February 16, 2018

The LIS Placement Gap

By John N. Berry III, Editor-at-Large

Placement support—an example of “what is broken”

Help with career planning and placement was high among the many things a group of students told me was missing from their LIS education. They listed other gaps and faults, too, some from the basic curriculum and some that might be referred to as supplementary services.

That’s why I had to laugh recently when I read questions in an online discussion that asked, “What’s broken? What needs to be fixed?” Tom Wilding, interim director of the University of Arizona’s School of Information and Library Resources, kept repeating that question in the endless and very repetitive debate on the JESSE discussion list about the “Core Competences” issued by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Presidential Task Force on Library Education. The majority of library educators who responded were as repetitive as Wilding, and their main message seemed to be, “Don’t you dare tell us what to teach!”

One thing remains broken in that particular conversation: so far, current LIS students and recent graduates from the accredited programs have not been asked to participate. Wilding’s question has not been put to them. Their absence is a glaring omission, even though (just) one recent grad was on ALA’s task force that came up with the competences.

I know the students have many answers for Wilding because in the last few semesters of my own LIS teaching I have posed the same question. Surprise, surprise, Tom, the students know what’s broken, and their list is longer than you might expect. I fervently hope those students and recent LIS graduates will voice those concerns more loudly. Their input would have a sobering and useful effect both on the library educators who think all is perfect in LIS and the older practitioners who think everything is wrong. Those two, usually at an impasse, seem to be the only voices in the current argument.

High on the student/graduate agenda is career and placement guidance. The faltering economy magnifies the failure of LIS programs to provide such direction. Library and information jobs are scarce. Both students and recent graduates need much more counseling and downright instruction in career planning and résumé preparation, as well as help from faculty and university placement staff with the data and background about specific positions and job openings. Some schools may provide partial assistance but most do not. Of the dozens of young librarians I’ve spoken with, none had received any of this much-needed support from their LIS curricula.

It is more surprising to me because when I was in “library school,” in that prehistoric period when there was no Internet, the LIS program at Simmons College held weekly placement sessions attended by the dean, the college placement office staff, and many of the faculty. Nearly every library opening was discussed in depth, along with all the techniques for interviews and tactics of the job search.

It is obvious why such placement guidance is crucial now. Those in LIS programs who are already employed wonder if their MLS will mean a promotion to a professional-level position. Many worry about the invasion of people with other credentials and other degrees into what were once exclusively jobs for professional librarians (see Norman Oder’s “MLS: Hire Ground?” LJ 6/1/09, p. 44–46). They have noticed with alarm the “deskilling” of library employees and the resulting assignment of once professional duties to those who don’t have the MLIS credential. From their perspective as students, the placement picture is troubling at best. Even those currently employed in libraries are worried that they may be laid off, or be stalled in paraprofessional jobs although they have earned their new MLIS.

So, Tom Wilding, here’s one item on the list of things that most LIS programs need to address. If you’re interested in the rest of them, from the student view, stay tuned. I plan to share them in future columns. As a member of that ALA task force, “fixing” LIS education is one of my favorite topics.

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