Education for Academic Information Professionals
Many MLS programs have in recent years been organized as parts of schools that also offer degrees in information, communication, or education. This week brought news of the proposal that the Graduate School of Library and Informations Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign be revamped as the School of Information Sciences. In many cases, the programs are not blended strategically but rather managed largely separately. Library education programs typically offer a program of study that is designed for all possible professional directions, including school, public, academic, and special libraries. In an issue brief on education for research librarians Deanna Marcum pointed out that, as libraries move away from tangible collections as their organizing principle, the types of education that librarians need will vary more and more across these various professional environments. With this context, I wonder if there are other ways that should be considered to organize library education programs.
Another approach would be to create a program that educates information professionals for academia and in particular for research environments. In rough terms, this might include earlier phases that focus on academia and later phases that focus on information work in that sector.
The earlier phases’ focus on academia would teach about the higher education sector and its various sub-sectors, the governance and funding models that shape it and how they are shifting, the evolution in pedagogy currently underway, the fields of research and study that are waxing and waning, and the new directions that research practices and scholarly communication are taking. It would teach these concepts not from the perspective of the library but from that of the university and the higher education sector.
Some library programs may do a good job of covering some of these issues in an academic libraries course, but many programs provide too little education specific to the academic sector for their students. Library programs create librarians; university libraries need professionals who can serve as university citizens. For students with an interest in becoming information professionals for academia, I wonder if starting with a firm grounding in academia would be valuable.
In later phases of study, the program would focus on the information work that is needed and will be needed to support academia. This would include librarianship, of course, but might also provide an education needed to staff various roles in instructional technology, research support services, IT, and academic publishing. Imagine providing an education that would be equally valuable to a commercial publishing strategist or a scholarly communications librarian; equally valuable to a discovery and access librarian and a product manager for a discovery service; equally valuable to a GIS librarian and the GIS specialist in an academic department; equally valuable to textbook publishers and to OER providers; equally valuable to an assessment librarian or a business intelligence professional at a vendor; and equally valuable to an engineer/developer wherever they are working in these communities. There is commonality in educational needs across all these roles, and also a variety of specializations that could be provided.
Allowing students to defer determining whether they would be an academic “librarian” or another type of academic/scholarly information professional until they are in the program would entirely flip the nature of how the pipeline into academic libraries works. There are undoubtedly tradeoffs to this decision, but our current pipeline is the outcome of a variety of contingencies and it is worth examining how another pipeline might be different.
I suggest these ideas without intending them as a criticism of existing programs or their dedicated faculty members. I am really reflecting on the structural environment in which library education takes place, wondering if it could be improved in a way that would bring greater coherence to programs and greater value to academic employers, while empowering instructors and enriching students. What do you think?
There are also numerous practical considerations, from business models for such a new type of program to accreditation, many of which would not be simple to address. If there is interest, I will write additional posts about alternative structures and some of their challenges and limitations.