An Age Old Argument in Library School: Impacting Academic and Public Librarians Differently

Traditionally there have been two major streams in library education, the public library stream and the academic library stream (although, of course, this is a simplification!).

The philosophies and approaches employed by librarians once they enter the workforce in each respective workplace are different – and I am starting to wonder if the acculturation process occurring in library schools could -in part- be detrimental to public librarians?

In library school, librarians are taught by individuals entrenched in academia. Many of the faculty have PhDs and have little working history in public libraries. Because of this environment, these individuals spend a great deal of time and effort teaching students the importance of  ‘professionalization’ and legitimization of librarianship as a profession.  Does this impact the way that librarians working in university settings see themselves?

Because university libraries are set in the environment of academia (where a lot of importance is placed on status – e.g. publications and impact factors) – this may impact how librarians working in academic libraries see themselves or perceive they are viewed by others.  Most individuals who work as librarians in a university are considered faculty.  While for collective bargaining purposes both a PhD and non-PhD are treated fairly equally, they may not be perceived equally amongst peers because they lack a PhD.  As a result, it is extremely important for academic librarians to take on a ‘professional persona’ to ensure that they continue to be perceived as relevant and of similar status in academic settings.

In addition, because the perception of librarianship is still so stereotyped and limited (book-stampers and ssh! leap to mind!), there is also a tendency for some librarians to desire that this ‘persona’ has more ‘weight’ – to be, for example, seen as highly technical (and exclusive).

I am now starting to wonder – if the same ‘persona’ of ‘professional librarian’ is applied in the public library setting, can it actually lead to the creation of barriers between public librarians and their primary user group, members of the general public?  Due to the process of acculturation librarians learn in library school, public librarians can fall into the trap of continuing to be the creators of programs, services and collections – with little or no input throughout the entire service-planning process from the community.

A remedy does exist, and it can be addressed through community-led/needs based approaches – making public libraries more relevant to communities.  Are library schools up to this challenge?

What should a library degree look like?  Should related experience be equivalent in terms of required qualifications, especially given the many barriers community members (especially people from diverse groups and different social classes) face trying to acquire an MLIS?

What are your thoughts?

~ Thanks to John for input into this posting / Ken



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5 responses to “An Age Old Argument in Library School: Impacting Academic and Public Librarians Differently

  1. Hey Ken and John, thanks for opening up a discussion on this. If what you say is true, instead of calling for redesigning the MLIS wouldn’t a more effective approach be to advocated for a liberal sprinkling of modules of critical pedagogy intro to LIS, public library, management, outreach, and user instruction courses, making listening to the needs of community one of the stated learning outcomes? Curriculum reform is a slarthy and fell beast that only the bravest souls willingly face, not to mention the fact that most programs are designed to comply with pretty specific ALA accreditation guidelines. Injecting cp modules into an existing curriculum, though still probably a hard sell, seems like it has better chances for success to me. What are your thoughts on that approach?. Cheers.

  2. Ah, just noticed that you are in the UK and Canada, so the ALA part of my response does not apply. Sorry about my Americentrism. Still, I bet the aversion to curriculum reform is pretty universal.

  3. willimen

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this posting. Do not worry about Americentrism – since you are right. ALA does accredit Canadian library schools, and CILIP out of the UK is also fairly conservative when it comes to curriculum reform.

    Personally, I think that content reform in library school needs to be driven by the needs of the end user (many times we should think of these people in a public library context as individuals currently not being served by public libraries – so innovation must occur) not by the needs or expertise of faculty or executive committees (which many times reflect current uses and expertise developed based on current or traditional approaches). Additionally, these innovations in library school should be reflected and mainstreamed in all content. The additional content and skill sets should not be viewed as add on’s but core to public library service development. Your point does make sense, to integrate the approach into various subjects. However, if library schools do not teach the skills needed in the workplace – new librarians will need to be retraining when entering the workforce. Library school unfortunately becomes nothing more than credentialism… while retaining many of the barriers which make the MLIS inaccessible to a large number of diverse community members (thus maintaining the status quo).

    I think Liz did a good job reviewing the book we put out on this (specifically on the second page –

    My Best.

  4. Mark Hall (The Library Ogre)

    One thing I find to be very true about Librarianship is its relationship to the clergy. While I may sermonize on why you should be reading Batgirl and Hawkeye (I do, I know I do), so many times in library-service-specialistship, my job is less about books and more about solving problems. “I need a divorce.” “I’m doing a paper.” “What do you have on domestic violence.” Or being gay. Or vaccines. Or whatever they want or need to know… our job, as public librarians, is frequently to hold their hand through finding information they never thought they’d need and don’t know how to approach.

  5. Pingback: Critical Theory and ‘Radical’ Social Justice : The LIS Response | Social Justice Librarian

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