Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The value of LIS education

I just watched the Friday edition of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, which was about the increase of corporate money in university research in Canada, more specifically in Ontario. The discussion centred on the decade old debate of whether university research (and education) needs to have an immediate economic benefit to business and society. It was a great debate, fair and balanced and with some good insights (though not much new stuff). The debate is interesting to LIS because we seem to have a similar debate going on -- where some people would argue that the research and education that takes place in LIS schools ought to the directly tied to the practice of LIS, others would, of course, have a more loose understanding of what it means to be educated at a research university.

Michael Buckland asked us in '96 to consider which LIS books we would hand a university president who would be interested in understanding what LIS is about… most books in LIS are "how-to" books, and as Buckland says: "books that provide a general introduction to [the] scope and nature of LIS are not common" which is quite unfortunate because "the general emphasis on professionally useful education discourages interest in the field of LIS itself, in the nature of information and information technology, and in the intellectual history of LIS because there are always more apparently useful agenda".

The Agenda has a short discussion towards the end of the program about the value of liberal arts education, and Buckland asks us to consider if we could develop a liberal arts LIS education and he suggests that: "any view of LIS is incomplete and lacking in coherence if it could not include a liberal arts program".

I fear a bit that i) the majority of the LIS community would not even be interested in entertaining the idea of a liberal arts LIS education and ii) it would be tremendously difficult to develop a liberal arts education based on the current research tradition within LIS. The reason for this is clear: LIS education is seen as a place that merely produces workers for the library industry, and it is argued that the focus of research and education in LIS school should merely reflect today's needs and practices.

I think that is sad state of affairs. It is intellectually empty -- and it does a disservice to the library profession in the long run.

Then there is always the option of moving library education out of large research universities, as my colleague Juris Dilevko suggests. This would indeed be an interesting development, and one that would certainly force LIS departments to rethink their mission.

My sense is that we need to ensure that LIS education has relevance and value beyond the needs and practices of today's and tomorrow's libraries - LIS education needs to research based (as long as it take place at research universities) and the research ought to ask larger questions, be less focused on technical minutiae, and more bold as Andrew Dillon argued a couple years ago.


  1. Thanks for the Buckland citation; not sure I had read that before.

  2. Great post, hombre - thanks for the link(s).

  3. I like that you include "and it does a disservice to the library profession in the long run," although you might have just thrown that out as a sap to us librarians, heh.

    I am curious to what extent do you actually believe that the LIS academy should be connected to library or metadata professions at all, and in what ways.

    The current state of affairs has somehow paradoxically produced an academy that _neither_ serves the needs of the profession(s) it is (or was) based on (in the judgements of most practicioners), NOR apparently provides much intellectual profundity or "larger questions" (at least this is what I'm getting from this post is your worry?).

    Maybe this isn't a paradox, perhaps to do either it needs to do both. Perhaps: The profession(s?) in fact _desperately_ (and does not have) needs an academy focused on research into big questions -- but big questions that actually have something to do with professional practice. And the LIS academy, maybe, perhaps (I feel less qualified to speak on this front), needs an actual grounding in professional practice(s) in order to produce research that matters for something other than improving your citation counts and getting tenure (too harsh?).

    Instead, what I see is an increasing divide between the two -- a de-intellectualized and frankly de-professionalized "profession" with little respect for the academy. And an LIS academy that is split between non-intellectual "trade schools" and research that is kind of entirely divorced from professional practice -- I got the feeling at our former shared institution that neither the institution itself nor most (but not all) of the 'serious researchers' housed there had much respect for "librarianship", except as a tuition cash cow. Is there some way to join the two in a shared community again, and save them both?

    (Also, is there some way to resurrect Lubetsky?)

    -- j rochkind