Are Library Schools Relevant?

So, I’ve been weighing in on a couple of threads related to what library schools teach and whether or not they are raising up library students with the needed skills to fit into the library world. The beginner post was from Meredith Farkas and other folks like Karen Schneider and The Scattered Librarian have added and applied the ideas to their own perspective.

Meredith focussed on her disappointment with technology classes. Karen focussed on what I would call “library-tude” — the sort of characteristics one needs to survive in a library. Scattered wanted increased knowledge of how an ILS works.

To an extent, no one has honed in on the fact that the problems that we see with library schools is systemic. So, I want to look at the system and then propose changes accordingly.

I think the library world assumes two things that makes it hard to turn librarian wannabees into librarian superstars. This is the list:

The Disciplinarity Assumption

The “Human Record” Assumption

  • The Disciplinarity Assumption

The Library of Congress has librarians and academics all over the world thinking that knowledge can be separate from the knowers. We assume that because there is a corpus of formats with stuff in them that can be categorized into QA for Math or L for education that there is a “practise” of knowing that must fall into these categories. Librarians, for example, affirm their status as a profession by creating their own category of discipline — the ultimate extra-dusty “Z” section.

So, in comes “computer science” and mucks up our systems. And our approach was to make it fit into our kind old systems of classification. But, “technology” permeates through all “disciplines” — everyone wants to think about technology from their own discipline’s point of view. From this we get “Medical Infomatics” and “Business Intelligence” and “Knowledge Management.”
Then we understand nationality, ethnicity and gender through the lenses of our so-called “disciplines” and create more “interdisciplinary” subjects, like West African or Women’s Studies.

Universities organize themselves in these ways because that is all they know.

What they fail to understand is that a “discipline” is not separate from its “disciples.” Math is not an object to be studied, but the coordinating agent of study by mathematicians. The mathematician has found him/herself a Community of Practice through which Math is invoked and de-invoked over time. Through the book and other sorts of technology, this Community grows beyond the living and physically present and there is a “doing together” that occurs.  Through the book it occurs asynchronously, but it is a “doing together” nonetheless.

The Mathematician does not ignore fractals simply because he/she needs technology to simulate them. That’s because fractals are what Mathematicians and math nerds do together. The computers are an integral part of their “doing,” not a separate sub-discipline.
In librarianship, the “doing together” has been lost. We are defined by a place (library) rather than function. A “fire fighter” fights fires — they are not “fire hallarians.”  Library schools focus on systems of organization and values and lose touch of what actually happens in the world.   Our coordinating agent is the library itself, not the body of library “knowledge.”  There are no “bad boy” library philosophers per se — none that matter to the outside world.   People come to librarianship for “library-ness” and not for any particular interesting code of thinking.

But nomenclature is only a symptom of a wider issue. Librarianship as a discipline does not exist. Librarians are disciples, coordinated by the knowledge left by their influential colleagues and predecessors. Some predecessors remain relevant in history; others die off. But the disciples stick around so long as some tie to “doing together” remains.

Key Areas for Improvement:

  • Broadly relevant research. The “doing together” of librarians ought to attract disciples and give them unique ways of thinking about world problems. The survival of librarianship depends on its ability to bring value to society.
  • Some amount of quantifiable testing. New librarians ought to be brought into a path of “doing together” with other librarians, and a system of testing will let new librarians know that a path exists.
  • Focus on what librarians and information professionals “do” in the real world, and bring them to their theoretical ends. More in-depth philosophy of librarianship. More pushing the world envelop with great library ideas.
  • The Human Record Assumption

Some people assume that librarians have to stick to recorded knowledge.

I do not understand how something recorded in human memory is not equal to something recorded in computer memory, or in a tome. These days there are technologies that give voice to those who are voiceless in the current text-based world that librarians and others have imposed on us. We should understand them and use them to bring knowledge to others. Connecting someone to an expert, or a community of practice or merely someone with an opinion ought to be taught in library schools.

Key Areas for Improvement

  • Schools ought to teach Knowledge Management, Appreciative Inquiry and other oral-record methodologies.
  • Emphasize that management of knowledge is, ultimately, management of people “doing together.”

Where does technology fit into this game?

In an ideal world, technology should just fit into “doing together.” If librarians are doing library things using technology, then that should be the focus of the curriculum. The ILS recommendation is a good one. Librarians “do” ILSs together. Library students should have access to the back and front end of an ILS. They should even be able to recommend improvements and perhaps implement those improvements.

With open source products out there, it should not be hard to put this sort of thing into the curriculum.

How does Library ‘tude fit in here?

In the end, librarians deal with people.  Books and other records are merely paths to those people. Recruiting folks who think librarianship will be about sitting in an ivory tower archiving dusty pieces of junk for a living is a sadly poor practice. Librarians need to be people people, because that is the “doing together” of librarianship.

With this late entry, I realize I may sound like I’m trying to be Sartre or something, but the bottom line is that librarianship has a culture that existed for many, many years. Currently, the world is changing and old assumptions are not bring answers to the information world’s unique problems.

That’s why I think we have to attack the most basic of assumptions. 1. Disciplines exist. 2. Written-down knowledge is the only valid kind for librarians.


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