Gavia Libraria


A backchannel conversation about the Loon’s last post convinced her that she had not made her central point about the challenge of setting classroom difficulty levels in a heterogeneous student environment clearly enough.

So let us try a small thought experiment, in which every course in library school is as deep and rigorous as its instructor’s expertise will permit. No remediation, no consideration of prior background (or lack of same), devil take the hindmost! And let us put actual working librarians through this putatively rigorous program and see how they do.

The Loon contends that she and a mere two of her Boring Alter Ego’s workplace colleagues, turned loose to teach with the maximum depth and rigor of which they are capable, could obliterate damned near every single librarian in the United States. (Paraphrasing Bill Cosby: for some of you, the Loon brought you into this profession, and she can take you out.) The Loon would start off with a delightfully rigorous course in markup and linked data. That should stamp out a goodly percentage all by itself.

Those who survive that would be turned over to a print historian, who (based on research expertise and writing skill) can reasonably demand meticulously-researched works of rigorous humanist scholarship from students. Watch the sickle reap a sanguinary harvest of the tech-steeped!

But then, C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen exists in the world (the Loon can attest, as her Boring Alter Ego has met him), and though he is not to the Loon’s knowledge an MLS-degreed librarian, his existence (one being a ridiculous impossible number) does suggest that the first two weeder courses will not quite suffice to annihilate the United States’s entire librarian complement. So for the third course, the few elite survivors of the first two will be turned over to… THE LAWYER. That should just about do it; the Loon has no trouble admitting that she herself would not survive THE LAWYER teaching in the depth of which she knows THE LAWYER to be capable.

(The Loon had a thoroughly miserable week last week over yet more thoughtlessly nastyminded and fundamental-attribution-error-ridden so-called “critiques” of library school. The above cruel but to the Loon vastly amusing and heartening scenario is one result. So is the Loon’s choice of verbs as she composed it. Some days, librarianship, the Loon detests you almost as much as you despise her.)

We could, in theory, do this; the collection of weeder courses the Loon just suggested is not by a long shot the only possible one, of course. We don’t do this, however, not with any collection of courses, as a library school that graduates no one whatsoever would drop its applications to zero and collapse under its own purposeless intellectual loftiness in a trice.

Also worth considering is the likely demographic distribution of a librarianship whose preparatory education fiercely enforced rigor in any one of the above areas—technology, humanistic scholarship, or information law—never mind all three. Because fairly elite prior preparation is all but required to survive any of the three areas at the rigor limit—for that matter, at levels considerably short of the rigor limit!—the Loon suspects (as she has previously mooted) that it would be even whiter, cis male-r, and wealthier than librarianship is now. (The Loon does not have a read on how LGBTQ representation would change; readers who do are welcome to comment.) The Loon also believes quite fervently that this rich white cis-male librarianship isn’t the librarianship that librarianship wants and needs to be.

Anyway, certain annoyingly persistent strains of discourse about library education fall out of this situation easily and logically. The first is “But I don’t need to learn that! Someone else in the library does that!” Yes, very well, but some librarians need to learn it at a specialist level (is anyone truly about to argue that librarianship needs neither technologists nor book experts nor lawyers?), and others need a grounding in it, so it must be taught. Since it must be taught, and since it must be taught to refuseniks as well as specialists despite refuseniks’ disinclination or lack of experience or talent, the real question is not whether some students get stiffed in the rigor stakes, but which ones do.

(Some days the Loon wonders whether the stalwart continuing refusal to accept technology skills as an ingrained element within librarianship has to do with desperate fear among the non-technically-inclined of being forced to learn, perhaps finding themselves out of their depth and therefore excluded. Sad, if so; also counterproductive for the profession.)

The less refusenikky, more openminded, much more defensible variant of the above argument is “Yes, I need to learn something about this, but as I do not plan to specialize in it, I don’t need (and possibly cannot handle) a specialist’s knowledge.” Fair enough; library schools create a course for you and a course for specialists and that’s done and dusted, right?

Wrong. Two problems arise. One is the “but all librarians must learn that!” brigade. Understand the Loon well, ye who believe this about your particular specialty: when you ask for everyone to learn it, regardless of inclination, talent, or experience with it, you are asking for it to be taught at a fairly low level of rigor, because we can’t fail out everyone who isn’t specialist-level good at it lest we become the Borgesian weeder school that graduates no one. (After all, all of you collectively tell us that everyone needs to learn every specialty there is to the highest possible level. Just look in the LIS literature for five minutes.) If you can accept that compromise, very well; we can proceed to discuss core program requirements. Otherwise, kindly find another expired equine to pummel.

The other problem is that we all of us have hard lower limits on course enrollment. We cannot keep afloat (sometimes even falling afoul of institutional rules) teaching specialty courses that attract pitiful numbers of students. Therefore a good many courses compromise with this necessity by combining specialties (e.g. a pedagogy course attracting future academic information-literacy librarians as well as future youth librarians) and, yes, teaching at a less hardline level to make the course an option for more students (as with many tech courses). The Loon would like to say that larger schools have an easier time teaching specialties in more depth since they have a larger pool of students to pull groups of likeminded hedgehogs from, but she’s honestly not sure that’s entirely true! She does know that at her small school, she simply cannot teach anywhere near her own knowledge limits and expect to do anyone any good—and the Loon is not even a hedgehog in her own specialties!

Another issue with some specialty courses is eat-your-broccoli. How many librarians need to be taught something is all too often a rather higher number than those who want to learn it. Nostalgic or otherwise naïve or unrealistic student notions of the job market are sometimes at fault (and we trifle with student job desires at our peril sometimes; the Loon cannot ethically tell stories about this here, but oh, she has them), sometimes poor advising or outdated beliefs about union-cardism, but the point remains… and spells trouble for a large swathe of specialist-level coursework.

So universal draconian rigor is impractical, as is a two-tier matched-course curriculum. What options does that leave?

Differential admission is one potential answer: bring existing hedgehogs to library school, fox them up in their non-hedgehog areas, and turn them loose. To some extent, this happens organically through librarianship’s common status as a non-first career; we in library schools certainly don’t get in its way! It’s a scattershot strategy, however, and to target it better, librarianship itself would have to confront why it is a terrible option for many hedgehogs it claims it desperately wants. (The Loon pointed another bright, tech-savvy, people-savvy student away from libraries the other day. Firmly. Without the least scintilla of remorse. The student will be happier, and as it happens, rather better-paid. As for librarianship, the way it has treated the Loon and her work as long as she’s been involved with it, why exactly should she put its needs above her students’?) It also creates an already-readily-apparent problem of expectations management: hedgehogs don’t expect to be foxed, they expect to be further hedgehogged.

Another obvious option is specialization. Returning to the fox-and-hedgehog metaphor, a school could cater to one or a few types of hedgehogs, ignoring foxes and other types of hedgehogs altogether. This would relieve the frankly absurd perceived need for any one school to try to muster a universally hedgehoggy curriculum, give prospective student hedgehogs better and clearer choices, and aggregate demand such that truly hedgehoggy courses can be viably taught. It would also create Darwinian market pressures (if, the Loon thinks, rather mild ones on the whole) toward curricular depth.

The biggest barrier here is ALA accreditation, the curricular standards for which demand breadth (note: link to current draft of revised standards) and all but forbid specialization. (Is this barrier at the root of the iSchool movement, and the proliferation of non-ALA-accredited programs in fields as varied as web design and multimedia archiving that are largely taught by the same instructors as accredited programs? The Loon wonders, indeed she does.)

Some schools try anyway, to be sure—specializations and tracks and what-you-will. These programs are made significantly more difficult to manage, much less excel in, by the Harrison-Bergeron-style lead weights of simultaneously maintaining breadth. Academe’s hedgehoggy insistence on research depth is no help, of course—the resource waste of tenuring a professor in an area the school maintains purely for breadth purposes is significant, as is the frustration that tenured professor will feel at never being able to teach in depth—though the problem can be somewhat mitigated via hiring foxes such as the Loon.

Now, when library schools were purely in-person programs, accreditation demanding foxy breadth at the expense of hedgehoggy depth made entire sense. In essence, quite a few schools were training nearly all the librarians in their geographic area. The Loon thinks that distance education has largely done away with that historical contingency, however, and she would encourage the ALA Committee on Accreditation to consider how to accredit specialized programs. Schools of engineering and medicine seem to manage it; surely librarianship can?

The other barrier to specialization-by-school is librarians themselves, who broadcast incredible amounts of offended cloaca-pain whenever a school merely hints at decreasing its commitment to their particular specialty in order to focus on a different one. (If you, gentle reader, raised Cain about the word “library” disappearing from a school’s name, you are part of the problem; kindly stop, and accept that the information world has grown well beyond libraries.) Again, the Loon will be blunt: universal hedgehoggism in a single school is a chimera, and a nonsensical one at that. If librarianship wants its preparatory educational facilities to have any hedgehoggism at all, it will have to accept that each facility will decrease or even eliminate depth in other areas.

The Loon, despite her fox-nature, is more or less sanguine about the possibilities of specialization. She doesn’t actually believe that making schools for hedgehogs will destroy the market value either of foxes or fox-style education. She does think many among the hedgehoggier population of prospective students are likely to be better-served by a system allowing specialization. Let the flowers bloom as they may.

Allow the Loon to close with a personal note. As one of the very, very few full-time library-school instructors with any sort of significant public online presence, she feels a lot of pressure to hold up the side, as it were. This is as hopelessly repetitive and wearing and fundamental-attribution-error-prone as is the pervasive vituperation aimed at library schools, which quite possibly helps explain why the Loon is such a rara avis.

The Loon would be vastly obliged (and far less likely to leave library education in despair, which she has been seriously considering after last week) if library-school improvement efforts would shift their thinking from a deficit model in which everything is wrong, nothing is improvable, and it’s all individuals’ fault (after all, don’t librarians object to this when it is applied to libraries, and rightly so?) to a more nuanced and systemic understanding of the constraints under which library schools and their instructors labor, and a willingness to seek, praise, and help build upon the good work that we—yes, even we loathly Loons—manage sometimes to do.

Thank you for considering the matter.

4 thoughts on “Rigor

  1. Ian McCullough

    I saw some tweets to the effect of “the biggest problem is library school” a few weeks ago and more or less agree with your essay. I slot these comments with “the biggest problem is out of touch librarians” and “the biggest problem is lack of coding” – that is in the category of “things people say when they are trying to advance their career”. To me the biggest problem is clearly macroeconomic movements that decrease public spending on the public good, including libraries. However, that isn’t something that fits into a bullet-point S.T.A.R. response in an interview about how you are going to succeed as a prospective leader.

  2. Lisa Hinchliffe

    I don’t understand the comment that the accreditation standards “all but forbid specialization” … it may be that enrollment patterns make it challenging to have in reality but as an external review panel member I have seen plenty of specializations in accredited schools.

  3. Erin Jonaitis

    I am missing something key in this debate, I think, and maybe that is because I am an outsider. Is the assumption that nobody learns anything after library school? If that is a wrong assumption, then I don’t see why there is this fixation on library school. My stats MS program was annoyingly old school in some ways, but knowing that they can’t fit every model class or programming language into a two-year program, especially when a successful field sees a proliferation of both, they took a conservative approach: teach some very basic building blocks and trust that your students will use those to learn the rest of what they need on the job. The analogies here are obvious.

    If it is a true assumption — if librarians are not, in general, given the opportunity to learn new skills on the job; or, on the other hand, the people who desire an MLS are for some reason not the sort of people who can — then the field is moribund in ways that no amount of library school revolution will fix.