Our professional credential is an embattled thing. It’s a rare day that the master’s in library and information science (MLIS) escapes a conversation unscathed and unquestioned. This is rightfully so. Nothing so time-consuming and expensive, and essential, should be taken for granted. It should be under constant scrutiny by the schools themselves, the candidates, those who hire graduates, and the broader profession that it serves.
We should always be challenging our degree programs to bring forth engaged, nimble, informed new recruits who are prepared to be as dynamic as this profession can be. Then, we need to hire them and let them get to work. That is easier said than done, of course, but such a goal should not be dismissed just because we haven’t already achieved it.
Important is the underpinning of expectations framed in the standards that accredited schools must meet to gain and retain the stamp of approval from the American Library Association (ALA). Right now there is opportunity to help inform those, as the ALA Committee on Accreditation (COA) has released for comment a third draft of its revision of the 2008 Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies. The revision, which is an iteration resulting from a process that has taken place over the last five years, will be open for comment through October 24 and aims to finalize a version to be offered for adoption at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in January 2015.
I’d like to see the institutions that earn the privilege of training the next generation of library and informational professionals set an aspirational tone. Though these standards should express the highest ambitions of the work at hand, I understand the need for them to underline the basics. Ultimately, however, they should spur great schools for a great profession. The standards, and their application and enforcement, matter a great deal, but they can’t and should not map every detail of the path forward. Beyond the baseline, the onus is on the creators of the programs to build something that will foster an ever-stronger, more resilient profession. This has likely always been so, but it becomes even more pressing as the work of librarians and information professionals gets more potent and diversified—taking place in changing institutions and branching into wholly new settings.
As the cost of higher education skyrockets, too, many librarians and information specialists emerge from graduate school encumbered by debt to be met by pay that can be good enough but is very often downright low (see “Payday”). Before one even gets to think about the quality of the curricula, the economics raise the question of the value of the degree—and the question lingers well into an individual’s professional life as gaps between what the schools offered and what was needed in the workforce become apparent. Just a few of the gaps I hear about consistently include skills in management and leadership, budgeting, and conflict resolution—all things that are needed on the ground in real libraries.
I don’t know precisely what the standards should say to achieve this goal, but they should enable MLIS graduates to emerge, degree in hand, ready and able to articulate why libraries exist—in historical terms and in today’s context as well. New master’s holders should be immersed in the fundamental contribution of libraries, including the critical role as a commerce-free zone for access to ideas and information—which is more pressing as new technologies and commercial drivers compromise the free flow of information and erode privacy.
The library matters more than ever and new graduates should be ready and able to say what libraries bring to society: how libraries fuel community, culture, and development. They should be able to describe what libraries deliver to their communities and to the culture at large—to library fans and foes alike.
They also need to emerge ready for the real world of the work. As never before, those employed in these institutions need to be able to help make libraries as vigorous as they are when they are well managed, responsive to community needs, and resilient in light of rapid cultural change. This begins with the degree, bolstered by the accreditation standards, and then plays out in the work of those who build the curricula, those who engage as future degree holders, and those who ultimately hire the graduates who are giving their work-selves to this profession. We should make sure their first big step is absolutely worth taking.