March 16, 2018

LIS Education Q&A with Toni Samek, 2007 Teaching Award Winner

Series sponsored by: proquest logo 200 LIS Education Q&A with Rick Block, 2008 Teaching Award Winner

To reconnect with them and catch up with their current thinking, we recently sent five questions to each of the first five winners of the LJ Teaching Award. Their thoughtful responses will be featured in this online series sponsored by ProQuest.

Our fifth and last interview: Toni Samek, winner of the first Teaching Award in 2007, is a Professor, School of Library & Information Studies at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.

What are the most important or urgent current issues in library education?

I think Richard J. Cox did a superior job of addressing this very subject in his book The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2010).  I reviewed the book for the Canadian Association of University Teachers CAUT Bulletin. I’ll take the liberty here to quote a little bit of what I wrote there, because it answers the question to the best of my ability.

Why do students come to university and what do they experience when they get there? What are our responsibilities to cultivate intellectual curiosity, reading, writing, literacy in all its forms, critical thinking, intellectual freedom and open and frank debate, continuous learning, knowledge dissemination and public policy? To what extent will such fundamentals be determined by current models of computer literacy and information literacy in service of business and the marketplace? And what role therein will the library and iSchools play both consciously and unconsciously? This is what I am left pondering after reading this book.

Cox writes: “Given the nature and mission of LIS (library and information studies) schools, I wonder just why it appears that we hear so little about such matters of academic freedom in the classroom in these schools. Considering what we teach and what our students are preparing to do, one might guess that the old library school and its successor could be a beehive of controversy. Generally, however, they’re pretty quiet. Why is that?” (p. 41)

Subsequently, Cox observes: “Over the past century we have watched libraries and archives being destroyed because they represent symbolic identity and community memory. Destroy them, and you destroy a people’s identity.” (p. 59) What is the future of academic identity? Is it delivering (not teaching) technical information competency credentials, workshops, institutes and in-service training programs? Is information security akin to knowledge stewardship? Is information a specialty? Is the professional school with curricular flexibility and course-based graduate programs inherent to the modern university?

That is what this book asks. And the questions are good ones.

Are there too many people graduating with an LIS degree? Are there too many library school programs?

To reframe the question a bit, I am more concerned about what class of laborers we are producing.  In 2011, I co-authored an article with Anthony Worman titled “Digital labour shortage: A new divide in library and information studies education?” In this work, we took a look at the extent to which “digital labour” is apparent in contemporary library and information studies education language, including in course titles, course descriptions, and course content through examination of a global range of online publicly accessible LIS program information. We found that LIS education language does not take into account the labour conditions that frame the work. A potential paradigm in LIS education, as far as we could predict then, negates the basic idea of digital labor movement. I don’t think this does our MLIS graduates any favors. For example, Anthony and I posed the questions:

Are these future digital labourers prepared to simply work in a digital world because that is the market trend, or are they also prepared to effect change by advocating and negotiating their rights as workers, not to mention those of the people they might administer, manage and mind? Projecting ahead, what is the potential for LIS education to prepare its teachers and students to critique digital labour from multiple perspectives and ultimately to contribute to innovative socially responsible design and re-design of that labour framework?  (p. 76)

Article Source: Anthony Worman and Toni Samek. (2011). “Digital labour shortage: A new divide in library and information studies education?”. Information, Society & Justice. Vol. 4. No. 2. (December 2011. Pages 71-82.

Is there any significant difference between online courses and in-class programs/mixed programs? Should one accreditation of a program cover both kinds of teaching and learning?

An MLIS program is an MLIS program, so ALA-accreditation naturally covers all teaching and learning modes. That said, there is a danger of an emergent two-tiered model, where some programs might be taught largely by contract or contingent workers off the tenure track stream and therefore not enjoying the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom, while others might be taught with a higher representation of secure scholars.

William Gibson was quoted in The Economist, December 4, 2003 saying: The future is already here– it’s just not evenly distributed”.  Looking forward, we can expect to be in a distributed faculty model, heavily based in distance education and satellite campuses, and where many of us will teach from home offices and/or with mobile technologies on the road–and certainly for more than one institution. This model pushes the unbundling of academic work, including teaching.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing your current class of students?

Issues of high magnitude: war not peace, global warming, muzzling of scientists, and self-censorship. In the context of our field, IFLA’s 2012 Code of Conduct for Library and Information Workers states in Section 5. (on “Neutrality, personal integrity and professional skills”) that: “Librarians and other information workers have the right to free speech in the workplace provided it does not infringe the principle of neutrality towards users.” But this is a persuasion and consensus building document; IFLA has no enforcement authority over any library administration. I might well be biased, but I feel very strongly that we need more MLIS courses on intellectual freedom and social responsibility in librarianship. For example, one of the most important resources for students to learn about, in my view, is the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund. We would be wise to remember the words of H.G. Wells: “human history is more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

What impact has the award had on your career?

Big! The LJ Teaching Award has had a categorically positive impact on my life and labor. First and foremost, I am able to take more risks in my teaching because of it; there is a trust currency that comes with it. Second, in part, it led to my receiving other teaching awards that serve to raise awareness of the value of library and information studies to the academic enterprise. In 2009, I received a Faculty of Education Graduate Teaching Award. In 2012, I received a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, which is the most prestigious teaching award in Canadian higher education (ten are awarded annually across the country across disciplines). I am the first person to receive the award for teaching in the field of library and information studies. This shows how the collective matrix of LIS education has positive power. Third, The LJ Teaching Award is the conditional stepping stone that gave me the necessary confidence to grow into a conscious activist educator and to be recognized as such with praise not punishment.

Because I was lucky enough to receive the first LJ Teaching Award in its debut year in 2007, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to champion the award. To me, the LJ Teaching Award stands for the beginning of a particular journey in contribution to educational leadership for common good, not an end point of personal accomplishment.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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