Gavia Libraria

“Rigor,” diversity, and library schools

Those damn library schools. (Yes, we’re going there again. The Loon apologizes to those who come here for snarky technobabble or snarkier scholarly-communication commentary.) You know what the problem with them is? (Well, over and above their worthless faculty.) They’re just not rigorous enough. Let all kinds of rabble out the door, they do. Makes the whole profession look bad.

Librarianship should, according to the rigor brigade, be some sort of meritocracy, is that right? Yes? Only the best and the brightest?

If you’re nodding, the Loon would like to dunk you without ceremony in an ice-stream-fed lake. Meritocracy is a bankrupt concept (or follow links from here), and it is bankrupt because it reeks of kyriarchy. As the Loon was pondering this post, she realized that the only people she remembers spouting off about rigor in library schools were white men (she can’t speak to their sexuality, so she won’t). Suddenly this did not seem coincidental. Even were that not so (and the Loon is sure counterexamples can be found), the concept’s bankruptcy would remain.

Ultimately, the rigor brigade wants to slam the door to librarianship in the faces of some of those who wish to open it. They argue that they’re slamming the door only in the faces of the Wrong Type of People. The Loon thinks such an assertion could do with proof, and in any case, that restricting opportunity needs a good deal more justification than that—if any justification at all is possible. If the cost of broadening opportunity is letting some of the Wrong People (whoever they are) through to the job market—and it would be! and is!—the Loon thinks it an acceptable cost.

What counts as “rigor” should receive more scrutiny than it generally does, as well. The Loon has most often seen two formulations:

  • Technological rigor. Go in a link-clicker, come out two years later a sysadmin (or omnicapable website manager, or… there are various flavors of tech, but Technological Rigorists tend to focus on back-end rather than user-facing tech) as well as a librarian or archivist or records manager. Real tech folks of any kind have every right to be outraged by this notion; it trivializes what they do and how remarkably demanding it is. Likewise librarians, archivists, and records managers, the Loon sometimes thinks.
  • Humanistic rigor, in the peculiar and historically-contingent formulation of “humanistic” that comes from the 20th-century Western academy. Impressionistically speaking, the sort of person who discourses learnedly upon Bourcault and Foudieu1, who ideally has a Ph.D in the humanities but even without one is able to write many-paged heavily-jargonified screeds comprehensible (and of at least marginal importance) only to approximately six other people.

(Humanists who are outraged at the above characterization: the Loon got far enough into a 20th-century–style humanities Ph.D to be intimately acquainted with the truth of it. It does not constitute the whole of the modern humanities, to be sure, but it correlates quite strongly with librarianship’s humanistic-rigor brigade.)

Coincidence, that the people who resemble the above profiles are overwhelmingly wealthy white men? (Indeed, the Loon remarked hardly a week ago on academic philosophy driving out women with beyond-the-pale behavior; as for tech, nothing need be said after this horrific trigger-warninged week.) Coincidence, again, that it’s white men pushing both formulations? You tell the Loon.

Just to take that thought a bit further—insisting on either or both of these forms of rigor will have a significant damaging impact on the diversity of librarianship. We know already, as a profession, about digital divides and among whom they are likeliest to be found; do we honestly believe all that does not apply to library-school applicant pools? We know about the demographics of technology and why they are the way they are, and the Loon certainly hopes we don’t care to reify that set of gross injustices further. We know about the demographics of baccalaureate attainment, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know that’s already a serious bar to diversity in librarianship along certain axes. The reasons the MLS is master’s-level are weird, historically-contingent, and probably indefensible2, but changing that would take more work than the Loon can begin to imagine, though if she sees effort in that direction she’d certainly consider signing on. Rethinking “rigor” only takes empathy and research-driven thought.

But it’s the smart ones who survive the job market! Well. Sometimes, but not necessarily. In her three years of full-time teaching and four more part-time, the Loon has noticed that the smartest of the smart (where “smart” betokens the Loon’s characterization of “humanistic rigor” above) with considerable frequency do as poorly as she herself did, and for many of the same reasons, some of those reasons environmental, some personal. “Smart” does not guarantee “able” or “well-socialized,” the latter more so since the Well-Socialized Librarian is so strongly constructed within the profession itself as white, middle-class, cis female well into stereotype territory, heterosexual and heteronormative, and so forth. (Again, Hiring Librarians regularly shouts this construction to the skies.)

But it’s the smart ones who move the field forward! Really? The Loon, who resembles both constructions of The Rigorous Librarian more than she likes to admit sometimes, didn’t. She’s entirely willing to assert that the field needs much, much more than these particular constructions of “smartness.” Representation, among other things.

Does librarianship need technologically-skilled people? Certainly. Does it need deep readers of Bourcault and Foudieu? Perhaps—there are days the hardheaded Loon would argue against, to be perfectly honest; too many of these people join the doomsaying-futurist pundit class—but even if so, allow the Loon to suggest that it is in no danger of a dearth of them, such that library education need hardly be slanted to favor them or produce more of them.

So, forced to choose between diversity and “rigor” the Loon—and by extension, library schools—should choose diversity, and if the rigor brigade dislikes that, the Loon has a lake they can jump into. What set the Loon on this train of thought, as it happens, was a workplace situation in which she ultimately made just this choice, though (to her discredit be it spoken, but the Loon needs to hold herself to account for such things) not without some thrashing and yodeling. She doesn’t foresee any difficulty living with the results of that specific decision; if anything, the results have already been so positive as to confirm its rightness, and Pavlovianly condition the Loon to thrash and yodel a good deal less next time.

If the Loon is right, this means that a serious discussion needs having about remediation, technology remediation and white-middle-class “fake it ’till you make it” workplace-socialization remediation in particular, in library schools. The Loon is thinking her way through the former thicket; she has to, partly for reasons germane to her work situation that she cannot describe in full in this public venue. The lattermentioned need for remediation is regrettable, but until librarianship’s hiring culture is knocked off its white-middle-class-cis-female foundations, real.

The Loon dislikes skill-and-competency lists as librarianship currently designs and builds them; they smack of wishlists piled precariously upon wishlists like Ossa upon Pelion, such that they offer library educators little aid or intelligible guidance, and offer students nothing but reason to panic. Still, the competency approach may well be alterable into a system of signposts for such as the Loon and her colleagues and students that would be vastly preferable to thoughtless, kyriarchy-reinforcing “rigor.”

  1. The Loon has just enough French to be amused by this portmanteau, and hopes you do too.
  2. See Boyd Keith Swigger, The MLS Project. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

7 thoughts on ““Rigor,” diversity, and library schools

  1. yo_bj

    As I read the reactions to your post on various parts of Social Media, there are many who are wondering if you are arguing if LIS schools should be lowering their existing standards with regards to the curriculum in order to attract and retain more diverse LIS students. Perhaps some clarification about your above argument to clear up some of those questions?

    1. Library Loon Post author

      The profession can’t have it both ways. Either library schools apply “rigor” across the board in ways that disproportionately exclude women and the non-wealthy from technology and people of color from the entire profession (because “humanistic rigor” is so horrifically WASPy in construction), or they give us some room to remediate and stop sneering about us when we do so.

      Or they realize and celebrate that people of varying life experiences who don’t necessarily bring vast amounts of technological or WASP-humanistic skill or knowledge to the table often bring other skills and knowledges that are equally useful and worthwhile professionally. The Loon would certainly appreciate it if they did.

      Whether this openness to a greater breadth of knowledge ultimately means “lowered standards” is an open question that depends heavily on what the profession decides the “standards” are. The Loon argued above that some of the so-called standards touted by library-school detractors are considerably less important than those detractors think they are. The Loon tends to prefer more social science and less humanities in her library schools; the ability to write books and articles appropriate to the Jargonified Humanities is useful or even intelligible only in a tiny and shrinking number of workplace contexts.

      So if that’s the definition of “rigor,” rigor can go drown itself singing like Ophelia, yes. If we’re ready to argue the definition… that’s a discussion worth having.

      Ultimately, our detractors aren’t the people who have to look in students’ (and prospective students’) eyes while the door is slammed in their face, nor watch them panic at the ever-lengthening competency lists. The Loon is not a miracle-worker. Given where a lot of her students start, with the best will in the world she cannot bring them to where library-school detractors would like them to end up.

      Maybe that’s the Loon. Maybe it’s unrealistic expectations from people who have never swum a mile with the Loon’s webbed feet! But that isn’t to say the people the Loon graduates will be poor librarians. It’s not that simple. Good librarians don’t necessarily look, act, think, or write like the rigor brigade. Until the rigor brigade accepts that, we will have no greater diversity in librarianship, intellectual or otherwise, than we have now.

  2. Elizabeth Lieutenant

    Perhaps I’m just confused about your definition of rigor and what aspect of LIS education you’re proposing be made less rigorous. Does your critique of “rigor” in LIS education apply to admission or curriculum standards, or perhaps both? Considering your prior comments on students who fail to meet library school admissions standards and fail to perform once in school, further clarification would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Emily

    Is this post arguing that calls for rigor necessarily exclude students of color? It reads that way, but I can’t imagine that’s actually your argument. Students of color can handle a rigorous curriculum, of course. Or does “rigor” mean something else? Who is in the “rigor brigade”? Or do you mean something else by “diverse”? Intellectual/skills-based diversity? It may just be that this post refers to a conversation about library schools/education that I’m simply not a part of, but some clarity might be useful, I think.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Quite a few students of color would be excluded by the kinds of rigorous curriculum defined in this post, yes; that is indeed the Loon’s argument. The demographics of higher education generally and post-baccalaureate education specifically bear her out. Have you counterexamples?

  4. deejbah

    As someone who can pass (as long as I don’t start talking too much) as a white, middle-class male I’m always struck by how much I have learned about these coded demands for rigor passing as entrenched privilege because I have been treated as a confidant by people who don’t know my background, who have quite happily pontificated about how everyone has the same opportunities, etc. My brother who is a Nurse Practitioner says he has had similar experiences, especially as he works in a hospital in an area that is actually more disadvantaged than the one we grew up in.

    When you don’t see yourself represented in academic or mainstream cultural reproductions or if so without any sense of agency it’s very easy to fall prey to doubt and Impostor syndrome. Then add a whole lot of expectations about what tacit knowledge and capabilities people should arrive with and the likelihood of that happening increases. My reading and conversations with people who can’t pass as I (now) can tells me it’s a possibility that is only multiplied for others.

  5. Erin Jonaitis

    One of the background processes in my brain these days, as I complete one professional degree program and spend my work life supporting the needs of another, is: what is rigor for? What need is it serving, and whose need is that — the student’s need for challenge, the profession’s need for prestige and power, or society’s need for competent people in that profession? And how is the rigor achieved, i.e. is there support for students who are struggling, or is the main function of the rigor to serve as a screen based on attributes the student already had when he or she entered the program?

    I may have already pointed this out to you over Twitter, but Andrew Gelman’s take on meritocracy seems to me exactly right.