A Trendspotter’s Guide to Library Education

Beyond COMPETENCIES: A Trendspotter’s Guide to Library Education

Marion Paris

“Life,” John Lennon once philosophized, “is what happens while you are making other plans.” It has been over two decades since the president of the University of Oregon announced the imminent closing of his institution’s Graduate School of Librarianship. A tired curriculum reflected flagging efforts of faculty who had failed to keep abreast of change. Since then, about one-third of the accredited Master’s degree programs that existed in the U.S. in 1978 have either been closed or have been combined with other academic units. For library educators, “other plans” of the past twenty years have had everything to do with survival.

Downsizing, competencies, and vision have been the lingua franca of the nineties. Your persistent indoctrination of management has kept your libraries alive. As if continual upward re-education were not enough, you have taught yourselves to meet demands for increasingly quantitative processes of self-justification; many of you are creating novel means of evaluating your programs and services. Amidst those and other challenges you have assimilated new technologies and devised means of exploiting them, in ways that make you and your libraries even more indispensable.

Juggling the teaching-research-service equation, library educators have been making plans for new programs while continuing to contend with uncertainties imposed upon us by shifting values of higher education. Ever accelerating mission creep is bewildering and unsettling. Grappling with our institutions’ priorities has been a vital concern. Our obsessive self-examination may have appeared self-indulgent verging on narcissistic. It is an appropriate time to review what else has been happening in library education–besides what may have called to mind a low-stakes family feud.

Distance Education

Many university administrators believe that across the board, graduate student enrollment is inversely related to economic conditions. Although the effect is less pronounced on law, business, and medical school enrollment, the better the job market, the lower graduate enrollment tends to be. Library education, remarkably, appears to defy the trend, although fewer students are opting for traditional, on-campus graduate study. (Were it not for distance education, that is.) The availability and ultimately the popularity of distance education-in spite of how students, practitioners, and even some faculty really feel about it-has opened the way for more people to gain access to library education than when on-campus study was the norm. Students may choose among Internet courses, interactive video delivered over telephone lines or by satellite; pre-packaged, videotaped lectures; circuit-riding library educators; full-blown branch campus programs; and various combinations of those. De facto de-regulation of library education programs has abrogated state lines. Long-term effects of such unprecedented access to library education are just now emerging as topics for discussion. Identifying and claiming turf, choosing among resources (Do we send a faculty member or is the site configured for video?), and funding improved modes of delivery have been intermediate concerns. Arguably those issues are inconsequential when measured against demographics and ongoing changes in librarianship itself.


LIS programs are less likely to resemble one another than they once did when a “one size fits all” approach was the norm. Today’s rubrics, the American Library Association’s 1992 Standards for Accreditation, acknowledge the multifarious influences that mission, students, constituency, and parent institution exert in shaping the character of an academic program. Accreditation in general is a flash point in higher education these days. Faculty and administrators-even and especially certain vice presidents and presidents–have questioned whether advantages conferred by accreditation can justify ever-mounting costs associated with the process. Anecdotes about teams’ being asked to leave campus partway through visits or not being invited at all are no longer exceptional. The goals and purposes of accreditation of LIS programs are being scrutinized, even though the National Commission on Accreditation of Teachers of Education (NCATE) and regional accrediting bodies (the North Central Association, for example) have not yet officially joined the debate. By their unprecedented tolerance of innovativeness and creativity, shapers of the 1992 Standards unwittingly may have hoisted themselves on their own petards. Officials of the University of California (Berkeley) announced in 1998 that they would not seek ALA accreditation for the Master’s degree program. Whether Berkeley will seek re-accreditation in the future is unclear, which begs the question, why? Keith Swigger’s proposals for alternate means of delivery make more sense than some of the schemes being employed to keep library education programs afloat.

What if the Texas State Library were to ask the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for degree-granting authority? What if the American Library Association went into the library education business, and instead of accrediting [sic] schools, simply accredited itself? [ldots] What if Lexis-Nexis or Microsoft decided to start offering educational programs instead of the introductory training and continuing education programs they present now?,” [1]

What if the large public libraries and state libraries or library agencies, or corporate universities-now there’s a compelling idea-were to become involved in specialized education programs?

Certification and Credentialing

Proliferation of distance education, recognition of fundamental differences that exist among programs, and serious questions about the purpose of accreditation have also sparked renewed interest in certification or credentialing of LIS graduates. If library education programs continue to become more specialized, and if ALA’s sanctioning process remains essentially unchanged, accreditation as a valid tool for appraising quality may be short-lived. Documents like the Medical Library Association’s Platform for Change published three years ago and SLA’s 1999 Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century, I the final report of a combined effort among SLA, MLA, The Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), illustrate efforts to codify and to promulgate commonly accepted professional standards. Several of ALA’s divisions have also begun to consider competencies. Veteran SLA members may recall that the last time competencies saw the limelight was in the late 1970s and early 1980 s, co inciding with the first wave of library school closings. Practitioners’ confidence in education programs declined, if we live to experience this phenomenon a third time, will it indicate a trend?

Meaningful standards depend upon our honesty with one another. Does anyone nor desire excellence? Does anyone not wish to recruit better, brighter self-starters into our field? Does anyone believe that special librarians should not be able to communicate with upper management and to promote and to evaluate their organizations? Is anyone not committed to diversity, including that which transcends ethnic origin and gender preference? Perhaps if genuine diversity of opinion had been tolerated, the current predicament might have been avoidable. Only by discussing “undiscussables” and by realizing that respectful disagreement, although it is awkward and doesn’t always feel good, will move us forward. How many hundreds of conference panels have prognosticated about the future of library and information studies? How large a subset of those has lapsed into a shouting match? Nor is yet another task force likely to knock out much more than another inventory of competencies-those upon which everyone can agree, the ba re minimum. Have we been passive aggressive? Yes. Petty? Yes. Vicious and spiteful? Yes. Those terms describe generations of librarians who have tried for too long to be nice to one another. After years of mounting rage, dysfunctional behaviors should surprise no one.

Specialized Master’s Degree Programs

The number of specialized LIS programs is growing. Some of the new curricula are stunningly innovative. Why specialization at the master’s level is so extraordinary requires a look back to 1953. That year a committee of the American Library Association designated a fifth-year Master’s, following a broad liberal arts background at the Bachelor’s level, the terminal degree to qualify an individual as a “professional librarian.” Presumably degreed librarians would be a well-rounded, educated bunch at home in the world of ideas. ALA also proposed that each accredited Master’s program offer a thirty six-credit hour graduate degree that could be completed within one calendar year of full-time study. Years before, the older and more prestigious schools had abandoned the Bachelor’s degree; librarianship was not exempt from postwar degree-o-mania. From then on, however, all accreditable professional programs would grant Master’s degrees.

Graduates of programs accredited by ALA had studied approximately the same subjects with minimal variation. Persons holding ALA-accredited degrees were generalists. Factoring out such variables as personal interests, prior academic specializations, and on-the-job experience, it was assumed at least in theory that any new graduate could qualify for any entry-level position, with the possible exceptions of school librarians and advanced technical information specialists. ALA’s continuing emphasis on a standardized degree might also have been driven by two forces singular to librarianship: a student population that was largely female, and a job market that was inherently unstable; where the curves of supply and demand rarely intersected.

Today women still compose a larger percentage of LIS students, and the job market is just as quirky. The proportion of part-time students is on the increase; according to recent estimates, part-timers outnumber full-time students by a proportion of three to one. We teach greater numbers of students who are already employed-more and more of those working full-time–in positions to which they know they will return. They understand their immediate professional needs. Their supervisors are generous with release time so that students have the flexibility to put together programs, combining on- and off-campus study that (ideally) begin with core courses and conclude with specialized electives. In the curricula of students whose time is more limited, distance education looms larger. Persons who earn a degree one course at a time are greatly admired for their persistence and for the sacrifices they make. Yet thirty six credit hours, a crazy-quilt of courses taken based on little more than when they are available, ba rely prepares students for their current jobs, much less for the future. Perhaps quality control is less problematic in larger programs that recruit nationally and supply graduates for the national market. We are already operating a two- and maybe even three-tiered system of ALA-accredited programs. Opposing trends-increasing sophistication and specialization on the one hand, and the “if it’s Tuesday it must be cataloging” on the other–warrant close monitoring.

Bachelor’s Degree Redux?

Simultaneous with the 1953 adoption of a fifth-year Master’s as the terminal degree was the proscription of the bachelor’s degree in “library science.” The B.S. degrees never entirely disappeared, though, and in one guise or another are still common at institutions formerly known as state teachers’ colleges. The reappearance of undergraduate degree programs or minors is another phenomenon worth watching, because it of its momentous implications for specialization at the graduate level, and for the approaching shortage of Master’s degree graduates. The University of Pittsburgh’s pioneering Bachelor’s degree was initiated in the late 1970s. The undergraduate program at Syracuse University is thriving. At other universities, undergraduate minors have become popular. The University of North Carolina’s, for example, draws students who wish to learn more about designing and using information systems. At Berkeley, special topics seminars precede formal coursework in information systems, cultural, and policy issues. Educators contend that providing undergraduates with the tools to evaluate information in all its forms, exposing them to “information and society” issues, and introducing them to the latest in web design and desktop publishing creates information-savvy consumers. And, we would hope, better journalists, broadcast news people, and so on.

As undergraduate minors, novel means of transmitting both knowledge and process that have eclipsed traditional bibliographic instruction make eminent sense. Campus cynics have noted, however, that undergraduate programs keep the numbers up; enrollment generates credit hours; generating credit hours figures into the effectiveness equation that at some universities ensures viability and ultimately, survival. That senior faculty of large institutions appears to support and to participate in undergraduate information studies instruction attests to the perceived value of LIS at the undergraduate level. Other cynics, however, question whether undergraduate concentrations leading to a Bachelor’s degree might result in a dumbing down of the Master’s degree. Because of our comprehensive failure to identify and to uphold distinctions between “professional” and “paraprofessional” work, what is to prevent hiring “discount” librarians? Might it be tempting to pay someone less for what is very similar work? Are we falling backwards down the slippery slope toward undergraduate library education? Whither the master’s degree? Quite frankly, some of the undergraduate degree opportunities appear already to have bested rear-echelon master’s programs. For a number of reasons it might be tempting to pay a higher starting salary to a graduate of one of the more forward-looking Bachelor’s programs. Might you welcome a Bachelor’s graduate as your successor?

Special Libraries Courses

Visiting web sites reveals another puzzling development. Where are the special libraries courses (exemplars of the genre formerly designated “type of library”)? In fact other “type of library” courses–e.g., public libraries and academic libraries–seem to be fewer as well. Sad to say, the virtual library has rendered obsolete the construct of library-as-physical-place; and more important of library-as-locus-of-values. In searching for the technical, the obscure, the undocumented fugitive report, or the one final detail that will win a new client, special librarians have always been indifferent walls and boundaries. Special librarians networked long before the noun underwent linguistic conversion into a verb.

It may be that content has once again superseded process, which has superseded an acknowledgment of organizational and environmental distinctions common to “types” of libraries. Presumably MLIS graduates who have not been made aware that such differences exist are prepared to understand the organizational cultures, rewards, and values anywhere they might land a job. Hurrah! That is exactly what the shapers of the terminal Master’s degree had in mind. Yet somehow the message is being lost. What critical component is missing from a curriculum that overemphasizes technical expertise at the expense of defining idiosyncratic organizational cultures and management practices manifest from type to type? How cruel it would be to send an entry-level individual to a new job in an ARE library absent a familiarity with committee work or the faculty status debate.

Whether the context is a corporation or a museum or a military installation or a specialized academic collection or a research and development laboratory, the ethos of special librarianship veers sharply away. Let not be lost to the latest “skill sets” the writings of SEA Fellows and Hall of Famers on this subject: how and why special libraries and special librarians are incomparable and proud of it. According to the Library Bill of Rights special librarians are heretics. You practice censorship; you do not as a rule educate your customers; you do your clients’ work for them; you acknowledge and admit that all customers of your libraries are not created equal. Summoning the totality of who you are (in possession of intelligence, education, experience, discernment and no small amount of cultivated prescience) you anticipate needs and cater to your customers. Moreover, it is essential to your credibility and to the continuing prosperity of your libraries that you make judgments about information sources and m eans of locating them. Means, by the way, that may be unconventional, but invariably their ends justify them. You create new information on demand. Knowledge management is a merely a fresh take on your expertise: You collect information, organize it, store it, find it, and you repackage it.

It is good news that courses in specialized information sources have not disappeared. Kudos to the programs–and to the individuals-who still maintain the high standards necessary to support such subject specializations as legal, medical, business, scientific and technical, art, music, government, and others. The specialized literatures are mutating and multiplying at an ever-accelerating pace. Even MLIS graduates who have earned advanced degrees find themselves losing ground without regular exposure both to everyday sources and to the less mundane. It is possible that what the SLA Competencies document has identified and defined as special libraries courses are actually specialized literature courses. There is a difference; back to values again. Occasionally a student enters an MLIS program having neither heard of, much less visited a special library. Some soon realize that special librarianship is not for them. In some programs students’ only exposure to special librarianship is through the generous invita tions, year after year, of SLA members.

Marilyn Gell Mason employs such terms as “profound and far-reaching changes,” “crisis of massive proportions,” to describe the growing shortage of library professionals. She asks,

The most basic question is: who [sic] are we going to hire in the years ahead? Based upon the current model of library education it is, quite simply, impossible for library schools to turn out enough MLS graduates to met the projected need. [2]

Mason ponders the value of the degree. Feather-ruffling or not, embedded in the economic models Mason has proposed for discussion at the library education summit are many of the “undiscussables” that educators have politely sidestepped for a generation or more. Is there a connection between the graduates library schools are producing and the overwhelming need for qualified individuals that to fill the vacancies caused by retirements that have already begun to occur? Some SLA members are undoubtedly preparing financially for retirement; have you considered the consequences of your retirement from your organization? At some point in the future will your SLA chapter conduct seminars about the value system unique to special librarianship? If we remain on the present course, SLA members’ contributions to library education will have to become even greater.

Where Have All the Library Educators Gone?

Similarly, within the next five years, some of you may wonder what has happened to the library school faculty members who once were active in SLA. Some of us will be on mountaintops or ensconced in beach houses. Perhaps, we will have started our own businesses or will live in a developing nation, helping libraries grow. In a study they conducted in 1989, Elizabeth Futas and Fay Zipkowitz warned us that the mean age of library educators then was a shade above fifty.3 Futas and Zipkowitz also pointed out that we are not reproducing ourselves. The concluding cohort of generalists-leading-edge boomers or a bit older, who came of age in the 1960s and at one time taught from five to seven different courses per year–are now senior faculty. Many of our new colleagues are specialists from the outset, highly trained and highly desirable researchers, cognizant of the academic pecking order and its reward system. Shifting faculty priorities are bound to color education programs. At the 1999 ALISE meeting (library educa tors’ annual job market) the number of positions almost doubled the number of persons seeking jobs. Whither faculty participation in SLA?

Moreoever, despite the widespread unwillingness (even among library educators) to admit it, the following paraphrases many an administrator’s mantra: “everything you do has value, but you will be rewarded monetarily for creating and disseminating new knowledge.” Translation: spend as much time as you wish working with SLA; you will earn your salary increase by publishing.

Continuing Education

The Medical Library Association has led the way in requiring continuing education. SLA members who hold membership in the Association of Records Managers and Administrators have acquired new knowledge (and a different perspective) from that organization. A fortunate few among you have attended American Management Association seminars or university-sponsored advanced management programs. Conversely some SLA chapters have attempted to provide CE on a shoestring. By calling upon local expertise, SLA chapters distant from urban areas have made remarkable efforts in that direction. If you have a library school nearby, you may have looked to faculty for CE or pro bono consulting.

It is time to ‘fess up: good continuing education costs money. Will you choose to pay? Either way you will pay. Discussions of “professionalism” will give rise to a range of discussion that one person cannot predict. Count on it, though, to include education and educators, certification, competencies, demographics, dumbing down, LS versus IS, the “L-Word,” value of the degree, salaries as prohibitions to recruiting “promising” people, the role professional associations–a range of provocative conversation. Our recruits are promising: perhaps it is we, by disparaging the “L-Word” and continuing our internecine bickering, who have failed at modeling professional self-respect.

We have passed through the information age; or it passed us by, sometime in the 1980s. In the aggregate we have been unduly tolerant of the dreamy, abstract thinking (Neronian musicianship?) that has brought forth platitudes in place of priorities, least common denominators instead of bottom lines.

Marion Paris is associate professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. A longtime SLA member, she has served as student relations coordinator and has served as president of the Alabama Chapter.


(1.) Swigger, Keith. “Education for an Ancient Profession in the Twenty-first Century.” URL[less than]http://www.ala.org/congress/swigger.html. Visited April 13, 1999.

(2.) Mason, Marilyn Gell. “MLS: May the Market Force be with You.” URL[less than]http://www.ala.org.congress/mason.html. Visited April 13, 1999.

(3.) Futas, Elizabeth and Zipkowitz, Fay (September 1, 1991). “The Faculty Vanishes.” Library Journal 148-152.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Special Libraries Association

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group