v6.2.3 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Professional Angst - the MLIS vs. the PhD

I haven't paid much attention to the library world in the past couple of weeks while I get acclimated to my new job, and while I've been playing around with various learning management systems (since we're moving from WebCT Vista to something else).  I came across a blog post in the ACRLog the other day but didn't have much of an opportunity to read it until now. Its title "Why all the fuss over PhD Academic Librarians" - I have to say that the topic piqued my interest!

Apparently an academic library director up in Canada gave a talk at a colloquium series and one of his points (it seemed like a rather minor point to me) was that going forward they would be hiring fewer librarians and more IT professionals and people with PhDs to do work in libraries.  You can watch the whole talk here if you'd like - and if you're interest in libraries I suggest you do :-)  I watched it, and to be quite honest I found nothing problematic about his talk.  After all, for quite some time I've been saying that, in an academic environment, the library and the IT group should just merge so that there is one organization that has an end-to-end view of the information acquisition and dissemination in a university (maybe this this a topic for another blog post).

It seems like my sentiment (and the speaker's sentiment) wasn't really well received in library land.  Librarians have written in saying that his comments marginalize librarians, and therefore women (seems to me like a Glenn Beck comment, but I'm willing to debate the issue).  There are people who've told him to shut up; this was quite an interesting post because it seems to be demonstrating  a tension between the "us" versus the "them".  The interesting this is that there are people out there that don't think you need an MLIS [Masters degree in Library Science] to become a librarian (I am one of them!) but unlike me it seems that there is a distinct push against PhDs "taking away jobs" destined for librarians.  Whaaaaaat? If anyone can be a librarian, then who cares what the letters after one's name are? There is come cognitive dissonance in this argument.

One of the things that I don't get  by some people's arguments that PhDs are not research experts, but librarians are (librarians with an MLIS degree that is) is that PhDs have to actually DO research in order to get their darned PhD.  They need to find books, articles, and sources on a broad topic, they need to see what work has been done in the are they are interested in (i.e. do research to find out this info), and once they DO this research to find out what areas may have gaps, they do MORE research to try to fill those gaps by doing original research, thus completing a dissertation, successfully defending it and thus getting a PhD.  Without all this research, you don't get a PhD. So I really don't get where MLIS librarians making this argument are coming from.  Sure, MLIS librarians have honed (hopefully) the skill of the reference interview which really gets to the heart of what a library user is asking for, something that a PhD student doesn't necessarily have because they are only looking for info for themselves, but this isn't a skill that you go to library school for.

In the end, as has been pointed out, this type of professional angst is not new to the library profession. Even though some MLIS librarians accept non-MLIS librarians, they are seen as librarians who are raised by wolves, not socialized into the field's professional norms. I take issue to that as it doesn't really complement the people who are good librarians but don't have the MLIS. It seems like a way to accept, but still keep a two-tier caste system in library land - a system of unequal power relations among professionals. It seems to me that certain MLIS librarians, perhaps feeling self-conscious about their skills, are trying to complete with other professionals in other fields instead of looking for synergies. Sometimes I feel like we're seeing a fight in kindergarten when one kid loses an argument and proceeds to call the other kid a poopy-head, or when certain people try to (unhealthily) compare themselves with others when I read some blog posts.

In the arguments and in the comments to blog posts, one of the common themes that comes up is that the information world is changing so rapidly but that library schools aren't keeping up with the demands of the world to produce librarians capable of handling the demands of this new information culture. This is quite true! Some programs no longer require a course in cataloging and classification, something that I consider a core staple of the library profession.  Even within the MLIS librarian world there is infighting and lots of finger pointing.  Here's a comment from one of the blogs

There are librarians I think should not be hired, and often they come from graduate programs where all of their coursework was online. They have minimal practical experience and sit through classes while watching TV, catching up on email, or surfing Facebook. If you want to defend our professional, lobby for changes in library/information graduate programs. Some of them are great, some of them are a joke. ALA-accreditation falls short. Why hire librarians if employers have to train them all over again? What skills do libraries need? Furthermore, what skills do librarians need to fulfill an institution’s mission?
I think that this person doesn't really know what he's talking about.  I think that the medium (eLearning) is inappropriately vilified here simply because a few schools don't have the "rigor" that other schools have (or think they have).  Yes, with eLearning you can study in your pijamas while sipping your favorite merlot, but that doesn't mean that you are losing anyting in the educational process.  If you do, it's not the medium's faulty but rather the instructors!  I've had some very successful eLearning experiences (and some pretty bad ones too!). It's important to distinguish between the medium and the instructor,

Some of these MLIS-critique also focuses on how some schools may not have the breadth and depth of courses that Simmons has (a big name in MLIS education).  I will grant you that Simmons does have an impressive amount of courses on a variety of topics and they are quite balanced in what they offer.  They do have problems though!  I know of people who loaded up on courses (4 grad courses per semester, plus work) just to whiz through and "get their union card".  These people didn't think about what courses they ought to take to be professionally successful and fill their knowledge gaps. They took whatever course was offered, even if they knew the subject matter, in order to be done as soon as possible.

Another problem is pedantry disguised as rigor. I've been told, from people who pursued MLIS degrees, that courses in reference feature sit down exams (sit down exams!) where learners are asked to name which references sources they would look for certain info, and to list the attributes of certain reference sources (think "this product is best used for A, B, C type of info"). Most of this information comes from books like Katz's Introduction to Reference Work volume I and volume II.  This is just pendantic.  It's nice to have some of this information available, but the best reference librarian doesn't really concern himself with all sources of information because his library is UNLIKELY to contain all of them.  The best reference librarian familiarizes himself with the resources available in his library, and is on the lookout to acquire sources of reference that would benefit the target library user demographic in their school or community.

Finally, to bring this discussion back to PhDs (or other professionals for that matter) versus the MLIS; a few months ago a dear colleague told me that I should pursue an MLIS because I'd make a great librarian.  It was an awesome compliment, but I fail to see why I need an MLIS to become a librarian.  If someone already had another Master's degree and showed the requisite ability to do research, what would the MLIS provide for them - other than the union card? Many librarian colleagues have already said in public that the MLIS is just a union card.  Given that professional librarians with an MLIS are saying, openly and publicly, that the MLIS is just a union card, just something to get your foot in the door, and given that many MLIS librarians say that library schools aren't keeping up with their education, why is there such resistance to hiring outside the MLIS degree?  Why such animosity toward PhDs?  I sense some cognitive dissonance in the works :-)

wow, this was a long blog post - I promise not to write this much for a while LOL
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