I was reading through some of the comments last week on library education – too many library school students, too few library jobs, and other fun topics – when I was struck by one suggesting that I, and many of my commenters, don’t think much of online MLS programs. So I wanted to set the record straight on that one.
I don’t like online MLS programs.
It’s not that the programs are too easy. Library school is easy. It’s the way of things and always has been. Online degrees just make the easy easier to get to.
It’s also not that the programs don’t allow the same kind of relationship to a library as in-person programs. A lot of people earning online degrees are already working in libraries similar to the ones they want to work in. If someone wants to be a public or school librarian, they’re just as well off working in a public or school library as working in or near a large academic library. And people who haven’t worked in any libraries have no business going to library school at all.
It’s not that the programs don’t allow the same sort of camaraderie as their traditional counterparts. My favorite part of library school was happy hour on Friday, and then there are the parties that students throw for each other, but while happy hours and parties perhaps help acculturate us to the collection of misfits and introverts and altruists who tend to become librarians, they serve no necessary educational value.
It’s not that online programs don’t allow the same sorts of relationships with faculty. I understand some programs are completely asynchronous, and the contact is minimal. If the MLS were an actual academic program, this would be a problem. Professors in academic programs are training their students to do what they do, to be scholars in a particular field. That’s not what goes on in the MLS. For the MLS, who really needs faculty contact? Unless the faculty are librarians teaching as adjuncts, they’re not training people to do what they do. They’re not librarians, they’re LIS professors, so who needs ’em.
It’s not even that online programs seem to focus on professional degrees, thus lowering their status. There are lots of education, library science, and business degrees offered online, but it’s pretty hard to get degrees in history, economics, or physics. That might change in the future, but I doubt it. Serious academic degrees – especially PhDs – are best earned in a community of scholars. Online education might be growing, but it’s growing among people interested in vocational training, not academic education. Regardless, the MLS doesn’t have any prestige now, so I don’t see how taking it online can make it any less prestigious.
The reason I don’t like library school is that it’s too easy on the students. I don’t mean the academic work. I mean all the rest.
Library school is boring. In traditional programs students have to sit through three-hour classes on tedious topics like reference or cataloging or social media or videogameing. Though a couple of these are important topics, they’re all boring, and the classes demand a huge tolerance for boredom. In person, though, you can’t show the boredom or the appropriate response to silliness. You can’t groan out loud, roll your eyes, whisper "idiot" under your breath when one of your classmates speaks, or slap your forehead in shock at the stupidity. I mean, I guess you could do all these, but they wouldn’t make you very popular. Online, you can do them all.
The difference here is that traditional students have had to suffer in ways that online students never do. And suffering builds character! Thus, traditional students have a more developed character than online students, because they’ve had to earn their degrees the hard way by sitting through dull and seemingly interminable courses in person.
Not only that, this particular suffering is excellent preparation for much actual library work. Sitting in excruciatingly dull classes while unable to groan, roll your eyes, or call people idiots is good training for sitting through library departmental and committee meetings. While the online students can sit at their computers eating chocolate and groaning at the monitor in disbelief, traditional students are learning to accommodate a culture of boredom endemic to librarianship.
Thus, I dislike online MLS degrees because they help alleviate the character-building suffering of traditional library school classes. Traditional students have a bond created by their shared traumatic experience that online students can never have. We know what it’s like to suffer, and we resent it that online students don’t have to.