Gavia Libraria

Rigor without rigor mortis

Ah, those soft, lazy library schools, says the Beerbrarian. Whatever are we to do about them?

Let’s look at the Beerbrarian’s complaints and suggestions one at a time.

The Affair of the Mistaken Acceptance looks like simple clerical error to the Loon. It happens. The Loon isn’t inclined to think it symptomatic of anything much besides overworked front offices. So much for that.

With respect to graduation requirements, then, we first have the classic “let’s make it look like Regular Graduate School” suggestions, comps and theses.

Let’s not. Seriously, honestly, the Loon says with all her black wizened heart: let’s not. Regular Graduate School, especially in anything humanities-like, is a soulless bankrupt moribund enterprise. It prepares its students poorly for academe (where its placement rate is disgraceful), and not at all for anything else. Library schools shouldn’t ape this. Library schools should damned well improve on it.

But that’s an appeal to emotion and personal philosophy, not practicality, so let’s go back to square one. How often do working librarians take timed tests? Ah. Right. They don’t. So comps are inherently artificial. Adding an artificial hoop to LIS programs helps how, exactly?

As for testing knowledge, it’s impossible for comps to test anything much beyond the required core (which at the Loon’s school is quite small), because the electives students will have taken vary enormously. Again, the Loon doesn’t think this variation inherently problematic in any way; a future youth-services librarian should take quite a different slate from a future scholarly-communication wonk. That it’s difficult to test doesn’t mean it’s wrong (something the Loon wishes education-policy wonks at all levels of government would learn).

As for theses, they make a certain amount of sense for future academic librarians, many of whom will have to do research and write scholarly(-ish) papers. For the future youth-services librarian, they’re just as artificial a hoop as comps would be. The Loon has the same reaction to theses in library school that she does to dissertations in Regular Graduate School: why? Why do these shambling malformed monsters exist? If academe is all about books and/or articles, why isn’t the masterwork (in the medieval-guild sense) a book or a set of articles, for pity’s sake?

It’s worth noting, too, that theses tend to put library schools on the wrong side of the theory-praxis divide. The Loon gets enough flak on that; she’s tired of it. It inclines her rather strongly against thesis requirements.

The Loon agrees with the Beerbrarian that job-placement stats should be monitored closely by ALA accreditors. What’s more, ALA needs to specify quite straitly how these statistics are to be collected, lest schools count store clerks and unpaid interns as working professionals. (Mind you, ALA will have to be careful not to dump non-traditional professional positions into the non-professional bucket. One of the Loon’s first and best students works for a commercial educational-technology firm. Professional? Damn skippy she is.)

This, however, is quite likely to come out in the wash. If ALA doesn’t insist on it, students will, as well they should.

So if comps and theses aren’t the way, what might be? Believe it or not, ALA accreditors are trying to think this through, and they’re forcing library schools to as well. The Loon isn’t wholly enamored of ALA’s methods or its rhetoric, but she thinks it’s important to point out that ALA is actually considering these questions, and ALA members can and should participate in the process.

The Loon is seeing (and herself pondering) some combination of the following:

  • Clearer statements of student-learning goals, ideally ones with teeth. The Loon could argue with how this is playing out; ALA is asking for such piles of “evidence” related to stated goals that a) schools are actually reducing their goal lists, and b) schools are being intimidated out of claiming aspirations that they’re not entirely sure they can meet. Still, thinking these questions through is no bad thing.
  • A capstone experience. This could be a thesis, and for some students arguably should, though the Loon (again) would prefer a published article, conference poster, or conference presentation. For others, another sort of masterwork artifact makes sense: a dynamic website, a properly-accessioned collection, a sensible new collection-development policy for a library needing one. For those students pursuing careers of ongoing day-to-day service—reference, instruction, cataloging—a meaningful-length practicum makes eminent sense. The only real problem with capstones (and the Loon doesn’t have any offhand solutions for this) is that no one fails them that the Loon’s aware, though a few actually should.
  • Portfolios. These are not a panacea when poorly implemented; ALA is leaning on schools to implement them in a great hurry, which the Loon thinks is liable to turn out poorly. Still, the basic idea is sensible: make students become aware of and reflect on the program’s student-learning goals from an early date, make them build their programs to achieve those goals, and make them show and discuss what they’ve learned in (semi-)public. Even better: schools whose students put crappy portfolios proudly up for all to see will lose quality applicants, as they absolutely should. Again, the question hanging fire is whether schools should refuse to graduate students who survive their coursework but turn in a sub-par portfolio. We shall see.

Two other problems raise their unhappy heads with sufficient frequency as to deserve comment. The Loon calls one “union-card syndrome,” and the other might be characterized as extreme Dunning-Kruger effect with respect to standards of professional conduct. Neither of these is simple to correct.

Union-card syndrome happens when a library-school student skates through on the easiest courses he can, because after all, “the MLS is just a union card.” A coherent subset of union-carders avoids technology courses specifically; this frankly makes the tech-instructor Loon quite happy, because union-carders are disdainful, entitled, and lazy in the classroom—but the Loon also knows that they will suffer for it on the job market, and they don’t lend their alma maters any lustre either.

At her own school, the Loon is working on this problem through her own advising practices (though for whatever reason, she doesn’t seem to have acquired any union-carder advisees), through various student-orientation hoops she’s working on, and through generously sprinkling job-market realities throughout her teaching. Fundamentally, though, the Loon can’t prevent union-carding. Some library-school courses are pretty easy for anybody (though “easy” does not necessarily mean “valueless”); others can be skated through by those with particular life experiences, such as the Loon’s intro-tech course for existing programmers and sysadmins. Dorothy Parker’s well-known bon mot riffing on horses and water applies.

Dunning-Kruger is commonest among those who are young, whose baccalaureates are still ink-wet, who have yet to hold down a real job, and who haven’t really thought about what acquiring—much less holding down—an information-professional’s job entails. (It’s not limited to such folk, mind, but it is most common among them.) They don’t know how to write a résumé, but they don’t come to résumé-writing clinics because they don’t know that résumés are actually rather hard to do well. They have often internalized the standard brain-dead societal stereotypes about librarianship, such that they don’t think landing a librarian’s job will be in any way difficult. Worst of all, they can be simultaneously arrogant, terrified, and fragile of ego: the type who won’t go to a résumé clinic because someone might actually criticize their résumé, and they’re not sure they could handle that!

Union-carders could survive once upon a time, but the Loon’s strong sense is that that time is mostly past. As for the Dunning-Krugers, any library search committee can tell you they apply in droves, are roundfiled in droves, and wind up bitterly complaining on mailing lists and blogs that library school failed them. Who failed whom? is the Loon’s usual mental response.

Here’s the problem, from where the Loon is sitting. She doesn’t know how to recognize a union-carder or a Dunning-Kruger from their application packages. (Sure, she could theoretically refuse to admit every just-graduated applicant, but that’s just wrong.) Once they’re admitted, she tends not to see them (they avoid her classes, both because of the tech and because the Loon is reputed to be a challenging instructor) and so can’t help them much. So they jump through the hoops—they tend to be good hoop-jumpers, offering just barely sufficient effort to get through—and they graduate, and they’re never hired because they don’t deserve to be, and what could the Loon have done to save them?

(Please, if you believe nothing else, believe that the Loon would save them if she could!)

The Loon thinks that library schools have very little choice but to graduate some flotsam, for reasons rather deeper than the usual “they’re just taking fools’ money” canard leveled at them. The sheer amount, now, that could do with reduction, to be sure, and in the Loon’s estimation, the larger the library school, the more gimlet-eyed ALA should be about it, just because of the numbers involved. (Bias disclaimer; the Loon’s school is rather small as schools go.)

She does think that service learning, assignments grounded in the real world, portfolios, practicums and other capstones, and the like do help. She also thinks that practicing librarians and other information professionals can help, too, and she wholeheartedly invites them to.

6 thoughts on “Rigor without rigor mortis

  1. Liz Jardine

    Amen! All great suggestions. What really hit home was your discussion of the nature of some library school students. I’ve seen a couple of postings recently on my alma mater’s listserv that reeked of Dunning-Kruger/union carders (and I bet these weren’t recent BAs). I think I taught one or two as well when I ventured into the classroom to teach a required course

    But a challenge of library schools trying to prepare all the different kinds of librarians–some who need tech classes, some who need children’s lit, others who need archival management, etc.–is that a large enough student body is needed to support a variety of classes. Otherwise you end up offering electives once every two years, and when you do they may not fit into the interested student’s schedule. Even back in the early days of the web when I was in school, I had a specialty class cancelled because it couldn’t make.

    The answer could be for a school to resign itself to a certain amount of flotsam (great term!). Or, as an alternative, I suggest they go after better students. Find the students with technology skills at the grad school recruitment days, student who were motivated as undergrads, etc. Not an easy task, but then this is a sticky problem. Do library schools do any serious recruiting? If not, they must be getting enough flotsam floating in the doors to keep them open. Then they have to deal with it.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Recruiting as it is often practiced is hideously expensive and time-consuming, involving considerable travel. Savvy library schools could work harder at recruiting online, but the Loon can’t claim expertise in how that should/would work.

      She has, however, noticed several efforts to recruit from the hard sciences, and she quite approves of that.

  2. Meredith

    Heck yeah! I love what the capstone experiences look like at Portland State University’s undergraduate programs. Students basically do service learning projects and write about them. In library school, this would take the form of research, grant-writing, web design, weeding, learning object creation, etc., and would culminate in some sort of research or reflective paper (or a combination). For example, if a student had the job of creating tutorials for their capstone project, they would need to do a lit review on best practices beforehand, create tutorials based on what they learned, and then write about the experience and what they learned (including the lit review) case-study style. It would allow students to contribute in some meaningful way to a library (also giving them useful library experience to put on their resume), and in a way that can fit with whatever sort of librarianship they want to practice.

    This is such a diverse profession and not everyone needs to be a scholar. Why try and make everyone fit into that mold? Comprehensive exams and theses in a professional program like this make no sense to me. That being said, I am all for increasing the standards for admissions into library schools, especially given the dismal job prospects for so many graduating today.

  3. Beerbrarian

    Thank you for this excellent post, Library Loon. You make a number of excellent points about regular graduate school, of which I’m a product.
    However, my acceptance sans complete application at an unnamed MLIS program was no clerical error, and is somewhat routine practice at some schools eager to fill seats two weeks before the start of the semester. On this there are enough data points to eliminate mistaken front office syndrome.

  4. Colleen

    Before we blow off the idea of “regular graduate school” wholly, I’d note that while I wouldn’t want SLISes to go the humanities route, going the social-sciences route and requiring them to do a minor comp in stats or research methods in addition to a capstone, portfolio, or applied thesis (EdDs are famous for this, and it’s actually right up the MLS’s alley, really) would be a huge gain in MLS programs everywhere. Libraries are being tasked with assessment and proving-value more than ever, and librarians as a whole are poorly equipped to handle this (unless you add the folks to the pool who went to ‘real grad school’ for their second masters or doctorate, who have some methods grounding). It should be a basic competency for professionals, and I’m hoping ALA eventually picks up this particular gauntlet.

    I’ll hold my tongue on the rest of it; to me, graduate school should be synonymous with a sort rigor I don’t see in many MLS curricula (and this isn’t solely an MLS problem either;a number of MEd programs and others face similar Spock-eyebrow-skepticism from me), but there are some low-hanging fruit that MLS programs could capitalize on quite quickly, should they so choose.