Monday, April 09, 2007

More Theory and Practice

A library school professor posted a comment late last week to my "Theory and Practice" post, and I wanted to respond to it. The full comment is definitely worth reading, but I'm going to quote only part of it. After noting that s/he (I hate that construction, but I don't know the gender of the commenter) is a library school professor but has been a librarian, s/he says:

"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)."

I'm not sure I understand.

I can certainly understand preferring to be a professor than a librarian, if nothing else to get your summers off. I wouldn't want to be a professor of library science, but I still understand the urge for some people.

And I can certainly understand being a frustrated librarian. I got frustrated once in my job, and it was a darned unpleasant experience.

But there is one thing I don't understand--what problems are we talking about? I understand the frustration of encountering the same problems year after year, but the problems I encounter aren't the sort that can be solved by library school professors. I've never encountered any problems in practice that I couldn't reflect on and solve if they were solvable. A good liberal education seems to me superior to any library "science" as preparation for librarianship. Can someone give me some examples of practical problems that the theorizing of "library scientists" has solved? As far as I can tell, library science just isn't that hard. Perhaps I've led a sheltered librarian's life, but I've yet to encounter any library science theory that was at all difficult. That's why it's library science and not rocket science. What does the special caste of "library scientists" have to offer practicing librarians that they can't just theorize for themselves?

I'm especially interested in any LIS theory that is specific to librarianship, which would leave out computer science and management theories. (In general, leaving out management theories would be an especial boon to the profession.)

A friend of mine--another excellent librarian-- and I were discussing my "Theory and Practice" post, particularly the comment asking what library school professors could do. Her advice was to stop being so pompous.

I was struck by that comment because of an experience I had at a meeting a couple of years ago. I was with a mixed group of librarians and "library educators" as they called themselves. (I wanted to point out to them that real professors don't call themselves "educators." That's what primary and secondary school teachers sometimes call themselves when they get pretentious and can't just stick with the perfectly respectable "teacher.") What struck me most was that the librarians were for the most part very smart and highly educated with years of experience in good research libraries. They knew their trade and could speak intelligently about it. The "library educators" were for the most part rather dim and from some really crappy library schools (one of which I'm almost positive couldn't even manage ALA-accreditation). Yet these so-called "educators" seemed to consider themselves a special caste superior to us mere librarians, ironic considering that almost nothing they said was worth saying. The only thing that kept me from laughing out loud and mocking them to their face was focusing on the irony between the regard they had for themselves and the contempt the rest of us had for them. People who aren't very bright or educated should just keep their mouths shut around bright and educated people.

My commenter notes that "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."

Long time readers will certainly be aware, as I have addressed the issue before. Four positions for every PhD? That certainly says something about the profession. Meaning no disrespect to those very intelligent and educated LIS professors out there (and I know several), but what it says to me is that the field isn't very attractive, and that the standards must necessarily be low if the jobs are to be filled. It means that anybody who can stumble through the PhD work can land a job as a professor.

This certainly explains my meeting with the pompous and dull-witted "library educators" who laughably thought the rest of us would take them seriously, and it explains some of my experiences in library school with a couple of intellectually insecure dullards who had managed to become "professors," but seemed somehow to sense that I wasn't impressed by their LIS PhDs.

I don't consider this professor shortage to be a problem, except insofar as it lets dullards slip through and become professors. Rather, I'm sure it's a problem for the profession of library professoring, because it means more teaching for them. I don't consider it a problem for the profession of librarianship because I still don't think that LIS professors have very much to offer to librarians.

No, now I'm starting to get rude. I don't want to be rude, I want some answers. I'm willing to be proved wrong. Which part of this library science theory is so hard to grasp? What specifically have library school professors contributed that couldn't have been contributed by librarians? I suspect that I'm smarter than the average librarian, but I know a lot of really smart librarians who have no trouble solving their own problems and theorizing from their own practice, and they don't even have their summers off to sit around and think all these hard library theory thoughts.

I'm fully prepared to admit that library scientists contribute to some academic endeavor and to the scholarly record in their field, but their field isn't my field. What I want to know is, what do you do for librarianship that I couldn't do myself?


Anonymous said...

I view the comment about solving the same problems as being one of etiology. You are entirely correct that most problems are solvable by the application of logic, common sense, etc. However, "theory" (which I infer to mean searching for root causes) is a less tactical approach.

Your commenter wants to find out if there is an identifiable cause for a disease, not perfect the diagnosis of symtoms or cure the condition once it manifests itself.



Dances With Books said...

There lies the magnificent question: what exactly is it that library professors can do for us in the field? And I am asking the actual LIS professors. Like you point out, leave out computer science and management theory out, and there is not much left. I came from a program where the balance into computer science (things like "strategic intelligence," HCI, and programming were, to use a certain libblogger's word, "hot"). How the hell they could still claim to be a library school and not some IT bastion was beyond me. As for the "library" professors, as I commented before, the adjuncts were usually the best since they were actual practitioners.

But seriously, what do those people in the ivory tower expect to solve I can't? Let's talk public libraries, for one example. Are they going to solve issues like homeless in libraries and disruptive patrons or the fact public libraries are pretty much de facto babysitters without a license? Let them get off their pompous ass and get to work. Otherwise, they can stay up in the tower as far as I am concerned. I have actual work to do.

janitorx said...

It means that anybody who can stumble through the PhD work can land a job as a professor.

Several years ago when janitorx was a wee little LIS student she took a course with a PhD aspirant who had no practical library experience. She prefaced her dismal presentation with some thing along the lines of "I'm a little nervous" and I recall some kitchy images to accompany this debacle. She is fully employed as an LIS professor.

Our former director also had a PhD in LIS and he was a truly a moron. He simply did not know how to run a library and kept this place far behind other CC's in the state.

Anonymous said...

I think you guys are missing the point. Library school is designed to immerse you in the profession in a general sort of way, and not to teach you how to be an effective librarian. We all know that one learns librarianship on the job. I practically had to start from scratch when I started working. However, being an academic librarian myself, I would never have learned of the issues facing other types of librarians if it weren't for library school.

I also agree that a good liberal arts background is the best preparation for a career in librarianship. I draw mostly from my previous education when doing my job and not anything I learned in library school. Yet, for some reason, there are lots of people coming into librarianship without a liberal arts background. I think they benefit more from library school than the liberal arts crowd, simply because they don't use the library as much as we do.

AL said...

Perhaps I am missing the point. But it's the specific claim that the theorizing is solving practical problems that prompted this post. I just don't see it.

Anonymous said...

Would one who would like to be a library science professor be better off getting a interdisciplinary Ph.D. so as to bring various other ideas into the field along with having about 15 years of reference experience or a Ph.D. in Library Science.

I was talking to one of my friends that I coaxed into becoming a librarian who had an undergrad degree in Classics and is very confounded as to why one needs a Master Degree to answer questions, point to the bathroom, and shelve books. After talking with him, I wonder that as well.

Anonymous said...

Do library science profs solve practical problems? Not likely, and it is very naive of these profs to think so. However, isn't this naivete endemic to academia? Most academics have an inflated view of their work. My own academic background is in philosophy, which could have more impact on the lives of everyday people, but is primarily work written by academics for academics. Can't the same be said of Sociology, History and Economics among other fields? The work that a PhD Economics prof puts out is not any more relevant to the average stock broker on Wall Street than LIS prof work is to librarians. Is this a fair analogy?

BTW: Thanks for the Barzun reference. I picked it up and cannot put it down.


Anonymous said...


"...the specific claim that the theorizing is solving practical problems ..."

Theorizing does on occasion solve problems in a different manner than the practical solution. Rather than contuinue to treat infections, Koch proved Pasteur's germ theory and we today benefit from antiseptics, etc.

The problem with the analogy is that it elevates LIS to a "science" but that is a problem for another day and another martini, in which the Traveling Salesman Problem is discussed without resport to "Farmer's Daughter" jokes. (My premise being there are non-dterministic problems in informtion management that have theoretical solution not discernible in practice).


Anonymous said...

How about thinking of this from the point of view that PhD's in the field help perpetuate knowledge in the field? The magazine Popular Science had a recent article that dealt with research that confirms what is commonly known (e.g., "Too many meetings make you grumpy"). So, maybe even research about what we already know to be true has its place.

I mean, those of us who are doing the practical, problem-solving jobs are the ones who don't necessarily have the time to formally theorize about things, much less write our experiences/experiments down in the format of an article in a scholarly journal.

Maybe we should make the time to do that. I know it's a personal goal of mine to write formally about what's working for me in my library.


AL said...

"The work that a PhD Economics prof puts out is not any more relevant to the average stock broker on Wall Street than LIS prof work is to librarians. Is this a fair analogy?"

Chris, I agree that it isn't a fair analogy. I tried in both these posts to make a distinction between what theorists do and what practitioners do. For some academic fields those are the same--economists, philosophers, historians, etc., write for other economists, etc. LIS professors write for other LIS professors.

Anonymous said...

"As for the 'library' professors, as I commented before, the adjuncts were usually the best since they were actual practitioners."


Anonymous said...

Library school certainly had its moments, but overall has little bearing on my job in a public library. I did mine entirely online, so I could sit in my living room drinking wine in my underwear and get away with calling myself a "grad student."

I feel very confident that the LIBRARY curriculum could be broken down into one, maybe two classes. Maybe librarianship is a bastard discipline, a mishmash, with no father to its style. Library school should not be 2 years, and in its current form is a relic. Change is absolutely necessary. In my 2 years of experience as a librarian, I've learned that the majority of librarians fear change and are very hesitant to try new things, change old ways or actively adapt and learn. Library school is the same way, no matter how you dress it up with 2.0s and modern management rhetoric. The word "library" seemed like a dirty word in school, professors uttering it once a semester.

More than once during grad school I actively wondered why library school exists at all. I can't imagine what it would be like to get a Phd and write some of those papers.

Brent said...

If libraries differ, what's the point in getting specific at school? Especially since the libraries and the world change a lot.

The wise (haha) Bill Clinton said get a broad education because the world changes and you need to adapt.

If it was specific or broad, doesn't matter. The specifics I'd forget, anyway. I'd still get a high gpa, anyway.

Anonymous said...

what sorts of problems are practitioners solving? maybe there lies the fodder for theory. it could simply be the disdain between the two groups (practitioners/theorists) that increases the chasm, with the adjuncts walking the shaky roped ladder serving as the de facto mediator...

Anonymous said...

I actually found some of the courses I took in library school to be useful. These included information policy, how to search databases and database theory, basic cataloging, and my government and business classes.

What I did not find useful was my management class. I think that taking some classes in public administration may help me since I actually need practical info rather than really broad theories.

What I hated about library school was the actual disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the professors exhibited towards librarians. The professors were all convinced that no librarian out there conducted a successful reference interview or offered any sort of positive customer service. I would get depressed just sitting in the room.

My suggestion is that the prof offer basic policy, database, and reference sources classes. Then he can offer some such as "Current Trends & Issues in Public Libraries" or "Current Trends & Issues in Archiving" that are more specific.

The problem is that the people who are teaching the classes are,in my opinion, too easily swept away by trends. Twenty years ago, academics were blown away by semiotics, which I found pretty obvious (and I still think are connected to how our brain has been hard-wired by evolution). Now library science academics are blown away by Web 2.0.

I work in an environment where I can move from a patron clutching a laptop, ready to surf our databases from our free wireless to a patron who is in a masters program and overwhelmed by having to write a ten-page paper with an annotated bibliography to a patron who can't speak English, has never used a computer, and needs to download forms and get a book for her ten-year-old. At the same time, I have to deal with the homeless, the rude, and disruptive teens.

I go to meetings where I am told that I am rude for multitasking on the floor. I go to meetings where I am told that I am a bad librarian because I cannot spend half an hour counseling a job-hunting patron. I go to meetings where I am told that I am a bad librarian for not wanting to personally talk teens out of joining gangs.

Perhaps library school professors should concentrate on producing librarians with common sense and compassion for their employees and co-workers rather than on producing avid bloggers (sorry AL),librarians obsessed with the latest techie flash in the pan, and librarians who would be more effective as social workers.

Hire me and I will redesign your program, and teach your courses. We may have a high dropout rate (weed them out early)but we will produce quality librarians and library administrators.

-the conspiracy theorist

Scott said...

Scott Nicholson here again, library school professor at Syracuse

(side note - I'm not introducing myself to be pompus. I'm not Anonymous because I plan to be a professor for the next 25 years, and am seeking advice to do a better job!)

>What I want to know is, what do you do for librarianship that I couldn't do myself?

Practicing librarians _can_ do the same types of research and explorations that faculty do. Some of them have to for their jobs. But they don't have the time, as their job is to serve a specific community. It's my job to serve a specific community - librarians!!

My job is to prepare people who will be able to continue the profession through teaching and ask those bigger questions that you don't have the time to ask through research. That's why I go to ALA and read the blogs; it's how I learn about what questions need exploration.

I see my job is to explore those things that librarians are too busy to explore, and then try to present that information back to them.

Here are two examples:
- I worked with another professor to take HIPAA regulations and apply them to library data. The result is a set of guides to help librarians decide what kind of data they could keep about their patrons that would still protect their privacy but could be used to make evidence-based decisions. I started on this line of research as I saw articles about librarians deleting everything, when some of that data is very useful in justifying services and making decisions. So, our guide is designed to help you figure out what you should and shouldn't keep. Other work on bibliomining (starting with my free Webjunction module) can help you understand what can be done with the data.

- Right now, I am starting a series of research projects to explore gaming in libraries. We are doing a phone survey of 400 public libraries, selected at random, so we can provide the answer to "What percentage of public libraries support gaming?" and "What kind of gaming do they support?" This would be very useful to libraries considering adding gaming programs and needing this data for support.

In addition, I'm about to release a survey where we are attempting to collect a census of gaming activities done in 2006 in the US in libraries. We want to understand not only what was done, but why it was done.

This is then going to power a line of research, where we will take different goals for gaming programs and test out different types of gaming activities and different demographic programs, with the hope of providing some collection development and program guides to help librarians pick out the most appropriate gaming activities for different goals and groups.

Could any librarian do this work?

Yes. I am confident that any librarian who wanted to do this research could do the research. In fact, some libraries out there (like Cornell and Penn) fund smart librarians on staff to do some of this research. I work with these folks when I can.

Do they have the time?

Not usually. I was a librarian, but wanted the time to work on these larger projects. My Ph.D. work was heavily in stats and management science, where I learned methods of exploration. Now, I take those methods and apply them to problems faced by librarians.

As this work extends beyond their own library setting, many don't have the time or resources to explore these things across librarianship.

That's what a good library scientist does - we try to identify problems that are bigger than what one librarian can deal with and work on those, and do it in a systematic and scientific way. We look to other fields for inspiration and contextualize their methods into the field of librarianship.

Systematic study (a.k.a science) leads to patterns. Replicable patters can become theory, which then can be tested and explored. Good theory can, some day, become law. But you don't get there without step one - systematic study - and that's what we try to do.

All of this can inform practice, but only if the channels of communication between those who do and those who study are open.

Jason Holmes said...

Much like library school students, not all library school faculty graduate in the top half of their class. I think we've all had some profs that sucked, and some of you apparently attended entire programs that sucked.

But I think AL is addressing a fundamental question confronting librarians...What is the role of librarians in propagating and replenishing a new generation of librarians? Since the 1920s, librarians have basically given over the education of librarians to "library schools", but they've never taken a very firm hand in molding these schools as an accrediting agency (ALA) or in demanding accountability from them for the graduates they produce.

Even now, the ALA-accredited Master's degree is seen as the entrance point to the profession only because practicing librarians (individually through job requirements and corporately thru ALA) recognize it to be. If ALA, or a critical mass of practicing librarians decide that short-term apprentice programs (which means more work for them) with bachelor's degrees in the humanities are more effective than library schools, then ...poof... no more library schools. But so far, the profession and ALA are content to let schools they accredit handle the entry requirements to their profession. I'm not sure that's such a great idea. There's a disconnect between the library profession and LIS faculty. LIS faculty are not librarians, even if they were at one time, they aren't now (because now they're professors, not librarians). Faculty priorities are different than library professionals'. Our interests are different. Our goals are different. Our perspective is different. As Scott mentioned, we can collaborate with professionals on research projects with practicing librarians, but at the end of the day they go back to their jobs, and we go back to ours.

So, we have a profession that isn't involved enough in the education of future members of the profession, and library schools that have interests in academic pursuits that are sometimes concomitant with librarianship, sometimes parallel, but can sometimes work against the traditional library structure.

OK, I'm rambling...a good sign that it's time to stop. I hope I haven't said anything that will prevent me from getting tenure :)


PS. Hey Scott!

Anonymous said...

"is very confounded as to why one needs a Master Degree to answer questions, point to the bathroom, and shelve books. After talking with him, I wonder that as well."

Some library jobs are stultifying. Perhaps some have librarians working in them where there could be non-MLIS staff.

I do argue for a library degree. I am not entirely convinced that it has to be a Masters degree. I do have a liberal arts background and that was very good prep for both library school and for being a librarian.

I worked full-time in a special library doing reference two days a week. The rest of my week was more clerical (paraprofessional), but those two days a week I did the same work as the other librarians.

I decided to get the MLIS to open up my job prospects. I agree that most of the practical day-to-day I did learn on the job and that there is a lot that is really just being an intelligent and clever person.

In spite of that, I support the MLIS. Why? Because I did learn something substantive. I feel like ten year later I am more equipped to make decisions about change and put them in a (theoretical) framework than I was pre-MLIS.

So, if there is an LIS degree, there need to be LIS professors. I agree that practitioners as professors bring a heck of a lot to the table not provided by those whove never worked in a library. But they are sometime less likely to reach outside of where they are comfortable in terms of content of their courses.

What bothers me is that we have library school graduates who don't know a lot of the more technical aspects of the work. The things that are dealt with daily outside of the reference desk. Journal aggregators, federated searching, NetGen OPACs, working with statistical data for assessment, etc.

I think that the above are some areas that do have a theoretical side and that are not addressed by PhD-holding or adjunct faculty.

As for the research done by LIS faculty, some of it is applicable and not theoretical. I am not so sure, Scott, about your bibliomining example. But your HIPAA guide is right on target and the gaming research has some potential.

Pomposity is an issue. LIS Faculty can do bigger projects. (I've co-authored with one and it really expanded what sould be done.) But where they go astray is when they don't attend ALA or SLA or PLA or talk to a cross-section of practitioners to find out what is really happening. They create hypotheses that are unconnected with reality and then structure the research in support of an outcome. (Unconsciously or not.)

Research in support of evidence-based practice is good. Research to get a grant or publish for tenure makes practioners stop reading the literature. (Usually starting with graduate school.)

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I won't.


Anonymous said...

P.S. Marie Radford has some good, applicable work. She also actually presents at library conferences. She's applied communications theory to the reference interview in some of the most interesting (and practical) research that I've seen in reference.

I have a question for Scott: do your colleagues think as highly of your more practical work as they do of the bibliomining work? Or are you told that you are not theoretical enough or that you should be sure to publish in certain journals (read by LIS professors) and not others (read by librarians). Actually, you don't have to answer that here; if you'd like to take the 5th, I understand.


Scott said...

>I have a question for Scott: do your colleagues think as highly of your more practical work as they do of the bibliomining work?

It depends upon the person. Some realize the value of what I'm doing as I try to publish and present in both spaces. Others feel that I should focus on the more theoretical work. It seems to correlate with how closely each person feels to the practice of librarianship.

I've always strongly felt (and tell my students) that anyone finishing the MSLIS thinking about going into a Ph.D. should go out and get some experience as a librarian first. Doing this provides respect for the profession and gives these folks an important perspective on the need to provide research findings in different forums. Being involved in librarian-focused forums is a two-way activity, as these forums are also the place where faculty can learn about the changing profession that we serve.

Anonymous said...

Change begins at home...or so my grandparents said. For those librarians that are tired of problems that reoccured years after year, the simple solution is to do something about it. Organize your base, your coworkers, your peers in the library field, and fix the problem. Getting a PhD and teaching is not the solution, unless you are one of those practitioners that works (for a living) but also has the ability to touch the lives of MLIS students.

As someone who has worked for a library over two years, and has two masters degrees, and someone who's considered getting an MLS so I can go and get jobs that require that MLIS I must tell you, the curriculum not only sucks - there is nothing my previous two degrees and my two years of library experience haven't taught me that a class will.

Now, if there were some sort of certificate to patch in those very few areas of knowledge that I don't have from working in a library and my previous education - we could talk. Until then, I look at MLIS curricula and I am amazed at how mickey mousey they are, and at how many librarians my age say that it's just a union card....a very expensive one at that!