June 18, 2018

Teach Library Politics: Missing and Neglected Content in LIS Programs | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIMy alma mater, Boston’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, just asked me to complete a survey on what ought to be in its LIS curriculum. The survey’s hierarchy descended in priority from “core,” the things every graduate should have studied. There were five or six levels offered, but I only used the top three: “core,” “very important,” and “important.” The questions covered nearly everything I would have tried to fit into the crowded LIS curriculum.

Then I tried to recall what was missing from the curriculum as I remembered it, more than 50 years after I earned my MLS. The most crucial hole in the survey and the curriculum alike was the total lack of content devoted to the politics faced by professionals working in and managing publicly supported and private nonprofit libraries.

I remember painfully the huge lapses in my own knowledge and understanding of the immense challenges faced by those who manage such institutions. They are especially acute in our American society, with its revolutionary roots, long-standing hatred of taxation, and mistrust of government in general. Our cultural worship of the free market as the best way to solve our problems creates a constant battleground for those working in the public sector, where all citizens believe they are the owners and bosses. There is no public librarian alive today who hasn’t been urged to run their library like a business. While I would not oppose using techniques from the business world to manage certain aspects of a public or a private nonprofit library, there is much more about that work that has little relationship to business management.

In the public sector, the challenge is both ideological and practical. In a private nonprofit institution, it is primarily about raising funds to support the place. The politics of both situations are difficult, complex, and dangerous for the administrator. It is negligent to put an innocent recent MLS graduate into that environment with only the tools provided by most LIS programs today. It is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the intricacies and impassioned politics involved in creating support for a library budget.

I have watched as my recent students sallied forth into their first library management positions. Almost all of them had trouble learning how to deal with the politicians, administrators, and trustees who lead public libraries, the administration and faculty who control academic institutions, or the faculty, administrators, and school board members who direct our schools.

It is a matter of educational neglect to award an MLS without making sure the student has this expertise. While there may be a few programs that give those processes the attention they so urgently require, I have not found them. I realize that the two years or less allotted to most LIS programs mean there is little time for any new content, but surely the governance and budgeting of libraries are more important than a great deal of what is currently taught. There are plenty of deeply experienced and highly expert practitioners of library politics who are able and willing to teach this material. I know graduate LIS programs prefer faculty with deep academic credentials and papers in peer-reviewed research publications, but sometimes the practicality of working and winning is just as important.

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) 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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  1. Joneser says:

    Library internal politics are missing as well, but we don’t have any, do we?

  2. Nicole Miller says:

    This is an excellent point! My state library association’s education committee learned that librarians want to increase their knowledge of library politics and we’re trying to address the lack. It’s a sad thing that this is a subject that LIS programs don’t require. Whatever your level of work in a library, whether you’re a page or a director, politics affect you. Your library’s budget, policies, and even programs can be influenced by local politics, even when you don’t see the immediate effect. I learned everything I know about library politics on the job – and it was a crash course! I don’t wish that stress on anyone and hope that LIS programs start to address the issue.