Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding Empowerment Through Continuing Education

Sculpture at the University of Alberta, Spring 2014
I was recently pulled out of my daily distractions when I was invited to speak with a group of library practitioners who had kindly invited me to their annual general meeting (LTAS). Connected by an interest in information work and the call to be part of a professional community, I realized that my prospective audience had asked me to speak as part of a pursuit in their own ongoing education.  These informal and collective moments are an important part of an earnest endeavor to remain intimately engaged with the larger issues of their field.  Yet, such activities often go unrecognized as forms of continuing education because we assume that such work happens in more formal arenas.

This points to a very significant problem. While education remains a popular concept in library and information studies, the role it plays in the lives of practitioners is not always clear. Certainly, it is easy to infer that taking courses from accredited institutions, attending workshops and conferences are forms of continuing education. However, these are not necessarily the places and moments when significant learning occurs.  Indeed, within some of these structures it would be more accurate to say that they present opportunities for training.  

A number of recent articles regarding education for library workers reveals a tendency to focus on training, with discussion limited to a focus on skill development for the purpose of creating efficient organizations and employees (e.g. Certification, 2014; La Chapelle, 2014; Leong, 2014;  Lopuszynski, 2014l; See & Teetor, 2014) . Using "training" and "education" interchangeably, obfuscates their individual meanings and, ultimately, their roles in the lives of  library employees. This is not to say that training is not important or, even, critical to the work that is performed in this field. Training is limited in that it enables us to perform our jobs as they evolve but it cannot inspire us to confront our fears. It cannot empower us to speak up and it cannot act as the key that unlocks our passion to do better.

I boldly suggest that we need to shift paradigms and begin thinking about continuing education for library workers as something that moves beyond training into something far more integrated, meaningful and emancipatory. Doing so will allow us to bracket training as something that is skills/competency-based and used for improving job performance. Continuing education can be focused around the person and his/her journey towards self-actualization.  Granted, such a shift is neither easy nor assured.  However, such a shift in thinking presents an opportunity to reexamine how we currently describe and support education.  Further, this move can renew conversations about what we actually do to support learning, what needs to be improved and, most importantly, to what end.

For a profession that prides itself on a service ethic to empower others to realize their potential, library personnel struggle to access this same support for themselves.  If an increasing number of staff are part of the precarious workforce, whether due to poor pay or contingent work, their ability to exercise empowerment (in the ways we hope for our broader communities) will increasingly elude them. Not only does this reflect a deep hypocrisy within our profession's core values, it also jeopardizes our ability to navigate our way into a successful future as a profession.  How can libraries support engaged, highly participatory and informed communities if those who work in libraries are not engaged?

Many of the most poorly paid staff in libraries are also the ones who interface most closely with the public. Representing the "face" of the library, these front-line employees are frequently the least able to advance their education in order to grapple with the changing expectations of their communities (I have seen this first hand with my own students, who are often already working in libraries). Not only do these individuals often have limited financial means, they also have little or no political and social capital within their organizations. This hampers their ability to contribute through creative problem solving and innovative practice that jeopardizes the way the entire organization is perceived and, therefore valued, by its community.

There is a troubling trend in libraries (and in many other organizations, for that matter) to only support continuing education if the endeavor directly informs a position or role. While the reasons for this relate back to the need to demonstrate accountability and rationality, this approach undermines the prevailing assumption that libraries support life-long learning. In such cases, learning opportunities are constrained by employer values and needs.  This is problematic for libraries because they are organizations that, in the very first instance, exist to serve "a learning society". ALA has codified our responsibility as a profession in its Core Values  by stating:
We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession
Although there are many examples of free or inexpensive training and development options for library staff, most represent short-term skills acquisition. These resources fulfill only a partial role in the educative process. The complex problems that library professionals face are not easily fixed or managed through one-off experiences because they do not invite the learner to challenge the status quo in order to reimagine the future.

Significant learning offers us a way of seeing education as something that incorporates individual experience and change. "For learning to occur, there has to be some kind of change in the learner" (Fink, 2003, p. 30). Such change requires sustained introspection, discussion, and exploration. This form of education takes a turn away from training to become something more lasting and, ultimately more impactful. Continuing education "helps develop an understanding of our society and the world ... and it helps develop the personal, social, and human competencies" (Schejbal & Wilson, 2008, p. 32). 

As in the case of the LTAS AGM, library workers can exercise some agency in their educational pursuits but the structural barriers that limit these efforts must be called out and probed. However, I have mentioned in earlier posts that finding voice is also an issue for this field. We will not become better librarians and library workers by becoming better technologists or managers. We will will become better librarians and library workers by becoming better people.

Once again, I reflect on the purpose of continuing education and I see it clearly as something that is far more complex than a course, a certificate, a workshop or a conference.
It is a process and an investmentIt is essential and, most importantly, it is our collective responsibility.

I am left with Dewey's passionate claim:
The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has (1976, p. 226)
** I would like to thank the members of LTAS for their invitation to speak and the opportunity to reflect on how it may be possible to "lead from below".   
Certification for Public Library Personnel. (2013). Public Libraries52(2), 13-21.

Dewey, J. (1976). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953, volume 14 (pp. 224-230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fink, D. (2003). A taxonomy of significant learning.  In Creating significant learning experiences. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

La Chapelle, J., & Wark, L. (2014). I've Got My MLIS, Now What? Further Educational Opportunities for LIS Professionals. Partnership: The Canadian Journal Of Library & Information Practice & Research, 9(1), 1-4.

Leong, J. (2014). Purpose-driven learning for library staff. Australian Library Journal63(2), 108-117. doi:10.1080/00049670.2014.898236

Lopuszynski, C., Ramirez, P., Rosenthal, L., & Zukowski, J. (2013). Staff Training: Day In, Day Out. ILA Reporter, 31(1), 22-24.

Schejbal, D. & Wilson, D. (2008). The value of continuing education. Continuing Higher Education Review, 72, p.32-43.
. See, A., & Teetor, T. (2014). Effective e-Training: Using a Course Management System and e-Learning Tools to Train Library Employees. Journal Of Access Services11(2), 66-90. doi:10.1080/15367967.2014.896217


Anne Andres said...

Thanks Christina, You've articulated this issue so well. I so agree with your comments. It's difficult when institutions would like to support their employees with continuing education opportunities but have significant funding challenges.

Christina Neigel said...

Hi Anne!
Yes, we get ourselves into a terrible vicious cycle with money. Money is a huge issue but the irony is that we have had never had SO much of it as a society and we have constructed this assumption that there isn't enough to go around (speaking beyond libraries). What ways can we devise that will bring greater equity and greater access to resources that we ultimately believe are fundamental to the success (and maybe survival) of public services? For starters, I think we need to admit that we have a problem. Then we need to think about how we prioritize and foster continuing education. One simple step is to actually encourage staff to pursue it by giving them time and acknowledgement. We are smart people who have come up with some pretty nifty solutions to problems in other areas. I think we can make things better if we talk about it!

Stephen K said...

Hi Christina,

Thank you so much for your talk at the LTAS AGM, and also for the post. I wholeheartedly agree. I think we need to have a conversation in the library tech community and the larger library community about true education conducive to, as you say, a "learning society." I'm very excited to see where such a conversation can go.

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