Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Librarianship As An Academic Discipline?

Librarianship has been treated as a practice-based profession.  Programs are designed around the practical applications of "doing" library work.  Yet, in a world where there is increasing emphasis on information as a key to economic, social and political success, there may be a need to pull apart the issues that shape librarianship and examine them from an academic angle. 

There are numerous issues related to the profession of librarianship that are worthy of examination beyond a two year Master's or Diploma program.  Indeed, within those two year programs students can be titillated by the interesting problems and prospects that new technology and information use present.  However, there is little time for exploration.  Certainly, once one becomes a practitioner, there is little time to reflect on the broader aspects of the field.   It is a common complaint among busy librarians and there is great frustration in trying to make informed decisions when there is little time to discuss and reflect on long term consquences.  Greater discourse is needed and although this can occur at conferences, discussion boards, blogs, and lists, there is room for more research and debate in post secondary institutions. In turn, those forums can supply the industry with inspired, engaged and active participants that may be better positioned to move back and forth between academic study and practice.

The current situation is troubling because there is a tremendous amount of change in how people use and manage information and library workers are often the ones who observe these changes.  As a result, they have some valuable opinions, experience and advice that may enhance how the broader community adopts technology and change.  Those who work in information centres have first-hand knowledge of how publishing, emerging technologies, and user search behaviours intersect.  There is a tremendous opportunity to share this knowledge with other disciplines and communities.  As the ground shifts beneath us, it becomes clear that there is a profound interconnectedness between information and change.  There is room for information studies to more actively partake in the discussions held by the academy of higher education.

In other disciplines, there is an avenue where academic discourse can occur and develop through formally recognized academic programs.   Most professions enjoy a continuum of study that can begin at a certificate or diploma level and move through undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate programs.  Librarianship does not enjoy this direct path of observation, exploration, discussion and reflection.  There are programs that look at information management at the undergraduate level but many of these are centred around other, more specific disciplines including business and computer information systems.  While there is nothing wrong with such programs, there is another outlet of study that has not been fully addressed.  Many disciplines will look at ethics, research methods, and even internet searching but there is a large hole where examination of issues around librarianship are not well explored.  And, although many of these issues and themes affect information work, they also have an affect on many other members of society - non "library" types.  For example, course work at the undergraduate level that looks at the nuances of intellectual property is not only compelling because the laws around this are in flux but also because everyone who uses information can be affected by both the laws and conventions around it.  The information studies context looks at such topics through the lens of practice and can offer a perspective that is valuable to students of every ilk.

Charles Sturt University in Australia has one of the few examples of a Bachelor in Information Studies.  Schools like Ontario's Mohawk College go so far as to present this as a viable option for library tech graduates since the program is a part time distance program.  Although this is a respectable option for those looking for a bridge to a Master's program, there is a great deal of room for further academic review.  The Charles Sturt example continues to show a preference for the applied aspects of information work.  While this has value, there is an opportunity for expanding the field into more academic circles.  This, in turn, would spawn new interest in the qualitative and quantitative research behind the use of information, its creation, management, and uses.

The applied nature of librarianship will always be central to those working in information centres but there is also room for more academic discourse at all levels of the post secondary system.  This expansion would provide greater opportunities for discussion and research among other fields of studies to enhance our understanding of our changing world.

12 comments:

tamahoc said...

Interesting post, Christina. Thanks for putting this in an academic concept. I'm curious, though, if students do an undergrad degree in information studies (major/minor), do you see this redefining the content of an ML(I)S? Or do you think it would mesh pretty fluidly as is?

burryp said...

Interesting ideas, and perhaps a 4 year undergrad program would be of some benefit to aspiring librarians. However, my own experiences tend to contradict your initial premise that "Librarianship has been treated as a practice-based profession" and that "Programs are designed around the practical applications of "doing" library work."
This is undoubtedly true of the Library Technicians programs (of which I am a graduate), but the MLIS degree I am currently studying for is very theory-based and academic in approach. The complaints I hear from fellow MLIS candidates tend more toward not getting enough experience in practical applications of their knowledge. They want to know: what does a librarian actually DO! They get more than their fill of the "broader aspects of the field."

pip said...

That is most curious burryp. Where are you studying your MLIS. Your program sounds ideal to me!

Christina Neigel said...

While I agree that there are some MLIS programs that look at the academic side of librarianship, review of course syllabi of many library schools continue to ground their courses in practice. This has validity because the degree has always been of the applied sort. What I am suggesting is not even that "librarians" do an undergraduate degree first. I am suggesting that there is much that can be explored at the undergraduate level that has validity and relevance to those outside of librarianship. So, you are interested in censorship? Is it necessary to examine this only in a library school? Should this not be a topic explored across a wider field of study? How can this occur? One way (and not the only way) is packaging such issues in an undergraduate context.

It is interesting that a lot of library folk want to see how a degree will translate in the workplace. I fear we get so caught up on "labour market" demands, we forget about the enterprise of discourse for the sake of discourse. The bonus in our field is that it DOES have merit in the workplace and not just in libraries.

infobabe said...

I have to agree with burryp on this. I, too am a grad of an LT program (I believe, the same one as him, in fact), and I am also currently working on my MLIS. I remember talking to LIS students I knew back when I first finished my LT diploma, comparing programs, and their wish that their programs contained the amount of practical study that mine did. Now that I'm doing my MLIS I find that a lot of the theory is a big snooze-fest and I wish every class was like my cataloguing classes: something I can really sink my teeth into. I definitely aspire to be A Librarian and already feel my skills and knowledge to be beyond my position as an LT, even halfway through my Masters, but my graduate work is not nearly as engaging as I hoped it would be. Perhaps I should not have waited until I had 10 years as an LT under my belt before starting my degree!

Christina Neigel said...

So, Infobabe, what does it say about the profession if the theory is a snooze fest? Is an MLIS worthy of its title? Should we not be looking at the theory (if not in a more interesting way...?). Who is giving the implementation of RDA any critical thought? Techs most certainly are not ( and I mean this only in the sense that this is not what they are paid to do). Who is going to lead us into the future if we don't examine the theory? Maybe the problem is that we need more interesting teachers who can better link the theory with practice...

pip said...

Speaking of academic here is the kind of thing that interests me for further study
http://amzn.to/dyQ2yT

Sharon said...

Thanks for the post, Christina. I'd like to add my thoughts:

After two years searching for Canadian and US undergraduate programs and courses in information studies, library/archive and records management I was frustrated and disappointed there's no direct academic path unlike the UK or Australia which have more offerings (but were out of my budget!) I needed training and took 2 professional cert. programs through the University of Toronto's FIS PLC (now ischool) which whet my palette with basics. Now I'm partway through the LT program (online) at UFV and plan to ladder it into a degree - I sure hope it’s in information studies! (I'd heard this is being considered... let me know how I can help!) I work in records and information management am working to qualify to write my CRM exams. I hope to undertake a masters, even a Ph.D. one day to do specialized, focused studies and anticipate I will journey through a full and interesting career over my lifetime as an information scientist and pioneer of the future (in various forms and disguises :])

There's an explosion of applications (both broad and specialized) for information across disciplines: more than enough to satisfy anyone's curiosities, interests and ability to uptake in a lifetime. Many questions are raised as to what the future will be for information specialists as our world digitizes and continues to embrace and harness the crowd and the cloud! I find as the world changes and digitalizes there's more interconnectedness and dependency between disciplines: it takes a cross-over of disciplines to successfully direct, implement and manage information changes affecting a broad culture of people expected to meet specific goals and objectives through daily work.

Information tools are like rapid transit and everyone is on board or they missed the bus! In traditional settings a business process might involve a series of steps over time, each discipline taking its turn on the build. Increasingly, collaborative workflows processes and info-sharing environments layer disciplines and functions in order to virtually replace traditional processes in order to create efficiencies, streamline processes, minimize handling and redundancies while being flexible; they are "enablers". Boundaries are crossed as decisions are made with systems automating many layers of protocols. Where we were more linear, we are now more relational.

I feel that information students would greatly benefit from a "relational" information studies approach at the undergraduate level choosing from a variety of disciplines such as communications & media (copyright, communication standards, social media, publishing, even technical communications, ethics), political science and law (Freedom of information/access & privacy - regional and global, ethics, intellectual asset & management), information technology and systems, records and information management, library, archives and probably many others I didn't think of. I encourage UFV to let information studies students come out with their degree either ready to be highly effective information specialists or to dive back in for their masters and Ph.D. Don't whet appetites with a two-year diploma in a specific information field then let those people wander about to fill in the next two years of their programs so they can meet the academic requirements for post-grad studies. I'm in that boat and am treading lightly while I hope to fund and be applied to more directly relevant studies and not just fill the hole.

With warmest regards,
Sharon

Christina Neigel said...

Due to a technical glitch, the following comment was forwarded to me from Sharon Byrch:

Thanks for the post, Christina. I'd like to add my thoughts:

After two years searching for Canadian and US undergraduate programs and courses in information studies, library/archive and records management I was frustrated and disappointed there's no direct academic path unlike the UK or Australia which have more offerings (but were out of my budget!) I needed training and took 2 professional cert. programs through the University of Toronto's FIS PLC (now ischool) which whet my palette with basics. Now I'm partway through the LT program (online) at UFV and plan to ladder it into a degree - I sure hope it’s in information studies! (I'd heard this is being considered... let me know how I can help!) I work in records and information management am working to qualify to write my CRM exams. I hope to undertake a masters, even a Ph.D. one day to do specialized, focused studies and anticipate I will journey through a full and interesting career over my lifetime as an information scientist and pioneer of the future (in various forms and disguises :])

There's an explosion of applications (both broad and specialized) for information across disciplines: more than enough to satisfy anyone's curiosities, interests and ability to uptake in a lifetime. Many questions are raised as to what the future will be for information specialists as our world digitizes and continues to embrace and harness the crowd and the cloud! I find as the world changes and digitalizes there's more interconnectedness and dependency between disciplines: it takes a cross-over of disciplines to successfully direct, implement and manage information changes affecting a broad culture of people expected to meet specific goals and objectives through daily work.

Information tools are like rapid transit and everyone is on board or they missed the bus! In traditional settings a business process might involve a series of steps over time, each discipline taking its turn on the build. Increasingly, collaborative workflows processes and info-sharing environments layer disciplines and functions in order to virtually replace traditional processes in order to create efficiencies, streamline processes, minimize handling and redundancies while being flexible; they are "enablers". Boundaries are crossed as decisions are made with systems automating many layers of protocols. Where we were more linear, we are now more relational.

I feel that information students would greatly benefit from a "relational" information studies approach at the undergraduate level choosing from a variety of disciplines such as communications & media (copyright, communication standards, social media, publishing, even technical communications, ethics), political science and law (Freedom of information/access & privacy - regional and global, ethics, intellectual asset & management), information technology and systems, records and information management, library, archives and probably many others I didn't think of. I encourage UFV to let information studies students come out with their degree either ready to be highly effective information specialists or to dive back in for their masters and Ph.D. Don't whet appetites with a two-year diploma in a specific information field then let those people wander about to fill in the next two years of their programs so they can meet the academic requirements for post-grad studies. I'm in that boat and am treading lightly while I hope to fund and be applied to more directly relevant studies and not just fill the hole.

With warmest regards,
Sharon

Sharon said...

Thanks for posting my comments, Christina.

I'd like to add I feel strongly that the Library Tech diploma is a valuable asset to any information specialist's toolkit. It's just unfortunate there's such a gap between it and the next level for those of us who want to do more. Two years of studies is a lot of time, energy and resources to dedicate to a programming gap. A bachelor in general studies seems so broad to someone who has tailored interests and is not a great acting representative of the information studies field.

Even so, from purely a career development and opportunity perspective, increasingly I notice jobs advertised with the library tech diploma as the minimum educational requirements and am pleased with its growing value and recognition. Despite my long-term goals I can't wait to be backed by the Library Tech diploma and complemented with a CRM designation, along with my relevant training and experience. While not ideal, I feel like the rest of my plans can wait after I accomplish this if circumstances necessitate it. I try not to lose sight of the priviledge it is to pursue knowledge and higher learning. Not everyone who wants it can make it happen. I'm so thankful to be where I am: working in my field, full family life, and am managing one day, one course, and one step at a time (though my eyes are fixed steadily on the horizon.)

I'm patient but also hopeful it won't be untimely these discussions come to fruition.

Thanks for listening.
All the best,
Sharon

Sarah said...

So I didn't know where to post this, but thought you might be interesting in this for LIBT 100, as a class discussion,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgZVI630SsI

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