March 18, 2018

An Evolving LIS Core | Office Hours

I’m working on a committee to evaluate my school’s core courses. Steeped in foundational knowledge, these courses present the basic tenets of our profession, such as the reference interview, the Library Bill of Rights, rules of access and cataloging, and overviews of the “information society.”

I did a quick scan of a number of library school websites and found the core is evolving: required cataloging has morphed into “information organization and collection development” at some schools and some reference courses have disappeared altogether, replaced by a focus on user behavior and information theory. Can we assume that professors are no longer wheeling book carts full of reference titles into a stuffy classroom for a show-and-tell followed by a scavenger hunt?

What should the core look like in 2012 and beyond? For sure, it will always include an overview of our history and foundations. Our core values remain, even as delivery methods and priorities shift. Beyond that, I envision core courses focused on three important areas: how people access, use, and create information; how technology impacts and extends our world; and how librarians can show leadership in these two areas to serve and better their ­communities.

Piece by piece

User studies—research concerning patterns of information use in our everyday lives, in times of crisis, and as members of certain populations (students, the aging, etc.)—define the first part of this core. Appreciating the diversity of cultures in relation to library service should come early, as our grads will be citizens of the world.

Second, the core would include an emphasis on the ever-changing technological landscape. This might include coding, hardware, and all those things once deemed the realm of the IT department but would also include understanding the architecture of participation and the fostering of usable environments for information access and creation.

Communication technology has advanced in ways I never imagined as a library student or public librarian. The world is changing faster than ever, and the ease and depth of information flow is part of that change. When hundreds of thousands of tweets can be gathered and archived for study at the click of a button, Twitter simply cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the way people access, create, and use information, especially when it is one of the eight most visited sites ­worldwide.

Serving the community rounds out the three core components. Here I’m reminded of the “Salzburg Curriculum,” a project that began last year at the Salzburg Global Seminar and now continues via an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. Described as transformative social engagement, this area of the curriculum focuses more on active participation with our communities. The project is led by Syracuse University’s David Lankes, and I’m serving as an advisor to flesh out the curriculum and bring it into library and museum education.

Flavor of experience

I would want these courses to be as experiential as possible, more of that “on your feet”–style engagement I wrote about in September at the R-Squared conference. Problem-solving, real world exposure to current issues in library environments (see the joint Office Hours/User Experience column for more) and active creation of plans for advocacy and user-centered policies might replace annotated bibliographies and yet another research paper on copyright.

Another part of this new, imagined core would be ample room for sharing. I want to know what the students bring to the table, and we should begin hearing from them as soon as they start classes. Don’t tell me they do not know anything or don’t know what they don’t know—they know lots! Consider returning students who have had careers as attorneys, pastry chefs, or journalists (all have found their way to my class). I learned just as much from them and their view of the world as I hope they learned from me.

Textbooks, too

And what of textbooks? I’ve used Matthew Battles’s Library: An Unquiet History for a historical exploration of libraries, reading it in weekly installments like a book club. Battles’s take on library history through the years is engaging and a fun read. Other intro texts seem to be out-of-date the minute they roll off the press; the perfect world for me would be to let go of texts like this and teach entirely via open source articles, websites, and student/faculty–generated entries in a communal LIS site.

What’s not present here is the doom and gloom that seems to sneak into discussions of the future of libraries. I truly believe the future is bright for the emerging model of community-focused librarians who seek to effect positive change with their constituents. With the right focus, we can have a lasting, positive impact on people’s lives, and transform our practice to promote access, engagement, and collaboration.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. I shared this with everyone at our SLIS faculty retreat in San Jose 2 weeks ago. One change proposed by our director, Dr. Sandra Hirsh, broadens the purview of the future core for those wjho will work in all types of environments:

    What should the core look like in 2012 and beyond? For sure, it will always include an overview of our history and foundations. Our core values remain, even as delivery methods and priorities shift. Beyond that, I envision core courses focused on three important areas: how people access, use, and create information; how technology impacts and extends our world; and how ***information professionals*** can show leadership in these two areas to serve and better their ­communities.

  2. We need a level playing field for speech

    One way might be public utility computing provided by library systems.

    1. This would be a completely sponsorship free platform with sponsor free search.

    2. End users would have complete control over the user interfaces (no modal windows etc.) every option would be opt-in by default.

    3. There would be no product placement or allowing of any attempt to canalize attention just clean functional search and possibly some honest trending (again, a opt-in, privacy protected optional search element.) There would be no selling of information (this would not be about spying or interrupting) any trending would be there for all who want to see it.

    4. Content would be conceptualized as communication.

    A key intent of this would be to get rid of the business first commercial filter that leads to busy- work lives that start in production oriented classrooms. This may be the answer to campaign finance or the general problem of addressing our defacto censorship. But the whole point is to avoid a paid-for sponsored travesty i.e., NPR. The point is to get away from involuntary busywork lives with no future beyond ’employee.’ Business support and input is probably out unless an individual is a supporter to begin with. This counters hierarchy.

  3. Joyce Mary says:

    I would be loath, in this day and age, to disparage knowing as much as possible about copyright. Information policy is critical to libraries, and public libraries in particular. Battles is great … I use it too … but not alone. Also consider that a private institution like Syracuse which can pick and choose its students is in a far different situation than public institutions when it comes to how to teach. The idea of a single core curriculum may be the essential problem. Maybe different programs can emphasize different things … especially once they stop believing they have all the answers.

  4. Joyce – I was advocating for more experienced-based learning and exposure to real world examples, not suggesting our students do not need to learn about copyright.It’s a very important area within the field. I think the deliverables and mechanisms could be different though.

    • Joyce Mary says:

      We probably agree about different deliverables. Experience-based learning is valuable to a point, but we also need to support the development of critical thinking and sophisticated presentation skills. People earn attention and credibility not simply on the basis of what they know, but how they position and deliver what they know. I use case study research as a strategy for engaging students in the potential development of those skills (some run screaming from the ‘classroom’). If I want to development leadership skills, I need thinking skills. My concern about experience based learning is that it can be too narrow.

  5. Rob Banks says:

    I strongly support the community engagement piece of your article. I’ve long said that libraries/Librarians will remain relevant as informational institutions as long as they are engaged with the community, whatever that community is: campus, town, school, etc.. We need to be the conveners, the safe/neutral spaces that know the community and know how to bring the proper people into place and how to lead those discussions. I think it is imperative that Librarians are trained in community engagement and all of it’s components which includes facilitation.

    • Thanks Rob – I appreciate your definition of community. It’s the way I define it as well. Knowing the community is so key to this – and that means getting out of the library and participating.

  6. Great stuff, as usual!
    The article and comments have mentioned community engagement & advocacy, which *are* vital but are just part of the real need, which is a solid foundation in marketing.

    True marketing means studying the people in your service population, getting to know what they want & need, delivering and promoting that, and then getting feedback to constantly improve the service. Advocacy (best done by those *outside* libraries) and participation / embedding in the community are not the real fixes; they’re just a few of the tactics of true marketing.

    You can have the greatest expertise, products, and customer service in the world, but if you don’t know how to publicize that and convince people to use them, then they do no good. You also need to know how to communicate with stakeholders about value to keep funding up to par. So offering a course in marketing (at least as an elective; tho one major library school now is pushing to make it core) not only supports the traditional values but also lays out a path to achieve them.

    I agree with all you’re saying, I just wanted to put a proper name on what some of it was getting at.