May 24, 2018

One Size LIS Does Not Fit All | Peer to Peer Review

ALA_JanesI’ve heard the “what are they teaching in library school these days, anyway?” comments for as long as I’ve been an educator; it comes with the territory. It’s natural, and healthy, that all of us are invested in the process by which people become members of our profession. However, in the last few years, another couple of tropes have entered the fray: that there are too many students in our programs and that the number is growing; that there aren’t enough jobs for them; and that students and recent graduates feel betrayed and even lied to as a result. That has extended, in some conversations, into calls for somebody to do something about this, such as, perhaps, the American Library Association (ALA) through its accrediting functions. Taken together, these seem to indicate substantial questions or misgivings about LIS education and its infrastructure. As an educator and proud member of the profession, that’s concerning to me as well.

The most recent statistics that we have about LIS education are from 2013, as reported on the ALA accreditation website. They show a total of about 16,500 students enrolled in all accredited programs, a decrease of 1,360 from the prior year. Moreover, 37 of the 57 programs reported a decrease in total headcount from 2012 to 2013. (They also show a slight dip in numbers of minority students enrolled, but an increase in members of minority groups as a proportion of all students, which is encouraging, though as always there’s much more to be done on this front.)

They also report 7,326 degrees awarded. Is that too many, too few, just about right? That’s hard to say; we all know the job market isn’t what it was several years ago, as libraries have been consolidating and merging positions to contend with their constraints. For context, ALA also reports on its web site that there are about 165,000 degreed librarians working in libraries of all types (plus 200,000 other paid staff), and the Occupational Outlook Handbook projects a seven percent increase, for a gain of about 11,000 positions, from 2012 to 2022. Whether these numbers are wildly out of whack or not, I’ll leave to everyone’s individual judgment.

I will say, though, that while it might be seductive to think that some sort of external control on enrollment would help students and job-seekers, that’s a simplistic and unworkable idea. Who is in a position, or has the tools, to decide on and manage how many students each program should have and ensure that the programs will continue to be viable and provide a high-quality education, responding to often rapid fluctuations in interest, demand, the job market, institutional idiosyncrasies, and who knows how many other factors?

The content of the classes would be as hard to control as their size. It’s all well and good to generalize about “what are they teaching these days,” but “they” refers to nearly five dozen programs that range in size from 40 students to 1,800, from five full-time faculty members to over 50, in small liberal arts colleges and major research universities, with specializations and focus areas unique to each. Would any of us seriously want, now, to prescribe exactly what all students take, in the face of a professional domain undergoing profound and ongoing change, to pin our degree programs down like dead moths when the only thing I promise my students is that the information world they graduate from will be very different from the one they enter? No way.

So, how do we move forward? This, mercifully, is straightforward, though not always easy: engage. If you’re a practitioner, and you like what you see in people you’re hiring, say so. If not, say so. Talk to the people in programs near you and share your ideas and suggestions, offer to speak in classes, be on panels, work with student groups. Get on accreditation site review panels and contribute your expertise. If you’re an educator, get in the game. Talk—no, actually, listen to the professional community, and be open and prepared to take its ideas seriously.

As someone who’s been in this field for a long time, and dedicated to preparing future generations to take their place in it, I want all our programs to be of high quality and high value. I want them to produce professionals for the challenges that lie ahead and a greater diversity of opportunity for both what those graduates can do and where and how they do it. I want them to start with librarianship and its principles as a rock solid base to build upon, with as many other facets added as we can get to help them to be successful in a future at which we can often only guess.

Joseph Janes is associate professor and chair of the MLIS program at the University of Washington Information School

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  1. StevenB says:

    Thanks for taking on some of those questions you are hearing from the field (sort of like you did in your talk at Drexel U). I think we’d all agree that there are no easy answers to the questions of what’s the best preparation for a librarian career.

    I agree that we can’t easily prescribe a set of courses or topics that will do the job – and if it works in response to the needs of libraries today – how well will that work for the LIS 20 or 30 years into their career?

    What I’d like to see is for the LIS curriculum to take a greater shift into the world of design thinking. You may have read just recently how some universities are giving it thought for their undergrad curriculums

    I think LIS would be well suited to it – much of the work we do these days has a design orientation (design programming, design instructional products, design study and interaction space) and what will always help our future colleagues is having a way to address difficult problems so that they have the tools for problem solving – no matter how the technology changes.

    I know you’ve read my MLD column b/c i mentioned your Drexel talk, but here is the link again for others who may not have seen it

  2. Joe – to me, the question of “how do we move forward” is all about the pronoun, and noticing that it is different from the one found in “what are they teaching in library schools today?” For all the reasons you note, we are part of a profession where the expectation and assumption is a commitment to continuing professional education and lifelong learning. With that in mind, I’d suggest that we could go even further than you suggest in terms of “engagement” between full-time LIS educators, part-time LIS educators drawn from the field, and the ever-increasing array of professional development programs designed and delivered by LIS professionals in libraries, other professional sites, and professional associations. Rather than “what do they teach” during 18-24 months of pre-professional education, let’s focus on “what do we teach” (and what do we learn) across a lifetime of professional education that moves as seamlessly as possible across classrooms, training programs, online learning, conference workshops, and collegial mentoring in the field.

    • Joe Janes says:

      Well said, Scott; all your points are well taken – I wanted to focus here on the specifics of the masters degree (and there’s just so much one can say in ~800 words); what goes on around and beyond that, and all the players involved, are important aspects of our continuing preparation and education as well. Thanks!

  3. A lot of full time faculty haven’t worked in libraries or information services in decades; worse of all, some new LIS faculty never even worked in libraries or archives but simply have a phd in LIS or an area covering library literature and they are teaching future LIS students to be librarians … I find it strange and appalling that many LIS programs are recruiting people without experiences or skills. It’s lime a journalism school hiring professors who have never worked as a journalist before to teach future journalists … It isn’t right at all. But then again, there are others who are solely focused on areas that don’t require experience as much as skills lime systems, web programming, info architecture or design, etc. for the most part, LIS programs should hire people who have some experiences working as a librarian, who have networks and experiences to share to students and who can really speak about the profession. Otherwise a ton of people who have never worked in a libraries will taking over LIS curriculum and wonder why their students aren’t prepared or can’t find jobs.

    • Anonymous Coward says:

      To be fair, that’s a knock on nearly every educational institution for every degree program.

      What struck me about my graduate education was how amazingly easy it was. My undergraduate was much, much more difficult.

      My capstone course in my undergraduate career had us all look around the room and identify classmates we would hire were we in a position to- based on what they’ve done in the class. I remember doing that exercise with my peers in my graduate courses and had a very, very hard time finding more than a few that I would ever hire for anything- and they all graduated with a 4.0. It made me sad about my chosen profession and its future.

      I hope things are better now… but I think the ALA- instead of putting out statements on political arguments that it has no reason to put out a statement on- should focus on the rigor of the institutions and programs is lends its accreditation to.

  4. I appreciate you tackling this topic– I’m a current LIS student, so I see firsthand at least some of “what they’re teaching these days”. I have found myself a little frustrated with courses that cover the use of materials that many libraries no longer use and professors who are unable to effectively use presentation software (let alone my university’s online platform) but still teach online courses.

    I’m also an intern at a public library, though I’d like to eventually work in an academic library. Given the choice, I’d love to see classes that center around the databases and catalog systems currently in use across all kinds of libraries, as well as more classes that teach advanced searching methods and other skills applicable across the field.

  5. I have to say that I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. I was in library school in the early1990s, and came in with several years of experience in libraries and IT – which made me a rather unusual student in the program. I was told going in by many librarians with whom I had worked that library school itself was dull and mostly useless, to be blunt – but you had to get the degree to get the jobs. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that I only found about a third of the courses relatively useless. My “Library IT” class was a complete waste of my time: I had been an Oracle database administrator, and here I was in a class where they insisted on teaching me WordPerfect and Lotus Notes. I took one course in collection development that was obsolete before I graduated. (Licensing I learned entirely on the job.) I was obliged to take a course in library management that focused exclusively on public libraries, when I knew I didn’t want to work in a public library. That one was also completely useless – not one thing that was covered was anything I have ended up using in 20 years of working in libraries (academic libraries, mostly). I have been heavily involved in mentoring, creating internships, and working with students interested in becoming librarians in the 20+ years since I graduated, and many of them have asked me “How did you learn to be a library administrator?” I tell them that surprisingly, my first full-time job in academic libraries was running a small library, with 3 full time staff counting me, and the other 2 hated each other. Thus began my education in personnel management. Every single thing I have learned about library management was learned on the job, sink or swim. I honestly don’t know if most library schools can do more than lay a foundation – there’s so much that varies across our libraries that much of what you learn will, over time, be learned at work or in continuing ed.

  6. Jim Pakala says:

    It is hard to find a good cataloger. They have to know so much, not only other languages & how they work (which is not new) but also RDA, diverse tech systems, helping faculty with edition conundrums, etc.