Gavia Libraria

The eternal “theory vs. praxis” debate

Arguments about library school spring eternal. Librarians want so much from library schools: not just high standards, not just excellent teaching, assuredly not just accreditation, but an organization that validates the existence of librarianship-as-profession, proves why the profession is necessary, and distinguishes profession members usefully from all other careerists. Oh, and library schools must respond immediately to the least breath of change, while continuing to teach every last scintilla of the skills librarians have traditionally been known for (perhaps letting go at last of library hand, but who knows?).

That’s a tall order. In all honesty, the Loon doesn’t believe library schools could do all that in at most two short instruction-years (assuming full-time attendance) had they the best will in the world. When arguments about library school grow heated, though—which they often do, since librarians have such strong opinions about library education—these minor obstacles and other nuances tend to get lost, replaced by broad-brush complaints.

One such complaint is “too much theory, not enough praxis!” Often, in the Loon’s experience, this complaint comes from an individual with too narrow an idea of librarianship, or too narrow a mind generally. Such folk are safe to disregard. Still, this complaint comes up so often from smart, engaged librarians of the Loon’s acquaintance that she is deeply uncomfortable disregarding it entirely.

The Loon’s problem is that she can’t muster a coherent response to this complaint as stated; it is insufficiently precise. She will therefore make a beak-stab at unpacking it so that she can respond usefully, starting with the question Why would a library school teach something without obvious practical use?

Well, the Loon can imagine a few reasons:

  • Socialization into the profession. Librarianship has its own jargon, its own ethics, its own attitudes, its own professional literature, its own ways of hiring and working, as well as an extraordinarily rich and fascinating history. Explicit education in all these topics, while not immediately useful to the sort of eye trapped in praxis tunnel-vision, marks the MLS-holder as in possession of the in-jokes and more serious mindsets and behaviors underlying librarianship as a human collective. (This is the only reason the Loon can countenance for assigning that ridiculous article about antelope documents; it’s part of library lore for good.)
  • Big-picture thinking, environmental scanning, larger contexts. Take, for example, the Blue Ribbon Task Force report on the economics of digital preservation. Will the individual data curator or e-records manager typically be involved in such a thirty-thousand-foot-overview endeavor? Of course not! But many arguments in the BRTF report scale down admirably, and a solid understanding of why so many stakeholders find funding digital preservation a tough sell can keep a lone curator having difficulty selling it locally from burning out due to pluralistic ignorance and self-blame. In any case, myopia is not a good trait in a professional. Students who can’t assimilate a big picture need to learn to; not all professional library work is nose-to-the-grindstone local.
  • Scaffolding. Sometimes praxis can’t be usefully taught without a framework to embed it in. The Loon wouldn’t want to dive into MODS or METS without first grounding students in angle-brackets, parsers, validators, namespaces, et cetera. Still fairly concrete, that—but another step outward into problems and patterns of knowledge encoding merits classroom time as well, in the Loon’s opinion.
  • Practice for expanding the profession’s boundaries. Sometimes there’s no choice but to think big, think new, think different. (Ideally, this is what librarian research would look like, the Loon thinks. It also has application in standards-making processes, and in leadership.) The Loon considers this a learnable skill, though some have more innate aptitude for it than others. If students have their eyes fixed on their hands, however, they’ll not learn it. Moreover, some academic librarians will be required to do research to keep their jobs; they’d better learn how!

These are all good reasons in the Loon’s book. Sadly, each of them has its dark side, and it’s those the Loon believes librarians and students complain about.

The dark side of socialization into the profession is socialization into LIS academia rather than librarianship. Remember, many LIS educators are not and were never librarians! The Loon wonders sometimes how much effort academia- and research-focused LIS educators put into keeping in touch with practitioners and practitioner discourse (inside and outside the library literature). She suspects it’s not enough, in some cases. A useful question for LIS educators desirous of skirting the dark side would be Do working librarians talk, tweet, blog, write about this? If the only discourse on the topic lives in recondite egghead journals, it probably doesn’t belong in a library classroom, especially (classroom time being finite) to the exclusion of commoner discourses with broader application.

The dark side of big-picture thinking is lack of groundedness, a sense of practical contexts in which to apply lessons learned, or the on-the-ground ramifications of events on the big-picture level. The Loon suspects that many failures of groundedness are purely accidental; the educator believes the connections to praxis so obvious as not to require explicit comment. This is (the Loon can say from observing years of the BAE‘s classroom errors) almost always a mistake. She strongly advocates the So what? test for big-picture assignments: can the educator answer the praxis-oriented student who rudely blurts So what? to the latest big-picture reading? Find the answers and expose them explicitly to students, preferably as an advance organizer before wading into the reading and discussion.

The dark side of scaffolding is twofold: scaffolding skills no longer relevant, and presenting the scaffolding without teaching the skills dependent on it. The former is a curricular issue, and the Loon suspects it to be sadly common—but to be fair, the Loon does not envy teachers of technology in library schools one little bit, as the additional burden of constant syllabus revision is substantial. (Cataloging educators face a similar problem at the moment!) The latter issue often relates to LIS educators not being themselves practitioners; they may understand the scaffolding but be personally incapable of or inexperienced in the on-the-ground skills. This is truly dire; the responsible LIS educator in this situation either learns enough to get by (one only needs to know more than most of one’s students!), or goes a bit beyond the “guest-speaker” model of involving practitioners with an eye to incorporating practitioners’ own praxis into coursework. The final-group-project model often works for this, as both sides win: the practitioner has a vexing time-consuming problem solved for her, and the students learn what happens on the ground.

Lastly, the dark side of visionary research-based coursework is forgetting that students have to find jobs in the now, not the future. Like big-picture thinking, expand-the-boundaries teaching can be sadly ungrounded, even (yes) faddish. In addition to the So what? test, the Loon believes that it pays to leaven the futurology and cutting-edge thinking with a goodly helping of current-situation cold water, about library organizations and change management if nothing else. Sending a bright-eyed cutting-edge idealist into the professional world with no understanding of the challenges all cutting-edge folk face in librarianship is a sure road to burnout.

Does this make sense? The Loon often wonders how to bridge the divide between practicing librarians and library schools. More precision in the discussion might conceivably help?