Dissertation Excerpt: Implications for LIS Education

Just wanted to share an excerpt from my dissertation, the big take-aways for the field of library and information science.

The help desk manager at the UIUC Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Jill Gengler, once said that the kinds of people she wants to hire (and inspire) are “positive problem solvers.” I don’t have enough words to express how much I agree with this sentiment. These are the attributes of the people I met in my research who truly helped to foster digital literacies and enabled their libraries to have visible impacts. Throughout the process of the dissertation I couldn’t help but compare my experience with graduate studies in LIS to what I was observing in the field. I had the privilege and honor of attending and working with one of the highest ranked institutions in the world in several capacities: as a student, researcher and instructor for several years. Throughout most of the period I frequently struggled with feelings of being an outsider or rebel because of my consistent desire to focus on practice and optimism (solutions), which was often regarded as unscholarly, naïve or arrogant. At one point it even led me to reject affiliating myself with librarianship entirely, but the better answer, I later determined, was to take ownership over what I wished for my area of study to be. In that vein, I posit that LIS must address several major issues:

Identity. LIS has a branding problem. Too many people think librarians are the rigid old ladies who go “shuuush.” They think libraries are boxes full of books and inert silence. They don’t think of public TV production centers, talking gingerbread men or the building as a hard-earned symbol of social justice for an African American neighborhood, or as many of the other possible associations present in the stories of my site visits. We need to alter what libraries and library and information science means to people, and we can do this by teaching—socializing—our future public librarians with professionalization that emphasizes human and technology services as much as reading materials or organization. Libraries should bust out of their walls and into their communities and on to the internet to be heard and seen differently.[1] As a field of research we need to think and talk about ourselves differently as well. Instead of defining the field as being in a state of crisis over information needs, we can construct it as being in a state of proactive responsiveness. We are not the handmaidens for information merely here to serve other fields, we are innovators and leaders with all things connecting people and information.

Diversity. Public libraries serve patrons of all kinds, and yet library science is continually one of the most homogenous areas of study. This is true in terms of nearly every socio-analytic category (race, class, gender [2]) and often in other ways, like personality types or disciplinary background. The impacts of our lack of diversity is sometimes surprising, like when it results in intolerance for conservatism, Christianity or optimism, and also sometimes very unsurprising, such as assumptions of default whiteness or expecting every student to own a smartphone with an unlimited data plan and penchant for checking email. Of the librarians I spoke to over half of them expressly and independently indicated they did not come from a background in the humanities. They were from fields like IT, business, education, social services, art and communications. Some of them were even a little disorganized and many of them showed that they appreciated change and yearned to be flexible. A few even said they weren’t all that excited about books. Above all they were able to connect with patrons as diverse as they were, and found assets and opportunities in the knowledge and needs those patrons had to offer for library services. Our ability to relate to communities, patrons and technologies, as well as our motivation and capability to teach and innovate, is reliant on our diversity.[3] There are many trajectories for tackling issues of diversity in LIS institutions, including altering recruitment strategies, better supporting and sustaining students, recruiting and funding faculty of different backgrounds and crucially working recognition of the importance of diversity into curriculum, particularly information science classes and projects.

Research and Teaching. A large share of research that comes out of iSchools appears to be on academic libraries and academic topics. Much of the curriculum and body of publication focuses on critical analysis of important issues, like discourses in literature or methods of information organization and abstraction, but not active and direct implementation of solutions and services in fields related to information. If the study of library and information science is to actually inform what goes on in public with information professionals then we should be working more actively with institutions beyond the academy. This includes researching with partners like corporations, schools and community libraries and emphasis on areas like community informatics, digital literacy and usability. Practicums and internships are a well-recognized method to engage master’s students in this, but PhD and faculty-level research and scholarship must follow suit as well. Like many areas of study PhD’s in library and information science often do not go on to fill tenure-track positions at research universities, and consequently experience in practice-based and teaching settings can be very important, it ought not be seen as a ‘distraction from true scholarship.’ On the other hand, research methods are not evenly taught in many institutions. Master’s students may not get the opportunity to learn about how to conduct social science (or other kinds of) research and PhD’s are often not familiarized with action, participatory and community-based methodologies common in fields like health, education or psychology.

Several times throughout my research I was asked by librarians (who already had a Master’s degree) if my school offered any continuing education for librarians who wanted to better understand what they were doing or who wanted to develop innovative programs like makerspaces in libraries. There is an enormous opportunity for life-long learning in LIS education that can be built upon pre-existing frameworks like online course systems or organizations like the OCLC to ensure that a given librarian’s degree doesn’t have to be stamped with a certain vintage. Just think of what might happen in an LIS research center explicitly set up to be a public (or corporate or school) library program and systems innovation lab![4]

[1] A developing array of strategies for this can be found on the ALA website, at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advocacy-university/public-library-resources.

[2] See http://www.ala.org/research/librarystaffstats/diversity for some relatively recent statistics for the overall profession, or http://dmi.illinois.edu/stuenr/index.htm#race for a very recent representation of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This may be in part due to the field’s position as an exclusively graduate area of study, but the graduate level in the social sciences, arts and humanities show that the severity needn’t be the case.

[3] The ALA explicitly promotes this ideal with examples like the diversity standards for the ACRL, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/diversity.

[4] The Harvard Library Innovation Lab (http://librarylab.law.harvard.edu) might be an example of this. Admittedly I’m more excited about the development and deployment of in-person programs than online systems. The Center for Digital Inclusion (http://cdi.lis.illinois.edu/cdi) here at the University of Illinois may be an example of this.