I think our ALA president-elect, Michael Gorman, has the right idea on what the ALA should be focusing on. Education. According to the Library Journal, in a meeting entitled “The Future of Library Information Education”, Gorman expressed serious concerns about the state of library education and accreditation. Although I’ve only gone through one MLIS program, I feel like I know what he’s talking about. Library schools do not have a coherent national sense of mission or a sense of what the core competencies are for becoming a librarian in the 21st century. I think there are a few reasons that one can point to, including poor leadership from the ALA, the changing nature of librarianship, and the small number of credits required to get an MLS.
When I was getting my masters in social work, my school was going through NASW’s accreditation process. There were very specific core competencies that were required to be taught and a very specific framework for social work education. I knew that while one program may have better professors than another, each accredited program would be teaching the same things. And with 60 credits to take (versus 42 in my library school), it was more likely that we’d be able to get a well-rounded social work education. And when I got out in the world, it seemed like all of the people I worked with had learned the same things in their schools. That standardization was vital to churning out good social workers, all of whom have the necessary skills to work in a variety of social work settings.
I feel that there is a great deal of variance in the courses offered by each library school across the country, and a great deal of difference between the quality of each program. I felt like I floated through my program, which had little structure and no concrete mechanism for receiving mentoring as a distance student. I had my own plan for what I thought I should learn, but it would have been nice to get more feedback from my so-called advisor (who took 2 months to get back to my email to her). Gorman “criticized ALA program accreditation for simply measuring a program against its own mission and vision statements” and argued that “accreditation be tied to national standards.” I couldn’t agree more. Considering how few program there are, there should be more stringent national standards and core competencies that library schools should have to satisfy in their course offerings, so that people don’t have to move across the country to find a program that meets their needs. He also thinks that there should be more of a focus on practice rather than theory, which I think is what will keep LIS programs vital and not trapped in old library paradigms.
Where I disagree with Mr. Gorman is in his desire to focus on librarianship rather than technology, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Library Journal states that Gorman feels “due to an increased concentration on technology, curricula in LIS programs today are not adequately addressing the real needs of the profession.” I don’t know how he thinks knowledge of technology is not a “real need of the profession”, especially to the future of the profession. The duties of librarians are changing and will continue to change significantly over the course of the next century. We can’t teach the same courses as in the 1960s and pretend that we are adequately preparing students to work in the libraries of today and of the future. I think the problem lies more in properly integrating technology learning into library education. Courses on technology should be practical to the profession. All of the technology courses I took barely mentioned libraries, which I felt was their chief failing. Web design courses should focus on developing library websites and library website usability (while teaching the basics of CSS, HTML, etc.). Network multimedia should focus on creating multimedia presentations or tutorials for libraries. This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but we have programs that are either ignoring technology completely, or are teaching technology courses that belong in a computer science department.
I think the first thing the ALA should do is determine what a librarian should know for their first job (both now and thinking of the future). Break those down into core competencies that every librarian should have, and then make a list of competencies that are specific to different library positions (archivist, children’s librarian, systems librarian, etc). Every library school should offer these core and specific competencies in their course offerings. Some should be required of every student, some should be electives. Practicums should be required (at least one, but ideally a student should have two experiences in different aspects of librarianship). Teaching about technology should be integrated into LIS curriculum as one of the core competencies. I know it won’t be easy, but it is vital to producing well-rounded librarians who come to libraries with the knowledge that is required of them.
When I compare how the ALA does accreditation to what a tight ship the NASW ran, I find it easy to blame the ALA for the problems of library education (though the programs themselves should certainly share the blame for not adapting better to the changing model of librarianship). Hopefully Gorman will reform library education and make the programs more standardized in terms of what they teach. But I also hope he soon realizes the value technology has for librarians in the 21st century.