plans--were frequently less than exacting.

Privateer6 said...

Like cranky archivist, I also graduated from a program in which I took half library and half archiving courses. Of all my library courses, only two were taught by practitioners, the management course being taught by a retired associate dean of an academic library and a database systems course being taught by a programmer. The rest of the library courses were either boring, very political, or irrelevant. To date i have not used ANY of the library courses I took in my job.

The idea of an internship is one I very strongly recommend EXCEPT for those have paraprofessional experience. At my school the only librarians who needed to have an internship were the media specialists, and that's required for licensure. The archivists actually had to do two internships, one 40 hour internship as part of the 'Application of the Principles and Archives and Records Management" course, and a 120 hour internship your last semester. Despite the challenges I had getting things set up and the "adviser" I had, I would not trade those experiences for anything.

On the other hand, the archiving program had nothing but practitioners teaching the courses. They usually only had MAs of MLSes, knew their subjects thoroughly, and if they did go off that night's specified topic, the subject matter was still highly related to course. Usually it was the teacher describing actual problems he was encountering, both archival and administratively.

Dances With Books said...

You got it. Thank the powers that be for those librarians who did the adjunct work. Indeed, the best teachers of the practical material one would use as a librarian was taught by actual librarians who held real jobs in libraries and taught as adjuncts. I think my management professor, the LIS educator, was a librarian back during the Hoover administration (yes, that old, not to mention that out of touch).

Unfortunately, those areas, such as collection development, reference, even instruction (my area of interest) as well as things like readers' advisory, are of no interest to the "scholars," so adjuncts get to do them. Problem is that, like many adjuncts, it can be a crapshoot. Get a good one, you get a great class. Get a not so good one, you get the idea. I was fortunate the adjuncts I had were the good ones. The one who taught the children/YA course was specially good, so was the Adult RA person. I never took the BI class, but I came to librarianship with teaching experience. At one point I thought if fate was cruel enough to get me to become an LIS professor, I would want to teach the instruction classes, anything to help librarians who needed to learn how to teach. Then they told me I needed the PhD, and I woke up.

Anyhow, all good comments in here. I could tell other horror stories, but I like my pseudonymous existence fine.

Anonymous said...

I think you perfectly stated the frustrations I've had as an MLS student. I got about half way through my program before I really understood any of the practical skills and knowledge required to work in the field... and that's only because I got a part time job in a library. I've learned far more there, than in my classes. Not only that, but it makes the theory I'm learning in school that much easier to understand and assimilate. I've just been wondering how much of this is due to the fact that library programs are offered at the master's level and (I can only assume as this is my first master's degree) typically work at the master's level is more theoretical and scholarly. It's just unfortunate that the practical aspects are skipped over. Part of me feels like I would have been able to learn more if I had just gotten a job in a library instead of going to school... but then again I need my MLS to do that... and so here I am. Just trying to make the best of it.

Snarky Librarian said...

I finished my MLS program last December, and I must chime in with my agreement regarding the value of adjunct professors. The two most useful classes were taught by the same adjunct, who was a youth services librarian in a small library, and so actually DID all of those things that she was teaching about. I learned a lot, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Something that really bothered me about the curriculum at the school I attended was that only one management course was required, and even that had very little practical advise on supervision, working in a team, and other people-oriented skills. Was that the case for others as well?

Privateer6 said...

Anon 4:43,
You hit the nail on the head, too much theory and not enough practical. With the archives program I was in, there were only 2 "theory" classes: Intro to Public History and Theory of Archives and Records Admin. After I completed the Intro to Pub. Hist., the program dropped it. But that Theory class helped tremendously. Not only did we discuss theory, the instructor also gave us real life examples of the theories in practice based upon his experiences. And then the second semester we had a mini internship of 40 hours to apply what we learned in that class.

After the two theory classes, everything else was hands on. The automation class discussed the key ideas and then we did an EAD finding aid. Our preservation class discussed what to do AND we had to do it. And of course the internship.

But there are some programs that seem to have the right mix of theory and practical out there. My wife's MLS program had alot more practical work in it. She did cataloging, she did processing, she did some minor event planning, she even did some EAD work for the special collections she worked in. When I described what I was doing, she was shocked at the less than rigorous course of study that she went through. And she was very surprised that there was NO practical experiences for my sister-in-law, who is pursuing her MLS from the same university I went to, except in public libraries.

Also one thing that shocked me in one of the theory classes was the concept of customer service. It was like a revelation to some of my colleagues that you needed to take care of customers. And what really ticked of the professor was that I mentioned that any sales clerk working at a department store could tell you that. She was stunned, simply stunned, that I would compare her concepts on customer service to a sales' clerk.

Terry said...

I was generally happy with my library school experience in 1988/89 at the University of Arizona. We lived in Phoenix, 100 miles away, but they sent a wonderful professor up to teach most of our courses. He had been a practicing librarian and a library school dean. Throughout those two years, he kept making one major point. "If you take nothing else out of these classes, remember this phrase - 'Librarians are the bridge between people and the information they need.'

That's a motto that transcends whatever advances in technology, so it works as well today as it did in 1989.

cat said...

I would like to heartily second the comments of Scott Nicholson at Syracuse. I am another library school professor who is a former librarian (medical, in both academic and corporate settings) and a Michigan alum for 2 of my 4 graduate degrees, including the MLIS (which, for some strange reason, is the AMLS at U of M). So I have watched the evolution of Michigan's I-school with guarded fascination.

Many of us getting PhDs do so after living with the real-life frustrations of librarianship: we got tired of encountering the same problems year after year (the "practice" part of the equation) without having a chance to figure out why the problems were happening (which is the "theory" part of the equation).

One real frustration I encounter in my teaching is the assumption that if I have a PhD, I must therefore never have gone near an actual library. In fact, this will vary tremendously by library school. I can assure every reader of this blog that when it comes to the academic job market, experience as a practitioner is a highly valued attribute for teachers in LIS programs (which may mean teachers in I-schools.)

I do not deny that inexperienced people are hired, as the first "anonymous" states ("I have a hard time respecting or listening to people who never worked as actual librarians."). Readers of this blog should be aware that there has been a critical shortage of LIS PhDs (lessening in the past few years); in 2001 I was told at one major conference that there were 4 faculty positions available for every PhD in the room. This clearly will affect who is hired and by whom.

But I submit that the important question is what courses those people are teaching. I believe myself that an adjunct faculty member, working in a library every day, can teach certain courses better than I can--as long as those courses relate directly to their practical experience.

There are also things I teach better than they can--as long as those things relate directly to my research experience, which is itself informed by my work experience as a librarian.

A good school understands what works where for the good of the students. (And the faculty).