Gavia Libraria

On library-school curricula

Noting her own bias as a library educator, the Loon finds herself in agreement with Fiona Bradley on the essential bankruptcy of the “what I didn’t learn in library school” whinge.

Library school can’t teach you everything you’ll need to know, not in a mere two full-time years (at most; many schools require less). Cope. Indeed, the mere existence of this whinge is a troubling indicator of the tunnel vision and passivity with respect to lifelong learning that vastly too many librarians possess. The Loon, cruel creature that she is, wouldn’t entirely be against the notion of drumming librarians who utter this whinge too often and too loudly out of the profession altogether.

The Loon adds to Bradley’s remarks that many skills useful in libraries are also useful in many other contexts, meaning that they’re also taught in many other contexts. In her estimation, library schools should think twice, thrice, many more times about teaching these skills inside the curriculum.

Part of this has to do with the peculiarities of the library environment being sometimes rather extreme, making shoving library-specific material aside to make room for more generic lessons an arguable waste of student time and money. Students are in library school, not tech school, not management school, not design school, not education school.

Part of it is simple money and human-resources math. For example: the Loon teaches introductory library technology. The Loon does not teach computer programming. No one would want the Loon to teach computer programming, because the Loon is the first to admit she’s a wretchedly bad computer programmer. Does this mean the Loon is a bad teacher of library technology? No; the Loon is aces at teaching library-specific technologies and technology contexts, if she does say so herself. She knows her way around metadata, digital preservation, digitization, librarian use of social media, ILSes and related library technology infrastructure, information and technology standards, ebooks, privacy concerns around technology, open-source library software (and why open source matters to libraries), and so on. Quite intentionally, the Loon puts the “library” in “library technology.” That’s her job.

Students who want to learn to program (which the Loon thinks both laudable and worthwhile) will do better and pay far less by taking a course or two from the local community college. They’ll receive better tutelage than they’d ever get from the Loon, and what they learn will (by and large, pace the overemphasis on mathematical algorithms in too many programming courses) be just as applicable in the library as anywhere else.

(The Loon has a particular loathing for the “tech of the week” courses she sees too many library schools offering by way of tech intros. HTML this week, SQL the next, Javascript the week after—nobody can retain anything this way! It’s too shallow and too decontextualized! Worse still, students leave these courses—the Loon has talked with several!—utterly demoralized and convinced that “technology” is beyond them. Awful, both for those students and for librarianship. That isn’t what happens to the Loon’s students; the Loon makes damned sure of that.)

Now, this isn’t to say that no library school anywhere should ever teach a programming course. A school with a gifted programmer on the faculty absolutely should take advantage of that! That’s the flipside of the human-resources equation: playing to faculty strengths. This means that all library schools have certain gaps, certain areas where their pedagogy isn’t as strong because they don’t happen to have hired someone with those areas as a strength. Given (as Bradley points out) the immense breadth of the totality of skillsets in librarianship, that’s inevitable—and it’s silly to fault library schools for it.

That said, if that gifted faculty programmer is any good, she won’t teach a generic programming course; she’ll teach a library programming course. There’s a difference! The same goes for management, design and usability, teaching, research methods, and similarly generic topics: if they’re not being taught with a library angle, library schools shouldn’t be teaching them, and good library-school advisors will gently nudge students to go elsewhere for tutelage.

(By-the-bye, the Loon is using “library” in this post to mean something closer to “information agency.” She apologizes to archivists, knowledge managers, and other information professionals who justifiably feel a bit “disappeared” by this word choice.)

The Loon invites current and former library-school students who feel hard done by because they haven’t been spoonfed everything imaginable to put on their adult undergarments, go out there, and learn. The real failure of too many library schools (the Loon’s sometimes included, sadly) is not rubbing students’ noses in the need for lifelong learning, and not equipping them with sufficient experiential and information-source awareness to do so.

Postscriptum: Do any library schools, anywhere, not offer courses in electronic-resource licensing and management, as Bradley suggests? The Loon’s school has for some years, at least since the Loon herself was a student here, and it’s mentioned in quite a few other courses (the Loon’s hardly least). So much curriculum whinging from working librarians seems so clueless about modern curricula…

5 thoughts on “On library-school curricula

  1. Linda Nelson

    I graduated from library school in 2008 and I just had to tell you that I could not agree more with this post. Librarians are and should be in charge of their own professional growth. If we are to encourage our patrons to be life long learners, then we should set the example.

  2. Jenica

    When I complain that I was bored out of my mind (with a few notable exceptions) during library school, Jason Griffey always tells me that I simply wasn’t trying hard enough not to be bored. And he’s right: everyone is responsible for finding the value in their education.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Which isn’t to say that library schools don’t sometimes make it difficult! But that’s a different (and in the Loon’s estimation, rather more valuable) discussion from “library schools don’t teach everything there is.”

      (The Loon is also learning from experience, currently, how much sludge in library curricula comes straight from ALA accreditation processes. It’s disheartening, to say the least.)

  3. LibraryLoon Post author

    The Loon also doesn’t care to hear from students who sailed through library school intentionally gearing their elective choices toward the easy and fluffy. Such students screwed themselves. Library schools are mostly not responsible (though advisors, again, should watch for this and discourage it; the Loon certainly does).

    An easy, fluffy elective or two is not necessarily a bad thing. A strict diet of them is.

  4. Andy Burkhardt

    Solid post. I am definitely in agreement with Bradley’s post too. She makes the very correct point that you need to take learning into your own hands. Learning doesn’t only occur in library school. You have to keep doing it throughout your career. You have to keep growing along with the profession and the rapidly changing world. That’s why I like why Bradley said we are “the ultimate extensible profession.” I think my post about the classes I wish they offered in library school was not so much a whinge as it was a heads up for current library school folk about areas they might want to focus on. I agree that library school cannot, and should not teach everything. I think lifelong learning is a necessary skill of all librarians and is something we should be trying to inspire in our patrons as well. You cannot expect library school to provide all the skills you will need when you become a librarian. I explained a little bit about this on Hack Library School where I discussed my need to improve my speaking skills: http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/softskills/

    And I definitely don’t feel “hard done by.” I loved my library school experience. I had a class like the one you talk about in your postscript. It was taught by Kristen Eschenfelder at UW-Madison and she was amazing in helping us sort through difficult and often confusing licensing issues. I also took a great library technology class that did “rub my nose in the need for lifelong learning.” I forget the name of it, but Dorotha Salo at UW-Madison taught it and she had us explore different technologies on our own. Our final project was to explore and create something in-depth related to a library technology whether it was DSpace or Drupal or whatever flavors we were learning then. But it was actually that class that led me to do my first WordPress install (which is how my blog developed) and made me realize that I could actually learn and master technologies on my own. I hope that learning like that occurs in other programs.