Practitioners, Educators Seek Library's Place in Professional Education, April 30-May 1, in Washington
It seems that none of the 116 delegates to ALA’s Congress on Professional Education knew exactly what to expect when they were thrown together in Washington, D.C.’s Loews l’Enfant Plaza Hotel, April 30–May 1. What they got was an unprecedented opportunity to spout off in a forum organized to effect change in the way education for librarianship is delivered.
The congress was prompted by growing dissatisfaction with the elimination of the word “library” from program titles and a perceived lack of preparation of professionals in certain specialties, high among them youth services. James Matarazzo of Simmons College GSLIS observed that “this is the first time this kind of meeting has happened in a period when there’s a shortage not only of students but teachers as well.”
What transpired in those two days—at a cost of roughly $150,000 to ALA—paints librarianship as a dissipating profession, with practitioners attempting to enlist technology for the delivery of traditional services, and “library” schools struggling to survive by adapting to market realities and incorporating a hodgepodge of undefined “information” fields into the curriculum.
For every answer from one delegate, there was an equal and often opposite solution from another—practitioners looking at the realities of library service, educators placing libraries in the larger context of an information field in flux. But through a series of panel discussions and facilitated small-group brainstorming sessions, the congress managed to reach some consensus about what library associations, library schools, alumni, and employers must do to alleviate the “disconnect” between educators and practitioners.
What must they do?
Educators must provide quality distance education and increase diversity, delegates concluded. They must collaborate with practitioners and engage in targeted marketing and recruitment. Library associations must develop a national advocacy campaign for librarianship as a career choice; also recommended by some was a total overhaul of the accreditation process, including the establishment of an independent accrediting agency supported by all associations with an interest in library and information science education.
Delegates also called for library science alumni to become involved in their alma maters with both time and money, to give back to the profession by mentoring and recruiting, and to continue with professional development throughout their careers. For educators, the delegates concluded, increasing diversity and distance education are imperative, as are marketing, recruitment, and collaboration with practitioners.
At the congress opening, ALA President Ann Symons called for consensus-building and said, “All of us have a big stake in how library education is delivered to our campuses and to the librarians who will serve our communities in the next century.” Symons called for the delegation to “identify issues, strategies, and solutions to challenges facing the library and information studies community.”
Ken Haycock, chair of the steering committee that organized the congress, warned at the onset that it was “a congress, not a conclave.” He said, “It is not our role to define the answers but rather to look at the issues and reach consensus.” With that, he urged the delegates to “participate, don’t anticipate” because “you will not find a hidden agenda.” Haycock, of the University of British Columbia library school, asked delegates to ask themselves: “What are the core values of this profession—or is it professions? What are the core competencies? Are we educating graduates to work in the environments in which we serve?”
Ted Marchese, editor of Change magazine, kicked off the first panel of the congress with the announcement that “when bad times come, these will be the good old days.” Higher education is on a roll, he said, but in coming years universities will need to accommodate 30% more students with the same resources they have now. What will happen is that “every single provider of service on campus—and libraries are the single most expensive provider of a service on campus—will come under the most intense scrutiny.” The Web “is going to transform almost everything we do,” he predicted, and it “will become the central resource for teaching and learning, for writing, for publication, for content delivery.” What will count more than anything else, he said, will be perceptions of the profession on the part of deans, presidents, administrators, and faculty. He suggested focus groups as one means of determining what these perceptions are.
Marchese also remarked that he’d seen nowhere near the “curricular and pedagogic innovation” he would like to have seen in the papers posted on the congress Web site in preceding weeks.
Barbara Moran of the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill SILS delivered a sort of “state of the state of LIS education,” emphasizing that if schools are “providing merely training,” as is often suggested, they “do not belong in the university.” Moran said there was a lack of understanding between educators and practitioners, and communication between them has not been good and “has resulted in misunderstanding on both sides.” She cited reasons that so many library schools closed from 1978 to 1993 and observed that the closures made library education “concentrate on staying alive.” It was the “demand for information technology education that allowed many of the schools to grow larger, more central to the mission of the university, and more visible on campus.”
“There is no possibility that I can overstate the magnitude” of the crisis in library education, said Cleveland Public Library Director Marilyn Gell Mason, pointing to three areas of concern: shortages of qualified graduates, core competencies, and the loss of the “L” word from program titles.
Tell it like it is
The supply is falling as the demand is rising, Mason said, and library work has become even more staff-intensive with the introduction of more and more technology. She suggested that the crisis is so bad that libraries may need to consider subsidizing the students’ education in areas where staff are needed, such as children’s services. “We need traditional skills updated to the use of technology,” she said.
Mason said point blank that she was against the Berkeley model of professional education, “where schools no longer provide the kind of professionals that libraries need,” and supported the approach of Syracuse, Florida State, and other schools that “put libraries and library skills at the center, not the periphery, of the information stage.”
In response, Julie Cummins, ALA Executive Board member and coordinator of children’s services at New York Public Library, concurred with Mason and bemoaned her library’s inability to recruit and retain youth services professionals. “We are finding that our best location to get young professionals is Canada,” she said.
Doing a rant
Mary Kay Chelton of Queens University took to the podium at a panel session on curriculum and announced, “I’m gonna do a rant.” She then proceeded to deliver what was probably the most impassioned and persuasive speech of the conference. She observed that “60% of public library users are 18 and under,” a fact that library schools and employers alike fail to acknowledge. “Brain-development research should be brought into the curriculum,” she said, “and I would add human development.” Chelton got howls from the audience when she decried the unwillingness of many professionals to deal with social issues: “I think our ideal user is a 60-year-old, female, friendless, intellectual, technologically sufficient deaf-mute.”
Chelton said, “We need to understand how young people, very young people, interact with symbol systems and codes way beyond language and print.” Her final admonition: “I never again want to hear a librarian say, ‘I didn’t become a librarian to be a social worker.’”
On the same theme, Brian Schottlaender of the University of California/Los Angeles reinforced the notion that master’s-level degree programs are not training courses. “I would be perfectly happy if my educator partners took care of educating, and I would take care of training.”
Toni Carbo of the University of Pittsburgh emphasized the variety of professional roles for which schools are preparing students, with a “focus on information.” She defended library schools and said that most provide a solid background in traditional skills such as cataloging, even if it is called “organization of information.”
Marcia Bates of the University of California/Los Angeles said librarians must not make the mistake of believing they are in the book business instead of the information business. Others suggested that they are in neither; they are in the library business.
In response, Ann Snoeyenbos, reference librarian at New York University’s Bobst Library and representing ALA’s New Members Round Table, remarked, “Librarianship is intellectually stimulating, library school is not.”
Congress breakout sessions took the form of facilitated brainstorming. In one small group of school library media specialists, Marilyn Miller of the University of North Caolina/Greensboro LIS department said, “There is an anti-school culture in library education.” Participants agreed and rallied around the notion that teaching skills, education courses, and recognition of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) were important and often missing from library education.
A roundup of brainstorming sessions on skills and barriers determined that the top skills needed were: communications, management, political, specialized, and technological. Thomas Wilding, director of libraries at the University of Texas/Arlington, suggested that these were skills that people should possess when they enter library school, not when they leave it. Barriers to achieving these skills were perceived as: compensation, image, time, and change. Other delegates observed that none of the skills in questions were unique to librarianship, and Pratt library school student Suzan Lee quipped that the skills were so broad that she would need an additional two years in school to acquire them.
Sessions designed to produce a consensus list of professional “values” yielded: intellectual freedom, equitable access, professionalism, service, and respect (which incorporated diversity, privacy, and confidentiality). Reporting on the sessions, Haycock observed that ALA has no statement of values and that “working toward that document may be one of the things that comes out of this congress.”
“Nobody seems to be in charge of library education,” said Carolyn Caywood of Virginia Beach Public Library on a response panel, “to make sure that core knowledge isn’t being dropped.” Some other delegates were heard to remark on the absence of “organization of knowledge,” “teaching,” and “literacy” from all the consensus lists.
The problem of the public image of librarians was dismissed with a piece of graffiti left on the chat wall where delegates could scribble their thoughts: “Every time a child uses a library we market our profession; that’s when we shape our image.”
Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey reinforced the notion that “we are looking for a partnership between the educators and practitioners.” Kathleen McCook of the University of South Florida responded by saying that practitioners should come to library schools and “ask us for things and we will respond.” She noted that when the Miami-Dade school system looked ahead and saw the need for 70 school library media specialists “we were able, on the strength of them asking us, to create a special program for those 70 students that we will deliver in Miami—because they came to us and worked with us on a solution.”
During a panel discussion of accreditation, Susan K. Martin of Georgetown University came out with the clearest and strongest criticism of ALA accreditation, saying she was “uncomfortable” with a personal-membership organization’s committee “like any other committee” handling the accreditation process. She decried the lack of any attempt to produce “outcomes” that measure the quality of graduates. She said that librarians would be doing themselves a disservice if they censured schools for changing their names.
Other panelists offered a variety of other viewpoints. Marion Reid of California State University/San Marcos noted that other professions’ accreditation training is “much more rigorous.” Janet Swan Hill of the University of Colorado library lamented that the standards for accreditation contain no curriculum guidelines, that schools are few and poorly distributed, and “curricular laissez-faire may not serve the profession particularly well.”
“Accreditation from ALA is completely irrelevant,” said Barbara Spiegelman, corporate librarian at Westinghouse, a point with which ALA Committee on Accreditation Chair James Baughman of Simmons College GSLIS took issue. “Accreditation is the glue that holds this profession together.” Replied Spiegelman, “With all due respect, that is baloney.”
Shirley Fitzgibbons, of Indiana University SLIS and representing the Association for Library and Information Science Education, put her finger on an important consideration when she remarked that from the onset this was not a congress on library education; rather it tried to encompass any possibility by calling itself a congress on professional education.
If there is to be another congress, or a series of them, perhaps it should be, as at least one delegate suggested, specifically on how people are being educated to work in libraries, since this aspect of “professional” education has been relegated to a subsphere in the amorphous, undefined world of information management.
Liz Bishoff, a member of the ALA Executive Board, remarked, “Just people coming together and talking may be the most important outcome of the congress. When was the last time you saw this many educators and practitioners talking to one another?”
Meanwhile, at the press table two editors kibitzed: Is this group ready for Library Journal and American Libraries to become Information Journal and American Information? If so, will they understand what profession they will be reading about? We surely will not. —Leonard Kniffel