Reinventing the MLS

On LinkedIn there is an ongoing discussion that revolves around reinventing library education. The specific question is:

“If you could reinvent library education how would you start?” 

I have been following the discussion and considered posting a reply directly to LinkedIn, but remembered that I had yet to write a blog post this month and thought this might be a good topic to cover.

Awhile back I wrote about how we can attract more LIS graduates to the dark side of medical librarianship and I more recently wrote an update about my library school experience in which I said:

In order to stay relevant in today’s tumultuous world of library and information science, they need to start offering an MLIS, as well as concentrations that integrate informatics and computer science into the MLS curriculum track (perhaps offering a Systems Analysis and Design track, a Knowledge Management concentration, or even a Digital Information Certificate).

Now, this was about my own graduate program at Emporia State University, but I do think it is relevant to many of the graduate LIS programs in the United States (I will be honest and admit my ignorance regarding international LIS programs). Many of the graduate programs I have looked at tend to have a very overarching approach to teaching information science. You learn about the foundations of library science, information transfer and all those delicious information science tidbits that come with the degree. Most of these programs offer basic concentrations, but I have found–albeit my experience is limited–that these concentrations are often too broad to provide in-depth training. The difference between the “Leadership and Administration” concentration and the basic library MLS curriculum is 9 hours (3 courses). In fact, at Emporia, the difference between all of the concentrations and the standard curriculum is 9 hours (3-4 courses). I don’t know about most of you, but to me that seems like a fairly shallow difference between a general degree and a concentration. I know most Master’s degree programs average between 2-2.5 years, but perhaps vamping up the curriculum to 2.5-3 years would be beneficial to LIS graduates. If you look at the first 1.5-2 years as the foundation years, you are then giving students the opportunity to really invest themselves in a concentration over the next 1-1.5 years.

In order to garner interest in the concentrations, they should be focused on specific areas of librarianship or on building technical skills. Web authoring, database design, information literacy education, and data management are all areas that librarians could excel. While there are many areas where LIS education could be reinvented, concentrations (and specializations) would be the beginning of the reinvention of LIS curricula (1).

Other ways we should consider reinventing LIS education:

2. More stringent admissions requirements. 

One suggestion was a “5 year moratorium on Library School matriculation,” and while many librarians would probably jump for joy at having less competition for positions, I think that this would be a terrible idea. Turning people away from a career just to make it easier on those who have already graduated is not fair in the slightest. What is fair, is to produce the best possible candidates for the positions that are available in order to strengthen our profession across the board.

Instead of a moratorium, library school programs should consider:

  • requiring at least 2-3 years of library experience prior to acceptance to a program
  • letter(s) of reference from an LIS professional
  • GRE score of (the school would decide)
  • either a written essay and/or;
  • face-to-face interview with the candidate

Library experience should be a top priority for acceptance into a graduate program. I’m not saying that the candidate should have a full-time (or even a part-time) job at a library, but volunteer experience at least shows interest in library science and provides an applicant with some basic knowledge before applying. This would weed out those people who are just “going back to school to get an ‘easy’ masters for career advancement.”

3. Greater emphasis on field-work and internship opportunities.

This really depends on the library experience of each LIS graduate. If a library manager is pursuing a MLS degree, they probably don’t need a summer internship at the circulation desk. If, however, a graduate is only coming into a degree program with 2 years of volunteer experience or a library page is accepted, an internship (or practicum) program should be a requirement in order to graduate. Now I know this is difficult. While librarians are constantly championing collaboration, it’s incredibly difficult to find libraries willing to take on a practicum student or a summer library intern. This has got to stop! If we want competent–and confident–individuals graduating from our programs we need to provide them with the experiences they need to make professional decisions.

Library programs should look at medical schools for inspiration. In the 3rd year of medical school, students rotate through multiple “core clerkships.” Library programs could consider placing students on rotations in a similar fashion. Consider the following:

Suzie Librarian has completed her first year of library school. She has a fairly solid LIS foundation, 1 year of library page experience and 1 year of volunteering as a library “teen wrangler.” Her LIS program wants to help her make an informed decision about the type of librarianship Suzie may be interested in, so they send her through 2 months of professional development training at multiple libraries. During this part of her schooling, Suzie will get to experience a (1) week in an academic library, a (1) week in a public library (either rural or urban), 2-3 weeks in a special libraries (location dependent), and 1 week in an archival setting. If Suzie is interested in school librarianship, she can add an extra week of shadowing a K-12 librarian.

This may not be done in two consecutive months, but shadowing for a few days throughout the program would definitely be beneficial to library school students.

As someone who has already graduated from library school, I wish this had been something offered to me. Even though I knew going in that I wanted to do something in the medical sciences, it would have been an invaluable experience to learn about other librarianship opportunities.

4. More intense focus on research methods and statistical analysis.

Everyone that graduates from library school should be able to not only provide assistance to researchers, but to also conduct their own academic research. In order to further the field of library and information science, we need to produce graduates who are interested in contributing to our field of study. Doctoral research isn’t for everyone, but those with MLS degrees can still provide valuable insight into information science theories, user services, and pretty much any aspect of modern librarianship.

To add to this, librarians should be graduating with a basic understanding of statistics and a rudimentary understanding of how this applies to research methodology. This may not be as relevant to public librarians, but it should be incredibly important! Their understanding of how to produce actionable research could possibly be tied to funding for their library, and could save them from having to shutter their doors/windows in the future. The designing and assessment of patron surveys could prove to be an incredibly valuable skill, and this skill should be taught in library school.

5. Increasing alumni participation in graduate courses

When you’re in library school, you can develop a sort of tunnel vision regarding employment after graduating with your MLS. Bringing alumni in to lecture, present, or even just network with current students can be invaluable to the success of the student following graduation. After I received my MLS, I continued to work in a medical library until a better offer presented itself. In library school, any one trying to change my mind about medical librarianship would have been hard-pressed to do so. This was because my mindset was, “If I get my MLS I have to work in a library…” While I understand this is the goal for many people, it can be difficult for those with just the MLS and limited/no library experience to find jobs after graduating. I now know MLS grads that work within academia as instructional designers or technologists, or in non-profit organizations, consulting firms, web development companies, research facilities, and even marketing for corporations. In all these instances, they graduated from library school expecting to work in a library. What happened, however, was that they realized the skills they had learned in their graduate program prepared them for numerous positions outside of the library environment. Bringing in a diverse group of MLS alumni would serve to help students see that there are many different avenues to employment.

While I would love to see library programs adopt these initiatives, I understand that higher education–and this includes graduate library programs– still need to make money. By accepting fewer applicants to programs and increasing the number of faculty, schools stand to cut profits or they might just increase tuition to offset this loss. This is obviously not what they, nor future applicants, want to happen. If even one of these initiatives could be implemented across the board, I really think that MLS programs could help prepare the future workforce and increase the number of competent LIS graduates.

I do look forward to the future of LIS education, but I also hope that changes are made in the present that propel libraries and the study of information science,  into a more stable future.

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